“The Hardest Thing to Do is to Pick Up the Dolly Track When the Shot’s Not Right”: Max Winkler on Jungleland
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Charlie Hunnam (back center) and Jack O’Connell (right) in Jungleland

Many filmmakers point to the New Hollywood films of the 1970s as influences, but few directors have internalized and applied the teachings of the period as effectively as Max Winkler, whose new feature Jungleland is reminiscent of seminal studies of masculinity in crisis like John Huston's Fat City and Hal Ashby's The Final Detail. The film follows Lion (Jack O'Connell) and his older brother Stanley (Charlie Hunnam), who broke siblings in search of a way out of their desperate circumstances. They believe they found it when a local underworld figure offers to pay off their debts when they accompany a young woman (Jessica Barden) on her way to Reno for a potentially lucrative battle event, but their presence covers up cracks in the bond between the codependent on brothers, and when they figure out why they have been hired to transport them, they face an impossible moral choice that further emphasizes the partnership. Winkler and cowriters Theodore B. Bressman and David Branson Smith rigorously examine every possible impact of the situation for all three characters, revealing new dimensions of changing loyalty to the very last scene.

The film is a masterclass when it comes to pacing, as it takes carefully to pinpoint important details of the setting and characterization and yet flies by in 90 ruthlessly stripped-down minutes. The film has the depth and texture of a John Cassavetes character study mixed in with the efficiency and tension of classic film noir. The visual style reflects Stanley's confidence in his purposeful, graceful compositions and meticulous attention to light and color. The difference is that Winkler's finished product justifies his trust, while Stanley is in a hopeless downward spiral. This contradiction gives Jungleland much of its considerable power, along with its extraordinary use of dilapidated Massachusetts sites and unified cast. Jungleland is now available on most major VOD platforms and has theaters in some parts of the country. A few days after it opened, I spoke to Winkler on the phone to ask about the influences of the film and its approach. We first talked about some of the films and literary works that served as touchstones for the film.

Max Winkler: John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was really very important – not so much the film, but I read the book a lot when we were writing the script and which I later gave to the actors. As for movies, Thief was important, as random as it sounds; I love Michael Mann and the way he writes male relationships. I'm a huge Bob Rafelson fan too, so The King of Marvin Gardens was a huge fan, and I'm a huge Hal Ashby fan – The Last Detail is probably my all-time favorite. The triangular dynamics in that Robert Towne script was something I really thought about a lot, and composer Lorne Balfe and I talked about the music of the death march.

Filmmaker: The film also reminded me of one of my all time favorite films, John Huston's Fat City.

Winkler: That is also one of my favorites. It was something I've seen a lot especially because of the way it gives you that sense of place. In Fat City, it was Stockton, California, and for us, it was Fall River, Massachusetts. Either way, these are parts of the world where you don't spend a lot of time watching movies.

Filmmaker: Both of these films are very beautiful too, while presenting characters who are stuck in pretty harsh circumstances.

Winkler: We wanted the film to be elegant. I didn't want to look down on the characters because I don't see them that way. And because Charlie's character has so much hope, I wanted to photograph him the way he sees himself. The fact that he cooks oatmeal in a closed kitchen in underwear with stolen hotel slippers and a dirty yellow turtleneck is secondary, you know what I mean? The last thing we wanted to do was say, "This is an indie movie, so we have to shoot it in the hand, very close to your face." We wanted there to be an elegance that we thought resembled Vilmos Zsigmond to The Deer Hunter. Conrad Hall's work in Fat City was hugely influential in the same way. The other movie we talked about a lot was Steve McQueen's Hunger, in which Sean Bobbitt's cinematography is so beautiful – just because the subject is brutal doesn't mean the lighting has to be. Our DP Damián García used a lot of natural light and tried not to compromise with the camera. If a position or lens we chose didn't tell the story as well as it possibly could, we wouldn't include it until we found the right path. I once heard someone say that in filmmaking, the hardest part is recording the dolly track when the recording is wrong, and that's so true, but we always wanted to make sure that the camera serves the characters and the actors. There wasn't a recording that we did because it was cool or because we thought, "Oh, wouldn't it be great if it was just a single dolly shot?" There was no interest in that.

Filmmaker: Another thing this movie has in common with Fat City is a pretty unromantic view of boxing. How did you deal with the violence?

Winkler: Much like the characters in Fat City, these guys are definitely not on their way to Madison Square Garden or Las Vegas. Do you know what i mean? You're always just on the other side of things, in the cracks. I loved how Fat City did it. One of my favorite fighting sequences, and probably the one Damián and I talked about the most, is Barry Lyndon's fistfight for the first 15 minutes. I loved how messy it was and how exhausting it felt – how exhausting it is to strike with all your might and failure, and how Kubrick mimics the daze of such a fight.

We studied as much as possible with our bare fingers and these fights don't last long. Each fight in the film had its own theme; We wanted the fights to show different parts of Lion & # 39; s personality because he is such an inner character. We were really lucky to have a brilliant stunt coordinator named Paul Marini and a guy named Ed LaVache who was sort of a boxing coordinator. He runs a gym in Boston which has many Golden Glove fighters stopping by, and many of them were people in the movie Jack fights. The choreography really had to be put down as these guys weren't wearing gloves – it's just a fist with some duct tape over it. Jack was a brilliant boxer so there was no stunt work for him. He threw every shot himself, took every shot himself, and that gave us the ability to show a lot of movement in wide shots without having to cut off a Bourne Identity style.

Filmmaker: When you touch on the inner nature of this character, you come back to what you said about Michael Mann and how he writes male relationships. Here it seems to me that you have a really tough problem with filmmaking, which is that you have two guys who love each other but don't express it. How do you let the audience know what they're feeling when they're not telling themselves?

Winkler: I've always seen it as a film about a toxic love affair that is at the end of its rope. These guys are so deeply involved and dependent and only at the end of the story can they finally say goodbye to each other in the right way. They both kind of know they're bringing the other down, but the dynamic isn't spoken until you get to the scene in a pizza place where they finally tell each other what they're thinking. I think the script was probably overwritten, especially in the first act; When we started getting the film off the ground and showing people early cuts, we got a lot of feedback like, "We don't have to hear them say that, we get it." We see Charlie taking care of Lion. We see how they touch and kiss and hug and how much fun they have together. We don't need all of that stuff you wrote about the backstory and where they came from and their summer in Nashua and all that stuff. "So with the editor, I would have to say," All right, I love that line. I think it sounds cool, but it doesn't advance the story in any way. "That's probably why we had a 90-minute film instead of a two-hour film.

Filmmaker: It's really efficient, and as you hinted at, it's mostly thanks to what got the actors into it – all three of the leads are great, and they're great together. How did they build these relationships and performances based on a limited rehearsal schedule?

Winkler: There was no rehearsal. The actors were all British, and when they got there they were working with their dialect trainer, Wendy Overly. They really tried hard to get their American accents right and they worked really hard on it. When they got to Fall River, we were shooting in these real-world locations, which were so helpful in the filmmaking process because there weren't any four seasons that everyone was in. Everyone lived in the environment, and it was my job and the production designer just not to screw it up. We went in and said, "Let's not add anything we don't need. It should look and feel the same as it did when we walked in." Once we had the actors in these rooms, I stopped giving them hard grades. I'd rather let their instincts dictate the blocking. Once I hire the actors, I want them to own the characters. I'm there to help and I'm there to say "I think this scene is seduction or it's about X" but then I want them to take it over. Charlie from Newcastle, Jack from Derby, Jess from Yorkshire; They all come from places that are not that different from the places we were shooting. Hence, it was not difficult for either of them to understand the characters and their dynamics. I've never spent time on set and said, "This is how these people live."

Filmmaker: Once you and the actors figure out the block, what decisions do you make about lenses and camera position? The compositions in this film are so wonderfully precise.

Winkler: We'd take most of our wide-angle shots with a 40- or 50-millimeter lens and then take our close-ups with wider lenses like Bogdanovich in Paper Moon or Last Picture Show. We gave Jack more close-ups because I really wanted him to be like an angel with two devils on his shoulder fighting for his soul. We tried to photograph him as close as possible to Jesus Christ. He has this incredible body that has twists and turns that are so photographable and he has an amazing face that will tell you so much history. We spent more time getting him close-ups than other people because so many films are about whether or not this guy is going to find his voice.

We made shot lists and really, really prepared, then stopped and completely abandoned what we had prepared – much to the annoyance of our very patient line producer. You come to the set and the sun is in a different place than you thought, or you see something you haven't seen before, or the actors have opinions and say, "I really wouldn't." It feels stupid or cheesy, ”and I listen because at some point they know the world and the characters as well as I do, if not better.

Filmmaker: Here, too, I really liked the decision to make the film as beautiful as it was. Sometimes I think that with these types of topics there is a perception that it has to be cold or gritty, and one thing that Jungleland has in common with the Rafelson and Ashby films that you referred to earlier is that it is is really inviting.

Winkler: What I love about these films is that they are so warm and humanistic. That's what I love about a movie like Good Will Hunting. Men trying to figure out how to tell the other that they love them have something that I personally find deeply interesting. I can see these scenes in thief or heat all day. I just love it.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streamed on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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