“Directors are Not Born Being Blockbuster Filmmakers”: Producers John Davis and John Fox on Jungle Cruise
With all the changes that have been taking place in the film industry over the last few years, I’m always fascinated by the filmmakers who seem consistently able to adapt to the shifting landscape while still remaining true to their own tastes and sensibilities—the producers and directors whose careers span decades and show no sign of decline. The release of Disney’s new adventure film Jungle Cruise gave me the opportunity to talk with two such filmmakers, producers John Davis and John Fox. Davis has produced over a hundred movies and TV shows going back to the 1980s and early ’90s, when he made his name with films such as Predator and The Firm (as well as one of my personal all-time favorites, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love). Fox supervised and developed movies with directors ranging from Michael Bay to Cameron Crowe as a studio executive at DreamWorks and Fox before teaming up with Davis to produce movies like Game Night and Dolemite is My Name and hit television series including The Blacklist and The Equalizer. With Jungle Cruise they’ve managed that rare achievement, a studio tentpole movie that’s also an idiosyncratic personal project with wit and style; the movie delivers all the summer blockbuster goods but has as much in common with character-driven John Huston and George Stevens adventure pictures as it does with modern comic book extravaganzas. To see how they pulled it off, and to get their thoughts on producing in general, I got on the phone with Davis and Fox a few days before Jungle Cruise’s July 30 release.
Filmmaker: One of the things I really liked about Jungle Cruise was the way you managed to serve the demands of a summer event movie while also paying tribute to a more classical form of storytelling. There were a lot of moments that reminded me of something like John Huston’s The African Queen. What were the cinematic reference points for you?
John Fox: We paid homage to a few different films, including African Queen, absolutely—even down to Dwayne’s wardrobe, which was very reminiscent of Bogie in that film. Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Romancing the Stone were also touchstones and definite inspirations for us.
Filmmaker: How do you get started on something like this, does Disney come to you and say, “Hey, we want to make a Jungle Cruise movie,” or…?
John Davis: No, you’ve got to take the bull by the horns. We like to start at the very beginning and be there from the genesis of the idea. To me, that’s the highest level of producing: creating your ideas and developing the script, then putting the movie together, which we did. We went to Disney with a writer [and] an actor and talked them into giving us the franchise and trusting us to make it a movie. Then we went and got a director that we thought would be great for this, and we took a risk because it wasn’t an obvious choice. But I think it’s going to be obvious when you see the movie.
Filmmaker: Yeah, Jaume Collet-Serra definitely brings a lot to it, but he is kind of an unusual choice. How did you know he was the right person to helm this movie?
Davis: He came in to meet us and started talking about how he saw the movie, and it was great. We knew he was really good with visual effects, because he had done The Shallows and other movies that were heavily visual effects dependent. This is a huge visual effects movie, and we knew he was not going to be intimidated—he knew how to shoot and incorporate visual effects into his process. He wasn’t going to need the visual effects supervisor to hold his hand and help set up the shots and explain it to him. He was already there. And he was a really good director—you could tell from his body of work that he got great performances, he knew how to move the camera, he had a cinematic style. He had never been given a big movie, but everybody comes from somewhere. Directors are not born being blockbuster filmmakers. And if you get the right person coming up, it’s a great experience; you have a lot of fun working with them, and you get something really fresh, not the same thing you get from the same five directors who have been doing this forever.
He wasn’t the obvious choice, but we wouldn’t take no for an answer. We just kept pushing him, and [Disney exec] Sean Bailey shared our intuitive understanding of why this would be a great idea. We had to fight another movie because he was supposed to do [the] Suicide Squad [sequel]—we were having a raging battle over who was going to get him. At the end of the day we did what any good producers would do: we gave him a piece of our backend. He picked us over Suicide Squad and it worked.
Filmmaker: Talk a little about that director-producer relationship. Once you have a director on board, how do you see that collaboration working in its most ideal sense?
Davis: I think the producer’s job is to both challenge and protect the director. The first job is to work with him and find your commonality. The second job is to challenge him in certain areas where you think you can take a step up—with a DP or a costume designer that might be better, or a piece of casting you really need to discuss and debate out. When you go through that process, once you all come to a conclusion and a decision, your job is to be a hundred percent supportive of that director. You keep the world around him simple, so he can just purely be creative, and then you’re going to get a great movie.
Filmmaker: You mentioned casting. For me the stroke of genius in the casting of this movie was matching up Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson. They do not seem like a likely romantic comedy pairing, but somehow it really works.
Davis: I had made a movie with Emily, Gulliver’s Travels, where she was the best thing in the movie. I was on set with her in England and she did an amazing job with the comedy, so I saw that side of her. Then when we were working on this, we both felt that she was about to become the biggest female movie star in the world. Mary Poppins was about to come out. A Quiet Place would come out. We thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a two-hander with two giant stars? And John, tell me if I’m wrong, but there was never a second choice.
Fox: No, it was across the board. We all agreed that she was the only choice for the movie. Thankfully she said yes. We got lucky.
Filmmaker: That idea of it being a two-hander brings up something else, which is the difficulty of balancing light romantic comedy with visual effects-laden spectacle. You don’t want the spectacle to suffocate the African Queen-style character stuff, but you have to satisfy the demands of a summer action movie audience. How do you keep those elements in balance in the editing room?
Davis: Here’s the good news: it was a great editing room. It was comfortable, it had windows, we could spend hours in there and not get claustrophobic. And Jaume was completely interactive and open in the editing process. We would challenge him, but at the end of the day when a decision was made we would support him a hundred percent. The movie had a long lead time before it was released because there were so many visual effects, so we got to go in the editing room all the time and just play and play and play, then we got to go through the whole process of testing the movie with the audience. It was pre-COVID, thank God, so we got to keep going back to a 750-seat theater and really feel how the movie was playing, then go back to the editing room. I think John will tell you, it was really one of the most satisfying processes either of us had ever been through because we had the time to really balance it and get it right.
Fox: Yeah, absolutely, we had a lot of time to get it right. And it also helps when you have a great team around you and are working for a supportive studio with great story sense.
Filmmaker: What kinds of things did you learn from testing the movie with audiences and what kinds of things do you look for when test screening your movies in general?
Fox: It depends on the type of movie. With comedy, it’s pretty obvious. Where are they getting the jokes? Where are the laughs hitting, where are they not hitting? It’s interesting, we made a movie called Game Night, and that was a rare example of a first cut that tested at something like a 96, which is just unheard of. We had to swap out a couple of jokes that weren’t working quite as well as the others, but the movie was more or less locked after the first cut.
With this type of movie, we’re looking at the story and seeing what makes an emotional impact and what isn’t landing. What plot moves are working and where does the audience feel confused? Same thing regarding the mythology: where are they understanding it and digesting it, and where they like, “Wait a second, this doesn’t make sense.” You constantly have to fine tune that—you think you know when you script it, but you never really know until you test it with the audience. You’re always surprised.
Filmmaker: Even after all these years and all these movies?
Davis: Of course. The idea of what entertainment is in the moment is always changing. Society changes, culture changes. People have seen things too many times, so they want something fresh. The audience is ahead of you and you’ve got to catch up to them.
Fox: Yeah, the audience just becomes savvier, more cynical, so you’ve got to subvert expectations and come at them with surprises and fresh takes on things, while still delivering that comfort food that they want and expect. The best thing the audience can say to you is, “That was surprising. We didn’t see that coming. The end wasn’t detectable.”
Filmmaker: So how do you make your choices about what kinds of movies and TV shows you want to devote years of your life to? Is it purely intuitive or is there a strategy to it?
Davis: I’m going to tell you what it is for me, then John will tell you what it is for him. For me, I want to make movies I want to see, and I want to make TV shows I want to watch. I want to do things that entertain me, where if it wasn’t mine and it was streaming, I’d watch it, and if it wasn’t mine, I’d go to the theater and see it.
Fox: I feel the same. Hopefully the common denominator in everything we do is to tell a good story. What’s a story that fascinates me, a story that I’d want to see on screen, whether that be in TV or movies? It all begins and ends with a great story. We’re agnostic about the platform. It could be streaming, could be TV, but a great story is a great story and that never changes.
Davis: What producing is all about is having a vision, having drive, knowing the story and knowing how to do something with it that is going to be special so your actor stays with you, so the studio makes the movie.
Filmmaker: And has that kind of producing gotten harder with all the changes in the industry in the last few years?
Davis: It’s always hard but we do it and we’ve done it a long time—I’ve done over 110 movies. But it’s always been hard.
Fox: Yeah, it’s always tough. It’s been tough, it’ll continue to be tough. There are obviously fewer movies being made theatrically, but thank God for the streaming platforms. These companies are now making slates of movies the way that the studios used to. They’re making movies across all the genres: big movies, small movies, award movies, genre movies. That said, as a producer, it’s always difficult to get a movie made. There are thousands of reasons why a movie can’t get made, and there are like two ways to get a movie made. The odds are so stacked against you. Everything has to come together, the synchronicity has to be there. There is a certain amount of luck in any movie that happens.
Davis: But that’s what’s great about the business, that it’s so impossible and so difficult that the challenge itself is pure adrenaline. Producing is really the most exciting profession in the world because there’s no school that can teach you how to do it. You’ve got to rely on your intuition and be really great at pushing a rock up the hill. We’ve been working on this for six years, and we’ve made movies that took 27 years to get made. No matter what you say or do the unexpected is always going to happen, and the process is going to be five times more difficult than you would hope.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.