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‘Sing 2’ Director Garth Jennings on His Unexpected Career Path From ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ to Illumination Entertainment

The filmmaker also tells TheWrap how his ”eccentric“ pitch for adapting Douglas Adams’ novel was greenlit

“Sing 2” is out this week and completes a nearly decade-long journey for British filmmaker Garth Jennings. The filmmaker, began making music videos as part of a collective called Hammer & Tongs, has spent the better part of ten years in France working on “Despicable Me” animation house Illumination Entertainment’s two “Sing” features back-to-back. It was another unexpected creative U-turn in a career full of them, which saw Jennings veer from studio sci-fi comedy to micro-budgeted indie to animation auteur.

In this wide-ranging interview, TheWrap talks to Jennings about his music video beginnings, what it was like making his first tentpole movie for Disney, and the path that led him to “Sing” (and now “Sing 2”).  

I wanted to talk about the Hammer & Tongs early music videos. Where your head was back then and was animation even on your radar while doing all these music videos and things?

Garth Jennings: Any aspect of filmmaking was utterly fascinating to all of us. I’ve been making little films since I was a kid. Turned about 11, my dad had a video camera and he didn’t know how to use it. So, I managed to commandeer it. And the first thing I did was try and animate with it, which is, of course terrible, because you have to hit play and record and pause very, very, very quickly. So, it’s these short animated films that were so glitchy, they were almost unwatchable.

And then through art school I was making more animated films. One of them even went on the BBC as part of some children’s TV show, which got me all excited. It’s only two minutes long, but it was about a cat saving the family from starvation during the Second World War, based on a true story.

And then when we got into Hammer & Tongs, my friends who were at the art school, we were making movies together. Very often the ideas we had would require effects or puppets or little bits of animation. And we were around amazing people in animation, like Shynola, who, I don’t know if you’re aware. They also did extraordinary movies together, mainly animated.

So, animation was floating around and then I’d started to write and develop an animated film. And it was all going great. It was a fascinating story. And so, it was very much something I wanted to do and get into. So, it’s been there for a while.

Well, I wanted to talk about ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ for a minute. What was that experience like, doing a big Disney movie as your first feature?

Yeah, It’s bizarre. I get a lot of… So often I’ve done things with an enormous amount of naiveite, and I suppose arrogance. Not in an ugly way, but I always think, “Oh sure, I could do that! Yeah, I know how to do it.” It’s only once you start doing something you go, “Oh, Jesus!” We’d made a lot of music videos and I had written ‘Son of Rambow‘ and I’d started the casting process for it. So, we were going down that road and that’s when ‘Hitchhiker’s’ turned up.

And what was so amazing was the Spyglass, who are producing it, and Jay Roach was one of the main producers. And we gave them our take on it with no experience in this whole procedure. They said, ‘That sounds good.’ We got a little development deal to go away and develop the project. And we spent about eight months with our friends and art directors just creating the entire movie. I think I storyboarded a third of it myself. We worked for about eight months without any contact with the studio.

And then after that time I remember Gary and Roger, who were head of the studio [Spyglass], came over from the ‘Seabiscuit’ premiere. And they walked into our studio and, of course, it was like an art gallery and the entire movie we’d worked out. And we never thought that we could just design everything. And they’re like, ‘Oh, you’ve got the whole thing.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah.’ So they’re like, ‘Oh, you should come and show this to Disney.’ So, we go out and we showed it to Disney. And Nina Jacobson, the wonderful Nina Jacobson, she says, ‘This is great. I love it!’ So we leave that meeting, and we’re like, ‘Well, that’s cool. She likes it.’ And we thought we would hear something; we never heard a thing. For about two weeks we’re just sitting around. And we already like, ‘Well, maybe it’s not going to happen.’ And the producers are talking about maybe shopping around for other studios.

And then one day we got a phone call saying, could we come and present it again to Disney, but this time to Dick Cook. I swear to you, I just thought, ‘Oh, I’m showing it to Dick Cook now.’ I’m just showing it to someone else. I didn’t know the significance. Once I turn up and I’m worried no one’s going to laugh. All right? No one’s going to laugh in this meeting. We’re not going to be funny or interested. Just show the thing, keep going, and get out there.

I’m a little bit stressed by this. But I just stood up and I talked exactly as I’m talking to you now and I had this file of drawings and storyboards and I explained our approach. And after 25 minutes, Dick Cook just went, ‘This is fun. Can you have it ready for summer 2005?’ And this was in 2003. And I just thought, Okay, he meant hypothetically. Is it possible to get this film made in that time? And I was like, ‘Yeah!’ I thought, Yeah, that’s doable. That seems like a reasonable amount of time. He goes, ‘Great!’

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Photo: Disney

All right. Shook my hand. And he said, ‘Look. If there’s anything you need, my door’s always open.’ And I walked out that room with no clue as to what had happened. And then Nina said, ‘You don’t realize, do you?’ And I said, ‘What?’ ‘You just greenlit the movie.’ I was like, ‘Really? That was it?’ And that was it! We were off. It was extraordinary.

And, I swear to God, I think the Disney folks came to set once in the 17 weeks we were shooting. And they were supportive and loving all the way through. And that’s about as eccentric as a film can get. You’ve got puppets and Sam Rockwell and Martin Freeman and little metal men with no eyes. It’s bananas from start to finish.

And I had the most amazing time making it. The whole was glorious. It was an amazing experience that I had, and Disney only protected that. They said that they want us to feel like an import – as long as it can feel like we made it. I thought that was rather bold of them.

Dick Cook doesn’t get enough credit for taking big swings.

He doesn’t! No, and he was charming and smart from start to finish. There wasn’t any other side. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes people could be very, very nice when things are going well, and your worst enemy when things are going badly. He was always fabulous, right to the very end.

And, of course, the next film we wanted to make didn’t suit them at all because it was ‘Son of Rambow.’ It’s a tiny English film. It couldn’t be further from the blockbuster ambitions of the studio who were starting to get into things like ‘Pirates of Caribbean’ at that point. And now we want to make a little low-budget English period film.

We’ve never had a career strategy. We’ve never been like, ‘Oh, we’ll make this genre. Or, we’ll just be the guys that do A, B and C.’ And which is lovely. My favorite filmmakers had a vary varied palette. And who wouldn’t want to try animation? Who wouldn’t want to do a sci-fi? And the things I’d like to do next are like equally… make no sense at all in terms of the past, but gosh, who wouldn’t want to try that?

You had to get ‘Son of Rambow’ out of your system. You developed it before ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ Were you happy with that experience?

Oh my God, it was a dream. It was a dream! It was 40-days shooting. Short days, because kids can’t film for more than like four hours, or something. And actually it was so much easier than ‘Hitchhiker’s,’ because we just did everything our way. We had to employ a lot of techniques that were imposed upon us for ‘Hitchhiker’s.’ We got around them, but they were unnecessary. You know that thing that people say, ‘This is how we do it.’ And whenever anyone said that, it was almost certainly to be avoided.

And with ‘Son of Rambow,’ it was all our own way, it was all our people and it was so joyous. Those two kids and the cast was so lovely. And it was filmed over the summer holidays. And by the time we worked on camera, I can tell you, it was six weeks from work on camera to locked picture. It was fast. Because, I’d storyboarded every single thing beforehand, and I’d shot that. And my editor, who is my friend from art school, Dominic, he’s part of Hammer & Tongs … There’s like an invisible language thing going on there.

So, it was just done. It was that easy. And then, we turn up at the Sundance Film Festival and we hadn’t shown it to anyone. That night we screened it to 1200 people in the Eccles Theater and it went great. And it was just thrilling. After that, it went all weird. There was a legal thing and it got all complicated and it was really awful. But after that, it was just a dream. A dream from start to finish, it really was.

There was a fair amount of time between “Son of Rambow” and “Sing.”

What the hell were you doing!?

No, we just needed more movies!

Well, this is it, I was developing three projects. One of them was this animated film. And the other one was a Roald Dahl film story that I always loved. And I was developing it without a deal but with the Dahl estate. It’s called ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.’ And I had this vision of the film since I was about 13 when I first read it. Just kind of… You know how you just think, I know how to do this, and it’s just exactly the story you want to tell? It’s a glorious period romp with this magical layer. It just had everything I had ever dreamed of. It’s not like a three-act structure. It’s like you having the ingredients for the perfect movie, to me. And what I will do with these ingredients.

But, again, that one just didn’t quite work. There was all kinds of reasons why it didn’t quite get off the ground. And the animated thing didn’t quite get off the ground. It was never a creative thing, it was always something else. Things I’d never experienced. Because, as you just heard, with those first two films, they were a breeze. I had walked in and made them. I got this false sense of what it was like to make a film. So I had this kind of like, ‘Oh, I know how to do this. You just do the thing and somebody gives you the money to do it, and you go and make it and… Okay.’

Then I had two big reality checks, but they cost me a lot of time and effort and it was heartbreaking to have to part both of them. And at the same time of coming to terms with putting both on ice, as it were… I wasn’t giving up on them, I was just saying, ‘Okay, now… this is not happening right now.’ At exactly the same time, Chris Meledandri, who, we’ve met years before, he was just starting up Illumination.

He was in town, and it must’ve been 2011. It was a day before my birthday, that’s why I remember it. And we had a cup of tea with him and he said, ‘I’ve got this idea that I’d like to do.’ He told me the idea, basically the premise for ‘Sing.’ I said, ‘That sounds great!’ I was just going to write a script for them. Then it snowballed into this.

So, that gap was… I learned so much by all that. There was a lot of failure in that period, which… I keep looking back now, it’s incredibly useful. I’ve learned so much from it, because although it was painful and I’d rather not want to go through that again, there’s a lot you learn from that really, when you’re hitting the wall and realizing your mistakes. As long as you admit to them and own them and learn from them, then it’s okay, I think. And I was able to carry that through.

It started as a writing project for ‘Sing,’ but then I fell in love with it and Chris was interested in me directing it. So, there I am. I move to Paris with my wife and our four kids and make the first ‘Sing’ movie.

And now it’s been how long since you signed onto the first ‘Sing?’

Eight and a half years. I thought I was only going for two years. 2013 arrived and my youngest son’s birthday is on the third of April. And we’re like, ‘Great! We’re here for two years. Going to try and make an animated film. Good luck everybody. Here we go. Try and learn French while we’re here, if that’s okay.’

And it was a big snowball, because by the time we’d got… We were about a year from finishing the first ‘Sing’ movie and Chris and I, we’re all talking about, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be funny if there was a sequel. Wouldn’t it be great if they did this.’ We had started to think about it, just in terms of like having a chat with friends over coffee. Like, ‘If there ever was one, it would be great if we could do that.’

Universal Pictures

And then I realized, Oh, I’m staying. So, my wife and I were like, ‘Okay. Well, we’re not going back to England this year. We’re going to stick around and try and get this other one made and…’ And then, of course, that took a little longer. And we’re in a studio where there are many films being made. So, it’s like a pipeline. Like a conveyor belt. If you were slowing down, everything slows down.

So, my process got a little longer due to that… Just the volume of traffic. And also then, somebody decided to unleash COVID into the world, which was awful for every reason we know about. And impact on production meant a delay for everything as well. Then I find myself at that premiere and, Christ, it’s eight and a half years later.

What’s next – animation, live-action, puppets?

Well, I can’t tell you about the project, but it will be live action. That’s what I’m working on right now. But I’ve learned to have just enough enthusiasm to make it, but not too much to break my heart.

“Sing 2” is in theaters now.