If you're at all a fan of Douglas Adams, you'd know that in case of planetary catastrophe, a towel is the best possible survival tool. As Hollywood prepares the upcoming movie release of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," host Steve Curwood talks with its executive producer, Robbie Stamp, about Adams' fondness for fauna and his deep commitment to the environment.
CURWOOD: Hold on to your hat and grab a towel because one week after Earth Day, the planet, at least on the big screen, will become intergalactic asphalt.
VOICEOVER: From the celebrated best-selling novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy...
ARTHUR DENT: What is this thing?
FORD PREFECT: It's The Guide. It's got everything you need to know to survive in the universe.
VOICEOVER: Losing your planet isn't the end of the world. It's the beginning of an adventure unlike anything on Earth.
[MUSIC FADES DOWN]
CURWOOD: It's this far-out adventure that's earned its creator, the late Douglas Adams, the adoration of millions of fans around the world. The friends of Douglas Adams saw a bit of him in all the characters he wrote into his stories, from the extraordinarily ordinary Arthur Dent, to the ultra-hip man-about-space Ford Prefect. What many people might not know is that not only did Douglas Adams write for the Monty Python troupe, he was also a conservationist. And, underneath all the absurdity of "The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy" is an environmental message. Robbie Stamp was a business partner and close friend of Adams for years. He's also executive producer of the much-anticipated movie version of the series and he joins me to talk about Douglas Adams' vision for the planet. Robbie Stamp, hello!
STAMP: Hi there.
Ford Prefect (Mos Def), Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman). (Photo: Laurie Sparham)
CURWOOD: So, I understand the two of you were great friends. How did you meet?
STAMP: We met–I was a documentary producer, in fact, an environmental documentary producer—I'd been producing a series of different films on different environmental subjects–and a mutual friend introduced us and we just got along really well. I mean, from the first time we met, we enjoyed each other's company and I was lucky enough to go on to both become a close personal friend and to start a company with Douglas as well.
CURWOOD: Now, before Douglas Adams died he was working on a screenplay for The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it finally is going to come now to the big screen. So, let's just hear a bit of the trailer here for kicks.
[SOUND OF SPACE DOORS OPENING]
ANNOUNCER: Attention people of Earth. I regret to inform you that in order to make way for the new hyper-space express route, your planet has been scheduled for demolition.
[SOUND OF GROANS]
ANNOUNCER: Have a nice day.
MAN: Hang on, we're hitchin' a ride.
CURWOOD: (laughs) A galactic super-highway paves over the world—It definitely sounds like an environmental story.
STAMP: (laughs) Well, I think there were a couple of core strands, really, that underlay Douglas' world-view. I mean, one was a deeply held wish that humankind, the human species have a little bit more humility about its place in the grand scheme of things then it seems to. And, the other was a deep reverence and awe for the beauties and wonders of, you know, what we do have on this little lump of rock.
CURWOOD: So, what's the environmental plot then or perhaps sub-plot of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?
STAMP: Well, I mean, it's nice to be doing this interview because I haven't done too many interviews on this subject and I've always felt it was a subject very, very close to Douglas' heart. I mean, I suppose that if there is an environmental or a conservation sub-plot in the Hitchhikers, and certainly there in the movie, it's that usually in a movie of this kind, the Earth gets blown up within the first nine minutes. I mean, normally people are, you know, racing to save the Earth and they manage to save it. Well, in this instance, they don't. But, what we have at the end of the movie is we have a back-up Earth and there's another Earth that's being built by these planet-builders when we discover that in fact the original Earth was a giant computer built to calculate the ultimate question. And we have another Earth and we get another shot at it and I think there's something really quite powerful and redemptive about that thought as we see life springing back at the end of the movie. And, I think, it's very gently done but it is just a gentle message which says you know, take care of what we've got because it's fragile and, you know, you can't count on it being here forever.
CURWOOD: And, what is the answer, by the way, to the ultimate question?
STAMP: Well, we don't know the ultimate question but the answer to life, the universe and everything was famously 42, which, of course, doesn't make a lot of sense. And, the computer that calculated that, Deep Thought, said, "Well it would have helped if I knew what the question was." And so...
STAMP: It was the (laughs)—it is one of the great iconic things about Hitchhikers–42. I'll tell you a little story here. For movies, you do a thing called tracking which is you're keeping a very close eye on how many people want to come see your movie. And, I was talking to the marketing guys yesterday about this and they said we've had a very, very high number indeed, which we're really impressed by. We don't normally see numbers quite this good at this stage of a movie and it's the number of people that said they are definitely going to come see the movie and it was 42 percent of the people that they asked. It was great. And, the tax code, the tax code that we're using to make the movie over here in the U.K. is section 42. There's a lot of these 42 coincidences. Poor old Douglas, it was just a joke, but they crop up everywhere.
CURWOOD: So, Douglas Adams fans, of course, know him from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and the various books and shows that came as sequels. But, he also did this book called Last Chance to See and, I guess, despite the topic, which is about endangered species, it certainly has a fair amount of wit in it. And, Robbie Stamp, you have a copy of the book with you now and there are some favorite passages of yours that I'd like you to read to us right now. Could you, please?
STAMP: Yeah, I have. I've chosen these because I think they really sum up for me a lot of what makes Douglas special, not just in terms of the thinking about endangered species but what I think was special about his capacity to make us think about things in a different way. And, here he is in Africa and he's having a close encounter with the silver-back gorilla in the Varunga Hills.
I crept closer to the silver back, slowly and quietly on my hands and knees until I was about 18 inches away from him. He glanced around at me unconcernedly as if I was just someone who'd walked into the room and continued his contemplations. As I moved again, he shifted himself away from me–just about six inches–as if I'd sat slightly too close to him on a sofa and he was grumpily making a bit more room. Then he lay on his front with his chin on his fist, idly scratching his cheek with his other hand. I sat as quiet and still as I could despite discovering that I was being bitten to death by ants.
STAMP: After a quiet interval had passed, I carefully pulled the pink writing paper out of my bag and started to make the notes that I am writing from at the moment. This seemed to interest him a little more. I suppose he'd never seen pink writing paper before. His eyes followed as my hand squiggled across the paper and after a while he reached out and touched first the paper and then the top of my ball-point pen, not to take it away from me or even to interrupt me, just to see what it was and what it felt like. I felt very moved by this and had a foolish impulse to want to show him my camera as well. He retreated a little and laid down again about four feet from me with his fist once more propped under his chin. The most disconcerting intelligence seemed to be apparent from the sidelong glances he would give me, prompted not by any particular move I'd made but apparently by a thought that had struck him. I began to feel how patronizing it was of us to presume to judge their intelligence as if ours was any kind of standard by which to measure. I tried to imagine, instead, how he saw us, but, of course, that's almost impossible to do because the assumptions you end up making as you try to bridge the imaginative gap are, of course, your own. And, the most misleading assumptions are the ones you don't even know you're making. But somehow, in the genetic history that we each carry deep within every cell in our body, was a deep connection with this creature as inaccessible now as last year's dreams, but, like last year's dreams, always invisibly and unfathomably present.
CURWOOD: Why did you pick that?
STAMP: Well, I picked that because, A, I know from talking to Douglas that he always described that encounter with the silver-backed gorilla as one of the most amazing moments of his life. But, also because I think it sums up a lot of what makes him special intellectually. I mean, his writing—that phrase actually that he talks about–the imaginative gap and the most misleading assumptions are the ones you don't even know you're making–I think that Douglas was a great one for giving us different mental models for thinking of the world. I talked earlier about his desire that we should all have a little bit more humility. One of the great images as I remember him using quite frequently when he spoke was of a puddle. And he says, "a puddle wakes up one morning and it looks around in the hole in which it is and it thinks, ‘Gosh this hole fits me very nicely, in fact, this hole must have been made just specially for me!'
STAMP: And, it continues to think so as the sun comes out and dries it up. And, I think Douglas felt a little bit the same about our world view where we look around the world that seems to fit us and think, ‘Gosh this has been made just specially for us hasn't it?' And, I think that way of challenging assumptions, making us think again about things, that's something that runs absolutely though Hitchhikers.
CURWOOD: Now, we were able to find some old recordings of Douglas Adams himself, reading from this book, The Last Chance to See, and, you know, as with movies themselves, sometimes the outtakes are funnier than the actual cut that gets shown to the public. So, let's take a listen.
ADAMS: Now, you may think that I've managed to read this book very, very impressively, perfectly without any errors all the way through. I have to tell you, this is by no means the case. And, here, for your amusement is a compilation of some of the things we mixed out.
[FROM OLD RECORDINGS]
ADAMS: The reason I'm having difficulty is about the written sentence. They get terribly upset if they hear words they don't understand the meaning of. And, here's one—They think it's a communist plot. Nevermind.
[SOUND OF VOCAL GURGLES, A HOWEL]
ADAMS: Did I swallow some air?
[SOUND OF SHRIEK]
ADAMS: Was discovered in—bleep! One black rhino in Kenya caught me off guard once and severely dented a car's friend.
[CURWOOD AND STAMP LAUGH]
STAMP: There we go. That's a very fine set of out-takes.
CURWOOD: (laughing) Now, Robbie Stamp, is this what you would call rather normal behavior for this famous author?
STAMP: Ooh, I recognized Douglas. It's always lovely to hear his voice and I certainly recognize Douglas in that–the humor and the wit and the language. No, I certainly recognized Douglas there.
CURWOOD: Speaking of high jinks, his high jinks, I understand there was an incident in a rhino costume?
STAMP: Yeah, I mean, Douglas was a patron of the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund and Save the Rhino International and he went on a sponsored walk wearing a rhino costume in Kenya. I don't know if he did any of the really steep bits of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but he certainly walked along the road in great heat wearing a rhino costume. I mean, he put himself, I mean, he was a big man–six foot five–it was hot. This was very definitely going the extra mile.
CURWOOD: Robbie Stamp was co-founder with Douglas Adams of the production company Digital Village. He's also executive producer of the new movie, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. And, I suppose I should say, so long and thanks for the fish.
STAMP: Well, thanks very much for having me. And, I really hope we've done Douglas proud.
[MUSIC: "CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND" THE BOSTON POPS ORCHESTRA/JOHN WILLIAMS: THE SPIELBERG WILLIAMS COLLABORATION (SONY CLASSICAL) 1991]