An interview with Director Greg McLean about the making of the film Jungle.
There are two things Director Greg McLean is really good at. First is creating the character Mick from Wolf Creek. The second is being able to create a character alongside every actor in every scene without you even realising, yet it plays the most powerful role out of all, the scenery. McLean’s latest film, Jungle, most certainly has brought the scenery to the forefront.
Jungle is the true story of Yossi Ghinsberg, played by Daniel Radcliffe, an Israeli adventurer who now resides in Australia. His story goes back to 1981 when at 21 he decides to travel to South America and discover the Amazon Jungle. Making friends, Kevin an American Photographer and Marcus a Swiss teacher, the three set on an adventure tour through the Amazon. Leading the hike is Karl an Austrian Geologist who had found Yossi wondering through the streets and with his wonderful stories convinced him to take the trio into the jungle.
The story takes a turn when Marcus steps into some trouble with his feet and has to go back. As Marcus and Karl head back Yossi and Kevin decide to sail back to complete their adventure. Things turn bad when they miss their stopping point on the river and their raft breaks into pieces. Separated, Kevin finally finds his way back to safety with Yossi wandering in circles suffering from everything the jungle could throw at him. Kevin’s search for Yossi didn’t stop until he finally finds him withered away on a beach far from where anyone would have thought he’d be.
“Yossi used fantasy and his imagination to stave off the horror’s and fear he was experiencing during his ordeal. This simple idea to me spoke to how we as human beings use our imagination to cope with life’s difficulties. Imagination is our ultimate survival tool and this story explores that amazing idea”, explains McLean.
In 2017 alone there have been a number of true stories based one’s individual adventures, horrors and tales of one’s lives. Tom Cruise in American Made, Dame Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul and Mark Wahlberg in Patriots Day just to name a few. So with so many options to pick from what was it that pulled McLean to Direct Jungle?
“I was just incredibly moved by it. It made me cry and still makes me cry in the final moments of the film. Yossi’s persistence and refusal to give up and his friend Kevin’s incredible refusal to believe that his friend was dead, it’s such a powerful message about following your heart and believing in yourself and the real magic that can come from that”, McLean said.
For the most part movies based on the lives of actual people are usually made after they have passed. Yossi Ghinsberg is very much still alive and played a large part in the telling of his story. This gave not only McLean the guidance to tell the story accurately but also give substance to all the little pieces of information surrounding the story.
McLean remembers meeting with Ghinsberg before he come onto the film and how amazing it was to hear the story first hand. But being able to have him on set, the two were able to work very closely together and tell the story accurately.
“Once we started pre-production he came down to Colombia and he and I sat in a room for a week or so just going through the screenplay as I wanted to be sure we were telling the story as it happened, as much as was humanely possible”, said McLean.
Not only was McLean able to use Ghinsberg as a source to give the characters, places and situations substance as “truth is always more amazing than fiction” he said. The Actors also had a great advantage to bring their characters to life using Ghinsberg to answer anything they wanted to know about their characters, in particular Daniel Radcliffe who portrays him in the film.
“As an actor I think it was really useful to have him there, just as it was for the other actors to mine him for information about their characters”, McLean said.
There is a notable clarity to the characters in the film whereby they each have their own very detailed background. And while the film’s focus is mostly on Yossi, it’s easy to see how much depth there is to the other characters. The Actors brought an entire level to their performances that would have never had existed without the guidance of Ghinsberg.
There is one character within the story that stands out above the actors and their stellar performances and that’s the South American Jungle.
“With Jungle the landscape goes from a place of wonder and magic to a place of fear and dread. So that journey was something I was interested to try and communicate as powerfully as possible, cinematically”, McLean said.
McLean has always had a unique ability to bring something normally un-noticeable as the scenery to life. “To me the landscape has a personality and each landscape does have a character” he explains.
When you look at his most famous work, Wolf Creek you are transported to central Australia. Its harsh, unforgiving and relentless nature adds to the horror and hopelessness of the story.
Growing up in the country and having a connection to the outdoors McLean explains as a kid he loved exploring the forests around where he lived and how much he adored camping.
“Some of that love of nature must have filtered into my work, and having gone to Art School and being trained to be a painter for some years before moving into film, I was always in love with landscape painters of all eras. So that also has had a big impact upon my visual style and approach to photographing landscape and also showing characters within landscape”, McLean explains passionately.
The jungle welcomed these travellers with open arms offering everything it has to offer. It was enough reason for Yossi and his friends to be convinced to journey into the unknown. But the change this particular character goes through is a thing of beauty. It becomes dramatic and harsh and shows only its darker side even with the sun shining.
With major Hollywood blockbusters the film is often run past an audience to gauge reactions. Based on the audience feedback films can sometimes undergo a great deal of changes, sometimes costly ones at that. Take for example Titanic where the nearly 4 hour final cut from Director James Cameron had a fight scene between Leonardo Dicaprio’s character Jack and the bodyguard of Kate Winslet’s character’s husband. Audiences not only felt it slowed the final descent of the story but also that the fight was unrealistic based on what was actually happening at the time. Such a big change was thankfully not the case with McLean’s Jungle.
Jungle was premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival kicking off their opening night and received with great reviews. McLean managed to attend a number of screenings as part of the festival watching the final product and witnessing the audience reactions.
“I saw it again at MIFF and felt very proud of the movie, was amazed by the acting, photography, score, sound and design. It was a big one to pull off as a Director and I think we did a bloody good job! And most importantly, honoured Yossi and Kevin’s amazing story”, Mclean said.
McLean was once told, “films are never completed, they’re abandoned”, which he agrees with. “I would still be going on the film but there’s a point the producers say, “you have to stop now”.
Jungle is a wonderful story of discovery and adventure brought to the big screen in a powerful and spectacular visual journey. Throw in some stellar performances from some amazing actors, most of which are Australian, McLean has managed to bring a real life story and show it to the world as accurately as possible. In the end you have a fantastic real life story and a once in a lifetime film that everyone should see.
Interview by Jay Cook.