Over the Rambow
Director Garth Jennings has coaxed winning performances from two pre-teen actors in a new British coming of age film, Son of Rambow. He tells Conor Goodman the secrets of working with young actors
IT’S ONLY when you visit Garth Jennings’s office that you realise why he works so well with children. Situated on a barge in Islington, London, it is the workplace of a man who never quite grew up himself. On this floating boy’s toy are two lowceilinged, book-lined offices, where bits of modern technology sit alongside props from various films and music videos. (Jennings and his co-bargee Nick Goldsmith originally made their names in video.) Here’s the milk carton that starred in their memorable video for the Blur song Coffee and TV. There’s the guide dog collection box which features in their new film, Son of Rambow.
Suddenly, the shiny new Irish Times offices seem like an incredibly square place to work. We really need a barge.
In person, Garth Jennings brims with youthful enthusiasm and has a raised-eyebrows, ready-smile look that makes him seem only marginally older than the pre-teen stars of Son of Rambow.
The film, Jennings’s second as director and first as screenwriter, tells the story of two 12-year-old boys in early-1980s Britain. One is a streetwise school bully, the other an unworldly member of a strict religious movement, the Plymouth Brethren. Thrown together by circumstances, they conspire to make a home movie about their screen hero, Rambo.
An exhilarating adventure ensues, involving madcap stunts, shoplifting, creative battles and all the hellish loyalty conflicts and insecurities that characterise friendships among children. This funny-sad film will probably charm anyone who has ever been a boy, or the parent of a boy. It may even appeal to today’s teenagers. But in particular it will speak to those who, like Jennings himself, were boys in the 1980s.
Now 35, Jennings has three children of his own. Does fatherhood help when you’re writing a script about childhood? “Well, I finished this script before my first son was born. I actually had this theory that I had to make this film before I had children, because then my view of childhood would change. But in the end, I ended up making it after two of them were born.” It was delayed because Jennings and Goldsmith were commissioned to make their feature film debut, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which appeared in 2005.
Son of Rambow had to be shelved during that production, and so is appearing eight years after it began.
At the centre of the new film are two winning performances by the young leading actors, Bill Milner, who plays the character of Will, and Will Poulter, who plays Lee. Where did Jennings find his young stars? “It was a very, very long casting process and we gave ourselves lots of time. We knew we weren’t going to just go to a stage school, see 20 kids and pick he most precocious. We went around all the regular schools and saw hundreds of kids – some brilliant kids, most of whom ended up in the film in one way or another.
“But it was only after about five months of casting that we found the two leads, one very shortly after the other. They walked in and they were exactly what we had in mind. By the time they had sat down, we knew they were right. They had that thing of being themselves without being self-conscious.”
Apart from the occasional confusion that must have arisen on set from having Bill play Will and Will play Lee, Jennings reckons directing children is easier than directing adults – although the approach has to be different.
“Kids are very happy for you to give them simple instructions. So you go: ‘You’re cross. You hate him. And when I say action, you pick that thing up and throw it at him.’ And they say: ‘Okay, got it.’ They see the whole thing as this series of mini-challenges.
“We did try to take away anything that might make them feel self-conscious. There were no monitors. We didn’t have any video playback, which is what you’d normally have on set. Instead, it was like the good old days: I’d sit behind the camera and watch it, and neither of them saw a frame of it until the cast and crew screening. That was the one conscious decision I made, because I thought it would help the performance.” Bill and Will also brought an unexpected professionalism to the job.
“The first day they came in and had learnt the whole script, as though it was the school play. I said you don’t need to worry about that; just do it the night before. A lot of actors I’ve worked with won’t learn the lines, and come up with this excuse that they want it to ‘feel real’.
“Well, that’s not how it works. If you really are a good actor, you learn your lines and make it sound like you’re saying them for the first time. The kids did that.”
Another bonus was that the boys became firm friends off-camera as well as on. “We put them together, and they became best friends. And of course they were having the time of their lives, and that had a very big ripple effect over the crew. It made even your most cynical crew member, the grip who had seen it all, lighten up. They’d be laughing their heads off watching the kids being dragged across the grass or whatever.”
Jennings also had a clear view of how to recreate childhood in a visual way. “I didn’t want this film to look like Grange Hill. From the start, I was trying to make this look different, to look as big as possible. So we used very long corridors, big, high hills and wide cornfields.
“If it was a classroom, you’d light it in such a way that it was flooded with that strong afternoon sunshine that used to come through and put you to sleep. We wanted to create the memory of school rather than the reality of it.”
Main picture: Will Poulter (left) and Bill Milner (right) in Son of Rambow. Below left: director Garth Jennings (blue top) and producer Nick Goldsmith with extras from the film