Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Robbie Stamp

Hitching with Douglas Adams

By Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire

Buy The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy poster.

Note: Rob Blackwelder and I conducted this interview together, but since he did the job of writing it, he gets the sole byline.

Robbie Stamp is one hoopy movie producer. That frood really knows where his towel is.

If the preceding two sentences don't mean anything to you, you're obviously unfamiliar with novelThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the cult-classic sci-fi comedy by the late Douglas Adams, in which a good fluffy towel is a seat-of-the-pants traveler's most important accessory when thumbing rides around the stars.

Never mind why -- it would take too long to explain Adams' delightfully daffy logic -- but suffice it to say, I've just called Stamp, a close collaborator of Adams' for before his death from a heart attack in 2001, an upright guy who has a good grip on life and can be relied upon to do the right thing.

For Stamp, the right thing was to soldier on with making the Hitchhiker's movie adaptation Adams was planning -- a follow-up to the BBC radio series, TV miniseries and five novels in which an English everyman named Arthur Dent is saved from the destruction of the Earth (while still in his bathrobe) by his friend Ford Prefect (who, it turns out is an alien and not from Gilford after all). The pair go flitting around on insane adventures in outer space (quite reluctantly on Arthur's part) with Zaphod Beeblebrox, the insane and arrogant, two-headed fugitive president of the galaxy, and Trillian, a pretty Earthling brainiac whom, as improbability would have it, Arthur once fell in love with at a party until Zaphod (visiting our little blue dot with only one head at the time) chatted her up with a line about being from another planet.

Being entirely devoted to Adams -- and having helped him found, the real-life earthbound edition of the titular travel guide -- Stamp made the rounds to science fiction conventions earlier this year showing a preview reel of the now-finished Hitchhiker's picture, and when we met in February, he couldn't have been more gung-ho about it.

Q: Since you've been working on this for nine years, mostly with Douglas Adams, this issue probably doesn't seem quite as daunting, but you've got a lot of rabid fans to please...

A: We have. We have...

Q: You could probably identify pretty strongly with (Lord of the Rings director) Peter Jackson at this point.

A: Yeah, absolutely. I feel the responsibility to Douglas very, very keenly. I feel the responsibility to his family very keenly. I feel a responsibility to the legions of fans who loved the books or loved the radio series or loved the TV series. But equally, there's a responsibility to reach out to lots of new people as well, and I know Douglas would have wanted us to do that too -- to try to tread that line.

Q: How far back do you go with Douglas?

A: I met Douglas back in the early '90s, and we started a company together called The Digital Village (which later became Through that I got very involved with selling the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy rights to Disney. When those rights were sold, Douglas and I became executive producers on the movie (which was made by Disney's Touchstone division). That deal was done just before Christmas 1998. I've worked on the movie, I suppose -- if you include the negotiations -- since 1996. It's been a real labor of love.

Q: Were you a fan of the books before that?

A: I was. I wouldn't cast myself as a super-fan. I read them. I loved them. But I loved being a friend of Douglas. Douglas was just an immensely intellectually curious man. He just had this appetite for ideas, so he was just a great companion. He was always interesting to talk to. I feel very privileged that I knew him. It was an awful, awful shock when he died so suddenly.

When he died, the movie was not in a good place. All the momentum had run out. But I sat down with Jane, his widow, and said, if we could make the movie happen, would she like it to happen? I felt quite strongly -- as did anybody who knew Douglas well -- that getting a movie made became a passion of his. He so believed to his fingertips that a "Hitchhiker's" movie had the capacity to be the kind of phenomenon that the radio and the books had been.

He just got so frustrated that he couldn't push it through, that he couldn't make it happen. I think it overshadowed him creatively quite a lot in the later years. I think the desire to have the movie made became so strong that I think it was hard sometimes to see his way clear to doing other things. So I guess a part of it for us was that (the film) was going to vindicate that feeling he had -- that this could be a really, truly great movie. So certainly the care and the passion and the attention that everybody has brought to it -- from the studio onwards -- has been really remarkable. People care about it a great deal.

Q: Once it landed at Disney, it went through at least one dangerous period too. There was at least one director who was attached at one point whose name made me cringe. I think it was Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents). I don't think he would have done justice to it.

A: Well, Jay's contribution in the history of this was very, very important. He played a critical role working with writer Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) getting the script into shape. I think Jay is very, very sound structurally. He's a great guy as well. I like Jay enormously. But I think his stepping aside in the spring of 2004 is was what ended up with us -- via Spike Jonze -- finding Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith (the film's director and his producing partner). And it was a really bold decision by Disney to (let us hire) a first-time director thousands of miles away, and then let him get on with it by surround himself with his core creative team of people -- his production designer, his director of photography, his costume designer. I think Garth has this great mixture of playfulness and intelligence that is just right for the material.

Q: To tell you the truth, I didn't know who these guys (Jennings and Goldsmith) were when I first heard it was the "Hammer and Tongs" people taking over (they've created memorable music videos for Blur, Fatboy Slim, Supergrass and REM). But honestly, just the fact that they call themselves Hammer and Tongs made me feel OK about it.

A: [Laughs uproariously]

Q: And that they came recommended by Spike Jonze (Adaptation, "Being John Malkovich)...

A: Well, we met with Spike and he said, "Look, I love this. It's a great script. I'm a big fan. But I can't do it. I'm just to busy." So (on his recommendation) I went to meet (Jennings and Goldsmith). I met them on their houseboat -- they work on a houseboat on the canal (in London), ironically 10 minutes down the canal from where Douglas used to live. I met them on a lovely spring day, we had chocolates and tea. Their boat was stuffed full of Apple Macs -- which was good because if it had been full of PCs, I probably would have had to make my excuses and leave. Adams was a big Apple man!

From the first, I just thought, these guys get it. They get it. And they've got such a strong visual sense, and that's important. You know for everybody who has read the books or listened to the radio series, they have a Zaphod Bebblebrox in their head. They've got a Marvin (the sardonic, depressed robot that has become a Hitchhiker's mascot) in their head. And you know that when you approach it, you're not going to be able to do that million Marvins, those million Zaphods. What you have to do is by understanding the essence, by understanding what makes it tick, you come up with something that people can go away from thinking, "Well, it may not be the Marvin I've carried in my head for all these years, but it was a Marvin."

Q: Well, I have to admit, you got an Arthur Dent very close to the one in my head (in actor Martin Freeman from BBC TV's "The Office").

A: Yeah. He's perfect, isn't he? When I saw his audition tape, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. That was it. And I'll tell you what it was: It was the way he said (the famous line), "This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays." It had this freshly minted quality, as opposed to it feeling like a ka-ching Douglas line.

He's been fabulous, and that's been a very big issue. In the end, it is this story about this ordinary guy who gets thrown out in the universe and discovers that things are as absurd out in the galaxy as they are on Earth. He's a character to whom things happen all the time, and that's quite hard without turning him into a light-saber-wielding hero. And I absolutely think we've done it. He is a man in his slippers and his dressing gown, and he's looking for a cup of tea, and he's pretty befuddled about what he's seeing out there. Douglas was working hard on the whole through-story for the film, working on Arthur's relationship with Trillian (a romantic departure from Hitchhiker's previous incarnations), which I know is something that has some of the fanboys slightly exorcized.

I think the closest parallel, as you say, is Lord of the Rings, with the way they've bumped up the Aragorn-Arwen love story. It put a spine to a central character's journey, and the rest of it was done with such love and care and attention that in the end everybody was happy. I kind of think that's what we have here. It's not a full-blown kissy-kissy romantic love story by any means. It just gives a few beats in a few moments.

Q: And that was part of Douglas's vision for the movie?

A: Absolutely. I think one of the key things that is always worth stressing about Hitchhiker's, is that it's not like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. There's not one holy text. It's a body of work -- it's a radio series, it's TV, it's a book, it's a computer game, it's a play, it's a towel. Douglas was always up for reinventing Hitchhiker's, through each of the different media in which it appeared. He always wanted to work with the grain of the medium, which is why it was a great radio series, and it was a great book. He understood what made each of them tick, and he knew a movie was going to be different. He always felt it was his absolute right to create different versions, to give different endings and different narratives.

Q: Earlier you were talking about Martin Freeman, I'm curious about some of the other casting. There are some casting choices that are really different from any of the other incarnations of Hitchhiker's. I'm a big fan of the BBC miniseries, but the one thing it did really wrong was the blonde dingbat version of Trillian. But Zooey Deschanel is exactly my idea of Trillian.

A: She's great. We didn't want some kung-fu, high-stepping kind of a Trillian, and we didn't an ultimate nerd-goddess either. We wanted somebody who could play her slightly weird and bright, and she does it really, really well.

Q: Cute but smart.

A: Cute and smart! She does it really well.

Q: Mos Def is a big departure from the description of Ford Prefect in the books.

A: Mos is fantastic in the movie. Of probably all the casting, that one sent up the biggest flutters among some people. But he's just fabulous. He was seen by the casting director, Susie Figgis, in the play TopDog/Underdog at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and she just thought he was amazing -- absolutely phenomenal. She said to Nick and Garth, "You've gotta meet this guy. You've"

So they met him, and they already had Martin in mind for Arthur, and I think they just thought the pairing was perfect. And he does come "from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse." He's not human, and Mos manages to convey that very subtly and very brilliantly in his performance. And the relationship between Arthur and Ford is great. Arthur is his mate, and he's looking out for him. He's making sure Arthur knows where his towel is. He's a great actor.

Q: Was there discussion or hesitation about some of the reinvention of core elements? I've heard about how Zaphod's second head works in the film (but I won't spoil the surprise), and that's incredibly creative, but so far removed from anything that's familiar to the fans. Were there many conversations about such changes?

A: Well, yeah. The head was just a throwaway line from the radio series. Douglas just said, "I'll give the president two heads." On the radio and in the book, it's no problem. For the movie, Douglas was working very hard to differentiate the two heads, to give them different characters. If there were going to be two heads (this time), Douglas wanted them to have a different feeling around them. If you look in the book or the radio series, you could swap the lines between the two heads and it wouldn't make the slightest difference. The way to do it physically was an idea that had been around for a while, as a matter of fact. Then Garth tested it -- he's a great believer in testing his props himself -- and I think it's going to work very well.

February 18, 2005

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