Son of Rambow with Goldsmith and Jennings

Coming of Age with a Camcorder: How Home Movies Inspired a Sundance Hit

In the 1980s, the first generation of kids raised on video cameras came of age. With visions of Spielberg and Lucas dancing in their heads, and fueled by a brand new set of brawny, invincible action heroes who overcame every obstacle in their path, it was a time when, for a kid with a camcorder, anything seemed possible and the story of ones life could have any outcome you chose.

This largely unexplored era forms the backdrop of “Son of Rambow,” in which two British boys attempt, in the midst of a restrictive religious group and against all odds, to make the ultimate action sequel in their backyard. The result is a moving comic-fantasy that gets to the very heart of what childhood passion, exuberance and friendship is all about. With the films endearing first-time stars and British setting, it quickly became a surprise smash at Sundance.

“Son of Rambow” emerged from the imaginations of Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith, who have gained fame as one of Britains most inventive sources of music videos and television commercials and went on to make their feature film debut with the long-awaited screen version of sci-fi comedy classic “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.” Even before the duo was tapped to take on Douglas Adams beloved novel, they had this more intimate, personal comic tale already in the works.

The story sprang directly from their own boyhoods in the 1980s, when so many kids fearlessly set out to be filmmakers for the first time, armed with little more than their parents pilfered video cameras and a boatload of outrageously ambitious, nearly impossible ideas. It was then that Garth Jennings had his own nirvana-like experience at the movies.

He recalls: I had seen a pirate video copy of “First Blood” and it blew my tiny mind! Here was this amazing man who could leap from cliffs, sew up a cut in his own arm and take on a whole army just by using bits of the forest around him. Jennings and his friends had found the ultimate antidote for pre-adolescent angst and confusion an indomitable hero who Jennings notes with reverence, could take on the world with his bare hands.
Thus it was that Jennings and his friends began making their own scaled-down, Rambo-inspired action-adventure productions about town. With no budget beyond pocket change and no special effects beyond what they could do with these early-generation, non-digital cameras, these budding young filmmakers had no choice but to go to the very edges of creativity to create their life-like stunts. The productions were so bold, Jennings now looks back on them with a mix of awe and shuddering disbelief. Our stories, stunts and special effects were outrageous in both ambition and stupidity, but we thought our films were fantastic, he muses.

Decades later the wild passion and creativity that had driven Jennings and his merry band of pre-pubescent filmmakers seemed both increasingly funny and touching and also offered a perfect storyline for Jennings and Goldsmith, one that in the annals of films about adolescents battling to come of age hadnt really been done before.

The idea of capturing our ludicrously ambitious attitudes and those extraordinary friendships we had at that age was a very exciting prospect for Nick and me, recalls Jennings. We wanted to make a film that wasnt a gritty slice of childhood but rather one that really captured the way that life seemed to us as kids in the 80s. It was a time when days were long and sunny, school corridors were endless and French exchange students seemed like they were from another planet.

In developing the screenplay, Jennings recalled a neighbor of his who had been brought up in The Brethren, an extremely conservative religious group that originated in England and Ireland, which disavows television, radio, newspapers, novels, records, computers, fancy clothes and makeup–all considered a distraction from worship. Given his own ecstatic thrill at seeing “Rambo” for the first time, Jennings couldnt help but wonder how a child who had been so completely isolated from media and pop culture would react to the experience.

That had the thread of the story quickly unspooling. I thought it would be really interesting to have the films imaginative hero emerge from this place of strict moral codes and lack of contact with the world, Jennings comments. Being his first ever action movie experience, it was a heightened way to capture what it felt like to so many people at that time.

Thus was born the character of Will Proudfoot who comes out of his cultural cocoon only to become utterly obsessed with action heroics. To get deeper into Wills upbringing, mindset and newfound drive to imagine his own Rambo-style adventures, Jennings spent time in a contemporary Brethren community and interviewed both members and, more importantly, ex-members.

For Will, who already lives largely in his imagination, making a homegrown “Rambow” sequel, replete with the creative spelling, is his only escape from the difficulties at home–an escape into pure adrenaline rushes of the wildest kind. While writing of Will and Lee Carters exploits, Jennings found himself reliving many of the craziest stunts from his own childhood, which he admits he was lucky to have survived.
When I look back, I shudder at the dangerous things we did, he admits, but we were nave and it all seemed like such a good idea at the time. I dont want to encourage kids to play in dangerous places or put their lives at risk in any way but these brushes with disaster and stupid stunts are seen from the point of view of the characters, and part of the story is that they do not consider the consequences until it is too late.

Jennings had equal fun creating Lee Carter, the school terror who turns out to be less than terrible as a friend. He is an amalgamation of lots of people I knew growing up, but is also based on one kid in particular who lived on my street. I never met a braver, crazier or more loyal little kid than him, he laughs. It really doesnt matter that he and Will have nothing else in common they simply enjoy making movies and being together. Its a very romantic view of childhood friendship.

Jennings and Goldsmith knew they were onto something special with “Son of Rambow,” but just as they were about to finally set the film into motion, fate turned them around. Offered the utterly irresistible opportunity to bring Douglas Adams posthumous screenplay for “Hitchhiker” to the screen with a stellar cast, Hammer & Tongs quickly switched plans, leaving SON OF RAMBOW on the back burner, though still smoldering in their hearts.

After “Hitchhiker” wrapped, they returned with renewed enthusiasm to “Rambow–and, they say, they were the better for it, having gained all kinds of knowledge and experience through the crash education they received in making an ambitious, large-scale, Hollywood-style feature film. I think what Nick and I really learned on “HITCHHIKER” is how to do more with less, explains Jennings.

In addition to the obvious inspiration of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, Hammer & Tongs cite numerous influences on SON OF RAMBOW–from E.T: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL to such classically irreverent coming-of-age comedies as STAND BY ME and HAROLD AND MAUDE but note they also found a guiding spirit in an unlikely cinematic source.

We were most influenced by MIDNIGHT COWBOY, strange as that sounds, confesses Jennings. We saw a real comparison in the unlikely friendship between the Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight characters and Will and Lee Carter. The 6th Form Common Room scene was directly inspired by the psychedelic party scene from MIDNIGHT COWBOY, in which Ratzo Rizzo is left alone while Joe Buck becomes belle of the ball.

In summarizing how the story of Will and Lee Carter got its hooks into he and Goldsmith, Jennings notes that the filmmaking adventures that young Will and Lee Carter have are not so far off from the adult version two decades later. I think its true to say that Nick and I still share that same ambition as the kids in the film and, also, I think weve had a lot of the same kinds of highs and lows as adult filmmakers, he says. With 'Son of Rambow, we set out to make a film that has the same kind of ambition, scale and drama that Will and Lee Carter envisioned for their story, but with everything we know about filmmaking.