A movie about kids based on Sylvester Stallone’s “First Blood”? It sounded like a sure parody in the making to the original John Rambo, who was not amused at the prospect.
“When I first heard . . . I assumed it was going to be a very broad and stylized joke-a-minute comedy at Rambo’s expense,” Sylvester Stallone said by e-mail. But he took a look at “Son of Rambow,” the playfully rambunctious tale of two boys in 1980s small-town England, and liked what he saw.
“The fact that it was so heartwarming is the result of brilliant filmmaking by its creators,” Stallone said.
It’s the kind of triumph filmmakers dream of. Having finished “Rambow” just a week before its showing at the Sundance Film Festival last year, writer-director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith saw it become the biggest sale of the festival. Then came the long wait for licensing approvals -- though their confidence in their little film never wavered.
“If we were asking to use the clips to show the film in a negative light, we may have had some problems,” Goldsmith said, “but [our] film is clearly a celebration of that film. I don’t think we ever went in thinking they were going to say no, and from Day One it was all very amicable.”
Drawing inspiration from Jennings’ childhood, “Son of Rambow” finds the religious, sheltered Will and the tough, lonely Lee bonding over a pirated videotape of the original Rambo film, inspiring them to make a movie of their own on an era-appropriate VHS camcorder. The homespun enthusiasm of the boys’ imaginative adventures seems to seep out into the larger film, infusing “Rambow” with a mischievously infectious energy.
The delay the legal tangle over authorizing footage caused in the film’s proper release unexpectedly allowed Jennings and Goldsmith to continue traveling with it to a series of film festivals. Another triumph, of sorts, for the filmmakers.
“You’re watching the film with an audience, and it wasn’t being judged on whether it was doing anything at the box office, it was purely whether we made a film that worked. I can’t tell you how satisfying that was,” Jennings said.
The two have been collaborators under the moniker Hammer & Tongs for more than 17 years, since meeting in art school, and made their name directing playfully whimsical commercials and music videos for the likes of Pulp, Blur and Radiohead. They made their feature debut with the inventive, underrated adaptation of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
“Hitchhiker’s” had a cast overflowing with the offbeat talents of Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Mos Def, Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy and John Malkovich, whereas “Son of Rambow” stars two pre-adolescent boys who had never acted on film before -- Bill Milner and Will Poulter, 11 and 13, respectively -- at the time of shooting.
Jennings and Goldsmith had already been working on “Rambow” for two years when they were hired onto “Hitchhiker’s Guide.” In returning to “Rambow,” it might strike some that going from a flush Hollywood-backed adaptation of a much-beloved novel to a scrappy, British independent production with a 10th of the budget is moving in the wrong direction, but the Hammer & Tongs team felt they had everything they needed.
“We hate waste,” said Jennings. “One thing we learned on ‘Hitchhiker’s,’ everyone said to us, you need this guy and this guy and all these things. And you don’t need any of that stuff. We’re used to a commando unit that gets big results and is quite hands-on, which is far more exciting and fun. So we went back to our way of working for ‘Son of Rambow,’ and it was bliss.”
“No one is just standing around drinking tea, although we drink a lot of tea,” said Goldsmith. “It comes down to what’s the most productive way of making a film, and, for us, it’s not to ask someone to move that to there, it’s just to move it.”
That sense of hands-on problem-solving extended to all aspects of the production. Where “Hitchhiker’s” was an extravaganza of rather obvious special effects and movie magic, in “Rambow” the effects are mostly subtle, sleight-of-hand tricks.
Still, even the lo-fi film-within-the-film made by the boys took some technical wizardry. Jennings originally tried to use ‘80s-era video equipment but realized it created more problems than it solved.
“We tested them, I even had my old one,” he said. “But that worked out being counterproductive. You think you’re trying to be authentic and what you actually end up with is something people can’t see. It was just horrible. We realized we were the only ones who would know if it was authentic or not and it’s just a few simple buttons in post-production rather than struggling with something that’s real but wrong.”
The two now are writing an animated film, although they haven’t yet figured out how exactly they’ll do it, whether by computers or models or old-fashioned cel animation.
“I love the fact we’ve done it all backwards,” said Jennings, “and where we’re going next is probably equally wonky.”