By Tom Ue.
In Bolivia, 1981, Yossi Ghinsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe), Kevin (Alex Russell), and Marcus (Joel Jackson) meet the mysterious (and apparently more experienced) traveler Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), who becomes their guide into the uncharted Amazon. Some weeks into the trip, the group separated into two. Following a rafting accident, Ghinsberg is also separated from his partner (Kevin) and pressured to survive on his own. Ghinsberg and Kevin will survive, while the fates of Marcus and Karl remain unknown to this day: we learn, with Ghinsberg and Kevin, that Karl was a fugitive.
This story is related in Ghinsberg’s powerful memoir and now the subject of Jungle, a film adaptation directed by Greg McLean and produced by Dana Lustig. Lustig has directed five feature films and produced over 20 independent features. In 2017, Lustig completed the production for Look Away, directed by Fauda Assaf Bernstein, and starring Jason Isaacs, Mira Sorvino and India Eisley. Lustig was born in Israel, and after her army service she moved to LA. Lustig graduated AFI, where she is now a faculty member and a mentor. In what follows, we discuss this project and the process of realizing it on screen.
Jungle is now available on DVD and a special movie tie-in edition of Ghinsberg’s memoir, with a foreword by Radcliffe and an introduction by McLean, is now available from Skyhorse Publishing.
Thank-you for this remarkable film, which spurred me to read Ghinsberg’s book: What attracted you to this story?
I feel that we are all survivors of something, whether it is a broken heart, a disease, or a divorce. Survivor stories for me are always incredibly inspiring and Yossi wrote a beautiful book. He wrote in such an enticing way. It’s really a great story of friendship, betrayal, faith, and miracles. I think it’s such an extraordinary story. I always felt that it could make a great movie that it can talk to anybody.
Right from the film’s beginning, we are told that Yossi wants to resists the well-worn path, which he did and has continued to do. Did you talk the film over with him?
Yossi was very involved in the whole production. Basically, I loved the book from the moment I read it many years ago and I decided to try and get the rights for the book from him. At first, he was reluctant because he had some experiences already and the movie didn’t happen. Yossi finally agreed to grant me the rights after I guaranteed that I would protect the integrity of the characters and not allow, for commercial reasons or anything like that, to compromise any of the truths about them. I can give you an example: in one of the rounds of trying to make the movie, somebody tried to make Karl’s character into a real villain.
The three reasons why he allowed me to make it are that: 1) I promised to keep the integrity of the characters; 2) I promised that I will not stop trying to make this movie happen – no matter what, no matter how many years it takes; and 3) Instead of optioning the book, for a year to two, we actually became partners. He was very involved in every part of the process: the script, the shooting. He was a great advisor: he met with Daniel. He inspired the crew, the director, the actors, and the writer. He was very much part of the production.
Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as Yossi is excellent, but this is matched by strong supporting work from Joel Jackson as Marcus and Thomas Kretschmann as Karl. Tell us about the film’s casting.
I agree with you. Alex Russell did such an incredible job with the role of Kevin who is the real hero and he saved Yossi’s life. Kevin did not give up hope and went to extreme length and dangerous expedition to search and rescue Yossi. Alex was able to portray him in a very dignified way. Joel Jackson tall and strong and fit and he is playing the most vulnerable character in the movie. He is such a good actor that it was so interesting to see that contrast. I think that he did an incredible job. Thomas is a great actor and well known. He was in The Pianist (2002). Karl’s role was very challenging to portray as Karl was a very complex and unpredictable person, incredibly charming and mysterious at the same time. There were not a lot of auditions for the movie, only for the smaller roles and mainly for the Bolivian characters that we cast mostly in Colombia.
Radcliffe, for one, underwent an extensive transformation, from his accent to his physique. What kinds of preparation did the cast go through?
Daniel met with Greg, the director, and with Yossi. He had to study the Israeli accent, the mannerism, and the body language. He read the book and watched a lot of YouTube videos with Israelis talking and he learned about the culture. When he came to Colombia, there were more preparations with Yossi. In Colombia before the filming, we took all the actors on expeditions into the jungle with Yossi and local Colombian rafting experts and with our stunt team. Although they were all taught how to take precautions on the river while rafting, it was still dangerous. In terms of wardrobe, it all turned out very authentic as it was inspired by the pictures of the time. If you noticed, there were some pictures at the end of the film: Radcliffe was wearing exactly the same clothes, as Yossi was when he was found; Kevin was wearing the same jeans shirt. We just tried to be as authentic as possible. It also helped the actors get into character.
Let’s talk more about the story: What do you think moved the four characters—Yossi, Marcus, Kevin, and Karl – to bond so closely and so quickly?
I think that, when you are part of an adventure, when you go out to a trip, you are out in nature and you have to confront the elements, the bonds become very strong very quickly. They traveled before the trip together – Marcus and Kevin travelled together for months – and when you are out there, as foreigners in a strange country, the bonds just happen. And then, of course, the dark side comes and the experience becomes extreme.
When, in your view, did the trip begin to go wrong?
I think when Marcus’ feet began to go bad. He was weak and he couldn’t carry the load both physically and mentally. I think that then it became two groups – it became Karl and Marcus and Kevin and Yossi – Kevin and Yossi wanted to continue and they were really enjoying the trip. Marcus became weaker and weaker and it was time for him to go back.
Fatalism is a very important theme in the film – in the goodbyes said by the characters, for instance. How do you balance between overdoing this and retaining integrity?
The separation scene was the hardest scene to write. I don’t know how many drafts we had of that scene. We ended up thinking that the best way to tackle it was to stay true to what happened: Kevin and Yossi wanted to continue. Kevin is a very honest and straightforward guy. He’s never manipulative. Yossi, who did not want to hurt Marcus’s feeling wanted the decision to comes from Marcus, even at the price of some degree of manipulation.
When Yossi’s feet, later in the movie, become painful and wounded just as Marcus’s had become earlier, it’s evident that he regrets disengaging from him. At that moment, we see the beginning of Yossi’s growth in the movie. What was very important for us was to show, was that Marcus was fine to walk out of the jungle with Karl when they all separated. Both Kevin and Yossi believed that Marcus and Karl are taking the safe way out. They were supposed to get out of the jungle in just a few days without a problem. It was a huge shock when they found out that they did not make it back to La Paz.
How did it work for you?
I think it worked very well. You don’t get overly dramatic music. It just happened. They were going to see each other again, but of course they didn’t.
A lot of talk during writing about how we find out about the fact that Marcus and Karl did not make it out of the Jungle and we finally decided to reveal it only at the end and not during the movie.
We never discover what happened to Marcus and Karl, and the film is dedicated to the former. Were there any speculations as the film was being made? What led you to refrain from making any guesses?
There are many speculations as to what could have happened to them. The consideration was whether we should bring those speculations into the script or not. We chose not to bring them in and have the audience find out just after the characters in the movie do. I talked about it with Yossi and his hope is that whatever it was that tragically happened, it was hopefully not horrifically tortures. So many things could have happen and nobody will ever know.
What is next for you?
I’m working on a movie that I’m going to direct this Spring, a remake of an Israeli film. I’m also working on a movie, a co-production with Spain, about organ trafficking. Yossi and I are developing another film together, something incredibly inspirational.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.