Previously known as one-half of Hammer & Tongs, the duo behind defining music videos from Blur, Supergrass and Fatboy Slim, director Garth Jennings has a hit on his hands with Son of Rambow.
Located a short stroll from one of London’s key creative centres is the work space of director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith. The duo, also known as Hammer & Tongs, are responsible for some of the most remarkable music videos of recent years such as Blur’s Coffee & TV, the Supergrass hit Pumping On Your Stereo and Fatboy Slim’s evolutary Right Here, Right Now.
"You can’t crash a car with children in it.”
Of course, such an artistically inclined pair are hardly likely to work in a greying office. Jennings greets me at the entrance of Poppy, a converted barge that has been remodelled to their working needs. It’s quite possibly the coolest working environment in the world. The sound of Hot Chip floats away from the main area and Jennings enthuses about his work with Supergrass, prompted by the giant cartoon guitar from the Pumping On Your Stereo video that now sits Dali-esque above his kettle. Nestled amongst a display of similarly cool, surreal artefacts from the duo’s creative life are the original milk cartoon characters from Blur’s Coffee & TV. It’s that kind of place.
The latest project to emerge from the canal is Son of Rambow, a gloriously entertaining film that reflects the innocence of the long summer nights of childhood. Set in an eighties England that forgoes Thatcher and white dog shit for the things that people love about the era – eighties pop, retro fashion and technology and the fact that every school seemed to have a kid who wasn’t allowed to watch TV – the film finds the sheltered Will (Bill Milner) exposed to Rambo: First Blood by school tearaway Lee Carter (Will Poulter). Carter dreams of winning the BBC Screen Test competition with his Rambo remake; Will is enlisted as the film’s star and hapless stuntman.
“It’s been eight years since we came up with the idea. I visited my mother and we were laughing about the old home movies that we used to make. My friends and I were inspired by an early VHS of First Blood. It was the first time we’d seen a film that was way too old for us, and also, it’s all just forest and trees. There weren’t any special effects until near the end,” says Jennings, rustling his free-spirited hair in a style that suggests that there’s even more of the young Garth in Will than he’s letting on. ”So we dug these videos out and watched them. They’re so funny and so awful, but they’re so bloody ambitious and naïve. There’s us at twelve years old pretending to be the PLO, kidnapping the head of the military defence, holding him hostage and burning the torturers alive. It never occurred to us that we were out of our depth and we didn’t know what we were doing!”
Inspired by his childhood projects, Jennings presented Goldsmith with some notes and ideas. Son of Rambow was subsequently born.
“There’s something about being about to look back as an adult and to recognise that some of the things that we thought were great were actually tragic,” he enthuses at pace. “Like the kid who seemed to have the run of his whole house was actually the loneliest child in the world. The reason we were always playing around there was because he was desperate for friends. We just didn’t see it that way at the time. We wanted it to be one of those films that left you with a good feeling, because that’s what we get when we think back to that period.”
The film’s progress was halted for two years by a surprise offer to helm the cinematic version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. “The script sat on the desk for two weeks as we thought it would be shit and they’d have ruined it. We read it and thought it was great and then realised, naively, if we’d only bothered to check that it said ‘written by Douglas Adams’ on the script!”
Following the relative success of Hitchhiker’s, the duo pitched Son of Rambow expecting to get the film financed. But with no takers, they pushed on regardless completing the film at a cost of $7.5 million, financed by a variety of investors willing to buy into the Son of Rambow mindset. Received ridiculously well at Sundance, the film broke regular industry conventions by selling for roughly its cost. “It did mean that all of those guys that really did take a risk on what must’ve seemed like a bizarre little film got their money back. I don’t get any of that money, but I’m absolved,” he says with a light-hearted phrasing that fails to cover his obvious relief.
"There’s us at twelve years old pretending to be the PLO."
Clearing footage from the original Rambo: First Blood was surprisingly uncomplicated, if ludicrously time consuming, with Sylvester Stallone himself proving to be a particular fan. As Jennings half-jokes, he was probably thinking, “Fucking hell, these English eighties suburban kids were affected by my Vietnam veteran movie.”
Despite some base levels similarities with Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, the end result is that Son of Rambow is a highly original, touching, and, above all, funny movie that will appeal in equal measure to film obsessives and those harking for a touch of nostalgia. A lot of its success can be attributed to the fine casting of youngsters Poulter and Milner.
“They were so natural and so charming, and in return for that, they had the best summer of their lives. Everyday for forty days they got thrown into lakes, got to ride their bikes or blow stuff up. It meant we had a great atmosphere.”
They were also happy to embrace what they could of the film’s stunts.
“We had to have stunt men for quite a lot. You can’t crash a car with children in it.” People are always making up pedantic rules. “They would’ve done it too. But if they were diving to the bottom of a lake, they really did dive to the bottom of… well, it was a water tank, but y’know…”
So if Rambo, the eighties or kids in (mild) peril appeal to your cinematic taste, Son of Rambow should be at the top of this month’s viewing list.