CS Interview: Director Max Winkler Discusses Drama Film Jungleland
Max Winkler’s Jungleland is set to make its debut on streaming platforms on November 10. To celebrate, we reached out to the director who was gracious enough to shed a little more insight into the emotionally charged film. You can check out the interview below and pre-order your copy of the movie here!
Stan (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion (Jack O’Connell) are two brothers struggling to stay relevant in the underground world of bare-knuckle boxing. When Stan fails to pay back a dangerous crime boss (Jonathon Majors), they’re forced to deliver an unexpected traveler as they journey across the country for a high-stakes fighting tournament. While Stan trains Lion for the fight of his life, a series of events threaten to tear the brothers apart but their love for one another and belief in a better life keep them going in this gripping drama that proves family pulls no punches.
The movie also stars Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country, Da 5 Bloods), Jessica Barden (Hanna), and Emmy nominee John Cullum (Northern Exposure). Jungleland is directed by Max Winkler (Flower) who co-wrote the script along with Theodore Bressman (Future Man) and David Branson Smith (Ingrid Goes West).
Jungleland is produced by Jules Daly, Kevin J. Walsh, Ryan Stowell, Brad Feinstein. Ridley Scott executive produces.
ComingSoon.net: What drew you to this project?
Max Winkler: I think I always wanted [to tell a] male melodrama movie about two guys trying to figure out how to tell the other one that they loved them. And it just felt like the right story for us to tell. I love Of Mice and Men so much. I love Michael Mann movies, the way men express their love for each other in Michael Mann movies. It just felt like this would be a good opportunity for us to do it.
CS: I didn’t even think about the Of Mice and Men comparison. Did the novel help shape Jungleland?
Winkler: Very much, yeah. It was a companion piece for me, for the writing of it, and something I thought about with everything.
CS: How difficult is it to go from working on a TV series to a motion picture?
Winkler: I actually started in — I made Ceremony first and then I did some TV and then I made Flower and then I moved to Jungleland. So it’s, I think, always kind of worked hand-in-hand. So there’s never a jump for me. It was a jump making my first movie, which was really difficult; and you know, the only thing harder than making your first movie is making your second movie. And once I made Flower I knew I wanted to get right back to work and I’d been writing Jungleland for years and years and years, figuring out where it was going to end up. And I was just so lucky we met Jules Daly and then Scott Free and Ridley Scott, and they got behind the script to Jungleland and it came together really quickly.
CS: Okay. So I had spoken with Jack O’Connell just this last week. And he felt the movie shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as Rocky. Would you agree with that take?
Winkler: Yeah, I don’t think of it as a boxing movie. I think boxing is a device in this movie and I think the poetry of watching people box and how they end up there, you know, especially in the way Joyce Carol Oates writes about it was extremely fundamental in the writing and making of the movie, but none of us ever saw it as a boxing movie. I see it as a drama, the melodrama between two brothers learning how to say they love you to each other. But we never thought about Rocky or sports movies when we were making it. I think in talking about this, something that Bruce Springsteen talks about writing music is that it should be blues in the verse and gospel in the chorus. Blues is the personal part that, you know, “Dancing in the Dark” is talking about depression and anxiety and hating the way you look in a mirror, and the gospel is the part that everyone can relate to — the big, universal truth. And that’s the way it goes in our movie, I think the character stuff is the blues between the brothers and the boxing is the gospel.
CS: When you look at the brotherly dynamic between the two characters, do you think, Stanley is ultimately bad for Lion? Because they function well as a team, even if they’re the worst thing for each other.
Winkler: Exactly. It’s kind of like all relationships, where they both need each other and they also know the best thing for each other is to walk the other way. And we always saw Charlie’s character as more of a single mother than an older brother, you know? All he does in his life is try to give his younger brother the best chance possible to succeed. Charlie’s one of those guys, Stanley — the guy’s on borrowed time, you know what I mean? He’s not long for this world, I don’t think. And he’s always narrowly getting by, but I think by the end of the movie, you know, without giving anything away, he knows that the only thing he can do is sort of allow Jack to finally become what he’s supposed to become, but without pushing him, he’ll never have done it.
CS: I would say this movie is about broken people striving to survive in a world that is almost too powerful to fight against in a lot of ways, because they have just so many elements working against them. How relevant do you think a story like this is to our modern society, where a lot of people are kind of stuck in the same rut?
Winkler: I think the way you phrased it is better than what I’ve heard anyone else do. I mean, when you say it like that, it’s really apropos, you know, when you film in a city like Fall River, Massachusetts, the themes become even more clear. And you know, it’s like this idea of like, does the American dream exist? You know what I mean? Is everybody entitled to it? You have to look at it a certain way to get that piece of the pie. And Charlie’s character is an optimist, and you know, it’s his hope and it’s the brother’s love for each other that I think really gives the movie the glimmer of hope. But you know, I think those questions are really important to have.
CS: You talked about filming in Massachusetts — how difficult was that for you guys during the production? And, as you mentioned, did that help inform some of the scenes that you had to do?
Winkler: I mean, the locations were the secret weapon of the movie, the cities which you know, Raynham, Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton, and Alex Berard, our locations scout and I drove all over the northeast. We were in the car together for almost longer than anything else in the prep process. And we knew he could find the right location, but so much of our storytelling would be done for us if the right work drove it and the right actors. And to shoot in that part of America was just stunning for us. I loved it. I loved being around the people. I loved being around the location, the history. There was a period where Fall River, Massachusetts was the wealthiest city in all of the world. And if you were there now, you wouldn’t believe it. The people are incredible and the people worked hard and they still have hope. And just the way they rallied around our movie, I’ll never forget.
CS: Yeah, the backdrop definitely plays a separate character in the film. And I liked the way you framed a lot of your scenes, specifically that scene where Lion has to fight the car mechanics just to get their car back. But you shoot it from a distance, so it’s not shot like a hero moment. It’s shot from a distance and seen in a depressing light.
Winkler: Exactly. Exactly. He doesn’t want to fight and he’s being pressured into it and it’s not a heroic moment. It’s devastating. And we’re watching it from someone else’s perspective because these two people leave their own world, their own life, kind of like their own version of “Swiss Family Robinson” or “The Boxcar Children”. And once we see it from Sky’s perspective, we realize that it’s not necessarily fair, what Lion has to put himself through, but also at the same time, it’s the only way he’s getting out. And when Stanley can finally get that through his head that like, you’re the only one of us that has the skills, none of us are good at anything else. You’re the one with the talent. It’s a crime to me and/or history if you don’t use it, you know, at the end of the movie, it kind of makes sense, hopefully.
CS: How did you land on Charlie, Jack, and Jessica? What did they bring to those characters that made you want to cast them in these roles?
Winkler: They’re just incredible actors. I mean, I’ve just been fans of all three of them for as long as I’ve been watching this film. And they’re just incredibly authentic actors who really have to say very little to get the emotionality across because of how internalized all of their performances are. And you can see their faces and know what we’re supposed to be feeling. They’re three actors from working-class parts of England that really related to the characters. You know, Charlie kept saying, you know, these are people from my town. These are people from New Castle. And you know, with the exception of changing their accents around, I don’t think it was a long stretch for them to have to act like these types of people.
CS: Was there any specific type of direction that you were giving them or did you just let them run free, because the chemistry feels genuine and real?
Winkler: I really wanted it to feel tactile. So just when in doubt, hug each other, kiss each other, tell each other you love each other. We filmed the opening credits first, and so, a lot of the stretching in the morning routine and the jogging through the town was filmed on our test date with just me and a couple of crew members and a cinematographer and the two actors. And so, they really got to fall into the kind of love affair between the two of them in those early days. And the two of them working the focus meant hanging at the boxing gym all day, Jack did all of own stunts and Charlie getting to watch that he’s the one who’s not doing the stunts for a time and just gets to watch; family dinner, with just the two of them cooking, their houses were right next to each other, so they live next to each other. All of that just came, because they’re just good actors. There wasn’t a boot camp. There wasn’t a five-week rehearsal period. It was them spending their days, you know, Jack in the gym and Charlie working with a dialect coach, the late, great Wendy Overly. And things just kind of fell in line effortlessly.
CS: What do you want audiences to ultimately take away from your film?
Winkler: I never know how to answer that question. The thing I’m most proud of is the actors and their performance in the movie we made. And I want as many people as possible to see it. And if it brings people some sense of hope and distraction from the incredible stressful time that’s going on in people’s lives right now, then I would feel really happy and grateful.
CS: Do you have any projects coming up next that we can all look forward to seeing?
Winkler: Yeah, I’m going to make another movie with Charlie that’s based on a memoir of this guy named Ben Moon about a guy who lives in a van in the Pacific Northwest with his dog for five years. And we’re going to make that together in the spring.
CS: That’s awesome. Well, I look forward to that. I thought Jungleland was a fantastic movie, so congratulations.
Winkler: Thank you. I’m really grateful of your understanding of it. It may be even better than my own.