Pete Hewitt

Andy Woodward caught up with director Pete Hewitt as Thunderpants was gearing up for release on DVD and Video. Thunderpants is available to buy on DVD (£19.99) and Video (£14.99) from Pathé Distribution Limited from the 18 November 2002.

Farting. There, I've said it. After all, there is no getting around the fact that this is what Thunderpants is about. Its about other things too, such as beating the bullies and fulfilling your ambitions, but this doesn't change the fact that the official website features a 'fart piano' among other things.

The movie's director certainly doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he seems positively delighted by the fact. Pete Hewitt is still only in his thirties, despite a long and accomplished history which includes a BAFTA for best short film in 1989 and two acclaimed light-hearted films, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) and The Borrowers (1997).

With Thunderpants however, he has taken a further step, creating from scratch the heart-warming, and child-pleasing, idea of a sensitive hero with an incredible capacity to break wind. Although that's only half the story:

  • "You can only last a few minutes with just a farting boy" concedes the man himself. "It's also about achieving your dreams. conquering your problems. What makes it something special, as well as something stupid and absurd, is the little farting boy set against the message of his final speech: 'find out what it is that makes you who you are'. What makes Patrick Smash, the story's main protagonist, 'who he is' is the unlikely medical condition of his having two stomachs, much like a cow. The special, if somewhat smelly, 'gift' this causes leads to him being a valuable commodity to the opera-singing community (his rear end is capable of producing the 'highest note ever sung') and, to would-be astronaut Patrick's delight, the USSC Space Centre!
  • "If you watch it and there's a tear in your eye, then I've succeeded," states Hewitt. "It's such a stupid thing but even I find myself watching it and really rooting for him to lift that rocket. and he's farting! You have to think to yourself 'hang on a minute.'"

It seems even the film's own director can't quite seem to believe he is asking us to root for a hero with such unfortunate personal habits. However, he has certainly fought to bring his project to this point. After deciding that "there really should be a movie about a farting boy", he himself set about writing a story that would not see the light of day two full years later.

Once written, Thunderpants was owned at various times by Working Title and DNA before finally being bought by Pathé. Having found funding, the filmmakers then set about filling the parts with an impressive cast from both sides of the Atlantic. There's top English luvvies Stephen Fry and Simon Callow, as well as renowned Americans Paul Giamatti (Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes) and Ned Beatty (Deliverance). Hewitt was delighted at their involvement:

  • "All the adult parts were written specifically for those actors, although not with their knowledge. Thankfully, they all read it, liked it and said yes. They all contributed to the fun of this film, although if you can't have fun doing this film you're in trouble! It would certainly be one of my favourites, if not my very favourite of the films I've made. Very good cast. very good crew."

Not that it was without its difficult moments. Thunderpants' space scenes in particular feature a lot of special effects. The film also boasts a whole lot of green cars.

  • "It's a really simple way of having a very different look for an environment. If you look out of the window anywhere in real life there's just cars everywhere, so we took them all away and put in a couple of our own green ones. For very little effort you get a lot of visual impact.
  • "As for the special effects, it was difficult because we had a lot to do; a lot of tricky stuff. It was hard work on a tight budget, but lots of fun."

For the roles of the children in the film, thousands of auditions were carried out before the part of Patrick was filled. In newcomer Bruce Cook, Hewitt found someone with "that right combination of innocence and stupidity". Alongside him, as Patrick's best friend Alan A. Allen, is a hideously permed and bespectacled Rupert Grint, best known as the more mischievous Ron in Harry Potter. The director was originally reluctant to cast the young redheaded star straight out of such a blockbuster, seeing as he was planning to do something on a far smaller scale but, eventually, Rupert "read the part and stole it away".

Meeting the two child stars is a somewhat different experience from that of facing their self-assured director. Whilst cheery Rupert is apparently becoming accustomed to life in the fast lane, Bruce looks frankly terrified. He also looks considerably different from his appearance on the big screen. This is partly due to the unsurprisingly better clothes and hairstyle he wears in real life, as well as a less prominent waistline, but also due to the fact that he is growing. Fast. Height wise, he has already caught up his co-star despite being notably shorter in the film.

He is certainly a long way from growing a film star ego however. Polite and quiet throughout, he claims that, like Patrick in Thunderpants, he is "dopey, stupid, smelly and not very popular". I very much doubt this to be true. Indeed, after more serious consideration, he decides that the only similarity between the actor and his character is the trait of forgetfulness.

Bruce only found out about the role of Patrick Smash when his mum told him about it but, after auditioning on videotape, he was called before Pete and the casting director. It was "nerve-racking", but "cool", as were most things about the experience according to Bruce. It has certainly been his big break into a new world; one that he's willing to embrace.

  • "When I was little I wanted to go into space like Patrick, but not any more. Now I'm doing what I want to do most. I'm still getting schooling because when we weren't filming we were getting tutoring, and I still got to see a lot of my friends and family."

The role has already led to more work, as Wackford Squeers in a new adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby for a start. Nevertheless, he refuses to say whether celebrity has led to him having a girlfriend... Rupert, on the other hand, has given up ever getting a girlfriend again after his costume in Thunderpants. In addition to the aforementioned perm, there were thick glasses, braces on his teeth and a bow tie. Another for self-depreciation, he claims "It completely disguised me, which was lucky!" So how did this film compare to the international extravaganza that was Harry Potter?

  • "It was a lot different, much smaller and less special effects. And it was like a holiday to me, it was so fast! It was fun though. I had a really good time, and I'd definitely do a sequel. Basically what I'm doing now - all these films and stuff - is kind of my dream. And all the well-known actors I've worked with have been really nice."

Bruce and Rupert are now firm friends, and perhaps they will get to do a sequel to Thunderpants, as all concerned seem eager. In the meantime however, it's the release of this first instalment on DVD and home video that is the main concern.

Pete Hewitt is particularly keen that, following the cinema release, fans get to see what was cut out of the final edit:

  • "There's a bunch of stuff that would make it a very different film. There's a whole section, for example, where, having had some success, Patrick turns his back on Alan and goes off with the bullies. Alan then has to confront them and the bullies use Patrick as a weapon against him. That all went by the wayside."

It's alright, they reconcile again, and the DVD also features loads of extras including deleted scenes, interviews, a commentary from director Pete Hewitt and other crew members, an Allstars pop video, concept sketches, a hilarious 'fart montage' and DVD Rom material.

For Hewitt, the future is no less surreal. He is hoping to follow up Thunderpants with Giraffe, a 16th Century tale of how to get a giraffe from Venice to Vienna in time for the Emperor's birthday. It sounds a riot, but is he ever tempted to go a little more highbrow?

  • If the right thing came along, absolutely. It's a lot easier for me to get to direct other children's stuff because I've done a lot of them successfully... which is fine by me as long as I can do good stuff. Even so, Giraffe will have its serious moments, as did The Borrowers. And for all its silliness, Thunderpants does have its serious moments too!"

So, for serious moments then, but more importantly, for the spectacle of seeing a child who can effortlessly fart a three octave range, that's Thunderpants, a film experience thoroughly enjoyed by all who made it and, even more, by all who have seen it. You'll laugh until both your stomachs hurt...

With thanks to David Cox at DSA

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