Garth Jennings interview: Sing, Roald Dahl and more

As Sing arrives in UK cinemas, we chat to its director, Garth Jennings, about lunchbreaks, the movie, and Roald Dahl.

I’m a huge fan of Garth Jennings’ work, from his milk-carton music videos to funny monkey TV ads, and into his feature films, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Son Of Rambow. It’s been a long time coming but, after five years of work, Jennings’ third feature, Sing, is about to get its UK cinema release. When we caught up to chat last week, we talked about those five long years of hard work, about the projects that didn’t come together beforehand, and just a little of the plans that Jennings has for now. Here’s how our conversation went.

Before you got Sing started, it looks like you were doing lots of things to tee it up.

I didn’t know that’s what we were doing. We had lots of projects that didn’t happen; we were putting all of our time, money, energy and passion into two separate projects and then we just couldn’t get all the planets to line up. You’d get 90% of the way with something and that would domino the whole project.

I remember you saying, or maybe it was Nick (Goldsmith, Jennings’ former partner in Hammer and Tongs) that the panda biscuit adverts were in some way a test for something. Then when this came along, I thought maybe that was it, that you’d been thinking about animating animals for a while.

Ad – content continues below

Those adverts were more to do with doing fully animated characters. We did the job anyway, regardless of the fact that it turned out to be useful. I wasn’t planning anything with animals at the time, it was a completely different project. Also, our plan was – and I think that maybe this was what Nick might have been saying – is that we planned to set up an animation studio at Holborn Studios, where we had the barge. We built a new area there, ready to go, should we have gotten all of the planets in line.

I remember the UK Film Council jumped in with some cash…

We had something.

All of this, of course, makes Chris Meledandri some sort of angel, really, because he brought everything at once.

Yeah, yeah! We had this enthusiasm for this other project, it felt like something was happening, but I didn’t know how to read the signs. Just at the point we were really struggling, I met Chris for a cup of tea, and he said “I’d love to do a film, a musical with animals, maybe a singing competition, what do you think about things like that?”And we had this lovely chat about films like The Commitments where they’re regular folks, the songs are in their lives, not like Gene Kelly bursting into song – though I love that stuff. Did you see Sing Street? I really loved it. Obviously that wasn’t out at the time, but it’s that kind of story I was thinking of, where the music is a release, a connection with the things that have been denied to the characters.

So it was just a cup of tea but it came at a point where I’d had so many trips and stumbles that suddenly, this made sense to me, and I felt that I could pour everything I felt and everything I had learned so far into it.

Ad – content continues below

Has this set you up as an Illumination man now? In the Brian Lynch way of things, are you going to be helping them out, part of the Illumination Brain Trust?

All the others seem to cross each other’s projects but I’m the only one who is a sole writer and director. I don’t have anything to do with their projects, I haven’t seen anything, I saw The Secret Life Of Pets when the world saw Pets. I don’t know what they’re doing on other projects.

Ironic, maybe, when you did in-studio consultation and rewrites on How to Train Your Dragon on Dreamworks.

I did just a bit at the beginning, before the writers and directors who did Dragon actually came on. I was way early on, just as a kind of “Give it to that guy, see if he’s got any ideas.”

Were you possibly warming it up for yourself at that point?

Ad – content continues below

I literally did it as a writing project. I’d never written for somebody else like that before. I really enjoyed it, and found what they were doing in Dreamworks really interesting. Oh, these huge, gigantic productions, these catering facilities, lakes, rivers, and games rooms. I’d never seen anything like it before. It was a campus.

Did that experience help you when you came to work with Illumination?

At the time it made me not want to do it that way! It made me want to pull things back. Nick and I, even though we weren’t afraid of big budgets, liked to be in a position where the money is as much on the screen as possible. This felt like there was an awful lot of infrastructure to keep afloat. Our model has always been lean – our office was on a boat! It wasn’t exactly opulent, it was cosy but it was exactly what we needed. We just wanted to make a lot of stuff, be free to make stuff. I think keeping things as lean as you can gives you a lot of artistic freedom.

For someone who wanted to make a lot of stuff you have just spent a long time making one film. A CG animated film is a big beast.

I didn’t know when I met Chris “I’ll be doing this now.” I just thought “I’ll write them a story.”

I loved the premise, and I loved the chance to work with Chris so I just started writing. It wasn’t ‘This is my next job’, I was getting on with writing children’s books, trying to work out what to do with my life, we were busy putting Hammer and Tongs to sleep, so I didn’t know where I was going. All I knew is that two major loves of my life, two projects, had not taken off. That really hurt. It genuinely exhausted me to admit failure. Being married with four kids, I was like “I have to make this stuff work.” It felt almost impossible for a while.

Ad – content continues below

Ah, man.

As I started to write Sing – it didn’t have a title at that time, it was called The Lunch Project for three years because it was this thing we talked about over lunch – by the time I got to draft two, I loved it and didn’t want to let it go.

Chris had suggested “Would you ever consider directing it” but at the time I thought no because it would mean moving to Paris with four children. A nightmare. But by the time draft two was there, I was like, and my wife was the same, “Let’s jump. Let’s see what happens.” And even then I didn’t know how long it would take.

Now you’ve been through all of that, is it ‘Once bitten, twice shy’?

I feel more excited about making things than ever. And I’d love, at some point, to have another go at animation. I’ve only just gotten to the end of it, I haven’t yet really stopped and assessed it, but I loved it. I really bloody loved it.

With Sing so recently finished, do you wake up some days thinking about something you want to change in the film?

Ad – content continues below

Not in this one. You make the film five, six, seven times in different forms. I’m sure you know this, but you do an animatic version of the film several times, and thoroughly. You work on each piece, then put them together, then hone each piece, then pull it apart, try again. I felt like, when we finished the film, it was the film I wanted to make.

We did two previews to see if it was working and both times the response was phenomenal. It was the most rewarding part of the whole process, because it’s exhausting to remake, remake, rework and rework, the response was brilliant, exactly what I wanted.

When you are working with a virtual camera in animation, it can do all sorts of things a camera can’t. How much did you think it was important to stick to what a real camera can do, simulating real lenses or movement?

It does do that, actually, yeah. Firstly because that’s the language I speak, but also because, as I have found, there’s a reason those things work. Don’t use the hundred mil lens until now and suddenly, that close-up is impactful. A lot of the things you learn on a set do apply to animation.

At the same time, can you think of any good examples of how you bent things?

Ad – content continues below

Right at the beginning, when we went off the rails and the camera could go anywhere. I wanted to use the freedom to zoom about from one character to another. You could do that in a Spider-Man, you could do it any movie, but essentially you’d be doing some kind of CG trick or a timelapse on a drone or something.

I wanted to ground this film, in the style, in the look – the city should look like a city, there’s nothing remarkable about the vehicles. Nothing here is tailor made for animals, they just happen to occupy the same space as us.

How about the little river running down the steps?

That’s stuff where you think “How do fish get to work?” I didn’t want a special fish elevator. I didn’t want to invest in a quirky world where the invention of how a mouse could drive a car would dominate why the mouse was driving the car. He was driving the car he was because of his ego, if I got into all of the little inventions it would distract from this. It would get in the way of the film.

But I have to say, early on in the writing, I was completely into that. I was thinking “They have iceberg houses” and all that sort of stuff. Thank god we didn’t go that route because that’s exactly where Zootopia went.

There must be piles of concept art for this stuff…?

Ad – content continues below

There’s an embarrassing amount of beautiful work.

How did this story click for you and you knew you had it?

There are two answers. Right before I went to Paris and I had done a third draft, that was definitely the point I could jump in with both feet, move my whole family to another country. Then around November 2014 we ran a version of the movie in animatic form, we got to the end and I was just like “That’s it!”

We tuned and tweaked, but that was when I was elated, when I thought “Holy christ, those are all of the pieces that have been such a struggle to bring together.”

When you’re making a multiple character storyline, when you have six stories, it’s a real juggle. You have to still make sure it feels like their lives go on when we’re not with them, all these tiny things we discovered along the way, things which were harder to achieve than I had originally thought. All of this clicked into place in that version, and I again had that feeling I had first felt when I had that cup of tea with Chris in the beginning. The father reunited with her son, Rosita impressing her family – it was all working and it was only drawings. So then we had a new set of problems… how do you keep it?

I didn’t realise how hard it would be to protect something that works. You feel like “Colour it in, we’re done boys!” but then you realise “Ooh – now we’ve got the voices to do, the animation…”

Ad – content continues below

Everybody who comes in now has to ‘get it’.

They keep touching it! And of course, what ends up happening is, very often, that people make it even better than it was before. Suddenly Peter Serafinowicz comes in and instead of some scratch voice saying “I’m proud of you, son”, Peter does it and you’re like “Jesus Christ!” Then the animators put the breathing into it, the eyes that betray the voice, all that stuff. Imagine!

The last year was nuts and fraught but also just joyous. Going down to animation rounds in the afternoon, down in this dark bunker, was magical. It was stinky, smelly and hot, with ninety of us all trying to make this stuff work, but the results were just as thrilling as standing behind a camera and watching somebody do ‘that magical thing’. When suddenly, after five months, somebody comes back with a finished shot – some of them did take that long, they were so labour intensive – people would cry, we’d all applaud. Whenever any shot was approved we’d burst into applause.

It was very emotional, much more than I thought it would be. People say it’s very technical, but it’s really very human, the technical stuff is just tools. Even the recording sessions were very playful – and direct. You’ve only got one person there so it’s really full on. They’re like really enthusiastic blind dates. You hardly know each other but “Let’s do this!” It’s great.

So, before I go, this short story you say you’ve been in love with since you were thirteen, that you know exactly how to film, what is it? I think people would love to read it.

It’s The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar written by Roald Dahl. When I read it when I was thirteen it just baked into my brain. I have not stopped thinking about since I first read it.

Ad – content continues below

It’s like having the ingredients for a story but it’s not really a three-act, it’s not like taking Brokeback Mountain where you can see from the short story exactly where the film would be going. With this, it’s about what you could with it, the promise of it.

And you know exactly what you would do with it?

This is the infuriating thing. I know exactly what to do.

So what do we do, the readers and writers of this website, as punters who want to see this film, what do we do to make it happen?

I don’t know. I genuinely don’t. It was heartbreaking to stop and I’d have to regather myself again to go back to it. I honestly haven’t revisited this. It’s too much to think about.

Ad – content continues below

So, for a warm up, back to ads and music videos between movies?

Oh no. I’m writing children’s books, so I’m just going to keep going with that… then we’ll have to see what happens.

Indeed we will. And I look forward to it, whatever it is. Thank you again, Garth Jennings.

Sing is in UK cinemas from Friday.