Garth Jennings | Writer & Director.
I was lucky enough to make acquaintance with writer and director Garth Jennings while taking part in a youth theatre performance at the National Theatre, London, as a teenager. It's been amazing to see his work evolve (he directed the Illumination Entertainment move Sing in 2016) and he took time out to give me an interview back in 2013.
You've directed some era-defining music videos for bands and artists such as Radiohead (Lotus Flower), Fat Boy Slim (Right Here, Right Now) Beck (Hell Yes), Blur (Coffee and TV), Pulp, Supergrass (Pumping on Your Stereo) and Vampire Weekend (A-Punk, Cousins). And of course you're famous for getting Joan Collins in the bath for Badly Drawn Boy's Spitting in the Wind. If we were to capture you for a This Is Your Life moment, which experiences and characters would leap out at you from that big red book?
My first video was for a dead transsexual called Donna Giles. As the artist obviously could not appear in the video I got my Grandma to lip sync along with all of my friends in Hyde Park. The single most stressful day of my life but the start of turning my hobby into a job. Visiting the Jim Henson Creature Shop for the first time in order to make puppets for a Supergrass video. It's amazing to find somewhere that is entirely dedicated to making wonderful puppets. It made such a huge impression on me I can still remember the smell of coffee and latex. Watching my producer Nick make Joan Collins laugh on camera by pretending to do a strip tease.
Probably the happiest memory I have was preceded by vomiting and terror. We had just completed Son of Rambow and five days later we were about to show it for the first time to 1200 people at the Sundance Film Festival. No one had seen it (not even my wife) but Nick and I had seen it so many times we couldn't tell if it worked anymore. Lights went down and I felt so sick and nervous I can still feel it now. Anyway, about 10 minutes into the film one of the characters throws a tennis ball at the other. It got exactly the reaction I had hoped. And from then on it seemed to push every button I had wanted to push. The end reaction was so positive that I can't remember much about what happened next. I have never been so relieved and so excited. And my wife liked it too!
You met friends and former business partners in your production company Hammer & Tongs, Nick Goldsmith and Dominic Leung, when you were all at Central St Martins art school in London.
How did your ‘first big break' happen?
I suppose our first big break was making a video for Pulp. Up until then we had made tons of videos for smaller indie bands (which was great!) but winning the pitch for Help The Aged was like being allowed to play with the big boys (and girls.) Nick had gone into Pulp's management office and refused to leave until they gave him a copy of their new song. Nick turned up at our office and put the tape on my desk and said, ‘You better write the best idea ever.’
Fortunately the idea I came up with seemed to click with Jarvis (pitch: ‘a stairlift to heaven’) and after it came out, bigger bands and their record companies would consider us when looking for a video. All those ridiculous ideas we had were now taken seriously, and even commissioned! Breaks are funny things. Most of the breaks we've had we didn't realise were breaks until long afterwards.
For your feature film directorial debut you were offered the big screen version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Was there immense pressure to do such a well known and loved story right? Were the fans kind?
I never had any trouble with Hitchhiker fans, they tended to be clever and enthusiastic folks. There is SO much to do on a film that you barely have time to eat let alone worry what someone you don't know thinks about what you are doing. It was a dream job. Truly. It was a gift from the movie Gods and I got to make the film my way. Oh there are a million things I would do differently now, but I spent a year on a spaceship and it really doesn't get much better than that.
Son of Rambow which you wrote and directed is full of references to British 1980s child and teenager-hood (First Blood, the school disco, cultural exchanges which involved ‘exotic’ European students coming to stay). Were you aware throughout your life that you were soaking it all up to unleash it one day?
I did find my childhood funny at the time. I had a very funny family and friends too, but I never thought I would turn my memories into a film until I was having a bowl of noodles with Nick one day and told him about the action films I used to make as a kid. We both thought the idea of two kids making their own sequel to Rambo was worth exploring so I went home and wrote down absolutely everything I could remember. The result was a long document that we showed to Film 4. We just wanted their advice on how to turn the notes into a movie but they ended up giving us a development deal. Three years later it was a script that we could turn into a film. And all those memories were mashed up and blended together to the point where it became its own world, but there are a few nuggets that are a direct lift from my childhood.
You have children and there's a commonly understood thing that having kids allows you to ‘see the world all over again through their eyes'. Has having children allowed and encouraged you to indulge the creative, fantastical parts of your brain even further?
I've found that having kids has made me more productive. When I was 20 years old an hour was nothing, I could probably expect to eat one bowl of cereal and listen to an album, but now I can smash an entire To Do list to bits in an hour! BAM! It's also left me utterly knackered. Last year my back went and it was like being 80 years old. I used to grunt like a boar whenever I got out of a chair. I also drank so much coffee you could hear my brain gurgling from 10ft away.
Joined a gym, cut down on the caffeine and now have to go 3 times a week just to stop the wheels falling off!
As for a new perspective on life, to be honest I find their perspective is not that different from my own. They seem to laugh and cry at the same things I do. I always felt incredibly lucky to grow up with films like Star Wars and Back To The Future. There was this magnificent sense of wonder in so much of what we saw (even First Blood) and I think all I am ever trying to do is make something that pushes the same buttons. Now you've got me thinking about this kids' perspective thing... And I must admit to finding the speed at which they grow and change alarming. This CERTAINLY adds to my desire to get things done and not waste any more time eating cereal!
Can you tell us one thing that has inspired you, whether today, this week, month, or in your lifetime...?
I find lots of things inspiring. It often feels like a mix of awe and jealously when I see or hear something I really love. Seeing The White Stripes live had that effect. The Hockney exhibition blew my tiny mind and left me at a loss for words but I'll go for something more recent.
Last week we were walking in Dungeness and I saw these two fat little Jack Russells scavenging the beach for salty snacks. They were so funny looking and worked together so efficiently despite the wind blowing hard enough to send them across the sea that I couldn't stop thinking about them. Where they come from... what their owner might be like... what they get up to... are they a father and son team... what treasures they might find...
Are you able to give us any exclusives on your next project or anything you're working on?
I've been trying to make children's books for about 15 years (I made them for friends but they were always too complicated) and I've finally cracked it this year! In fact, just two hours ago I got an email from a publisher who would like to make a new book with me. I cannot describe how excited I am about this!
Also, I am moving my whole family to France in a few weeks to begin work on an animated film I have written. It'll take a long time but as the story is so exciting, the team so insanely clever and there happens to be a patisserie right next door to the studios I could not refuse the call to adventure!
To see more of Garth's work go to garthjennings.com or follow him on Twitter @GarthJennings
© 2013 Debra O’Sullivan / © Drawings 2013 Garth Jennings