Making Words Sing: A Conversation with Writer/Director Garth Jennings

Making Words Sing: A Conversation with Writer/Director Garth Jennings

How many writers can say they’ve put words in the mouths of stars like Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, and Scarlett Johansson as well as musical luminaries like Tori Kelly, Halsey, and Bono? If you are writer/director Garth Jennings, you get to make such claims. Jennings has long walked the line between working with film franchises like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the musical world’s top talents like Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, and R.E.M.

In 2016, the animated hit, Sing, brought together his love of both disciplines. Now, with Sing 2, Jennings has again written and directed a story that explores the world of music through the animated lens of cinema. In the sequel, koala Buster Moon and his fellow animal performers prepare to launch an incredible new show in the glamorous entertainment capital of the world. There's just one catch—he has to find and persuade the world's most reclusive rock star, Clay Calloway, to join forces with them.

Pipeline Artist contributor, John Bucher talked to Jennings about knowing when you have it on the page, creating emotion in characters, and the best advice he has for storytellers looking to follow in his steps.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

See the complete interview with Garth Jennings here.

Garth, this is a new story that you've created, but in a way, it felt ancient and universal in so many ways—with this idea of trying to bring a character out of hiding or bring someone who's mysterious back into the light. How did you approach that ancient story with new eyes?

That’s a really good point. It is ancient, isn't it? It is rooted in something we have all heard before. It felt very true that people can be, you know, the biggest stars, that people can have it all and can be broken by something and then they can retreat from that light. And certainly, we know writers in the past who have, you know, become reclusive.

There was this wonderful combination between the idea of this Clay Callaway guy (Bono) having become a recluse because he was consumed with grief. And that music would be part of that healing. It always felt as if this was Bono, this would be perfect, because he's got that voice and that character, and those songs—so many of them resonate in a way that would bring me back. It was very much hand in hand with what music could do in terms of its purpose in the movie and how that would be connected to the soul of this character, which sounds more scientific than it is.

The process of writing these things is more messy—coffee, donuts, trying things out. I can distill it to that, those feelings you're chasing, those feelings underneath, that reason to hide. And how do you then deal with that? How do you pull that person back?

You mentioned the reclusive character, Clay. You know, there's a lot of us right now who really relate to being reclusive. What can we learn about ourselves, in this story, when it comes to drawing ourselves out of our own reclusive state?

Oh, that's a good question. I don’t know if I can give anyone a perfect distillation of that, but certainly for me, I have found the last few years, I have realized that the cliche of you don’t know what you've got till it's gone (is true). I didn't realize how much I missed being in the room with people. My job is all about people at the end of the day. It's all about an audience, ideally, in a cinema, feeling something together, sharing a feeling. But even with the making of these films, I worked with over 500 people on this project. And it's about that energy and that enthusiasm. And it's not just sharing information over Zoom. It's being in the room with them.

I find a great joy in my work that comes from just being with other artists and other people, all of us, trying to make something together. I found that those little olive branches, whether it's the smallest text message or the knock on the door, the surprise visit—they have such profound resonance. (We’ve) been denied that for the last two years. I saw somebody the other day I haven't seen for 35 years. The only reason we saw each other was because of this movie. I loved that he made the effort. It was beautiful. I think it could (also) be scary to reconnect. And I know it will be for a while. I don't think we're out the woods yet, but I think we should try to get out and, and try and reach out, you know, whatever you feel comfortable (with), just tiptoeing to begin with. I think it's worth it to reconnect with each other.

Garth, our audience is greatly comprised of creatives and storytellers. Many of us fell in love with your work with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Seeing where your work has gone and the way that you tell stories has really grown and expanded, how do you find working with characters that are animated? Is it different as a storyteller and as a writer than working with characters who are flesh and blood?

Gosh, it's so different. I never realized I'd had so many opinions on eyebrows. It's incredible what you suddenly realize and you instinctively know. I've learned so much about how we communicate with our bodies, not just our words and not just our facial expressions, but our entire physiology, even our position in the room, how that informs the way we communicate with each other, through working with these amazing animators over here. We have this incredibly playful, almost like a rehearsal style, environment, where we are trying things out.

And I found that, although it's different when you've got an actor, what they just did in front of you is done. You can see it instantly. What you are doing with animation is you are building that performance. You build over layers. It's not the same. You don't get the same lightning in a bottle kind of moment. Like, oh, that was it. But what you do get is this wonderfully rich experience of trying to create something that felt like it just happened.

I found it quite profound actually, in terms of understanding more about how this communication tool (works). Even if you're a koala with a gigantic, enormous nose, you still have this incredible ability to communicate. I found that amazing. What a journey it’s been working that stuff out.

In writing this story, did you imagine these characters as animated characters you had worked with before, in your head?

Yeah. I can't get them out of my head. That's the thing. It starts to become something in your head very quickly. And you're like, ah, this is going to be great. In fact, if I'm really honest with you, I find the process of making this stuff very moving because you start to think, oh, I know how he feels now. And even though this is a family movie, and one doesn't want to come across as pretentious, the fact is, you're putting your heart and soul into this.

So, when you start to imagine what it's going to feel like for Clay Callaway to walk out at the end of this movie, and you're writing that, which means you can see it, you’ve got to be able to see it to write it. So, as you're seeing it, you're starting to feel those emotions. And you're like, oh, I have to hold onto this because this is what the audience has to feel. If I don't feel it, if I'm not laughing, or I'm not feeling what they're feeling at that stage, (there’s) very little chance you guys are going to get it. I find it exhausting in a way. I find it very moving.

At the end (of the film), you use your storytelling to move our hearts, to cause us to emotionally feel something. Do you know when you have that on the page? (Do you say,) wow, this is going to touch the heart?

Well, I don't know for sure, but I know for sure it does touch me. And I'll commit that I won't go forward until I feel it. And sometimes I could be wrong, and I'll be in the editorial room with some storyboards and realize, oh, it's not quite doing well. I felt (nothing)—why is that? And you have to dig back into it and find out what it was you were feeling and why, and why that wasn't there in that moment on the storyboards.

I find the whole process quite moving. It's really lovely when that happens. It's not just like, oh, he's got to come in and open a door, or he's got to walk out and play guitar. That moment has got to feel like the greatest moment of this guy's life, you know, like we're behind him and not in front of him.

Last question for you. What would you say to fellow storytellers who see your work and are impacted emotionally by what you've done and say, wow, I want to do that one day. I want to be telling those kinds of stories. What advice would you give?

That feels like a profound responsibility now. But no, you're right to ask because it is. I felt those things watching Steven Spielberg's movies and in everything from Singing in the Rain to Billy Wilder movies. I felt that profound sense of like, oh gosh, one day I would love so much to do that.

I can't say what people should do. I can only say what I did, which was, I just hung onto that. And because I never fell out of love with the thing I was doing, it meant that even when it was hard, and I can tell you, it is not (easy). I know I sound all jolly right now. (But) it is not easy. I think even children understand that. If what you are doing is rooted in a passion, then you've got a shot of making it. If it's an interest or an ambition that you think that maybe you can make some money out, it's probably not going to work. You could get lucky. It'd be fine. But I think if it's rooted in a passion and that passion can drive your decisions, then I think you've got a good shot.

And if you've got good friends, you need friends. I needed a lot of friends to hold hands with on this journey. I would not be here on my own, for sure.

Sing 2 is playing in theaters nationwide.

*Feature Photo: Sing 2 / Universal Pictures

John Bucher is a writer and mythologist based out of Los Angeles. He has worked with companies including the Joseph Campbell Foundation, HBO, DC Comics, and A24 Films.
More posts by John Bucher.
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