Look, Ma, All Hands
Hammer & Tongs on why their Eighties-era childhood epic 'Son of Rambow' is the anti-CGI
Pop quiz, hipster-cineastes:
Hammer & Tongs means ...
a) UK slang of ancient Celtic vintage originally forged by vigorously enthusiastic smithies getting it on whilst banging a gong.
b) Ninety-six minutes of 24 frames per second of something to do with kids, guns, French wannabe-ninjas, and Richard Crenna.
c) The pseudonymous appellative of two London-based filmmakers collectively responsible for your favorite Blur video; the rollicking, large-screen adaptation of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; your favorite R.E.M. video; and, best of all, the slyly endearing, Eighties-era childhood epic (and Fantastic Fest favorite) Son of Rambow.
d) All of the above, and then some.
Make no mistake. (It's "D.") Director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, aka Hammer & Tongs, have accomplished the very nearly impossible with Son of Rambow. They've crafted a comic masterpiece that triples as an exhaustively inventive look back at pre-Britpop, Boy's Own bollixing; the sudden, life-changing revelation of art! ... or Sylvester Stallone's First Blood, in this case; and a daring adventure so emotionally and artistically spot-on that both Margaret Thatcher and Serge Gainsbourg would be proud to claim inspirational territoriality.
It is, in its own uniquely brilliant way, one of the most entertaining films about edging onto the treacherous ledge of adulthood, via wits, fists, and film, since a youthful Stallone rained 400 blows on Brian Dennehy's backside 26 years ago.
The Austin Chronicle spoke to Hammer & Tongs at the Stephen F. Austin InterContinental Hotel in early April and learned there's more to drawing first blood than sweat and tears. There's also skills. Skills on toast ...
Austin Chronicle: So. Have you seen Sylvester Stallone's recent Rambo film?
Nick Goldsmith: We got invited to go and see the premiere in London, and Stallone came and introduced it, which was ... fascinating. Did we like it? Honestly? We're big fans of First Blood, obviously, because our film is somewhat based on our own experiences of seeing it. And it was an amazing film because he played this brilliant character who could survive in the woods with just a stick and a stone. I was a big fan of the first film, and then as parts 2 and 3 progressed, I lost a bit of interest. It became a mad killing spree, which is fair enough, and some people love it, but the new Rambo, to us, really seemed to follow a very bloody path. There's some amazing killing in it, but ...
Garth Jennings: I found it deeply unpleasant; I really did. I found myself squirming a lot, you know, seeing children and women being shot. I can live without those images.
AC: What sort of films were you into when you were the same age as the kids in Son of Rambow?
Jennings: I think there was a whole generation of us who grew up watching Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and, geez, you know, it was incredible! It was only much later that we sort of branched out and started seeing other types of movies. I vividly recall the first film I later enjoyed as much as Star Wars, which we had on video, and that was Some Like It Hot. I thought it was the best thing ever; I did. And Yellow Submarine – we used to watch that over and over again. But Billy Wilder's The Apartment is our favorite movie. That and Sunset Boulevard.
AC: Which pretty much covers every strata of comedy there is. That said, do those transformative, kidhood epics that Lucas and Spielberg created still hold up for you?
Goldsmith: I think a lot of them do. Especially The Empire Strikes Back, and the same with The Goonies, as well. And I was surprised that they'd held up as well as – for me, for us – they have.
Jennings: There's a lot of heart and soul in those movies.
Goldsmith: And there's an innocence, as well. The effects didn't look brilliant, but it didn't matter. Everything seemed to be a lot more for real. It was all done in-camera, with no CGI.
AC: CGI is something you eschew in Son of Rambow, to its immense benefit, in favor of a more giddy, "gosh, wow" sense-of-wonder. Not unlike your music video for Blur's "Coffee & TV," which featured the loneliest milk carton in the world.
Jennings: I think a lot of the time, we have been up against it, financially or timewise, and we haven't been able to go those conventional postproduction routes. And it's forced us to come up with things that we eventually realized were far more successful in engaging the audience. We're not against using anything, and in the last year, we've pretty much used everything that's on offer.
Goldsmith: But it's purely on a selfish tip. I mean, it's a lot more fun for us to have a small man in a big milk-carton suit in a green-screen environment, with Garth and I shouting, "Run this way! Run that way!" compared to sitting behind a man in front of a computer screen and saying, "Um, can you move his arm up a little bit, please?"
Jennings: It is very interesting how much more fun it is to have things in front of the camera and how difficult it is to get men in rooms – dark, dimly lit rooms, with computers – to understand what you want. Apparently we've got a knack for it, but I haven't quite worked out what "it" is, exactly, just yet.
Goldsmith: Seriously, we have nothing against CG. But it just comes down to that heart thing. I don't know what it is, and I wish I did, but there's something about looking at a CG-character – no matter how perfect it might be – it loses something onscreen. And E.T. is a perfect example of that. You knew E.T. was a rubber puppet, but it didn't matter because the character was so strong that you forgave it. And when they redid it digitally, and made him able to do all these other things, for me, personally, he lost a little bit of his charm.
Jennings: I think Nick's right. It's amazing how you'll just go with it if it's good, if the idea and the story and the characters are good. And the opposite is when R2D2 started flying around in one of those new Star Wars movies, with rocket-packs and pissing oil everywhere! What the hell was that all about?
Jennings: I mean, the whole point was that this was a trash can that could barely get down a slope, right?
Goldsmith: Just because you can do anything, doesn't mean you should do anything. I suppose that's what we're saying about how we feel about using CG. It should have just as many restrictions as anything else. It often feels as though everyone's trying to outdo each other with the next best effect.
AC: Like a lot of other filmmakers, you both started out by doing your own backyard Hi-8 productions back in the day. The amazing thing is that you've managed to hold on to that afterschool sort of wonderment. Do you worry about the total media saturation the current generation of sons – and daughters – of Rambow are growing up in? Will instant access to mini-DV cams, iMovie, and YouTube – as opposed to inspirationally laborious stop-motion, matte-paintings, and miniatures – give way to more astonishing effects but less amazing stories?
Goldsmith: I don't think so, although it's hard to hold on to that "anything goes" creative spirit that we all have as kids, I think. One, either you stop doing it, creating this stuff, or, two, you get a little bit older and you start judging yourself. You begin to say, "It's not good enough," or, "It could be better." When you're a kid, right, you don't think that. What you're doing is what you're doing.
AC: Which nicely sums up Son of Rambow.
Jennings: I think it's really the fear of failure – the way people change, not the movie. And not to bring things down, but look, my son – who's just started school – his class made a bag for the parents to buy, and it had on the bag a little self-portrait by every kid in the class. It's a fantastic piece of work, it's really gorgeous, right? And looking at it, you realize: Every single kid in this class can draw. Right now, every one of them can draw. But by the time they get to 13, maybe only a third of them will be told that they can do it, and the others will have drifted away from it, thinking they're not good enough or whatever. It's not going to be some heartbreaking, torturous event for them, but it really is a filtering process. They think there's someone better at doing that, whatever that is. I think there's loads of people – millions of people – who are better at doing what I'm doing than I am ... but I just love doing it too much to want to stop doing it.
Son of Rambow opens in Austin on Friday. See Film Listings for review.