Justin Cook chats with Jumanji: The Next Level director Jake Kasdan…
When it comes to reviving beloved franchises in Hollywood, there are always a million reasons not to do it: the potential of sullying the good name of the original, alienating diehard fans, not living up to box office expectations, etc. But occasionally, it just works out. Then, there’s a whole other conversation to be had about making a sequel to that reboot — but sometimes, that just works out, too.
In the case of Jumanji: The Next Level, while it’s certainly blessed with an ever-game cast and a hugely sellable, non-shoehorned modern premise, a lot of the credit must go to the man at the helm of the ship, Jake Kasdan.
Prior to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in 2017, a sequel to Robin Williams’ 1995 original, Kasdan was hardly known as a blockbuster director. He brought audiences two defining television works about the teenage years (directing the pilots for cult classic comedies Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared), gave John C. Reilly his moment in the limelight with the instantly-quotable (and still hugely relevant) Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and scored a sizeable hit with 2011’s Bad Teacher. Despite all that, not many would have guessed that he’d have rounded out the decade calling the shots on two movies whose domestic cume totals upwards of $1.7 billion.
Jumanji: The Next Level had the task of topping its previous outing by going bigger and better, as most sequels do. With the film available now on home video, Kasdan took some time to speak with Flickering Myth and answer questions about how he went about doing that, a cameo that harkens back to the original and what the future of the Jumanji franchise holds.
[Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle] primarily takes place in a jungle landscape, whereas this one hops around between a whole bunch of different terrains. Why did you feel that expanding the scope and scale of this movie was important? Also, what were some of the challenges of shooting in such diverse landscapes?
I think that we all felt like if we were going to do another one, we had to change what we were doing. We had had a great experience and a great time on the first one, enough so to really want to come back and do another one. But we knew that we would just need to expand the world a bit in order to keep it interesting for an audience and for ourselves. That was one of the early ideas that just became a part of the fabric of what we were doing really early, which was like, “Let’s go up into the mountains, let’s go out into the desert.” Let’s just say, “Jumanji is bigger than we realized. There’s territory no one’s ever seen before.”
Just as a filmmaker, for me, I love shooting in incredible places. That’s one of the aspects of these movies that’s been something that I’ve always fantasized about, getting to do that. That’s something I embraced enthusiastically. Then, it puts you on this mission. Both these movies have started with this … the earliest phase of the production is this fairly extensive scouting that we do to find the places where we are going to do it. Just even that part of it, the looking and seeing the places that don’t end up in the movie, and then leading into the ones that do, that’s one of the Jumanji gifts.
Speaking of going bigger, I know that the rope bridge scene was one of the more challenging ones to pull off. Logistically speaking, how did you go about directing that scene in terms of staging it and visually deciding what it would look like, and how that puzzle would unravel?
Well, that sequence was the only thing in the movie that we had started to think about for the first movie. That was an idea that had been in the air, in different forms, in various scripts. That was the one thing, when we started this, that we already had a little bit of brainpower behind and had started to imagine how you might do a thing like that. So when we set out to write this script and to break the story, I knew that that was an idea that I had loved and wanted to pull out of the drawer and finally make work fully and completely. I could fit it into a story before I had a story.
We started working on that very, very early. We added the monkeys to it, which was the new idea. Even as I was writing the first draft with them, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, the guys that I wrote it with, we said, “Okay, well, let’s get these couple of actions sequences written out really quickly, even before we have a draft.” Because we were making the movie pretty quickly, and I knew that I wanted those sequences to crush, and I was very excited about them and I wanted to be able to start designing them and working them out as we were writing the script.
Despite the fact that the whole movie was made very quickly, we were working on the ostriches and the monkeys for really a long time. By the time I had turned in the script, [we] had a really pretty developed and evolved version of both of those sequences in previs form. Then, it becomes this really interesting visual and design question of what should that look like and finding reference.
A lot of it, it’s a combination of real footage and then obviously there’s a lot of CG. The CG part can look like whatever you want it to, but also needs to tie into something that you can actually find [in real life]. Ideally, what would it look like? What do the animals look like? What are they going to be capable of? How big are they? How big are they compared to humans? How fast are they? It’s just this really fun process of figuring all that out. Then you bring the actors into it.
One thing that I love that this movie explores, and the first one didn’t, is this theme of getting older, which of course culminates in that really sweet line from Danny DeVito as Eddie, that “Getting older is a gift.” What drew you to explore this idea in The Next Level?
For me, that this story would hinge on those two guys [Danny DeVito and Danny Glover]. [It] would continue our original characters’ story, but that the new addition would be these two gentlemen at a completely different part of their lives than our original heroes, the kids from the first movie, and that they would go on a similar kind of adventure, but for them, that experience would mean something completely different because of where they are in their lives. That was thematically, to me, the reason to do it.
As much as we just like the idea of doing another one, and the first one had done well, so we thought there would be some appetite, but I was just entirely focused on not doing it unless we had an idea that I could really get excited about. For me, it was impossible absent an idea that I could really fall in love with. That was the big thought that felt like, yeah, exactly what you’re talking about, which is you could have that Jumanji transformative story applied to these older guys, and it would just have completely different meaning.
How do you decide what elements from the 1995 original movie to pay homage to or nod to? Of course, longtime Jumanji fans recognized Bebe Neuwirth as Nora Shepherd at the end. How did you decide to bring her back as well?
That was a late idea. That idea of ending Eddie’s story by going back to the place that used to be his restaurant and this thought that there’s maybe happier days ahead for him, having reconciled with his estranged best friend and partner … and when I started to imagine what that scene would look like, it really came from my excitement about that. Then, we had talked about what should be the name of the place that replaced his restaurant, and then I just had this moment of like, it would be great if it could reference the Brantford world of the original movie, the Robin movie. And then suddenly had this flash in the middle of the night one night, ‘It should be called Nora’s, and we should try and get Bebe to come do it and she can be the same person!’ She’s one of these actors that I just have always totally loved, just a big fan.
I called her up and explained it to her, which was not the easiest thing in the world, because it’s a complicated premise. I’m not sure she was familiar with Welcome to the Jungle, so it’s a funny conversation where you’re like, “Okay. It’s four kids, and they go into a video game, and they’re in the bodies of these …” But she was down, and she totally got what we wanted to do, and she loves Danny. I was thrilled that she was up for it.
You’ve done it twice now. What’s it like not just reviving this classic film in the first place, and giving it a really widely loved successor, but then making a sequel that’s just as warmly received and successful as the first one?
Well, thanks. These movies have been a total life-changing experience. To be able to make these movies has been incredible. The group of people that I’ve been able to make them with, both behind the camera and the cast, this amazing cast, it’s just one of the really fortunate things in my career, for sure. I’m really grateful for it.
I know in general you’re hesitant about sequels. As I understand it, this was your first sequel. But it ends with a pretty big cliffhanger, with animals from Jumanji entering the real world. It definitely hints at more. Can you tell us anything about discussions regarding the next Jumanji?
We’re having the earliest discussions. And I think we all are of the same mind that we were the first time, which is we all love these movies, and it’s been a truly great experience for all of us. We’re connected to each other and love working with each other. We just would have to come up with a whole thing that feels like it stands up with what we’ve done already.
So, earliest days of starting to have those conversations. I made these two back to back and got out the other side. And it’s been nice to just take a beat and assess, and be home and not be in the middle of it, and feel good about them and all that.
I’m sure the turnaround for this movie was insane!
Yeah, it was crazy. It was quick. It was crazy and intense, but fun too, really. Like I said, just a great group of people.
Many thanks to Jake Kasdan for taking the time for this interview.
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL catches up with Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) three years after their first adventure in Jumanji’s mystical video game world. When Spencer goes missing inside the game ahead of the group’s planned reunion from college, his friends, along with his grandfather (Danny DeVito) and his grandfather’s friend (Danny Glover), once again inhabit the avatars of Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) to rescue him. As they return to Jumanji, they discover that nothing is as they expect. With more action and surprises, the players will have to brave parts unknown and unexplored, from the arid deserts to the snowy mountains, in order to escape.
If you want to see Awkwafina play Danny Devito, Dwayne Johnson punch an ostrich and more, strap in for some family-friendly fun with Sony Pictures’ Jumanji: The Next Level, now available everywhere on home video.