Meet the makers

How The Guide was rewitten...

It might seem like sacrilege to its legions of fans, but the new Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy movie has taken liberties with the characters, lines and script that made the original radio show, books and TV adaptation such cult favourites.

Add that to the fact that the duo bringing the idea to the big screen are untried in the world of feature films – Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith’s track record lying in music videos, and devotees might have a right to get worried. Not to mention Hollywood’s proven history of messing up good ideas.

But, the duo say, the changes have not been down to studio meddling, but a natural continuation of a script that creator Douglas Adams, a notorious perfectionist, was working on when he died in 2001.

‘We’ve had to boil some elements down to their essence in order to make them work on screen,’ Garth admits. ‘Some of the original plot points have been given a little zing in terms of action, conflict etc. but it’s still a crazy and unique film.’

‘In general, all the characters have been given more depth from the radio show, especially Trillian, in order that we care about who they are and where they are going. Once you get the chemistry right between the characters, the rest of the madness falls into place.

‘Even in the earliest test screenings the cast have been enchanting everyone. We haven’t had to change a character to make them appeal to a wider audience, but we have had to add dimensions so that it’s a more fulfilling story.

‘And there are still times when the film throws its own narrative structure out the window and runs naked down the mountain screaming.’

But the rewrites for the cinema are entirely in keeping with the way Adams himself worked, Nick claims. ‘From what I have heard Douglas approached each incarnation of Hitchhikers whether it be the TV show, book or games with a fresh take depending on the medium.’

‘Douglas wrote the script that we’ve revised,’ Garth insists. ‘It sticks to the original themes and ideas but has more plot structure and character arc than previous incarnations.

‘Douglas had already introduced a juicy second act. Then scriptwriter Karey Kirkpatrick helped make it very much Arthur’s story and create room for all the weirdness to exist in a way that seems entirely logical and natural.’

One thing the duo tried to do was to reduce the role of The Guide, as voiced by Stephen Fry. It turned out not to be such a good idea.

‘We went through a strange process during the editing of the film,’ Nick says, ‘In the beginning we found ourselves stripping out the Guide bits, because they were taking you out of the film, but as we went further, and began treating the Guide more like a character, they all went back in.’

Of course, the movie has a much bigger budget than the Eighties BBC TV series, and better technology, enabling the duo to give the film a bold new look will all aspects from The Heart Of Gold spaceship to the android Marvin from scratch.

‘We would always start by clarifying the concept of whatever it was we had to design,’ Garth says. ‘And Douglas always had amazing concepts.

‘It’s very easy to design creatures and space ships and as a result, it can be difficult to design something that you haven’t seen before. We wanted it all to look amazing, but different from what we’ve come to expect from sci-fi. And it had to be in keeping with the original concept.

‘And we’ve used some brilliant special effects to bring Zaphod’s second head to life and it looks wonderful. It’s definitely Zaphod but no paper maché or eye patch.

‘Although we had a much bigger budget than anything you would normally be given to make a music video it was relative to the scale of the production. We didn’t have to change the way we work, if anything, it was often more hands-on than our previous productions.

‘The weird thing is that in all the work we have ever done, there never seems to be enough money, from the smallest job, to a huge feature film,’ Nick adds. ‘The great thing is that when you financially come across a hurdle it forces you to come up with a more creative way to solve it.’

‘I’ve loved the entire process,’ says Nick. ‘Except for all the annoying bits. And getting food poisoning. And the conference calls! I hate conference calls. I find it very difficult to tell if people are listening or they’ve popped out for a wee.

‘It’s been very hard but extremely rewarding work. Favourite moments so far include; cycling along the canal to Hensons [creature workshop] and designing Vogons with them late into the night, storyboarding the movie on our boat, seeing Warwick Davis bring Marvin to life, Martin Freeman and Zooey Deschantel’s screen test, the day they finished the Heart of Gold set, testing Zaphod’s secondhead, dragging Mos Def by his ankles across the floor during the Magrathean missile sequence, seeing the second unit’s mice footage, Bill Nighy, driving a golf cart down the corridor of Elstree Studios and being chased by the Big Brother security team …

‘I could go on forever. But then again, I could probably write an equally long list for all the irritating things that happened too.’

The duo have assembled a cast of relative unknowns for their leads; Martin Freeman, who plays Arthur Dent, may be known for The Office, but he’s hardly a household name in Hollywood. And Mos Def, who plays Ford Prefect, is known as a rapper.

‘Our casting director, Susie Figgis, had seen Mos in a play called Top Dog/Underdog and thought he would be great for the part,’ Garth says. ‘Nick and I only knew him as a musician but met with him on the strength of Susie’s recommendation.

‘We instantly clicked. Mos really is from another planet. Planet Mos. The idea of him sat next to Martin Freeman in a rural pub, downing pints as fast as he can and saying lines like, “What if I told you I wasn’t really from Guildford,” really appealed to us. He is an extremely intelligent and funny man, full of wonderful ideas for his character, from his clothes right down to how to shake hands with a car. After we met Mos we really couldn’t imagine anyone we’d rather see carrying a towel across the galaxy.

Nick adds: ‘Mos was so excited when we originally met him for the part, that I remember his legs shaking. We never thought he was an obvious choice, but then that is what makes the Ford character so interesting. The chemistry between Mos and Martin is fantastic, they are like The Odd Couple.’

Whether the Hitchhikers fan base will accept the casting, or what Nick and Garth have done with the whole franchise, will become apparent soon after the film’s release on both sides of the Atlantic on April 28.

But Garth insists: ‘We aren’t daunted by what the fans think because we are fans ourselves – and so were the people we worked with. We’re all really proud of what we’ve done. The fact that it is our first feature film meant that we probably worked even harder than more established people.

‘I was about nine years old when I discovered Hitchhiker’s and I live next door to a 70-year-old professor who can recite almost every word of the radio series. We found out that in Iceland, 16 year olds are given the book to read as part of their English studies and I am constantly meeting people from all walks of life who adore Hitchhiker’s. It has always had a wide appeal and I hope the movie does too.

‘The themes and ideas in the book are just as prevalent in the film. And they are as topical as they were 20 years ago. Hitchhiker’s always seemed like a surreal spin on life to me. Wherever you went in the universe you would always find creatures or situations that reflected the madness of a certain aspect of ordinary life on earth.

‘Vogons aren’t that different from men you might find asleep in the House of Commons or wearing a judges wig. The President of the Galaxy shares many of our world leaders’ characteristics, give or take the odd head or extra arm. ‘And the themes that run through the story such as that as a race we take ourselves far too seriously, we’re always worrying about things that don’t matter and not noticing the extraordinary planet we’ve ended up on… They are wonderful themes to carry home from the cinema with you. And it’s all in there. You’ll find it next to the bowl of petunias and the whale coming to terms with its existence.’

First published: April 24, 2005

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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