“The Hardest Thing to Do is to Pick Up the Dolly Track When the Shot’s Not Right”: Max Winkler on Jungleland
A lot of filmmakers point to the New Hollywood movies of the 1970s as influences, but few directors have internalized and applied the lessons of the era as effectively as Max Winkler, whose new feature Jungleland recalls seminal studies of masculinity in crisis like John Huston’s Fat City and Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail. The movie follows bare-knuckle brawler Lion (Jack O’Connell) and his older brother Stanley (Charlie Hunnam), broke siblings looking for a way out of their desperate circumstances. They think they’ve found it when a local underworld figure offers to clear their debts if they chaperone a young woman (Jessica Barden) to Reno on the way to a potentially lucrative fighting event, but her presence exposes fissures in the bond between the codependent brothers, and when they find out why they’ve been tasked with transporting her they’re faced with an impossible moral choice that places further stresses on the partnership. Winkler and cowriters Theodore B. Bressman and David Branson Smith rigorously explore every possible ramification of the situation for all three characters, revealing new dimensions of the shifting loyalties right up to the final scene.
The movie is a master class in pacing in the way that it takes careful time establishing important details of setting and characterization, yet flies by in 90 ruthlessly stripped down minutes; the film has the depth and texture of a John Cassavetes character study mixed with the efficiency and tension of classic film noir. The visual style mirrors Stanley’s confidence in its purposeful, graceful compositions and meticulous attention to light and color; the difference is that Winkler’s finished product justifies his confidence, while Stanley is in a hopeless downward spiral. This contradiction is what gives Jungleland a great deal of its considerable power, along with its exceptional use of dilapidated Massachusetts locations and a uniformly riveting cast. Jungleland is now available on most major VOD platforms and is playing theatrically in some parts of the country; I spoke with Winkler by phone a few days after its opening to ask him about the film’s influences and his approach. We began by talking about some of the films and literary works that served as touchstones for the movie.
Max Winkler: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was really, really important—not so much the movie, but the book was something I read a lot when we were writing the script and that I later gave to the actors. As far as movies go, Thief was important, as random as that sounds; I love Michael Mann and the way he writes male relationships. I’m also a huge Bob Rafelson fan, so The King of Marvin Gardens was a big one, and I’m a huge Hal Ashby fan—The Last Detail is probably my favorite movie of all time. The triangle dynamic in that Robert Towne script was something that I really thought about a lot, and the death march type of music was something composer Lorne Balfe and I talked about.
Filmmaker: The movie also reminded me of one of my all-time favorite films, John Huston’s Fat City.
Winkler: That’s one of my favorites too. It was something I watched a lot, especially for the way it gives you that sense of place. In Fat City it was Stockton, California, and for us it was Fall River, Massachusetts. In both cases they’re parts of the world you don’t spend a lot of time in in movies.
Filmmaker: Both movies are also really beautiful at the same time that they’re presenting characters stuck in pretty rough circumstances.
Winkler: We wanted the movie 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’s making oatmeal in a foreclosed kitchen in his underwear with stolen hotel slippers and a dirty yellow mock turtleneck is beside the point, you know what I mean? The last thing we wanted was to say, “This is an indie movie and so we have to shoot it handheld, really close up to their face.” We wanted there to be an elegance similar to what we thought Vilmos Zsigmond brought to The Deer Hunter. Conrad Hall’s work in Fat City was extremely influential in that same way. The other movie we talked about a lot was Steve McQueen’s Hunger, where Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is so beautiful—just because the subject matter is brutal, that doesn’t mean the lighting has to be. Our DP Damián García used a lot of natural light and tried to be uncompromising with the camera. If a position or a lens we had chosen wasn’t telling the story as well as it possibly could, we wouldn’t shoot it until we figured out the right way to do it. I once heard somebody say that in filmmaking, the hardest thing to do is to pick up the dolly track when the shot’s not right, and it’s so true, but we always wanted to make sure the camera was serving the characters and the actors. There was no shot that we did because it was cool or because we thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if it was all one 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 approach 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, you know what I mean? They’re always just on the other side of things, in the cracks. I loved the way Fat City did that. One of my favorite fight sequences, and probably the one that Damián and I talked about the most, is the fistfight in the first 15 minutes of Barry Lyndon. I loved how messy it was and how exhausting it felt—how tiring it is to throw a punch with all your might and miss, and the way Kubrick recreates the daze of being in a fight like that.
We studied bare-knuckle boxing as much as we could, and those fights don’t last long. Each fight in the movie had its own theme; we wanted the fights to show different parts of Lion’s personality because he’s such an internal character. We were really lucky to have a genius stunt coordinator named Paul Marini and a guy named Ed LaVache who was a sort of boxing coordinator. He runs a gym out of Boston with a lot of Golden Gloves fighters coming through, and a lot of them ended up being people in the movie that Jack fights with. The choreography really had to be hammered down, because these guys weren’t wearing gloves—it’s just a fist with some tape over it. Jack was a brilliant boxer, so there was no stunt work on his behalf. He threw every punch himself, took every punch himself and that gave us the opportunity to show a lot of the movements in wide shots without needing to do a Bourne Identity style cut away from it.
Filmmaker: You bringing up the internal nature of that character brings me back to what you were saying about Michael Mann and the way he writes male relationships. Here, it seems to me that you have a really difficult filmmaking problem, which is that you’ve got two guys who love each other but don’t express it. How do you let the audience in on what they feel when they’re not telling each other?
Winkler: I always saw it as a movie about a toxic love affair that’s at the end of its rope. These guys are so deeply enmeshed and codependent and it’s only at the end of the story that they’re finally able to say goodbye to each other in the right way. They both kind of know that they’re bringing the other one down but the dynamics are never spoken until you get to the scene in a pizzeria where they finally tell each other what they think. I think the script was probably overwritten, especially in the first act; when we started putting the movie up on its feet and showing early cuts to people, we were getting a lot of feedback like, “We don’t need to hear them say that, we get it. We see the way Charlie takes care of Lion. We see the way they touch and kiss and hug each other and the fun that they have together, we don’t need all that stuff that you wrote about the backstory and where they were from and their summer in Nashua and all that kind of stuff.” So, with the editor, I would have to say, “All right, I love this line. I think it sounds cool but it’s not actually moving story forward in any way.” That’s probably why we ended up with a 90-minute movie rather than a two-hour movie.
Filmmaker: It’s really efficient, and as you implied, that’s largely thanks to what the actors brought to it—all three leads are great, and they’re great together. How did they build those relationships and performances on what I assume was a limited rehearsal schedule?
Winkler: There was no rehearsal. The actors were all British, so the second they got there, they went to work with their dialect coach, Wendy Overly. They were really committed to getting their American accents right and worked really hard on it. Once they got to Fall River, we shot in these real locations that were so helpful to the filmmaking process, because there was no Four Seasons where everyone was staying. Everyone was living in the environment, and the job of myself and the production designer was to just not fuck it up. We would go in and say, “Let’s not add anything that we don’t need. It should just look and feel the way it does when we’re walking in.” Once we had the actors in those spaces, I didn’t give them hard marks to hit; 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, “In my opinion, this scene is a seduction or this scene is about X,” but then I want them to take it over. Charlie’s from Newcastle, Jack’s from Derby, Jess is from Yorkshire; they’re all from places that are not so different from the places we shot, so understanding the characters and their dynamics was not difficult for any of them. I was never spending time on set saying, “This is how these people live.”
Filmmaker: So once you and the actors figure out the blocking, what kinds of choices are you making in terms of the lenses and camera position? The compositions in this movie are so wonderfully precise.
Winkler: We would do most of our wide shots on a 40- or 50-millimeter lens, then shoot our closeups 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 who has two devils on his shoulder fighting for his soul; we tried to photograph him as close to how you would imagine photographing Jesus Christ as possible. He has this unbelievable body that has twists and turns that are so photographable, and he’s got an amazing face that tells you so much story. We spent more time giving him close-ups than other people because so much of the movie is about whether or not this guy’s going to find his voice or not.
We would do shot lists and really, really prepare, then get to set and completely abandon everything we had prepared—much to the annoyance of our very patient line producer. You get to the set and the sun is in a different place than you thought it was, or you see something you didn’t see before, or the actors have opinions and say, “I really would not do this. This feels stupid or cheesy,” and I listen because at a certain point they know the world and the characters as well as I do, if not better.
Filmmaker: Again, I really liked the choice you made to make the movie as beautiful as it was. Sometimes I think with this kind of subject matter there’s a perception that it has to be cold or gritty, and one thing Jungleland has in common with those Rafelson and Ashby movies you were referencing earlier is that it’s really inviting.
Winkler: What I love about those movies is that they’re so warm and humanist. It’s what I love about a movie like Good Will Hunting as well. There’s something about men trying to figure out how to tell the other one that they love them that I personally find deeply interesting. I can watch those 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 streaming on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.