Become a fan of h2g2
Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith, the director and producer of the forthcoming movie The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy recently spoke to M J Simpson1, Douglas Adams' unofficial biographer; and Jim Lynn, former colleague of Douglas Adams and the technical lead of the software team behind h2g2. This is the first full interview Nick and Garth have given since starting work on the movie, and took place on Thursday 29th January2.
M J Simpson: Could you tell us something about the cast. Martin Freeman as Arthur?
Garth Jennings: Arthur Dent had to be Martin really. Martin screen-tested for the role many months ago now. Robbie3 saw the tape along with us and it was the kind of tape you hope you’re going to have but very rarely do, when someone just comes in and nails it.
Nick Goldsmith: One of the things that got us very excited was that Martin managed to make the lines written by Douglas really work, really sound like his own. He did it in a very throwaway way which made it incredibly funny. It made the lines come to life.
Garth: He's just been extraordinary, he's reinvented it. It's still Arthur but it's just a very new, fresh take on him. And as you've seen him in 'The Office' he's managed to make even the most preposterous situations real and have real heart, so, he's just been marvellous. He captured all those terrible problems that Arthur had, in a more up to date way and he's just so natural and wonderful, and to see Martin struggling with hitchhiking through the universe is going to be the most lovely thing to watch.
MJS: What about Mos Def as Ford?
Garth: Well, you can't get more of a contrast between Martin Freeman and Mos Def. He is just marvellous, he's just a fabulous bloke, just wait until you meet him, you'll love him, and he's just sort of perfect for Ford. We didn't actually know much of his work before we went to meet him and since meeting him and investigating everything he's done it was almost no question, it just had to be him.
MJS: Can you just confirm, because people are going to be worried, the guy is a rapper
MJS: But he's not going to be playing a hip-hop Ford is he?
Garth: No. I think that would be the most appalling thing ever in the history of the world. And to be fair, I didn't know much about Mos Def before I met him, and didn't think it was going to be the right thing. That's why I say when you actually meet him he's the most wonderful actor first and foremost, but he's also incredibly funny, incredibly clever and just fits the brief in the most unexpected way.
MJS: And what about Zooey Deschanel as Trillian?
Garth: Trillian is one of those characters that needed a bit more going on, she was a character that needed a bit more development, and that's something that Douglas was working quite hard on. Zooey again just fitted the bill as far as being somebody who could be both smart and funny but not irritating. It's very hard to have somebody who's very clever, and knows how to do things and then not get under your skin, and we found somebody who also works very well with Arthur, who can really give Arthur a run for his money, and everyone else, and can hold her own. The last thing we wanted was a kind of a token female, and Zooey more than fitted the bill for that. I could go on about her for ages, she's absolutely fabulous, and she's extraordinary in real life, so if we just get a bit of what she's like in real life, I think we'll be there.
Garth: On Sam Rockwell as Zaphod: Sam is an extraordinary fella. He’s the only man I know who can go from a high karate kick, straight into the splits without pulling a muscle and still look cool! He really took to Zaphod like a duck to water and his determination to “get it right” is more than I could hope for. I would imagine it’s a bad idea to let him have an espresso before work unless we have a reinforced set but other than that I think he’s going to be excellent.
On Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast: Nick and I received the script for HHGG just after watching the BBCs’ State Of Play in which Bill Nighy was fantastic. Bill’s just perfect for Slartibartfast and we never bothered even considering anyone else. I wrote to him on several occasions to ask him to play Slarti but didn’t hear anything back for a while because he was so busy. The next thing I knew, he was in the papers talking about how much he loved the script and how excited he was to be offered the part. His enthusiasm and understanding of Hitchhikers’ is priceless. You can’t ask for more than that?
Jim Lynn: When you were first approached to do the movie, what was your reaction?
Garth: "What an awful idea." We thought it would be the typical Hollywood 'ruin it, ruin everything' thing, and we actually told our agent not to send us the script. Frank, being a very good agent, sent it anyway, and so it sat on our desks for approximately two weeks, and we just kept looking at it and thinking 'oh they'll have ruined it, we're not going anywhere near it'. We'd actually started making our own film, and had already begun the casting process, and then one day Nick said 'Look, you should read this, I've just read it' and he was very, sort of, quiet about it, and said 'just have a read and see what you think'. I took it home, and (my wife can vouch for this) I went into the toilet to read it, expecting to come out quite quickly, and forty-five minutes later appeared, saying to my wife 'this is actually really rather good'. And then my second reaction was 'brilliant. It could be too marvellous to do.' You know, this is very important to a lot of people, not just me, but to an awful lot of other people. Once we realised that, it was a perfect opportunity to do what we do best, you know, we jumped straight in there, and it's been a rollercoaster ever since.
JL: When you say 'do what you do best' why do you think you're the best fit to do this movie?
Garth: I guess it's a combination of things. One of the things was it had to be done in a more ingenious and economical way and less CG led type way. It had to be up there cinematically with all the other big movies, but it had to be different, it had to have a different voice, and it had to have personality and humour, and I think a lot of effects-driven movies, or certainly a lot of science fiction movies, have got a little bit stuck in their ways, and this just had to be more fresh and original. I guess we were new to this whole world and we had a lot of things that we wanted to do, and this seemed to be the perfect vehicle in which to put all of that love and passion, I guess.
MJS: Regarding the script, there are three things that have gone into that: Parts of the story that we all know and love from the radio shows and the books; there's new stuff that Douglas wrote in his various drafts; and then there's whatever new stuff Karey has had to fit in, to make the whole thing fit properly. How much of those two latter things are we going to see in there?
Garth: I think there's an awful lot of new Douglas stuff, there's some wonderful new inventions, characters, creatures and devices. I don't think we've put anything in. Karey's main role has been ordering and editing and making sense of it. We never once had to invent something, I don't think you ever get projects like this, where you could never be stuck for an idea. If you're ever concerned about 'what are we going to do here' you just go back to the original material, back to the hard drive and there's always an answer there. You know, even in production design, whenever we've been stuck for an idea, or not sure what to do, we just go back to the books, or the radio series, and it's all there, there's always an answer, which is really fabulous.
Robbie Stamp:It is important to stress that this is not a literal adaptation of the novel, just as the novel was not a literal adaptation of the original radio series - and indeed neither was the TV series nor the computer game. It's not like Lord of the Rings, where you have a book and you want turn that into a film which is as faithful to its source as possible. There is no single definitive Hitchhiker's Guide story, and never has been. The book, radio, TV, game - they all share some characters and plot elements but they add, remove, change or re-order others. Douglas' various script drafts did the same. And that's another difference from Lord of the Rings. All the fundamental changes from previous versions were made, in this instance, by the original author.
Every step of the way the team who have been working on this since Douglas died have been striving to be faithful to the spirit of Hitchhiker's - its humour, its intelligence and its astonishing inventiveness. To use a great phrase I heard from an Executive in Hollywood, there really is no need to "put a hat on a hat." It was Douglas who showed us the way for the new ideas in the film, they are fundamentally his.
JL: What was your experience of Hitchhiker's before this? Were you fans?
Garth: Yes, both Nick and I were fans when we were younger. We were fans when we were younger, and had loved the TV series and the books, and I had the radio scripts that my dad bought me, and all that sort of stuff. I don't think either of us had gone back to it, but I had such fond memories which is why I told you our reaction to it was 'Oh my God, let's hope they haven't screwed that up'.
Nick: Weirdly enough, one strange coincidence when this project came up to us: There was a scene in the TV show where they're going to find Deep Thought, and Zaphod's wearing the... you're going to have to excuse me it sounds really bad but I can't remember the name of the glasses, the perivision...
MJS: JooJanta 200 Superchromatic, Peril Sensitive Sunglasses
Nick: There you go.
MJS I've got to get out more.
Nick: They were, weirdly enough, based on a pair of - my dad's a spectacle frame designer - and they were based on my dad's spectacle frames. I think they were actually a pair of my dad's spectacle frames sprayed black. So there was a very fantastic, bizarre coincidence there. I guess that's my strangest, closest connection to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I read it when I was a kid, I watched the TV show religiously when I was younger. So yeah, I suppose it's one of those things which you grow up with, and it was always around for me in one way or another.
MJS: Now there's a lot of discussion, and has been for quite some time, about this movie on the Internet: everybody's got an opinion and every discussion forum's got a thread about it. How much attention are you guys paying to what the fans of the story and the people who are going to see the movie are saying about what they want?
Garth: That's a good question, actually. The nice thing is, with having Robbie on board we are able to sort of keep within healthy range of opinion, because as I'm sure you're aware, there's only so much opinion that's actually useful. Everyone's been very good about keeping us informed about what we need to know. We certainly don't go looking for answers. We've kept a healthy distance but we're paying attention to Robbie and other people.
Robbie: I think that one of the key things that Garth and Nick have got to do, and are doing, is to have their own creative vision. They’re no more and no less looking at other people’s opinions than Douglas would have done when he was writing something. They are primary artists in their own right. They meet people, they talk to people with Hitchhiker sensibilities – it’s absolutely there. But I think frankly you’d go nuts if you spent too much time trawling through the internet, and in the nicest possible way there are some scary posters out there and reading too many of them , I think you’d run screaming and hide under the duvet and not want to come out for a while! But there is a network of people that I’ve worked with for many years, all of them who know far more about Hitchhiker’s than I do, and many of whom knew Douglas well or worked with him , that we’ve been able to plug Nick and Garth into and that’s proving to be really helpful. It also has to be said that there are many people who are working on the team at the Studio who aren’t too shabby when it comes to their knowledge of and love for Hitchhiker's.
Nick: It's a fantastic problem to have, to have so many people really interested in a project that you're doing. In a way, you couldn't ask for more.
JL: Nick, can you tell us the budget of the movie, and tell us how this is affecting the way you're shooting the film?
Nick: Do I have to? I always get a bit funny about that. I'm not going to tell you a figure, yet, cos we're still working stuff out on that. It's a very very decent amount of money to make this film, but it's not necessarily up there with the Harry Potters, and the Batmans and things like that. One of the reasons this film is being made, and is being made by us is that Garth & I approached it with a certain ethos and a style which actually made it able to be made. Wheras I think before everyone, as far as studios were concerned, were just struggling because no-one could work out a way to make this film without it going into the Titanic world, and for us I guess it actually wasn't even like 'Oh God, we haven't got money to make this film' because there is money there but for us it didn't even come into it. Our approach to the vision of this movie is one which means it can be done, it can still stand up and look just as good as any Batman or anything else but because [of] the material, because of the style [with which] Douglas wrote the piece, it means we can be a lot cleverer with it and not so gratuitous. I think it would be wrong for this film to be all about 'here's a great new special effect' and 'look at this fantastic CG pan over a city' because that was never what Douglas was about. I unfortunately never met the man. I wish I had, I feel like I know him from meeting people like Robbie and all of Douglas' family, but one of the things I love about this material is that it's all in the detail. A lot of it is the little things, and the human aspect of this fantastic world that Douglas created. So for us it means that's what this film's got to be about. It's got to look great, but the characters and the underlying messages need to come through foremost.
JL: And the comedy?
Nick: Well there's a bit of that. But with the material I don't think we're going to have a problem with that one.
MJS: Now, obviously most of the interest and speculation is in terms of the cast, but you've also got to assign or have assigned a principal crew, and the two people there who really determine the look of the film are the cinematographer and the production designer. Can you say who's filling those posts?
Garth: Yes, I can tell you that. The Production Designer is a chap called Joel Collins. He is somebody who we've worked with for eight or nine years, we've done pretty much all of our work with him for that period of time. Same goes for the DP, his name is Igor Jadue-Lillo and they're both part of our family, crew who we've always worked with and that we've brought forward into this movie.
MJS: And will you be shooting on film, or will you be going the George Lucas route and shooting on this modern DV stuff?
Garth: No we don't want any of that modern DV stuff here. We won't be having that here! It's 35mm widescreen lovely film. I always love it when you sit down to a film and the curtains go back just that little bit wider.
JL: Has there been any pressure to dumb down the script?
Garth: No, that's been the wonderful thing. I kind of answered it indirectly earlier with the fact that that's what I was worried that they would have done, and since coming on I've found that everyone's gone out of their way to give it a structure that makes it a satisfying film, but not lose any of the intelligence, and I think people care about it a lot. Even people at the studio who won't actually be working on it directly are so passionate about it and no-one wants to screw up something that they all love so much.
Robbie: I think that’s really worth stressing - that it’s everybody involved. Obviously there are issues and things that need to be resolved but you’re not swimming against the tide of studio indifference or misunderstanding of the material. Disney, Spyglass, everybody involved is determined to let it breathe and allow it to come to the fore.
MJS: What about the music? Are you going to use Journey of the Sorceror, and assuming that you finish where the TV series did, on prehistoric Earth, are you going to finish off with 'What a Wonderful World'?
Garth: We'll be working with a composer, but none of that's confirmed yet so we can't mention that stuff yet. As far as the original theme tune music, can I just say it'll be in there somewhere. I think there are certain things like that that are going to be very very useful, wonderful things to bring in at some stage. You asked about 'Wonderful World'? Not sure about that.
JL: I guess you don't want to spoil the ending
JL: Can you tell us how you're going to be doing Zaphod's heads? Do you think you can improve on the BBC's efforts?
Garth: (laughs) There's no way anyone can improve on that. What are you talking about? You want more than that? Can I say we've come up with a really nifty way of doing it and it looks fantastic, but I'd rather can I keep it a secret for now?
MJS: With regard to finding things out, news has been dribbling out of various degrees of accuracy through various unoffical or accidental channels. How much control are you trying to have over how the news gets out and in what order?
Nick: Well I think as long as I've got nothing to do with it I think we'll be all right. (laughs) I think there are ways in which you can send things out. We are going to have a website set up very shortly even though we have been promising it on our Tongsville website for a while it is coming we just have to go through the logistics of getting it up and running. What we will do is, anything that is official we will put out on that website. But I think the one thing that Garth and I often feel is that you sometimes want to actually see the film and not know too much about it, you want to get surprised, you want to enjoy the magic of what happens there and then. But I definitely think that there will be certain things that we are putting out there because it can only help with getting this movie going and it'll be fun to get reactions from people on stuff as well.
JL: Talking of things that are out there, a short video of a test for Marvin appeared on the web. Is that real, or is it a fake like that Roswell stuff?
Garth: Is it a fake test? (laughs) It was real footage when we were testing prototype heads. It was a bit of a blow that that got out because it was just test stuff but we've been working with Hensons now since July, quite a long time now and as you can imagine there are an awful lot of elements of the film that, as they're on board to do all that kind of stuff, we had to test and test and test again. (I've spent most of today testing all kinds of things.) And that was one of them.
MJS: The reaction to the Marvin clip has been very very good fortunately, but one of the things that a lot of people have said is 'that looks like it would make a really nice toy'. A movie like this has to include merchandising, it's where the studio makes all their money. How much of a factor is merchandising on the design and the whole ethos of the movie?
Nick: It's a very good point, and absolutely we are working with Disney on this. I have to say though, [with] the designs of all the characters the idea of toys did not influence them in any way, shape or form. All our thoughts as far as designs of characters comes from... we always go to the book and go to Douglas for reference so we read a lot of the descriptions that are said and also the ethos behind some of them. So, for example, with the Vogons being very beaureaucratic we actually went back to older... one of the references was a satirical cartoonist called Gillray, he's been a big influence on us. I have to say that none of it has been toy-merchandise-related in any way. The fact that we've come up with designs which could make great toys is a huge added bonus, but it certainly wasn't the reasoning behind it.
JL: So you're looking forward to seeing your designs on a Happy Meal?
Nick: (laughs) No comment.
JL: What do you think is so special about Hitchhiker's? Why do so many people care about it?
Garth: We had the pleasure of meeting Mr Stephen Fry the other day, and he summed it up better than I've ever been able to do. He said that it was a bit like when you go to see an Eddie Izzard concert, and you're there with thousands of people, there you are cracking up laughing, but you always get the feeling like you're the one who gets it just a bit better than everybody else and everyone's laughing but they don't really quite understand the subtlety of what you're all listening to. That was his comparison to the way we all feel about Douglas' work: '15 million bought the book but they never quite got it as well as I did or they never quite understood that little bit there or how clever it was or how funny that bit was.' I thought that was a lovely way of putting it.
JL: It's as if the material is aiming up instead of down.
Garth: Yes, that's very true.
MJS: Now, I know some mates of yours called Shynola have been assigned to do the graphics.
MJS: What sort of brief have you given them? And how are these graphics being approached because in the TV Series they were so far ahead, they were what graphics would look like in the future but we find now with things like the wireframes they did for the Big Read it's like it's just more computer graphics, and you see them all the time. The concept of computer graphics doesn't have the impact that it had twenty years ago, so how are they being approached?
Garth: Well I think that's a really good point. We've all become so used to seeing sci-fi graphics or sci-fi equipment. I think the trick was, you can't really outdo things like the Matrix for all that super techno stuff, can you? And the thing for us was not to try and make something that was going to be the most massive technological breakthrough as far as design and things go was actually just make something that captured the spirit of the book, and was incredibly inventive, was incredibly bold and original. I think that's what I loved about that original animation: it was really bold and it was really original when it came out, and I think the thing for us is to create something that has those qualities, and not necessarily trying to compete with the computer-type imagery that we're used to seeing in sci-fi films.
JL: Of all the things you've been designing, what are you most proud of, so far?
Garth: That's a good question. I'll tell you what, (to Nick) What's the thing we're most proud of? Design wise? It's all pretty good, I have to say. That's not the answer you were after is it? But it's amazing stuff.
Nick (in background): Heart of Gold
Garth: Heart of gold is pretty blooming lovely, actually, yeah. It's all gorgeous stuff. We were up in the production designer's office yesterday and his walls are covered with just some of the most lovely things I've ever seen.
Nick (in background): Marvin?
Garth: Marvin, yeah. It's all pretty good. I haven't really come up with anything specific, The Vogon ships are fabulous, Heart of Gold, all that stuff. The Vogons themselves are pretty damn fabulous actually. Sorry I've not picked one, I can't think of one, they're all too lovely.
MJS: One of the great things about Hitchhiker's is that there's a lot of minor characters who crop up for thirty seconds or so. People like Gag Halfrunt. Tiny little characters that nevertheless everybody remembers because they're so encapsulated. Are you including some of these characters in the film and are you having as much fun or as much difficulty casting these blink-and-you'll-miss-em roles as you are with the leads?
Garth: That's a good one. Yeah, Gag is definitely something that's in the script and we hope to keep, and there are an awful lot of those things. But not just that, I think one of the things for us is all those little visual gags that we loved so much, the visual ideas, I won't tell you what they are, but there's an awful lot of things that we've been able to weave into the scenes that hopefully people that don't know the material will just think are fabulous, and people that do will go 'My God, that's so and so, that's Wowbagger.'
MJS: Are you thinking already about what the viewing experience is going to be like on DVD as well as in the theatre?
Garth: Yeah, that's already running parallel with it. I don't think there's ever been a film that's better suited to the DVD format.
JL: what kind of reaction would you most like to get from die-hard fans?
Garth: I just hope... I think the most important thing for us is that we've captured the spirit of the books, or the work, really. [That] we've captured what made them so special for all of us. And that they just enjoy it. I hope that it's a really great film for everybody. Is that too little an answer to such a big question?
JL: Are you having fun?
Garth: I've been having fun since I came on this, but the day that they greenlit the film, it wasn't like somebody saying to you 'You've got the job, off you go, do the job' it was like somebody saying 'Here's your dream come true.' It's been complete Jim'll Fix It for the last nine months, it's been ridiculously wonderful. Extraordinarily hard work, much more than anything we've ever done before, but probably the most rewarding thing I've ever done, and probably ever will do, I think. It is wonderful, and I think, because we're new to it, it's a massive adventure.
Graphic supplied by Community Artist Jimster.