Director Chuck Russell and main lead Vidyut Jammwal talk to Team Box Office India about their upcoming film Junglee, the experience of shooting with elephants and more
Box Office India (BOI): Mr Russell, how has your trip to India been so far?
Chuck Russell (CR): More than a trip, it has been an adventure. It feels like a wonderful life, getting to work with artistes in India. It’s a bit of a dream…
BOI: You have worked with animals before. What attracted you to the story?
CR: Absolutely the elephants. I was born on a farm and I have always had a thing with animals. I always had a rescue dog and have a couple of cats right now. I come from theatre, and when you work with animals, it naturally calls for improvisation because of their behaviour.
If we have a relationship, like in our case Vidyut took the time to have a little relationship with the elephants, something magical happens. We got more than we bargained for, which is amazing. I wanted to do a film in my style, which is a fun film and at the same time a film with an important message about the crisis that is happening with elephants. People who don’t watch documentaries might watch this film and suddenly they might see something new.
BOI: There is a subliminal message is the film. Do you think putting it out in an entertaining manner helps?
CR: I am here to entertain first, I really am. But this subject has me in awe. Elephants are uniquely spiritual, mysterious animals, they are wild animals and we have to respect them. They are majestic and meeting our Bhola, which I did while casting, I made sure that Vidyut had days and days to spend with him. It is like befriending a whale. I cannot describe the spirit of this animal. Casting the elephants was just like casting the dog in The Mask, or casting the camel for Dwayne Johnson in the Scorpion King. Animals have different personalities and there is chemistry between an actor and an animal. This is one of the tricks I learnt which I wish to bring to the audience.
BOI: Vidyut, what about your chemistry with the elephants?
Vidyut Jammwal (VJ): Before answering that, I want to add something that I haven’t mentioned clearly in other interviews. The first question they all ask me is, ‘What is the difference between Chuck and directors in our country?’ With the brilliant directors and Chuck, there is no difference. The brilliance is common. The most amazing thing I discovered after the whole process was over and after I watched a bit of the movie is the vision of Chuck.
Even the animals were carefully cast for the movie. If it were anyone else but Chuck, we would have gone for the most beautiful tusks, tusks that are properly aligned. This is how we have grown up looking at elephants, through their beautiful tusks. But when I went on the set, I realised that Chuck had finally decided on the protagonist of the film! (Both laugh). I was not very sure what I thought of the elephant because it was not a regular beauty. Bhola is quite unusual. His tusks are unusually curvy. For us, if you have a crooked tooth, it’s not beautiful. But when I saw Bhola, I felt like Chuck had a vision. So, Chuck, thank you, buddy (Chuck laughs). Nobody thinks like that; everybody is looking for perfection – six-pack abs, eight-pack abs, but beauty is somewhere else. When I watched the movie, I was, like, you cannot replicate this.
CR: It’s easy to mix up elephants. When this elephant walked out in the forest, when I first met him, your eyes just go up to meet his, and he looks right back at you. Most animals would not hold your eye but, in this film, you can stare right into his eyes and he gazes back at you because we showed respect. I bowed to him when I first met him for the movie.
VJ: My experience was quite amazing. I have grown up in different parts of the country. My father was in the army, so I am one of those lucky ones who have lived with animals. I have seen snakes in my backyard. I am not somebody from just the big city. But after being on the set of Junglee, I realised I didn’t know quite as much as I thought I knew. What we know about elephants through Google is not enough. We need to learn to respect them. If you feel respect for them, they will do anything for you. You don’t go to the elephant and say, ‘Hey Bhola, you are looking so good today’ or ‘Checks really suit you.’ It doesn’t affect them. You really need to respect them.
BOI: We have also seen the journey in some pictures that have been released. You seem to be bonding really well with the elephant in Thailand. Shooting in the jungle must have been excruciating.
CR: I was there for adventure. If I experience it, I can bring it to the audience. The fun in my career has been to be inspired by a specific actor or actress, and The Mask was only for Jim Carey, there was no one else from the very beginning. He was unknown in feature films in the West and worldwide when we did The Mask. The Scorpion King was meant to launch Dwayne Johnson. So I developed screenplay only after I knew who was going to be cast in these films.
For this film, they sent me a beautiful script for Junglee and I thought that, as a Westerner, I have been invited to do something about the crises of elephants through adventure and entertainment. I get to use skills that I have developed over the years to get an actor and elephants together. But I had to meet him first before developing the screenplay. He is the real thing. In America, we have seen little clips of his movies but when I flew out to meet him, he was so gracious. I have this theory about martial arts and the actors who practice them; they are very disciplined. The danger in these movies is only so much of an illusion but most of it is real.
VJ: He was like a mother. Every evening, he used to say, Vidyut, you are very good but tomorrow I don’t want you to do this (Chuck laughs). And I was, like, no Chuck, I want to do this.
CR: He used to say, Chuck, it’s a cup of coffee, we are going to do it again and this time, set it on fire. I was inspired by who he is and I think we also captured a little of his own personality, and that is a very warm side and a very spiritual side that blends adventure with action and his passion. I tried to find the vulnerability in this guy and animals bring that out for these dramas.
BOI: Apart from the action in the film, there is also humour…
CR: I can’t help it. (Laughs) If I try to get serious, it gets funnier, so I have to be careful. I am here to create joy. I have a different goal than some filmmakers. They want to be cool and dark. But I think the harder thing is that I see a hero potentially in everybody. Every man and woman, especially for the love of another, can rise to heroics. I try to find the joy and the fun in that. We found it with the animals and the kids. It is a family story. I was jealous of Indian films because in the West you can’t do random singing and dancing. In fact, the first time I showed them a cut of The Mask, the studio bosses flipped out. They wanted to cut all the singing and dancing out. It was a showdown. I didn’t lose my temper. I said, give me one screening and then you can do what you want. So I do have an association with Indian cinema.
BOI: Vidyut, for Junglee what kind of extra physical training did you do? Did you prep in order to be able to bond with the animals?
VJ: The most important thing for me in this movie was that I had to ‘untrain’ myself a lot. The way Chuck works is different. He doesn’t have a script to follow but he has it all in his head. He meets you, then he starts working around every character. He has done it with the leading ladies, and he has done it with the elephants too. He looks at them and then decides, ‘I think he should come from there’. What I experienced with him was completely different from whatever I have watched while I was growing up. I was like I had to unlearn. I had to stop thinking, oh yes I am going to jump from this cliff and I am going to reach over there. It’s not important. The important thing is how I feel emotionally about doing this. That was a change.
CR: I’ve got to say I haven’t seen him in a while. And we had so much fun. I come from comedy improv theatre and when he got it, he was leading the class.
VJ: The thing is, Chuck is very sharp. The way he is right now all smiles, chirpy and cute is not what he is about entirely. He knows exactly what is going on around him, especially on his film set. He is constantly happy because he is so aware of the people around him. If I am having a conversation with somebody, he will come to me and say, ‘Vidyut, this is how you have to be, this what you have to do. Do not act.’ He catches people like that. He caught the girls like that too and told them, don’t act, just be natural. That was quite a lot of unlearning for us, which was very cool. It is a different way of teaching, with love. One can teach people by commanding them or ordering them to do something and the other way is that you just say it nicely, I think this is something that will make you look really cool.
CR: It was a great team, actually. It was fun. I tried to make the workshops really playful. It shouldn’t be done as a chore and everyone should have a good time.
VJ: You know, it was easy working with the elephants when we went on location because when we were doing our workshops, Chuck would tell us to just pretend that this pole is the elephant or the chair is the elephant and we had to go practice our scenes with that. He would say, that is your elephant, that is your Bhola with you, go and say hello to him. It was really weird. (Laughs)
CR: Yeah, we did those rehearsals with chairs and Vidyut really went for that and did great. I want to add something here. It is a real honour to tell an Indian story and it is really exciting for me to be outside of the classic Hollywood structure, get to know the artistes here, people like Vidyut and of course our whole team. It was great to tell a really Indian story.
The whole concept with elephants that we have here is in my DNA. So, it was amazing to be part of this. People keep talking about the difference between Hollywood and Bollywood but I want to say that I am from a farm in the middle of America and yes, I work in Los Angeles. However, I am really excited that people are responding to the film like this. The Indian audience is responding positively on social media about a story that talks about returning to the jungle, returning to empathy for elephants and seeing a celebration of Indian life. I am not trying to put myself in the middle of that; I am trying to be the ringmaster here.
VJ: (Cuts in) But I have to say that Chuck is one of the most secure people, and I am not saying just as a director, one of the most secure beings that I have known.
CR: Thank you very much for that.
VJ: I think because he has seen a whole lot of success, worked with so many talented people and enjoys the work that he is doing, it is something that works for him. You can see that in his movies. When anyone sees Junglee they ask me, is it so different because it is Chuck Russel? And I say yes, it is Chuck Russel and yes it different because it caters to everybody. He’s not trying to say that he’s cool because he’s from LA. He is the person who says that I will give you exactly what you want and I will give it you in a natural, organic way. That is the best thing about Chuck and the best thing about Junglee.
CR: If I am not having fun, if we are not having fun in this kind of a film, the audience will not have fun either. So you keep thinking, how can it be more exciting, how can it be more fun? The only thing we can do is not bore others.
VJ: He likes it simple. He just sees the natural element in everything. He will say, ‘This is how it is and you should do it like that”. He doesn’t wants to try to be cool. He will come up to me one day and say, Vidyut you are looking very good, and deep down I know that I have to keep myself simple, keep it natural, keep it cool. He likes me to be clean-shaven and all.
BOI: In the beginning, were there apprehensions about coming to a different country and making a film for an audience with different sensibilities?
CR: Here’s the thing, I have always been really interested in this world of cinema that you have. When I did The Mask, I was alarmed and it blew my mind that this crazy silliness, that I am almost ashamed that I like, is present in all these different cultures. I finished the editing of the film without dialogue because I wanted to see if we could make an international film, if we could make the comedy so physical. The reaction was so terrific, and I realised I was right. I am not just naïve, not just optimistic, but correct in gauging these things. We are all of the same humanity. We are all the same. And as I watch the news and feel helpless about the nasty, difficult side of the world…
VJ: (Cuts in) Chuck’s going to start crying. He gets teary when he talks about elephants and these things.
CR: Jeez! Don’t tell them. (Laughs) I am as macho as Vidyut here.
VJ: But when you talk about certain things, Chuck, it does make you cry.
CR: Yeah, I do choke up at times. But coming back to it, if I can cast movies and tell stories in different cultures where there are different role models, it’s a great thing. I think this film has a global appeal while it is an Indian story. The going back to nature, going back to family, the empathy for elephants, which basically represents all of nature, is something that we want to show to say that we are losing our connection with nature. We are losing our villages. Your village is now your social media. The realms go that far.
It used to be the fun of playing cards at night with people up the block and the really interesting, spiritually positive feeling that brings. So his character returns from being a successful vet in Mumbai to his family and his roots and the elephant that he grew up with; for me, that is a great story. I think we have captured the spirit of it. I hope to bring that universal emotion to the global market through my work. Number one is the Indian audience; I need to do right by them.
BOI: Is this a kids’ film?
CR: I invite everybody in. If there is love in the movie and it is not corny because there is a spiritual truth, then it is going to attract all sorts of people. You can bring your kids to the movie. They are going to have the dream of the jungle that I had when I was a kid. And for the adults you have a wonderful and passionate adventure film. And then there is action. Action is character. The critics who put down action movies and comedy are crazy. There is more Shakespeare in a classic Bruce Lee moment when you know his life is at stake and you totally believe him… that is character as well. It is not that it has to be boring to be acting.
BOI: Do you think the Indian audience is ready for a film about elephants, something that we have seen almost four decades ago? Do think they will enjoy this genre again and accept it?
VJ: There is no question of ‘again’ and ‘accepting’. They are ready and have been waiting for it. This is the right time. We have not had it for 40 years. Why? We have no idea. Why are we making it right now? We are just lucky. So we are ready and we have been waiting for it.
BOI: When you break barriers to venture into something so different, given that you come from a different country and are out of your comfort zone as a filmmaker, you need a strong partner. Did you find that in Junglee Pictures?
CR: I didn’t have just a partner in filmmaking, I had a team that blew my mind. It starts with our producers. Priti (Shahani) called me out of nowhere. I had been to India before. And I was comfortable with global stories and a global style of movies. As soon as I saw that it was about elephants, I wanted to know if I could use real elephants. And she said yes and they were still developing the story. And I was in.
She was the number one in my team and Vidyut came second. Our relationship has become so strong. I could not have done anything without him. There is such a thing as chemistry. It is real and not just hype. I had a cast around him who added to it, like Akshay who is his best friend in the village. When you see the film you tell me what you think. So that is my team. As an artiste… I hate to use that word, it sounds snobby! For me working with artistes from other cultures makes me a better artiste. So I am not apprehensive. If they respond to the same story that I respond to, then we are all going to make each other better artistes.
BOI: The film is out on March 29. What do you want the audience to take away when they see the film in the theatres?
CR: I mostly want them to be entertained. My first job is to have happy audiences coming out saying that we had an experience that reminds us we are human. We had an experience that reminds us about our love for animals. We had an experience I can take my son and daughter to and we can talk about at home. So I think that is just joy. I want to entertain them and inspire them.
Second, I want to start conversations. People who watch documentaries about the crises of elephants are not going to buy ivory. But people who come to be entertained might walk away saying that if I grew up with an elephant, I would be extremely upset about how an elephant is killed for the ivory. I hope to convey that through his performance and the spirit of the elephant we used and who made that come to life for us. Elephants are spirited animals. They are social animals. We didn’t have trained elephants. We have safety protocols. Their personalities come out. We shot only in their home. We used special effects to make it look like night, but we shot in the day. The elephants were real and in their natural space. I played Beethoven to them and it worked.
There are wild elephants we wouldn’t touch. We respect them. I can’t do a film about empathy towards elephants if I don’t have happy elephants. We went to a conservation centre in Thailand. My producers were nice enough to send the entire crew to Thailand. I can create the illusions.
VJ: Chuck and I were talking on the sets about how, if we don’t make movies like this, then in 15 years the elephants will have gone the way of the dinosaurs.
CR: And that is a very scary reality. We hit the positive side that is the relationship between his character and the elephant. The facts will come out and be part of the conversation after that.
VJ: And the way we have spoken about it is not preachy.
CR: We let the audience discover it. There is great warmth in the story, great adventure and comedy. They can ponder it later. A ripple in a pond is small but the effect can be big. They may not buy an ivory chest. It may be a small thought, but it will expand into the bigger issue about elephants losing their territory. That is the only message. Did you like Bhola? Then think about the natural habitat of all these animals.