By Matt Singer
Every film lover remembers that first adult movie they were too young to see. For Garth Jennings, that movie was 1982’s “First Blood.” “It was brilliant,” remembers Jennings. “Here’s this guy with a stick and a knife taking on 200 men. We just thought it was the business so much so that we then decided to make our own home movie version of this using my father’s video camera.”
Jennings’s home-brewed movies eventually led to a career working in collaboration with Nick Goldsmith under the name Hammer & Tongs, in which Jennings would direct and Goldsmith would produce first a string of remarkably creative music videos and then features, starting with 2005’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The team’s second picture brings Jennings full circle: a semi-autobiographical story of two British school kids who become amateur filmmakers after watching what else? “First Blood.”
The result is the hilarious and deeply touching “Son of Rambow” the extra “w” of the title, as Jennings and Goldsmith note, is to avoid reactions like the one they got after an early test screening, when a man was furious to discover the movie was not an actual Rambo sequel. “He wrote on his test sheet, ‘How dare you trick me? Where are the guns?'” Goldsmith told me with a laugh. During our interview, Jennings and Goldsmith talked about their own “Rambo” sequels and the pleasures of growing up children of the 1980s.
I assume that the film is in some way based on things that one or both of you did as children.
Nick Goldsmith: The first draft we wrote was sort of autobiographical, but we both had fairly ordinary, nice upbringings, so it was a bit of a dull script. But then we had this peripheral character who was a Plymouth Brethren, this religious group that goes to ordinary schools, but aren’t allowed any form of entertainment in their lives. We found by moving the story next door to this little kid who’d never seen a film before or any form of entertainment, we could have it so that when he sees “First Blood,” it blows his mind. It was a way for us to get that feeling across of how it was when we were kids, when you see a film, and it really has an effect on you in a much more filmic way.
What sorts of movies did you create in the wake of that “First Blood” viewing?
Garth Jennings: Well, the movie that we were inspired to make by “Rambo” was called “Aaron: Part I,” and Aaron is a sort of Rambo-esque character. I played the head of the military of defense, and I get kidnapped by the PLO, and the PLO hold me hostage in my mother’s shed at the end of the garden, and they’re gonna burn me alive unless the government coughs up some money and makes their lives better. And so Aaron comes running in, kicks everyone’s ass and then burns them alive in the shed. The name Aaron came from the fact that we always wanted our hero to have one big singular name, and I had seen the name Aaron Spelling going up at the end of “Dynasty,” and thought, “Aaron. Aaron’s a hard name. Aaron’s coming! Be afraid!” I didn’t know that in real life, Aaron Spelling was a tiny man.
The kids start making their movie, and there’s something wonderful and pure about it. Then at a certain point, everyone in their school finds out about it, and it mutates into this huge production. Are there any comparisons to be drawn there with the story of a pair of independent filmmakers getting sucked into the Hollywood machine?
NG: Well, you can’t help but have that. Even though we were conscious of that [parallel], it’s a function of the fact that once you start doing things as kids and it’s exciting, people tend to join in. So it is a sort of comparison to what happens in the real world. We tried not to make too much of that it’s too easy to start going, “Hey, we’re making a particular dig at the Hollywood system,” or something.
The movie is very much a product of people who grew up in the 1980s. Can you talk about what made it such a great time to be a kid?
GJ: I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I look back, I think that was pretty good. There were great records. There was good clothing. Very big hair.
NG: I think it was probably the worst looking decade ever.
GJ: It was definitely the most garish, stupidest looking decade. I think the ’70s have got nothing on the ’80s in terms of just stupidity.
With your film and the recently released “Be Kind Rewind,” there seem to be the rumblings of a movement to reclaim VHS as a technology now that it’s been completely supplanted by DVD and digital. Do you think that’s true?
GJ: It was the first time we were able to do something immediately that felt very professional. It was a feat when we all got video cameras well, we didn’t all get video cameras.
When I grew up, you usually had one kid who had one and you’d make friends with him so you could play with it.
GJ: It was actually my dad who got one because his friend was emigrating and selling off all of his electrical equipment. We never would have had one otherwise. We got this thing, and it was amazing. I haven’t seen “Be Kind Rewind,” but I understand it’s from a similar generation of people that just grew up discovering they could make something and then play it back. There was something wonderful about putting on a show at the end of the day and not having to send it off to a processing plant. It felt like we’d been given the keys to the car.
With very few exceptions, we don’t see the kids’ imaginative view of what we’re seeing. When they create a “flying dog,” we see what it really is a plastic dog strapped to a kite. Yet one of the kids says “It looks just like my drawings!” which is a great moment. Was it difficult to decide how to represent what Will and Lee do?
GJ: None of it was actually difficult to do because it’s so based on the fact that we never saw anything as impossible at that age. You never worried about making a mistake. You just thought, “Wow, yeah, it’s a dog tied to a kite. It’s a flying dog.” I like that ludicrous ambition.
NG: The flying dog was an idea we came across and we thought, “Oh, yeah, of course, flying dog. Easy. We’ll just tie a dog to a kite, and it will fly,” and then the special effects guys come in, and they’re like, “Of course it’s not going to fly. You’d need a kite the size of a small country in order to fly this dog.” We ended up having hundred-foot cranes and men with wires and rigging and that sort of thing. It always gets more complicated. It’s easier when you’re a kid.
[Photos: Bill Milner as Will Proudfoot; Will Poulter as Lee Carter; writer/director Garth Jennings “Son of Rambow,” Paramount Vantage, 2007]
“Son of Rambow” opens in limited release on May 2.