Exclusive interview with Robbie Stamp, Douglas’ friend and Executive Producer on the H2G2 movie
Published the 28 April 2003
Robbie Stamp is Executive Producer on “The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy” movie and was both Douglas’ business partner and a close personal friend. He’s now been involved in the movie for over seven years.The director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith (Hammer & Tongs) are now working hard to make the movie which is due to be on our movie screens in 2005.
Robbie Stamp kindly shares with us some update informations, his memories about the long movie making process, and his feelings about the movie and our dear old Douglas.
> ROBBIE AND DOUGLAS
Nicolas Botti : You first met Douglas for a movie project in 1991 and he played Bach to you because there was a point he wanted to make about music and mathematics. What did you know of him before you met and what did you think of the man this first time ?
Robbie Stamp : I obviously knew him by reputation but if I am totally honest , I was not a die hard fan although I had enjoyed the first and second books immensely. I was however very excited at the prospect of meeting him, and just remember a great warmth after initial shyness. From that first meeting we got on well and until my very last conversation with him the night before he died, I relished our conversations. He was not particularly funny in person but what struck you was this huge appetite for ideas and thinking and avid questioning of received wisdom.
NB : You were managing director of the Digital Village (which created Starship Titanic and the H2G2 website) co-founded with Douglas, a stressful experience which could have been a great success but have been doomed by the dotcom collapse. This has not been an easy experience for you. Which are your memories from Douglas at that time?
RS : The experience with The Digital Village was very intense. Douglas and I worked with some fabulous colleagues, writers, artists and programmers. Much of it was hugely enjoyable, and yes you are right, some of it was very stressful. In the end, when things got difficult, Douglas always did what was right by his obligations to the Company. In the good times, I remember his immense enthusiasm for what we were trying to achieve, his big laugh coming from his cluttered little room in our offices in Camden Town and just lots and lots of talking and planning. I always enjoyed being away in the US with him, when we would go and see movies in our time off, drink martinis and champagne and eat sushi.
NB : When did you see Douglas for the last time?? What did you think of his state of mind then?
RS : I saw Douglas in the Spring before he died and he was in fine form. The new house that he and Jane had found was lovely and he had a huge study over the garage with long desks full of Macs with beautiful big screens. We walked along the Pier at Santa Barbara, drank orange juice at his favourite café in Montecito and best of all talked about lots of new ideas and quite a few old ones, that had nothing to do with Hitchhikers. But plotting and planning about the movie featured pretty large too.
> THE MOVIE
NB : After TDV, you kept in touch with Douglas. And finally got to work on the movie project? How did it happen? What did you do?
RS : Douglas and I had become friends and so it was natural to stay in touch after TDV finally finished ( though it was in fact not very many months after we sold the business to the BBC that Douglas died ). I had actually been involved in the movie project since the negotiations to sell the movie rights to Disney. The deal was finally done just before Christmas 1998 ( I think!) and at that time he and I were Executive Producers. The negotiations had gone on for almost eighteen months and through that process and the choosing of Caravan ( which was the Company that became Spyglass) and Jay to direct I got to know all the key people involved. Bob Bookman at CAA, who had long been the film agent, had organised meetings for Douglas and I in 1997 and we met a variety of potential Producers. But it was Jay who Douglas really liked and Roger Birnbaum at Caravan who had the muscle to get Disney on board. If we fast forward to the movie getting the green light, well that was the result of my continuing to work with Jay after Douglas died, Jay’s work with Karey Kirkpatrick and Roger Birnbaum’s continued support for the project. Once I let him know that the Estate were keen for the movie to be made, he dipped into his own pocket to pay for Karey’s rewrite. We would not be here today without Jay, Karey and Roger. I just continued to enthuse!
NB ; Which is your part as an executive producer?
RS : I guess that I can try and represent the Estate, and having worked with Douglas for all those years, I bring some continuity to the project. I can be a bit of a ‘barometer’ for Garth and Nick, and have been able to feed both of them and Karey with material from Douglas’ hard drive. I will also play a role in helping to think through the web site, the game, the DVD, the making of and some of the particular issues in helping this wonderful piece of creativity into its next incarnation. The key here is letting the essence breathe, whilst recognising the need ( which Douglas himself fully recognised) to make the changes necessary for it all to work as a film. Douglas was never worried about bringing new things to each new incarnation.
NB : Why did it take so much time for Hollywood to make a movie out of H2G2? It’s incredible, mainly when you think the first contract have been signed in 1982 with Columbia pictures!
RS : Who knows? Hollywood is a mysterious place and the key thing you need for a project is momentum. One way of thinking about what’s needed for a movie to get made is planets being pulled into orbit around one of the key elements’ star, director, or script. I think that what had always been lacking was a script which people in LA understood. There had always been great goodwill to Douglas and to getting things made but it was always the lack of a script which everybody was happy with that was the real ;brake.
NB : The huge success of Men In Black in 1997 got Douglas really upset. Do you think these are really similar kind of movies even they are both SF comedy…?
RS : I know that he looked at MIB and thought ‘Aaargh, why not Hitchhikers?’ but I am not sure its true to say that Douglas was ‘really upset’. Apart from their both being SF comedy however, IMHO I don’t think there is much in common. There is some really profound thinking that underlies HHGG, which just is not there in MIB.
NB : Just before Douglas Adams died he didn’t seem to believe anymore there will be a movie in a near future. Have you stopped believing in it sometimes?
RS : Hmmm. Yes there have been moments when after two steps forward we took yet another three back, that I wondered if it was ever going to get made, but since Jay decided to stay with developing a new script and he found Karey and Roger picked up the ball I thought that we had a real shot. When Karey delivered his new draft just before Christmas last year, I really felt we were on to something.
NB : Some say Douglas was too demanding with Hollywood…
RS : This is a difficult one. I think that Hollywood is just very good at doing what Hollywood does and if you want ‘the system’ to spend millions of dollars on making your movie, then there are simply certain things that it likes to see in a script. I can say categorically however, that everybody who is now involved in the project, including those at the most senior level at Disney, are determined that the movie should be true to the essence of Hitchhiker’s.
NB : How Jay Roach (Austin Powers) came to work on the H2G2 project?
RS : Douglas and I were introduced to him in 1997 and there was an instant rapport between D and Jay. Jay is a really terrific man, smart, gentle but very determined and Douglas finally felt that here was a Director who was willing to allow D real space in the project ( indeed insisted on it). I have come to know Jay pretty well and I have a great deal of respect and affection for him. Although he is not directing the movie, there is no question whatsoever in my mind that he has played a pivotal role in getting us to this point and thankfully he is still fully engaged as one of the movie’s Producers.
NB : In june 2000, he wrote on his website that he had just finished an all-new draft of the screenplay last week and Jay loves it. What happened?
What can we say about the screenplay Douglas wrote just before his death? Was it the same that in june 2000? He was very happy with it but Jay apparently not so. Why?
RS : I’ll try and answer both those questions in one. Jay was happy with that version, though he knew that more work would be needed but the harsh reality was that very few other people at the studios felt that it had yet made that leap to being a movie which they got. I know that Douglas found that immensely frustrating.
NB : Douglas wrote a lot of versions of h2g2 screenplays? Why they were not satisfactory?
RS : Goodness – that’s such a complex question and I am not really sure that I can answer that in a few lines. Maybe in the end, he was just too close to the material and sadly it needed somebody else to make that ‘movie leap’.
NB : Jay Roach hired Karey Kirckpatrick (Chicken Run) after Douglas Adams’ death to re-write Douglas’ screenplay. Was it necessary? What has done exactly? Has he rewritten the screenplay to produce an absolutely new one? What is left from douglas’ last screenplay?
RS : I believed after Douglas died that that if the project was not to go into limbo for years , it was absolutely necessary to hire a new writer and we were very lucky with Karey, who clearly has a real ear for English humour and irony allied with a Hollywood structural sensibility. The starting point for Karey was very firmly ‘s script
( he was not an immense fan before hand which I think was a good thing). There is much of D’s script still there, much that is new was also Douglas. Whenever Karey hit a problem he went back to the radio series, to the books, to Salmon of Doubt, for an insight into Douglas’ mind, to the bits of Douglas’ hard drive that I was able to make available. There are fragments of scenes, character notes, back stories etc going back years, that Karey has also been able to draw on. Karey has made one or two structural decisions, which leave much of what the fans will expect, but which solved some problems which had vexed every draft of the script that I have seen. When Garth and Nick were told by their agent that a script of HHGG was coming their way from LA, they were pretty sceptical. But when it arrived they were really pleasantly surprised by what a great job Karey has done in letting Douglas’ genius breath.
NB : Do you think too that H2G2 being not Star Wars, it doesn’t need $80 millions? The lack of money is already a great criticism about the tv version? Are you afraid that the result may seem a little cheap if the budget is too low?
RS : No. The budget is just fine and I can guarantee that it will not look like the TV version. Garth and Nick are very creative visually and are creating a very strong look for the film, which is absolutely in keeping with the material. I feel quite strongly that if it was just one big special effects extravaganza, we would be doing the film no favours and somehow we would drown a level of inventiveness and rough edges that lie at the heart of HHGG.
NB : After working on the project for six years, Jay Roach decide to be out of it? Was it because of the lack of money Disney wanted to put in the movie?
RS : No, I just think that he honestly felt that he was not in the end going to be the person to make this really fly.
NB : Jay Roach told Spyglass saved the movie project? Do you think so?
RS : Yes I do. Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber and John Glickman and Derek Evans have been great supporters all these years and when the crunch came, Spyglass spent their own money and got Karey on board. If they hadn’t there would be no movie today – no question about it.
NB : How was done the choice of director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith (Hammer & Tongs), formely known for their commercials and music videos, to make the movie? Their names was first suggested by Spike Jonz who was quite a good choice too I must say. Who had the idea for Spike Jonz (Being John Malkovich)?
RS : Spike recommended Garth and Nick and I was asked to go and meet up them here in London. Spike was an idea of Jay’s and mine and John Glickman’s great minds think alike! As soon as I met the guys I was entranced. best of all their work place is full of Mac’s. I knew Douglas would have felt at home. They are very creative people. Conference calls and visits to LA followed and it was clear pretty quickly that this was the team to finally bring this home.
NB : Some say Garth and Nick have been very persuasive. Did they came with a clear idea of what they wanted? Can you tell us which kind of fresh air to steak grill they brought with them?
RS : They are indeed very persuasive. I think that they bring a genuine ‘feel’ for the material and very strong visual sense of what the movie can be. I was struck, sitting in on some script meetings, with Garth’s ability to ‘solve’ a problem with a visual idea. I am not going to tell you what it is, but the basic idea for the design of the Vogons was so clever and such a great imaginative leap. As soon as I saw some of the early conceptual drawings I just knew this was in safe hands. They have that creative drive and energy which is making the steak sizzle!
NB : It’s funny that after so many famous directors being close to the project (Ivan Reitman, James Cameron, Jay Roach) it’s finally some almost unknown guys who will make the movie? Meanwhile most of the fans were really surprised and glad to learn that these english guys will make the movie. In fact many fans are afraid of this Hollywood thing. Wasn’t it the problem with Douglas too? A fascination melted with apprehension?
RS : I think that last observation is very perceptive!
NB : Casting H2G2 may be a difficult matter. If the budget is a little low, it means there wont be any movie star. On the other hand, does h2g2 need a star? Some fans have reacted very badly when the name of Jim Carrey was suggested.
RS : I am sure that there will be many rumours about casting. Again this is an area where Nick and Garth have some great ideas and at this stage I am not going to say any more.
NB : Regarding the actor who will play Arthur’s part, Douglas and yourself (some weeks ago) told us that it should be an english actor. Hugh Laurie was Douglas’ choice if I remember well. But despite the fact he’s an excellent actor, he is obviously unknown outside UK. And there are not a lot english international actors able to play the part, but someone like… Hugh Grant?
RS : You’ll find out soon enough!
NB : On imdb.com, the only cast name present on the movie page is Stephen Moore as Marvin. You all know that you cant do otherwise, can you?
RS : We were talking about Stephen and imdb only today. I will only say that Stephen is firmly in the frame and the design for Marvin is terrific.
> FINAL QUESTIONS
NB : A part of TDV merged with Pan to become Phase 3 studios. They worked on a computer adaptation of h2g2 which was to be published at the same time that ‘Salmon of doubt’. But suddenly, Phase 3 disappeared. Is there any chance that this videogame should be published at last. Or do you think there will be a new one?
RS : That’s all being considered at the moment, but I am sure there will be a new game.
NB : Can we hope the movie will help Douglas adams’ official website to be reborn?
RS : I am sure that the movie will kick much new web activity into life.