Junglee director Chuck Russell on his Bollywood debut, and why he insisted on shooting with real elephants
After revolutionising special effects with The Mask in the 1990s, Chuck Russell reveals why he insists on shooting with real elephants in Junglee.
In an industry obsessed with deifying the star, the spotlight often evades those who work tirelessly behind the scenes. The success of a film is often attributed to its face but seldom to those who constitute the spine. And so, in this column titled Beyond the Stars, Firstpost highlights the contributions of film technicians who bring their expertise to the table.
Veteran Hollywood director Chuck Russell, best known for helming the 1994 superhero comedy The Mask and the 2002 historical fantasy action film The Scorpion King, has made his Bollywood debut with Junglee, that released earlier this week. Starring Vidyut Jammwal, the action adventure film tells the story of friendship between a man and an elephant. In an exclusive interview to Firstpost, Russell talks about the experience of shooting with elephants, addressing the issue of elephant poaching, and bridging the gap between Hollywood and Bollywood.
Junglee was previously being directed by an Indian filmmaker, before you made the film your own. What drew you to this project and how did Junglee Pictures (production house) contact you?
They just called me! It was the craziest king. Somebody gave the producer my number. I've been to India a few times and was looking to co-produce a project in comedy or action. So someone told me that I have an affinity towards India. I wanted to tell a story that people across the globe can interpret in their own ways. If there are these universal stories that people can see and laugh or cry, I want to tell those stories. That's my job as a filmmaker.
You have said you wanted to make a film that is entirely Indian, in its appeal, style, sensibility and details. Since elephants are revered in India because of Lord Ganesha, have you also tried to explore the mythological aspect of the bond between Indians and elephants in Junglee?
That's what it is about. I wanted to celebrate Indian culture, especially the relationship with elephants. It has to be an Indian story first though it's actually a universal one. I didn't want to shoot in documentary style because I can't do it. It has to be an entertaining story first that the Indian audience can respond to. And then it can be a larger story told to the world about coming home to nature.
The original idea of the film was inspired the Indian classic Haathi Mere Saathi. Did you watch that film for reference or you consciously chose not to?
I was inspired by the story. I didn't know anything about that film. I only saw it after I shot mine and that only showed how Indians passionate Indians are about elephants. That film was also shot with real elephants. That is what I insisted on for this film as well. I wanted to shoot with real elephants in their natural environment. I was concerned for their safety. Had we not shot there, I wouldn't have done the film.
Your previous films like The Mask and The Scorpion King also had the theme of human-animal interaction. What is it about Junglee that makes it unique?
I'm a huge animal lover. In The Mask, establishing that chemistry with the dog Milo with Jim Carrey was very crucial. The crew on that film was crazy. They asked me why don't you just order a dog of the breed and size you want. But these animals have different personalities! It depends on how they were raised, how they were treated. And these animals bring out a vulnerable side of the tough actors. Because they aren't really acting! So when tough guys like Dwayne Johnson spend time with animals, it exposes how vulnerable they are. I gave a camel to Dwayne, who didn't really listen to him, in The Scorpion King. It balances the machismo of an action film. Similarly in the case of Junglee, I filmed real footage of Vidyut spending time with elephants and used it in the film. That has brought out a different side of Vidyut.
How difficult was it shooting with elephants? Did they give you a tough time?
They were the divas on my set. Since we shot their natural behaviour, there were no tricks. We kept them in their natural herd and improvised with them. So it was very time-consuming to wait for them to react to the actors. It was challenging but a lot of fun! I got to know them individually. I got to know that this one likes oranges and Dee Dee, the female elephant likes sunflower seeds. It was remarkable of how sensitive, how loving they can be.
You have worked with huge action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger (Eraser, 1996) and Dwayne Johnson. How different is Vidyut Jammwal?
Vidyut is great to work with except for one thing. His is an Asian style in which he is actually doing it. His action is a mix of stunts and martial arts. He is there in contact even in rehearsals. He has passion for really doing it. Dwayne comes from wrestling, which is a staged event. Schwarzenegger has had a long career in action and was a bodybuilder. To complement all these guys, and the stuntmen involved, these are brave people because stunt performances, even if they're performances, are dangerous. I'd put Vidyut more on the extreme side. He'd do more takes than he needs to. He's ready all the time and is working out in the time left over! So keeping up with him and applying Western style safety protocols to his style was the only challenge. His charm, graciousness with other actors on the set, and most interestingly, his willingness to do improv comedy are all commendable. I told him since I'm from theatre, we'd do a lot of improv and he was super enthusiastic about it. So as a performer, he is stretching. And as far as his martial arts is concerned, I'm stretching to keep up.
I asked a friend who is a part of the cast, in jest, which animal he is playing in Junglee. His response was, "The worst one. Human." So is Junglee a way to show how 'junglee' humans are and how humane animals are?
Haha! That's absolutely correct. I'm presenting the elephants as what they are - naturally spiritual. Animals, especially elephants, are more thoughtful and sensitive than other animals I've worked with. They are these huge animals that can crush you, that are listening to you and thinking what I can do to get an apple!
All your early films have been lauded for their cutting edge special effects.Decades ago, your film The Mask was nominated for the Best Special Effects Oscar, but lost to Forest Gump. Were you tempted to use the same in Junglee as well? Did it come in the way of keeping it real, because both Vidyut's action and the elephants' behaviour are as real as they can get?
I've used special effects but you won't notice them. If you've seen the trailer, when you see them jeopardy at night, it's actually daytime. They're having fun spinning around. I wanted to shoot in the natural environment so I used special effects to make it look like it's an adventure film. Daytime looks like night and indoors looks like outdoors. So I did use special effects to create a suspenseful environment, to add all these elements of an adventure film. It's kind of ironic I was the guy pushing for CGI in the 1990s. When they couldn't create water and a furry dog, I told them I'll get them a dog with short hair so that they can get it done. But now I'm the guy I've seen too many CGI animals. I can't do a film with elephants and have people say how good the CGI is. It's a story about the spirit of these animals. Now, my children watch a film and say how good the CGI is. But that's not the point of CGI! That's why what this film really says to the world is let's go back to the jungle.
So is Junglee your Forrest Gump?
See, I love Forrest Gump but it's really a masterpiece. How I see Junglee is it's my Hindi movie that I want everyone to love. I'm glad that the Indian audience is reacting to the emotional relationship of the man and the elephant in the trailer. Whereas the international audience is looking it as a cool action film on a very relevant issue.
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