Screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick talks The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
So we're six weeks into filming HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and the powers that be (PTB) thought it would be a good idea to kick it off with an interview with me, the screenwriter, since that is, after all, where this incarnation of the film started.
So I decided to interview myself because a) I think I’ll be harder on myself and know what sort of questions an interviewer might ask and b) no one has asked to interview me.
And why should they? Who am I? "Not Douglas Adams" is the answer that concerns most people. So with this in mind let’s proceed. Here are some of the questions I imagine most fans of the book (and the radio series and the TV series and the Infocom game) are asking at this point.
WHO THE H*#&! ARE YOU AND WHAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO MUCK AROUND WITH THIS TREASURED PIECE OF LITERATURE, YOU AMERICAN HOLLYWOOD HACK?
Ah. Good one. Yes, I can see why a lot of people might be wondering this. So let’s see…
My name’s Karey Kirkpatrick. You can Google or imdb me to find my credits (incidentally, I’m a guy – not the female news anchor in Buffalo, N.Y.) But the short answer is no one has the right to muck around with this treasured piece of literature. I didn’t seek it, it found me. The story goes something like this.
Jay Roach was at one point attached to direct the film. He had worked with Douglas for many years on several different drafts of the screenplay, and after Douglas’s sudden and tragic death the project ground to a halt for several months. But Jay, along with Robbie Stamp (an executive producer on the film, longtime friend of Douglas’s and his partner in the Digital Village) felt an obligation to not let the project die, to honor Douglas’s memory, and one day while he was watching CHICKEN RUN (with his sons? I don’t know. In my head, he watches it weekly) he thought “hey that writer seemed to create a feature film that worked as a big studio movie while still keeping an existing and uniquely British sensibility.” (I was an avid Monty Python fan growing up, one of those guys who quoted Holy Grail to the annoyance of all my friends, except of course for those friends with whom I was quoting Monty Python).
So Jay sought me out. When my agent called and asked if I’d ever heard of HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, I said “yes, heard of it.” But let’s get the first horror out of the way immediately. I had never read the book or any Douglas Adams before I was told of this assignment. Now, some of you may have passed out at this point after shouting “WHAT?!? BLASPHEMY!” at your computer screens, but I’ve come to believe this gave me a huge advantage at approaching the material. I had no preconceived notions in my head. When I was sent a draft of the script (which was the last draft Douglas worked on before his death) I got to read it as what it was; a blueprint for a movie. And without any knowledge of Babelfish and Ultimate Questions and Vogons, I was able to formulate an opinion of where it worked as a feature film and where it needed work. You should know that my first reaction – literally, my very first reaction after putting the script down - was “I can’t write this, this guy’s a genius and I’m no genius.” I thought to myself “there is no way I’m going to try to write words that blend seamlessly with this guy’s words.” It was my Wayne’s World “I’m not worthy” moment. I mean, really, this is a guy who wrote “flying is easy, just throw yourself at the ground and miss.” I’m not sure I could ever write a line like that.
But I wanted to meet Jay Roach. So I took the meeting to discuss the script thinking “maybe he’ll ask me to write Meet the Fockers” (yes, I can be that whorish). I gave Jay some of my thoughts, pointed out some structural and thematic concerns and much to my surprise, he agreed with most of what I was saying. And when I told him of my “I’m not worthy” moment, he said “I think you’re perfect for it and that attitude will probably help you.” And the more we talked about the project, the more excited I became. I mean, how can you not get excited talking about poetry as torture or nuclear missiles that turn into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias? Assignments like this don’t come along every day. Actually they never come along. So after pitching my ideas to the Disney and Spyglass executives and Robbie, who was there on behalf of Douglas’ Estate, I got the job and started writing in September of 2002.
WHAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO DECIDE WHAT STAYS AND WHAT GOES, YOU FORMULAIC CHICKEN WRITING BAS%*(&*!
Hey, let’s keep it clean. My mother will probably read this.
Keep in mind, I started with Douglas’s last draft, so I not only had the new ideas and concepts he had invented specifically for the screenplay (brilliant ideas, too -- truly humbling), but also some evidence of what he was prepared to let go of (and in many cases, I thought he had been too hard on himself and put things back in). To familiarize myself with the material, I thought it best to go back and become acquainted with it in chronological order. It started as a radio play. So I was sent all of the radio plays on CD. I would listen to them in my car, and for those blissful 15 to 20 hours was actually oblivious to the deeply loathed L.A. traffic. It was while listening to those radio plays that I first heard what was actually the opening to “Restaurant at the end of the Universe” which was a guide entry that started “The story so far…” It goes on to summarize what happened in HHGG and I realized that was what the script needed. That one summary expressed some ideas and themes more clearly than the screenplay did. And suddenly, it became clearer to me what the script was missing, and I suddenly had some hope that I might be able to fill in some of the missing pieces.
Next, I read the book with pen and highlighter in hand, underlining passages that had been left out that I wanted to try to get back in and making notes on characters and themes that were present in the book but not really playing as well as they could in the screenplay. I was going to watch the TV show, but Jay suggested that I not do that, just so that I wouldn’t have any of those images in my head. The idea was to try to create something rather than re-create (and I don’t think we have the rights to any new material created specifically for the TV show, so for that reason, I never watched it. Do you hear me BBC? I NEVER WATCHED THE TV SERIES). I did, however, buy a book that had the scripts for the radio plays. When I started writing, I had the novel on one side of my G4 laptop and the radio play scripts on the other side. They are both well-worn.
I was also given another invaluable piece of source material. Robbie Stamp, who became an integral ally in my writing process on this film as he was able to answer the “what would Douglas have wanted?” questions, forwarded to me electronic copies of HHGG files from Douglas’s hard drive; notes on his drafts, notes from him to the studio, random ideas and bits of dialogue exchanges, etc. Receiving this was a real thrill. I felt like Moses at the burning bush when I opened these files, a sort of “take the sandals off, you’re on holy ground” moment. It also gave me a peek into his process. There were unfinished scenes, character back stories, notes to himself on areas where he was having problems. I loved reading Douglas’s unedited musings and tried to put in as many of them into the screenplay as I could.
My goal in the writing was to be like an editor on a feature film. If an editor has done his job well, you don’t feel his or her presence. That was my aim here. I thought, if people read this script – especially people who knew Douglas or knew the material well – and can’t tell the difference between what I created and what Douglas did, then I will have succeeded. I was never trying to put my stamp on this material or bring my “voice” to it (whatever the h*#&! that elusive thing is).
I started reading his other works, reading biographies, watching documentaries (graciously sent to me by Joel Greengrass) and I found myself feeling an odd connection to the man I had never met. There were some eerie similarities between us; mutual love of Macs, wannabe rock guitarists, world class procrastinators, avoidance a huge part of the writing process, love of satire, belief that nothing is so sacred it can’t be poked fun at – to name a few. The biggest difference, however, was that Douglas was an amazing conceptual thinker and I tend to be stronger with structure. This, as it turns out, was a stroke of good luck because many of the concepts were already there, they just needed a tighter structure in which to exist and thrive.
SO…WHAT EXACTLY DID YOU CHANGE? MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHAT DID YOU THINK WAS WORTHY ENOUGH TO ADD?
That’s a hard question to answer because it depends on if you are comparing the final shooting script to the book or to the screenplay which I inherited from Douglas. If you compare it to the screenplay, then the answer is that I added very little. One of the things I really admire about Douglas is that he was willing to keep HHGG an organic evolving entity. While reading the various drafts and familiarizing myself with the history of HITCHHIKER’S, I noticed that most of the incarnations seemed to contradict themselves. Douglas had a very refreshing lack of faithfulness to himself, so since HHGG was in a constant state of revision by its creator, I felt a certain amount of freedom to continue carrying that torch, mostly with the new concepts, characters and plot devices that Douglas had already created. Naturally, there were holes that needed to be filled so some new material and dialogue was required. But I was always going to the source material to find the right voice and tone.
WAS THIS A TOUGH ADAPTATION?
Douglas had a famous quote about deadlines and how he loved the whooshing sound they made as they rushed past. One of my favorite quotes about writing is “I hate writing, I love having written.” This seems to be my mantra, and I have hated, loathed or dreaded writing just about every draft I’ve ever been involved with, mostly because writing is such a lonely and demoralizing process (with the exception of CHICKEN RUN, I did have an unusually good time on that one). And people have said to me, “Wow, adapting HITCHHIKER’S must have been hard.” But I can honestly say I have never enjoyed writing a script more. And it is all because I had such amazing source material (and collaborators). Whenever I would get the least bit hung up on something, I would simply open up one of the books and either find what I was looking for or find the spark of inspiration I needed to create something new. I loved writing this movie, love having written it, and am still loving the writing I am doing today. I finished my first draft just before Christmas 2002. It was 152 pages long.
152 PAGES!? WHAT DID YOU DO NEXT?
I played dumb to the studio. “What? You think that’s long? Compared to Lord of the Rings it’s a short!” They weren’t buying it. So I started the painful process of cutting. And I didn’t want to cut any of it. Didn’t know what to cut. Sent it to a couple of writer friends and asked “what should I cut?” And they each said, “I understand your dilemma. IT’S ALL GOOD!” And it was. I give a huge chunk of the credit to Douglas, obviously, because I was mostly rearranging, tightening and enhancing his existing concepts. And the studio was very excited about the first draft. They felt I had created a structure that finally worked. It was just too long.
There is an intelligence at work in these books that I was trying to preserve. Douglas was a great satirist because he possessed a very real understanding of the incredibly heady concepts he was satirizing. In one interview he said that if they had had computers when he was in school and had taught computer science, that's probably what he would have pursued. He also could have been a theoretical physicist; he was that knowledgeable on the subject. So it was important to me that that intelligence remains at the epicenter of the piece. It's what I love about Python's "Life of Brian." That movie is just a hair's breadth away from being viable theology. So the goal was to create something that had pace and narrative structure and an emotional storyline that an audience would care about and put all of that in the context of this very intellectual, irreverent, satirical world. Again, I found myself going back to Douglas's drafts which were much shorter than mine. He cut much more mercilessly than I did, so I felt I had some leeway there. Mostly I had to cut a few of the guide entries with the assurance that they would end up on a DVD someday in the future. And what's great about the Guide entries is that they are somewhat modular, so final decisions regarding them can be made after filming is complete and the movie is assembled.
WHAT DID YOU DO WHEN JAY ROACH DECIDED NOT TO DIRECT AND WHO THE H*#&! ARE THOSE HAMMER AND TONGS GUYS?
I’ll be honest. One of the main reasons I got into the project was to have a chance to work with Jay. Mutual friends had told me we had similar temperaments and sensibilities and that it would be a good match, and they were right. Jay was an invaluable collaborator on the outline and first two drafts. He put in a lot of time with me, and the script wouldn’t be the success it is without his involvement. So I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was feeling a bit gutted when he decided this wasn’t the best film to make his next.
But what followed was an interesting process because several names were bandied about and I even met with one of them (and we’re talking A list directors here). And the general sentiment from all of them was “No thank you, I don’t want to be known as the guy who screwed this one up.” And part of me understood and another part of me was saying, “Oh God does that mean I’m going to be known as the guy who screwed this up?”
But Jay gave the script to Spike Jonze and Spike said he couldn’t do it but he knew the perfect guys and he suggested Hammer and Tongs. And when I got the call that I was to have a conference call with said Hammer and said Tong, I asked the question everyone seems to be asking – “Who are they and what have they done?” Needless to say, it wasn’t of much comfort to find out they had never directed a feature. And I didn’t get a chance to watch their commercial and music video reel before the call (because my DVD player wouldn’t play UK Region 2, but I digress), but when I heard that they wanted to talk to the writer before talking to anyone else, I thought – hey, these guys are either very cool or very naïve. Don’t they know screenwriters are but a fly on the a**! of this business?
Let me just say of my experience with Hammer and Tongs that not since working with Nick Park and Peter Lord at Aardman have I worked with someone with more creative spark and inspiration. Each conversation I had with either of them improved the script in some way. In retrospect, it feels like it was meant to be. I now can’t imagine this movie in anyone else’s hands. I didn’t think anything could inspire me on HITCHHIKER’S more than the source material, and I am happy to say I was wrong. So in May of 2003, Nick Goldsmith and Garth Jennings came on board. I flew to London with Derek Evans from Spyglass to have three days of intense meetings at their office which, as it turned out, was a converted barge sitting in a river somewhere in Islington. They had “some ideas” for the third draft, and I’ll admit at the time I was very apprehensive and guarded. It’s always a bit of a nail biting moment when directors come on board, especially ones from the world of commercials and music video. But their ideas were inspired and showed not only that they were incredible visual thinkers but also had a very strong sense of narrative structure. I left London with an outline and a feeling that the script would improve and the movie was in very good hands.
To this day, however, I am embarrassed to say I still don’t know which one is Hammer and which one is Tongs.
QUIT BEING SO VAGUE! GIVE US SPECIFICS, D#&* IT! WHAT’S IN THE MOVIE AND WHAT ISN’T?
Sorry to say I will continue to be vague. I really don’t want this to turn into a “what Karey did versus what Douglas did” situation. By Douglas’s own admission, HHGG is a story with a long beginning and then an ending. There isn’t much middle. And movies need a middle. So most of the new material comes in the middle. Douglas created much of it. I took what he did and enhanced, expanded and connected (much like a wonder bra – and this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been compared that that miraculous contraption). More has been made of the Arthur/Trillian relationship and the Arthur/Trillian/Zaphod triangle. Douglas knew, as I know, that in order to make a feature film bankrolled by an American studio that is to play on the global stage there needs to be a certain amount of attention paid to character, character relationships and emotion. The trick here is doing that while staying true to the spirit of the book, which is what I hope we’ve done. It’s fine if there’s a bit of a love story, it just can’t be sentimental and sappy. But I think people, especially die-hard HHGG fans, will be happy to see that it is very much the same story as the radio play, the book, and the TV series with all the well-known and beloved scenes, characters and concepts. Arthur, Ford, Trillian, Zaphod, Marvin, Eddie, Vogons, Slartibartfast, Deep Thought, Lunkwill & Fook, the mice, whales, petunias, dolphins, 42, even Gag Halfrunt; all present and accounted for.
DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF TO BE IN THE MISTER FRIGGIN’ LUCKY CLUB?
Yes. Definitely. This was a unique assignment for me because it became more than just a job. Actually, all of them are more than just a job because as one famous quote goes – “writing is easy, you just open a vein and let it pour onto the page.” I always feel I do a bit of that on each project (yes, even “Honey We Shrunk Ourselves” – a small vein maybe, but a vein nonetheless). But this one was different. This became a quest: a quest to do the memory of Douglas Adams proud. And that has been the attitude of essentially every person who has joined this production (except for the accountants who say they want to do the memory of Douglas’s accountants proud, but hey – whatever works). Never before have I been involved with a project where everyone seems to be aiming for a higher cause, which is great because it means egos get checked at the door. Each time the film enjoys some form of success along its way (getting a director, getting the green light, attaching cast, etc.) it is always bitter/sweet because we’re happy to see what was Douglas’s life long hope becoming a reality, but deeply saddened that he can’t be here to enjoy it with us. Before turning in our third draft to the studio, Garth, Nick, Robbie and I gave the script to Douglas’s wife, Jane, and then went over to her house (ironically a five minute walk from the Hammer and Tongs barge) for a chat and, of course, tea (this was England, after all, and whenever two or more people assemble in England, it is national law that tea must be served. I’m from Louisiana and we have a similar law that involves Dr. Pepper and Cheetos). We were so relieved and delighted to hear that she was very happy with the script. She gave us some of her thoughts, but most importantly – her blessing.
I think fans will be pleased and I trust new fans will be created in the Summer of 2005.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE LINE FROM THE BOOK?
Tough question. So many great ones. Many of my favorites from the book are actually in the prose, like Easter really meaning small and light brown or the passage about “hooloovoos” which are super-intelligent shades of the color blue. How did this guy think up this stuff? Amazing. I read lines like that and I am humbled and awed. Most of my favorite lines of dialogue, however, are said by the Voice of the Guide. I love the passage about Vogon poetry and the Azgoths of Kria and how, during a recitation of a poem from Grunthos the Flatulent, four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. That just cracks me up every time I read it (and as of this date, it’s still in the movie). I also love the Babel Fish entry and how it proves the non-existence of God and I love all the Oolon Colluphid titles (“Where God Went Wrong,” “Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes” and “Who Is This God Person Anyway?”). Mostly what I love are Douglas’s subtle word choices. He’s a word smith. There’s a line (I think this one is actually in RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE) that talks about someone being “nibbled to death by an okapi.” I crack up every time I hear it. The word “nibbled” is the first thing that gets me, and the fact that it is an okapi doing the nibbling is just icing on the cake. In an HHGG guide entry, there’s a passage about the Vl’hurgs and their commander being “resplendent in his black jeweled battle shorts.” Black jeweled battle shorts? Who thinks up this sort of thing? I love it. WHAT WAS THE HARDEST PART ABOUT ADAPTING THE SCRIPT? One day, I found myself addressing a note from the studio to “clarify the concept of the infinite improbability drive.” As if it were something that actually existed and thus, needed clarification. And sadder still, I tried to clarify it and soon discovered how little I knew about laws of probability. Actually, Garth and Nick and I spent an entire day sitting poolside at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles discussing the infinite improbability drive and how to make more sense of it and better use of it as a plot driving device. This was tough because what I always assumed about the I.I.D. was that it was basically a plot contrivance machine. Writers are always struggling with contrived plots, the old “would this really happen?” problem. And I thought this was yet another stroke of brilliance from Douglas to create something that allows a finite probability to become an infinite improbability – all at the touch of a button. It’s a contrivance justifier machine.
Each time we tried to clarify the I.I.D, we’d look through the script and say, “It’s in there, isn’t it?” By lunch, we moved from coffee to wine and the I.I.D. concept was gaining clarity. By late afternoon when we moved from wine to more wine, we had deduced that we were, in fact, brilliant and that the script was flawless. So we decided to go with the “less is more” theory and left the script alone. And then we had more wine.
WHAT IS THE STRANGEST NOTE YOU RECEIVED?
Garth Jennnings (Hammer? Tongs? Your guess is as good as mine), sent me a note once that said, “When Zaphod first comes out of the temple and is approached by well wishers, the banana alien on the mole-horse needs to replace the multi-headed groupie.” You just don’t get notes like this every day.
YOU’VE ESTABLISHED YOU CAN WRITE FOR CHICKENS, BUT CAN YOU WRITE FOR REAL PEOPLE?
We’ll see. Fortunately there aren’t many “real people” in this movie.
GIVE IT TO US STRAIGHT; IS THE MOVIE IN GOOD HANDS?
Yes. Very. From the top down. Everyone has been very supportive. From Nina Jacobson and Dick Cook at Disney to Roger Birnbaum, Jon Glickman, Derek Evans and all the folks at Spyglass – to Jay Roach (now producing) to Robbie to the directors to the crew - everyone is just really excited about how unique and wonderful this film can be. This is one of those rare films where everyone seems to be on the same page. Even the agents! From Douglas’s longtime agent in London, Ed Victor, to his film agent in L.A., Bob Bookman, who have seen this film through many an incarnation. I recently saw Ed at a party and he said to me three simple words which made my day, actually made my last two years. “You nailed it.” I could see the relief in his eyes because people like him have been waiting a long, long time for this to finally come to fruition.
ANY LAST WORDS?
I’ve recently returned from London where I spent two weeks rehearsing with the actors and making last minute script tweaks (they were so great, so accommodating and so very enthusiastic about the material). I had to return home just before shooting started but have been told the first week was a blazing success. I started knowing little about this wholly remarkable book and have become a devoted fan. In my dreams, everyone will be happy with it. I know this isn’t possible, but I feel really confident about the work we’re all doing. Most importantly, I think Douglas would be pleased. If he isn’t, may I be nibbled to death by an okapi.