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Son of a Blockbuster

Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith remember tasting First Blood

By Mark Jenkins

In Son of Rambow, the tie makes the hero . (Paramount Vantage)

UNDER THE HANDLE HAMMER & TONGS, Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith make music videos and TV commercials. Their latest project is Son of Rambow, a likable if wobbly-toned tale of two boys who bond over First Blood, the 1982 Sylvester Stallone flick that introduced the character of Rambo. Lee, a tough kid with access to a video camera, and Will, whose puritanical mother won't allow him to watch movies, decide to make their own Rambo movie, a project that ultimately involves Didier, a hypercool French exchange student. Writer-director Jennings and producer Goldsmith visited Washington last month to promote the film, which opens today. The discussion began where the idea for the film did: with the amateur videos Jennings made as a child.

JENNINGS: Nick and I chatted about these funny little films I used to make, and there was something in that idea that captured what we liked about being that age, things that we thought it would be good to make a movie about. But it was clear that my experiences were only going to color things. I had too much of an easy, fun childhood to make a movie about.

Obviously, you were not brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, Will's family's sect.

JENNINGS: No, but my next-door neighbors were. Literally the house next door, for 25 years. And my wife's uncle teaches at Brethren school. We realized quite early that it was far more interesting to put the story next door than in my house. It became the movie we were trying to make.

As a child, what was your relationship with your next-door neighbors?

JENNINGS: Nothing, really. They kept to themselves, like in the film. There's no animosity, but we were never allowed across the threshold. They weren't allowed to watch TV, all these things that you think are amazing. They're not allowed to do any of the things you're allowed to do. You couldn't help but think, "I wonder if they're jealous of me?" But then they probably weren't. You just assume, naively, that everyone would want what you have.

Perhaps you were held up as a bad example.

No, I was quite a well-behaved boy.

So you weren't forcing young children to take terrible risks for your films?

If anything, I was more like the kid who was roped into doing things. It's quite good using the camera, because you end up hiding behind it.

Have you seen Be Kind, Rewind, in which two bumbling video-store clerks make their own versions of well-known Hollywood movies?

JENNINGS: I haven't seen anything in the last couple of months, because we're been so busy. It is incredible, after eight years working on this idea, to have Be Kind, Rewind and Rambo 4 come out, all within months of each other. That's a bizarre coincidence.

Another movie that's relevant to this discussion showed at the Hirshhorn Museum recently: Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.

JENNINGS: I know about it, but I haven't seen it.

It's astonishing. These kids in Florida started when there were 11, worked on it for seven years, and took the kind of physical risks your characters take.

GOLDSMITH: I'm fascinated to see it. Someone said that the face-melting scene in the kids's one was better than in the original.

JENNINGS: I'm dying to see it. It's funny to realize that there was a whole generation of people who were picking up video cameras and making their own little movies. There's thousands more where that came from, I'm sure.

And all apparently based on the same sort of Hollywood action films.

GOLDSMITH: For our generation, those films were huge. It's difficult to say, because we're older now, but it felt to me at the time that they had a bigger impact than today's blockbusters. I think that may be why they're having that influence now.

JENNINGS: First Blood was the first film I'd seen that wasn't meant for my age group. I was a bit too young. Rambo has these survival techniques, which were deeply impressive when you're 11 or 12 years old. Sew up your own arm and not cry. None of us understood at the time that this was a man being rejected by his country, for a war they're ashamed of. We didn't understand any of that.

Seeing a movie at an impressionable age can be a defining experience. That's why Kevin Smith keeps riffing on Star Wars. But isn't it also that there was a lot less competition at the time? There weren't that many TV stations in Britain at that point, right? And there was no Internet.

GOLDSMITH: That's true. There was less for us as kids to imitate. And it was very easy to become Rambo: All you had to do was tie your tie around your head. Simple as that.

What's the source of the character of Didier, the French exchange student?

JENNINGS: He was just an amalgam of all of our French exchange experiences. Both of us had coach-loads arriving every year. There was such a great contrast between us and them. They just looked so exotic in comparison. We always felt we were smaller, grayer — in our school uniforms — and they already had mustaches.

GOLDSMITH: I think it was a conspiracy by the French, and they actually were sending older kids. Just to make us feel like that.

JENNINGS: It could well be the case. But when we were talking about making movies, and our shared experiences as children, the French exchange thing kept popping up. It's a lovely area to play around with. In fact, one of the hardest things in the scriptwriting process was getting rid of the jokes we had about the French exchange. At one point, it was very dominant. Now it serves the friendship story.

Was there a parallel experience? Could you have gone to France?

GOLDSMITH: I went to France. I stayed in a place just north of Paris, and what I remember of it was, it was a living hell. But I think that's how I remember it, rather than what it was. It's warped memory, because part of it is — did you ever see the film La Haine?

Yes. [La Haine, or Hate, is the tale of three young outsiders who travel from Paris's immigrant-heavy suburbs into the city, which couldn't be more hostile.]

GOLDSMITH: Well, I thought I was living in a place like that, but then I also have these strange ideas about us being on a farm.

JENNINGS: That's almost impossible.

GOLDSMITH: I really didn't enjoy it. I think I remember calling my mum and dad a few times, saying "take me home."

JENNINGS: We're going to have to hypnotize you and find out what really happened.

One reason the French character is striking is because the money for the film is French.

JENNINGS: Yes, a lot of people have brought that up, thinking we did that because we had French financing. Which I think is hysterical. I wonder what people would say if we'd got the money from Iceland.