29 May 2024

Jungleland director Max Winkler and actor Jessica Barden on working with whippets and the music of The Boss

Writer/director Max Winkler knows he’s made a movie set in a familiar genre, but he always planned to do something different with it. Jungleland, released on digital on 30 November is, in his own words, about “two men trying to learn to say ‘I love you’ to each other.”

The two are brothers, Walter and Stanley, are played respectively by Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam, the former a bare knuckle fighter struggling to scratch a living in the ring, and the latter his manager, who is big on talk but rarely comes up with the fights his brother needs. Instead, he gets them into debt with a local gangster and to pay it off, they’re forced to travel across the country for a big, no holds barred contest which should bring in the money they desperately need. But they’re saddled with a reluctant  passenger, Sky (Jessica Barden), who gradually drives a wedge between the two men.

Talking to The People’s MoviesFreda Cooper, he describes how he was able to secure Ridley Scott’s involvement as a producer, why the music of Bruce Springsteen is so important to the movie and how Charlie Hunnam helped him secure one of The Boss’s tracks, which features at the end of the movie. In the same interview, actor Jessica Barden describes working alongside Hunnam and O’Connell, as well as a four legged co-star, and recalls working on one of the film’s most emotional scenes.


Freda Cooper           Congratulations on the film and, Jessica, on your performance.

Max, you co-wrote, you co-produced and you directed the film. And you’ve also got Ridley Scott as a producer. How did that come about?

Max Winkler              While I was growing up, I was obsessed with Ridley Scott’s films and I actually wrote him a fan letter when I was at high school about one of his lesser known movies, White Squall. He wrote back and sent me an autographed script and I reminded Ridley about that when we met to talk about this movie so he was really pleased that I remembered it. That was a real highlight for me.

FC                   So this is like a dream come true, then?

MW                 It was. Jules Daley, who’s one of our producers and was the first one at the company to read our script and get behind it, ran all of Tony and Ridley’s commercial productions for years and years and produced movies like The Assassination of Jesse James and other great movies. She was really the engine behind this and got everybody at Scott Free on board, so it was amazing. And getting to talk to Ridley about the movie and getting his note – it was like a moment where you want to pinch yourself. He was incredibly generous and I feel so lucky that he worked with us on this.


FC                   He’s a Brit, of course, and Jessica, you and your co-stars Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell are Brits as well. How did you all get on with each other, away from your relationships on the screen?

Jessica Barden        Really well. I’ve never really worked with people who are from similar backgrounds to me, so it was a unique experience to work with people who I had such a lot in common with. It was great and really funny, but I would say that we all knew definitely how to p*ss each other off, which was useful at times. It was extremely easy working with them in a personal way and in an acting way. There were so many things that just went unsaid between us. It really helped the movie and it was really good casting, putting us in the middle of America, in the middle of nowhere and seeing what we would do with these roles.


FC                   There is a fourth member of the cast, and with four legs, and that’s the whippet, Ash. Jessica, how do you get on with dogs? Whippets and greyhounds are supposed to have such lovely temperaments ….

JB                   Well, that dog was kinda weird. The dog trainer told us that the dog was autistic, but he was a great co-star, very quiet in between takes. He was a co-star who just did his job and went home.

MW                 The dog trainer warned me that the reason you’ve never seen a whippet in a movie before is because they’re completely adverse to any form of training whatsoever, but there is such a delicate nature about them that I felt that seeing Jack O’Connell nurture a whippet would be a real window into the softness and tenderness of that character and I ended up thinking they looked really beautiful on the screen. Because the whippet is unable to do its own press at this time – in fact, there were three of them, but they were all brilliant and the trainer was really helpful and it was a positive experience all round!


FC                   Jessica, what would say was the most challenging aspect of your role, or perhaps the toughest scene? The scene with your parents is quite uncomfortable and almost painful to watch.

JB                   That was a great day when we filmed that scene and I didn’t find it particularly hard. We were filming difficult scenes with each other and the three of us are all playing people who know exactly what they want out of life and some days the energy was really interesting. We’re all quite strong people and some days it was tough and other days it was great, but it’s always like that.


FC                   Max, there’s a very strong sense that we’re in Bruce Springsteen country in the film, with the characters and the setting, and one of his songs at the end. You’re a bit of a fan?

MW                 I love Bruce Springsteen. He’s one of my favourite writers about the American experience. I learned from a friend, who’s also from New Jersey and is also obsessed with Springsteen, that somebody asked Springsteen about his music, saying that his songs were so epic in scale and appealed to so many but are so personal, and how did he do that? And Bruce said that the verses are the blues and the choruses have to be gospel. And if you think about a song like Dancing In The Dark, the verses are about depression, and anxiety and hating your appearance and being unable to leave the house. And then he makes the chorus gospel – relatable and big on an epic scale and I think that’s such a great approach to making movies. You have a boxing movie and that’s gospel to so many people. It’s a genre which  makes you think, I know what that movie is about, I’m going to go see it. The goal here was to make an incredibly emotional melodrama about these two men trying to learn how to say “I love you” to each other. And I think that’s the Bruce I try to carry around with me. I don’t think there are many people who are more effective at that type of writing than Bruce.

 Getting the song was perhaps the most important and most difficult part of the post-production process because he’s really protective over his music – for good reason.  It was only when we sent a video of Charlie singing the song a couple of weeks before our premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Charlie had sent me a video of him singing a mournful version of the song that you hear in the movie and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we weren’t going to be able to get the song. He sent me that version – he’s wearing a pink beanie and he looks very much like Charlie Hunnam in all his glory, with that angelic look – and I texted him and asked him to please give me permission to use this as fuel to get the song and he said I had his blessing. So I sent it to Bruce’s manager, and that’s what finally set things in motion to get the song at the end. So I’m forever grateful to Jon Landau, Bruce’s manager, and to Charlie for letting me use his voice.


 FC                   So it was really close to the wire?

MW                 I was in the studio with the composer, Lorne Balfe, who’s also a Brit, with my head in my hands, saying that we’d have to write something now that we hadn’t got the song. And that was when I got the call to say that the song was approved and that was just two weeks before the Toronto Film Festival, so it really came down to the wire.


FC                   That’s a bit too close for comfort! You’ve just completed your first music video as well?

MW                 I enjoy music videos, but I’ve never really loved them. But if you went to high school in the Los Angeles area, you ended up going to Phantom Planet shows, who were the iconic Los Angeles band in the late 90s and 2000s. They’re still amazing, they got back together and they sent me this song that I loved. I’m such a fan of theirs and felt that because we’d been so far away from live music in recent months that it would be interesting to do this, as an homage to my favourite music video which is for Bruce Springsteen’s Brilliant Disguise.

Jungleland is available on digital platforms from 30th November.

Read our review of the film here

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