Approaching The Guide: Finding a Visual Style to Suit Life, the Universe and Everything
From the start, Jennings' vision for creating Adams' comical sci-fi universe was to mix state-of-the-art animatronics with old-school film tricks that are so traditional they hark back to the silent-film era. It was a mix that he felt would boggle the mind, dazzle the senses and create visual jokes much in the same way Adams had done with words.
One thing the filmmakers did not want to do was anything typical of today's massive, effects-driven space dramas that have become filled with conventions that audiences expect and anticipate. "We've all been so saturated with special effects," notes Jennings. "So we thought it would be a shame if this movie was simply effects-driven. Of course, it's riddled with all kinds of different effects, but the main point is that the effects aren't there to blow your head off but are more part and parcel of the fun and inventiveness of the story. They always leave something to the imagination, which we felt was so very important to the universe Douglas Adams created. We didn't completely reject CGI--there's plenty of it, but we simply keep a lid on it, using it more to spice things up rather than depending on it, as our one and only tool. Mostly, we were on a mission to create some very weird and original stuff--and wild as what you see on the screen is, you ought to see the sketches we rejected!"
The duo was joined by a team ready and willing to go to creative extremes to bring their ideas to reality, most of whom had previously worked with Jennings and Goldsmith on music videos and commercials. Says Garth Jennings: "We felt it was essential to work with people who we already had a great collaborative relationship with so we could jump right into inventing things. Our team included Igor Jadue-Lillo as our very creative Director of Photography; Joel Collins, a highly original thinker, who served as production designer; and costume designer Sammy Sheldon, who tackled the highly unusual array of interplanetary outfits with a wonderful sense of fun."
Even for the many utterly alien creatures in the film, Jennings and Goldsmith favored physical reality over computer creations, deciding to use life-sized creations for such space-going species as the Vogons. Says Nick Goldsmith: "We knew it would be tough to do, but there's something about having real creatures there on the set that makes it so much more magical."
To help forge the movie's menagerie of life-forms, Jennings and Goldsmith brought in Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the renowned creature-creating team started by the late, great muppeteer Jim Henson. Jamie Courtier, the creative director of Henson's Creature Shop, was particularly thrilled to get this assignment. "It was a challenge we were really excited about taking on," he says. "There's so much humanity and spirit in Douglas Adams' work, and a hugely appealing sense of imagination and fun. Those are exactly the qualities that Jim Henson brought to the world and inspired in our company, to this day. The HITCHHIKER'S project and The Creature Shop was a marriage made in heaven!"
The pièce de résistance created by Henson's Creature Shop were the 7-foot-tall animatronic Vogons, complete with extensive facial controls that allowed them to be as expressive and sympathetic as any such monstrosities of runaway bureaucracy could ever be--all created through an amazing mix of clay, rubber, foam and human performance. For Jennings, Goldsmith and the entire cast and crew of the film, seeing the Vogons come to life was like watching the birth of a new species.
"The Henson creations were everything we had dreamed of," sums up Jennings. "What I really loved about them is that you can actually direct them like living, breathing actors. We were thrilled to see the artists at Henson just throw their hearts and souls into this project. I mean, you couldn't ask for more creativity." (For more on the contribution of Henson's Creature Shop, see the section below on Design Highlights.)
Of Ordinary Men and Outrageous Aliens: Finding an Ensemble of Comic Actors to Bring H2G2 to Life
One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continuously stating and repeating the very, very obvious, as in It's a nice day, or You're very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right?
As the look of THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY started to come together, yet another challenge lay on the horizon: the casting of some of literature's most beloved, yet highly unusual, characters, who range from a most ordinary man sent rocketing into space to a two-headed rebel of a galactic President to a depressed robot with a brain the size of a planet.
For director Garth Jennings, nothing was more important than finding the right band of hip, smart, merry eccentrics to pull off the tone of the project--and to bring to it a 21st Century sensibility. "I knew that no matter how inventive the script and design might be, it all had to come to life in the performances," he says. "This cast that we put together is an extraordinary bunch of very weird and wonderful people--and in their own ways, they're a lot like their characters. But what's been most amazing to me is how well they work together. When you put them all in the same place, they are just brilliantly funny. They're chaotic, and directing them is a bit like supervising a children's tea party, but the results are very, very good."
Arthur Dent: An Incredibly Ordinary Man in Outer Space (Played by Martin Freeman)
It all begins with hapless Arthur Dent, whose bad day takes a dramatic turn when he is forced to leave his imminently exploding planet and take off for unknown stellar destinations on an incredible adventure with a frustrating lack of tea. To capture one of the most envied heroes in the sci-fi genre--yet also one of the most ordinary men in literary history--the filmmakers searched for a relatively unknown actor who could be at once unremarkable in a Dent-like fashion yet spectacularly funny.
They found what they were looking for in British comic star Martin Freeman, best known for his work in the runaway British comedy television hit "The Office." "Martin may well be the most straightforward, typical man you could ever find," says Jennings. "But there's also something very contemporary and edgy about him that helps move the story into our times." Adds Nick Goldsmith: "Martin was right in tune with Douglas' sense of humor. The jokes that came out of his mouth sounded natural and never contrived. It takes a certain sort of person to be able to say, 'I never could get the hang of Thursdays,' and have the humor come through, and Martin has that gift."
Freeman saw the role as one no actor could possibly refuse. "I would say that getting the opportunity to play the last man on Earth is always attractive to an actor," he surmises. "I quite fancied that." The actor continues: "I also loved the story because it's about so many things, some of them ludicrous and some of them profound. And a lot of the profundity comes from the ludicrousness and vice versa. In a way, I see it as being about what it's like to be alive--to be alone, to be in love, to be flummoxed and to be amazed."
Freeman found himself getting deeper into Arthur's personal journey--as he moves from the ordinary to the beyond-belief. "Arthur's quite an interesting character, because the world around him changes radically, leaving him to have to catch up," he observes. "The rug is completely pulled out from under his feet in every way. He loses his planet. He falls in love. He realizes his friend is actually from outer space. So circumstances really force him to change as well. He starts out, of course, being the usual passive Englishman who keeps saying "what's going on here?" to realizing he's the one who needs to take control."
Though Freeman was acutely aware that the novel's legions of fans have very strong views on Arthur Dent, he, like the filmmakers, decided to try not to get caught up in any of the hubbub. "The more I read about Douglas Adams, the more I realized that these books and characters weren't stone tablets for him. He knew it was a movable thing, that it would have to change with the times to a certain degree, and I think we all feel that we were very true to that," he explains. "Really, I don't think the spirit of the story has been changed one bit, but it's been updated. What's really cool is that I think that young people will still look at this story today and think, 'yeah, that's how I feel about the world, too.'"
Ford Prefect: A Savvy Alien Who Knows Where His Towel Is (Played by Mos Def)
Arthur Dent's adventure begins the minute he finds out that his earthly best friend, Ford Prefect, is really an alien stranded on Earth and a roving reporter for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy longing to get back to his beat. (The name Ford Prefect, unbeknownst to most Americans, is that of an inexpensive British car. Douglas Adams noted that when Ford first came to Planet Earth, perhaps he named himself after what he thought was the dominant life form here!) It is Ford who helps to explain to Arthur such vital pieces of information as the importance of having a towel in such a tough universe and why it's a good idea to stick a fish in your ear.
To play Prefect, the filmmakers made an unexpected choice in Mos Def, the popular hip-hop star who has already garnered numerous awards and critical acclaim on both stage and screen in his young acting career. "What I love about Mos Def in this role is that he is such a contrast to Martin Freeman," comments Garth Jennings. "Whereas Martin plays your typical tightly wound Englishman, Mos is this very wise, very cool, very funny, very opposite foil for him."
Adds Nick Goldsmith: "I cannot even think of Ford Prefect anymore without thinking of Mos Def. The chemistry between Mos and Martin is fantastic--they are like a new version of the Odd Couple!"
Mos Def was excited to hear about the project in the first place. "I love the book, it's always been one of my favorites," he says. "I love the theme of it--you know, 'Don't Panic!' It's about the idea that your curiosity should always be stronger than your fear. So when I heard that Douglas Adams had been involved with the script, I was very interested. Then, after meeting Nick and Garth, I was even more intrigued. I really admired their ambition. They were setting out to create a totally original world in their own unique way."
When it came to playing Ford Prefect, Mos Def felt a definite kinship. "I think he's a very straight-shooting, problem-solving, heroic kind of guy," he says. "I mean, he's part adviser, captain, philosopher, answer man and James Bond all rolled into one--you could say he has a lot of gears. He struck me as a guy who is very unafraid and just tells it like it is. He doesn't get hung up on things, he doesn't get flustered, he just sees the true nature of things as they are. And I think what Arthur likes about him is that he's kind of this man-about-town who is very hip and smart and fits in where Arthur doesn't."
While some say the style of Douglas Adams' humor is distinctly British, Mos Def found that the character appealed just as strongly to his own very American style. "To me, the great thing about this kind of humor is that it's sharp and sweet and modern without ever being malicious," he says. "I think there's so much going on in this movie. Every person who sees the film, no matter who they are or where they're from, will take away different laughs, different favorite lines and different crazy ideas they'll never forget from it, which is a pretty cool thing."
Zaphod Beeblebrox: A Galactic President With a Rock-Star Attitude (Played by Sam Rockwell)
Once in space, Arthur quickly develops a rivalry with the fugitive pilot of the spaceship that saves him: Zaphod Beeblebrox, two-headed President of the Imperial Galactic Universe and inveterate party animal. When the filmmakers chose Sam Rockwell to play the space oddity, they had no idea how seriously he would take the comical role. "He really was into it," notes Garth Jennings. "Even his answering machine was done in the style of Zaphod. He was listening to all these out-there rock albums, like Queen and that sort of thing, and he just became more and more spectacularly deranged!"
Adds Nick Goldsmith: "We really lucked out with Sam Rockwell, because he brought an energy and imaginativeness we could never have imagined in our wildest dreams."
Another fan of the book, Rockwell was dying to see what a modern team of filmmakers might do with Adams' eternally intriguing story. "The jokes are really funny, but they're also really relevant because so many of them are about the way that bureaucracy and incompetence and silliness are universal concepts that don't just exist on Earth--they're everywhere!" he says. "And of course, the ultimate message of it all is that love always saves the day, even at the end of the universe, which you can't deny. So, when I met Garth and Nick, and they had so many smart and inventive ideas, it all really clicked for me."
Rockwell was originally going to read for the part of Ford Prefect, but when he was offered Zaphod Beeblebrox, he was inspired to take the character in his own original direction. "I was struck by this very strange idea for the character that Garth and Nick liked. The idea was to sort of combine Elvis Presley, Bill Clinton, and Freddy Mercury (from the rock band Queen) into this sort of rock-star-style President of the Galaxy. There's even a little George W. Bush in the character."
He continues: "I think Zaphod is this sort of obnoxiously appealing and annoyingly charismatic guy who presents this guise of being the coolest guy in the universe but is actually a big buffoon. The saying goes that two heads are better than one, but in Zaphod's case, it just seems to be double the trouble. He wants to be a deeper person, so that's why he's set off on this journey to find the Ultimate Answer--although, of course, it turns out that nobody knows the question. His main role is really to provide comic relief, so I thought it would be great to really go wild with him. Garth was wonderful because he really allowed me to personalize the role."
As with the other lead actors, Rockwell knew there would be a lot of curiosity from fans of the book to see what he would do with the character--but he wasn't about to let that affect his performance. "There's really only one way to take on a role like this, and that's to approach it as if it's never been done before and there are no preconceived notions in the audience's minds, even if there are!" he says. "It's very intense to think about how much the book is loved and how much Douglas Adams means to so many people--but the trick is to not think about it!"
Trillian: A Drop-Dead Gorgeous Astrophysicist With an Alien Boyfriend (Played by Zooey Deschanel)
In one of several evolutionary departures that Douglas Adams wanted to take from the original novel as it came to the screen, THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY creates more of a romantic triangle between Arthur Dent, Zaphod Beeblebrox and the beautiful woman they both find themselves chasing to the ends of the universe: the mysterious earthling Trillian. For Adams, adding a love story was a way to heighten the story's emotional side, as long as the love story stayed true to the offbeat spirit of the characters.
To play Trillian, the only other earthling to survive the planet's explosion, the filmmakers searched for an actress with an offbeat but undeniable charm and found that mix in Zooey Deschanel ("Almost Famous"). Says Nick Goldsmith: "We fell more in love with Zooey daily. I think she has the classic, old-school movie-star quality that makes your heart just go crazy when you see her on the screen."
Deschanel, who had read the book as well, was taken aback by the screenplay. "I was shocked because it really managed to capture the humor that I remembered from the novel," she says. "The spirit was all there but it was adapted in a way that you could actually see it working on the screen, which I wasn't entirely sure was possible!"
When she met Garth Jennings, she felt even more assured of an exciting ride. "I really felt like Garth was representative of the most devoted fans of Douglas Adams. He loves this story so much that I just completely trusted his point of view and his ideas about how to bring this world to the screen in a way that people all over the world could enjoy it. Absolutely everything was thought out in the most amazing detail, right down to the different languages the aliens speak."
The character of Trillian, an intellectual powerhouse equally at home in fancy dress at a party, appealed tremendously to Deschanel. "She's equal parts smart and tough, which I love," she says. "I saw her as someone who had been sort of held back on Earth but really blossoms in space. The opportunities to do things like learn how to fly a spaceship is the greatest thing that ever happened to her--and then she also gets the chance to find out who she really is, which is something everybody's looking for in life."
Furthermore, Trillian gets to have two boyfriends from different ends of the galaxy. "I think the heightened romantic aspect in the screenplay really helps to ground the story and helps to tie together all these wonderful comic vignettes in a great way," she explains. "Plus it was a lot of fun for me. I think Trillian sees Zaphod as this sort of good-time guy who is her ticket to outer space, but with Arthur, things aren't quite that immediate. It's only later that she realizes that there's more to the galaxy than zipping around trying to figure out the Ultimate Answers. There's also the old-fashioned notion of caring about another person. Their relationship becomes a beautiful thread that unites the whole film."
The ultimate draw for Deschanel, however, was the ensemble cast. She summarizes: "We were like our own little Rat Pack! There was such a strong sense of collaboration, and we had a great chemical mixture of people bringing so many unique talents that it felt really good to be a part of it."
Marvin: Warwick Davis and Alan Rickman Play a Robot in the Throes of Depression
Ever since fans first discovered The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, one of the story's most popular and beloved characters has always been Marvin the Paranoid Android, a robot built by Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as part of their mandate to create androids with GPP--Genuine People Personalities. Indeed, Marvin's programming has produced some utterly human quirks that have made him entirely miserable. Douglas Adams once said that Marvin descended "from a long line of literary depressives, from A.A. Milne's Eeyore to Jacques in Shakespeare's 'As You Like It.'"
Wherever he came from, Marvin's perpetually pessimistic outlook on life struck a chord with fans everywhere. The celebrated rock band Radiohead even wrote a song entitled "Paranoid Android." So the filmmakers knew fans would be especially curious about how he would be depicted.
To create Marvin, the filmmakers first approached production designer Joel Collins to come up with an original concept for the unhappy android that would avoid any robot clichés. Since Marvin is noted by Douglas Adams to have a brain the size of a planet, albeit a depressed one, Collins came up with a concept for a costume that would involve an enormous robotic head that sort of flops onto his neck in a typical downtrodden expression. He also decided Marvin should be on the tiny side--and entirely too cute to be so down in the dumps.
"We were wondering what would add even further to his depression, and we thought 'if everyone was looking down at you, that would only make it worse,'" explains Nick Goldsmith. "So we also decided to make him very small and also very cute, on the assumption that if you were just incredibly intelligent and remarkably depressed, it would be a nightmare to also look very cute!"
The design was ferried to Jim Henson's Creature Shop which turned it into fiberglass reality. Now, with the 55-pound costume created, the diminutive, 85-pound Warwick Davis, who played the lead in the fantasy-adventure "Willow" and starred in "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi," was cast to take on the physically demanding role of Marvin. Teetering under the weight of Marvin's huge head, Warwick Davis was in constant danger of toppling over, but found a way to bring out the robot within.
Says Davis: "This is one of the most challenging projects I've ever worked on. I've done films where I've spent four hours in makeup, but this was harder. The suit weighed almost as much as I do, but it had to be a very controlled performance. It was so tricky for Marvin to move at all, at first I thought that 'it's no wonder he's depressed!' But after a while, it really began to come alive--the nuances and subtleties came out even underneath the costume. I discovered that Marvin's performance had to come from within me, from my emotion. It wasn't simply a matter of 'operating' the suit."
Later, one of Hollywood's most lauded actors, Alan Rickman, added the robot's notoriously depressed voice to the proceedings. Says Nick Goldsmith: "It was a real thrill to record Alan Rickman. His voice just seems to be the ultimate match for this self-loathing robot."
Rounding out the supporting cast is Bill Nighy ("Love Actually") as the Magrathean planet designer, Slartibartfast, who had been asleep for five million years prior to getting an order to build a duplicate planet Earth; and, in a special appearance as a brand-new character created by Douglas Adams just for the film is John Malkovich as Humma Kavula, a religious cult leader with some surprises of his own.
Welcome to a Galaxy Where Nothing Is Ever Quite as It Seems: Design Highlights From H2G2
The Guide to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Some Basic H2G2 Terms: The Characters
The Guide to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Some Basic H2G2 Terms: The Universe
About Douglas Adams