The Hammer & Tongs pop promo duo had to make a big-league movie before being able to finance the film that was really close to their hearts. Charles Gant looks at the background to Son of Rambow, which opens next month
When you are making a feature film, sometimes the hardest and most necessary thing to do is kill your babies. Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings’ lo-fi, early 1980s-set follow-up to big-budget debut Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, originally opened with a brilliant big animated sequence by illustrator David O’Reilly, representing the fervent imaginings of the film’s 11-year-old schoolboy protagonist.
‘We realised it was killing it all,’ explains writer-director Jennings, sitting in the Regent’s Canal barge that’s been the London headquarters for his and producer/partner Nick Goldsmith’s company Hammer & Tongs, these past six years. ‘We haven’t met him [the protagonist] yet. Can we wait to find out where this stuff comes from first? Everything after would have been anti-climactic.’
The ‘everything’ of which Jennings speaks is the interior world of fatherless Will Proudfoot, who is forbidden by his strict religious family from watching television. When he is befriended by school tearaway Lee Carter and shown a pirate video of Sylvester Stallone’s early Rambo outing, First Blood, the impact on him is profound. He evolves from the jungle animals he doodles in his Bible and on school toilet walls – all created for the film by O’Reilly – to a fantasy of action heroics in which he, the son of ‘Rambow’, rescues his father from captivity.
Daydream sequences, where animation fantasy overlays filmed-footage reality, are used sparingly. ‘The thing was to use it when it was necessary to tell the story,’ says Jennings, ‘and not go too “Ally McBeal”, where you’re visualising every thought that goes through somebody’s head.’
Writer-director Jennings and fellow Central St Martins College of Art and Design graduate Goldsmith had intended Son of Rambow to be their feature-film debut, after years toiling away making TV commercials and pop videos. But despite the high profile of Hammer & Tongs in the pop-promo world – it won acclaim for its Blur ‘milk ‹ carton’ spot, and its ‘evolution of the species’ for Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now – the pair struggled to gain financing, and set the project aside when Hitchhiker’s fell into their lap.
When Son of Rambow premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, huge audience acclaim and a studio bidding war – won by Paramount Vantage – gave the picture instant cachet. But getting to that point had not been easy, even with the big-league Hitchhiker’s under their belts. Still struggling to acquire financing, the duo copied a move used by director Baz Luhrmann when he was trying to persuade Hollywood to embrace his vision of Romeo and Juliet – they made a book. ‘The idea was to show what the film would be like tonally,’ says Jennings as he flips through the slim, landscape-shape, limited edition (50 copies only) hardback. A photograph of Jennings as a child nestles next to a still from First Blood, early 1980s food packaging, shots of kids smoking and posters of buddy flicks ET, Stand By Me, Harold & Maude and Midnight Cowboy. ‘Lovely friendships from extraordinary circumstances,’ says Jennings. ‘And we wanted to show we were trying to make this a big movie.’
With Hitchhiker’s, Jennings and Goldsmith won praise for an abundance of playful visual ideas; less so for their ability to convert Douglas Adams’ books into compelling screen narrative. With Son of Rambow, they have been able to shrug off any taint of style-over-substance. At its heart is the story of a friendship, which flourishes when Will and Lee set about making their First Blood-inspired camcorder short that they hope will win them a young film-maker competition on 1980s kids TV show Screen Test. Jeopardy comes from both Will’s family and fellow pupils who drive the two pals apart.
It is this solid narrative arc that helps anchor Jennings’ wide-eyed take on the world the boys inhabit: the slightly extravagant locations, both man-made and natural, and the over-the-top physical stunts comically performed in the boys’ short film by the fearless Will.
Explains Jennings, ‘When we began, I went back to all my old haunts, and it was all titchy-tiny and really dour. Obviously, that’s what it was really like, but I didn’t see it that way at the time. So we found a school that used to be a hospital, which was vast. We knew we were making a romantic kind of movie, rather than a slice-of-life kind of movie. You’re trying to find the movie version of what you could remember. You want trees that look like how you remembered trees. When he [Will] is running down the hill, you find the best hill you can possibly find, wait for sunrise and then capture that moment.’ l
Son of Rambow opens in cinemas nationwide on 4 April