Hitching a Cosmic Ride

Garth Jennings Navigates

"I'm in the sound mix at the moment," the voice crackles gleefully and crisply into the telephone, somehow managing with effort to rise above the dull roar of intergalactic warfare in the background. "If we get interrupted by spaceships, I apologize in advance."

Garth Jennings is but days away from wrapping post-production on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the fancifully eccentric sci-fi spectacular which brings him squarely into the wonderful world of feature films. He comes from music-videos-some 50, he estimates, over the past decade-so it's a gigantic step in terms of time, space and expense to big-budget filmmaking. (Touchstone hesitates to put a dollar sign on its films, but the figure kicked around for the April 29 release borders on $100 million-it is, after all, a Galaxy.)

Miraculously, Jennings didn't get the bends on the fast ride up. He is, in fact, pretty much an embodiment of Hitchhiker's key catchphrase, "Don't panic"-and he functions accordingly. "You can be done with a music-video in three weeks, and this has taken two years," he points out at the top, "but, actually, oddly, I felt at home with all of this stuff.

"Even though there were days when I would turn up and there'd be huge sets or hundreds of extras, I'd always be so consumed with having to get on with it that it didn't seem out of the ordinary. It's only when you get into the car and drive back home and breathe a sigh of relief that you suddenly think back over the day you've just gone through and think, 'Christ!' It's always afterward that you think, 'Well, that was rather extraordinary!'"

If there were doubts, he allows, they came at the outset when he was considering taking on such a celebrated property. Douglas Adams' story of an ordinary Brit named Arthur Dent who becomes the last earthling, ricocheting around the universe with an alien pal named Ford Prefect, has been one of everything. It began in 1978 as a BBC radio series, then it became a book (one of five bestsellers) and a seven-part 1981 miniseries. "In the early '80s," recalls Jennings, "it was a game, one of the first you could interact with. It was a play. It's on records and in picture books. The only thing that it wasn't was a film."

This was not because Adams wasn't trying. He did three screenplay drafts back in 1982 when the book was optioned by producers Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck and Michael C. Gross. The thinking then was to cast Bill Murray or Dan Aykroyd as Ford Prefect, but Aykroyd countered with his Ghostbusters notion, and the property drifted in turnaround purgatory until Spyglass Entertainment spied it as a property and took it on in 1998.

Adams, who'd always dreamed his yarn would be filmed, was working on the script when he died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 49; it was completed by Karey Kirkpatrick, the author of Chicken Run, and polished to be camera-ready by director Jennings. Adams gets posthumous credit as screenwriter and executive producer of the film he never saw.

The 32-year-old Jennings is half of Hammer & Tongs, a producing-directing British team heretofore specializing in music-videos. His partner is Nick Goldsmith, 34. "We met in art school ten years ago and started off doing our own production in his bedroom, then gradually moved up. He produces, I direct. The separation of power is essential. We're a close team, like a rather strange husband and wife, knowing what the other is thinking. But it does really work, having clearly defined roles and working closely on everything. It's one of those things where we don't know what we do, we just seem to do it."

Both are of the Star Wars generation and grew up with laser guns blazing. "I was five years old when Star Wars came out," Jennings beams. "That man"-meaning, of course, George Lucas-"weaned me. He has a lot to answer for. I still have more of a soft spot for the older movies than maybe the newer ones, but I can't wait to see Darth Vader being born."

Jennings even remembers The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy filtering into his consciousness by way of the book: "Oh, it was wonderful. It was one of those things where you felt you were the only person in the world to get it-like it was a cool thing only you understood. Actually, anyone who read it felt the same way. It was like a very, very big, lovely club."

This club, he learned during filming, has international chapters-as far-flung as, for two handy examples, Iceland and Pasadena. "I was in Iceland for one location and found out that it's on the national curriculum for all 16-year-olds. And, when we did our test screening in Pasadena, I drove out to this mall, and there were hundreds and hundreds of people queuing up around the block. They'd heard about it and were trying to get in.

"I guess that was the most daunting thing about this project, knowing there were so many fans out there-myself being one of them-expecting so much. But, once I got started, I loved doing it so much that I forgot all about that, and most of the things we've come across were doable-plus, the studio allowed us to pick all the people we wanted."

One of the things that took the sting out of going where no music-video men had gone before was that their cronies could accompany them into features. "Fact is, these are the people I've worked with for ten years," Jennings says about the professional shorthand, "but we're all backed up by seasoned professionals who've been in the movie business for years-to help us through all the nooks and crannies that we weren't used to-and it was a wonderful mix. There was none of that jaded thing that you often find on sets. It was a fresh, enthusiastic crew, and I think it shows. It's certainly a vibrant little film."

To play Arthur Dent, Jennings cast Martin Freeman, who's pretty much the Brit-twit of the moment now that his series "The Office" has earned cult status. For Ford Prefect, he did his casting stateside and came up with Mos Def. The hands-across-the-pond Anglo-American recruiting continued with Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox, Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast, Warwick Davis as Marvin the Paranoid Robot, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian, and John Malkovich as Humma Kavula, a villain Adams invented for the film.

Alan Rickman, Richard Griffiths and Stephen Fry lend the varied and mellifluous voices to roiling chaos, and the original Arthur Dent-Simon Jones (Brideshead of Brideshead Revisited)-is visually represented, if fleetingly, in a homage cameo. "He plays the voice of a planet," says Jennings. "It's like an answering machine, and his face is kinda floating around the spaceship in a peculiar way. One of the planets our heroes turn up at is closed, and there's an answering machine, saying 'We're all out at the moment. If you'd like to leave your name and number, we'll get back to you.' Then, when our heroes refuse to take no for an answer and continue to fly down to the planet, all hell breaks loose."

Of course, all hell has been breaking loose through the whole interview, and Jennings finally has to excuse himself-but impishly: "I'm going back now and blow up the Earth."