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The mission to bring Douglas Adams' humor/sci-fi classic to the bigscreen takes off
Some of author Douglas Adams' most devoted fans thought they'd be pulling up chairs at Milliways (the Restaurant at the End of the Universe) and witnessing the end of time before the adaptation of Adams' 1979 bestselling sci-fi/humor classic "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" made it to the bigscreen. Fortunately, we only had to wait till the new millennium, and the first part of it at that.
The film first looked to be a go in the early aughts, when Jay Roach was attached to direct. The possibility of an "Austin Powers" sensibility was perplexing enough, but when the slapstick-prone helmer announced that he hoped to cast Jim Carrey as Zaphod Beeblebrox, the charismatic but anarchic two-headed president of the universe, it seemed inevitable that this unholy marriage would put the b in subtle at the very least.
After Adams' untimely and much-mourned death of a heart attack in May 2001, the project floundered and Roach moved on to channel his energies where they rightly belonged, namely "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and "Meet the Fockers" (though he is credited as a producer). In late 2002, it was announced that Spyglass Entertainment had hired "Chicken Run" screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick to complete the final touch-ups on Adams' script. Soon after, the acclaimed British production team Hammer & Tongs were brought on with Garth Jennings directing and Nick Goldsmith producing. In early 2004, the spot-on casting of Martin Freeman from BBC TV's "The Office" as Arthur Dent, the much-put-upon last human in the universe (Earth having been blown up by bureaucratic aliens to make way for a hyperspatial express route), restored fan faith and excitement and almost made up for the threatened Jim-Carrey-anywhere-near-this-script debacle. (The book's mantra, "Don't Panic" -- a key piece of advice when traipsing throughout the galaxy with nothing but a towel and an electric thumb -- served loyalists well in those dark times.)
As the cast filled out with the quirkiest and most interesting of talents -- like Sam Rockwell as Zaphod, Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast, John Malkovich as a new character (created by Adams) named Humma Kavula, Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin, the Paranoid Android, and Stephen Fry as the narrator, aka the voice of the Hitchhiker's Guide book -- it became clear that this project had every likelihood of being worthy of its source material. It's certainly much more fitting that it's being made by a cadre of the cleverest Brits and their nearest American equivalent: eccentric and esteemed character actors.
But, one might wonder, who is this Garth Jennings, and why is someone nobody's heard of directing the only screenplay in existence to provide the answer to life, the universe and everything? (It's 42, in case you were curious.) Well, just mosey your mouse over to www.hammerandtongs.co.uk and take a look at some of the breathtakingly inspired music videos he and his partner Nick Goldsmith have produced, combining high art and oblique humor to find the emotional resonance in everything from the kinetic evolution of life on earth to the adventures of an anthropomorphized milk carton. Yes, it's another music video director-turned-feature helmer, but very much in the vein of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze (and very so not McG). In fact, Jonze was offered the "Hitchhiker's" script but had to pass due to a scheduling conflict, but he sent a tape of Hammer and Tongs' work to Spyglass ...and the rest is history.
"I had no idea he was doing it," says Jennings on the phone from a London sound editing room, where he says he's huddled in a corner, and apologizes for the bizarre synthesizery-violiny-xylophony-eerie descending tones that will punctuate our conversation every few minutes as his crew works on a scene in which Arthur and his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) have been turned into sofas. "That 'de-de-daaaaa...' that's the sound of two sofas going, 'Hey, I think I'm a sofa.' 'I know how you feel.' WAAAHHH! Pa-toosh! And they turn back into themselves," Jennings explains (as much as such a scenario can be explained).
Though Jennings and Jonze had been friends for some time, "he didn't tell me he was passing on the show reel -- the script just turned up. [When we were offered the script], we told them not to send it because we thought it would be bad. You know, because we have such fond memories. It was very dear to us. And then it came anyway. And we sort of danced around it for about two weeks before reading it. And then when we read it, it was just brilliant! It was all the stuff we'd loved about the original, but also all these wonderful bits that already you could see how it was going to work cinematically. And it was glorious."
Adams added several new elements to the screenplay: "There's a character called Humma Kavula, played by John Malkovich, who is a strange evangelist who had competed for presidency against Zaphod and lost, and now runs this strange cult on a very odd planet." Jennings also explains a new device Adams invented for the movie: "We go to the Vogon planet, and there are these very strange slap-sticks, which explain why the Vogons have no ideas or original thoughts." Anyone who's seen the trailer knows that when Jennings says slap-sticks, he means slap-sticks: Metal paddles pop out of the ground and hit people on the head if they think anything unique or interesting. Hence the unbeholdably terrible legacy of Vogon poetry.
Martin Freeman sees Arthur as the emotional core of "Hitchhiker's Guide." "You care about the fact that this man has lost everything in the first 10 minutes of the film," he says, speaking from his agent's London office (which must be in a highly combustible zone given the number of sirens in the background. Either that or Freeman is taking a break between committing heinous crimes.) "Every single reference point and every touchstone in his life has gone. It's been blown up. So, while of course still being in a comedy, he has to sort of make that real. You have to make that somebody you care about." And how did he make Arthur his own? "I think just by doing the same old s--- I normally do," he says with dry humor, sounding very much like "The Office's" Tim, except with an even quicker wit and a bit more swearing. "I have a fairly limited range. I've got asleep, nearly asleep, and very awake," he jokes. "So I just sort of did that. Obviously it would be stupid and futile and impossible to do an impression, and certainly undesirable to do an impression of what we all think Arthur Dent is. So I just had to make him real to me, and had to make him someone that you care about."
While both Arthur and "The Office's" Tim are ordinary guys who find themselves in preposterous situations, Freeman feels the similarities end there. "I think the only thing they've got in common is the fact that I play them. If Hugh Bonneville had played Arthur, would anyone say, 'He's like Tim, isn't he, that character?' I don't think they would. I don't think that there are that many similarities, other than the fact that I look sort of early 30s, I'm an Englishman, and I'm the same height in both parts. I'm a white 30-odd-year-old man; I'm not going to be playing many 60-year-old Asian women. So the parts that I play are going to have at least a certain similarity. I mean, I suppose you could say they were kind of unlucky in love or not quite sure of themselves, but that also describes two-thirds of the human race."
Freeman didn't find the "Hitchhiker" shoot as bizarre as one might guess. "Coming to work and seeing a 10-foot Vogon bearing down on you is kind of odd. But, then again, I don't really find much surreal about filming, because once you're an actor, you're already in a job that most people think is either weird or perverse or communist or whatever. Because you always went to school with plenty of people who think, 'You f---ing bent c---. Why are you acting?' So you're already doing something that is sort of slightly odd. So, within all of that, 'Hey, there's a Vogon.' You know, it doesn't seem that odd, really."
"The film is f---ing odd," Freeman elucidates so there is no misunderstanding. "The film is quite a strange film. But I think it's dead funny, and it's very accessible; it's not kind of obscure. It's a kind of mainstream film, but it didn't feel like a big Hollywood film. It felt like a sort of -- well, it's an art film, in a way," he laughs. "And I know that's mainly because of Garth. And the cast that was assembled -- there weren't any massive, massive stars in it, like big Hollywood film stars. I mean, obviously, John Malkovich is a star, and Bill Nighy is a star, and Sam Rockwell's a star, [but they're] kind of that more interesting acquired taste star."
"The right person was cast for each role," adds Jennings as yet another creepy synthesizer line indicates that once again Arthur and Ford have transmogrified from their sofa state. "'Hitchhiker's' is the star, so [we had the freedom] to find the right people for the job."
Asked if there are any plans to make the other books in the "increasingly inaccurately named trilogy," Jennings laughs, "I have no idea. Certainly, it's taken 20 years to get this one off the ground. I hope it doesn't take as long if they are going to do some more, because I'd be an ancient man! As far as I know, no one's mentioned it. But they're certainly sitting there, those books. Someone's gotta do something with them, yeah."
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Nighy and John Malkovich. Directed by Garth Jennings. Written by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick. Produced by Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Nick Goldsmith, Jay Roach and Jonathan Glickman. A Buena Vista release. Sci-Fi/ Comedy. Opens April 29.