I’m a diehard 1995 Jumanji fan. When news broke that a new movie was in the works and they ditched the classic board game for a video game instead, I wasn’t thrilled. The thing is though, Jake Kasdan and his team wound up winning me over, and many others too. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle wound up becoming a major box office hit, opening up with a $36.2 million three-day total during Christmas 2017 and ultimately going on to accumulate a grand total of $962 million at the worldwide box office. That’s something else! But back to the skepticism.
After all that success, a new concern popped up; the fear that the folks behind the film would take the easy route, in a sense, and use those big bucks just to make a bigger sequel. Turns out though, that wasn’t what Kasdan was interested in and it serves the new film, Jumanji: The Next Level, quite well. Yes, Kasdan and co. do take the action sequences to the “next level” with more creatures and wild stunt choreography, but it’s all supported by a very thoughtful story. After the events of the first film, Spencer (Alex Wolff) goes off to college and is having a tough time adjusting. He longs for the comfort he found with Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) back home, and he also misses the power and confidence he had as Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). That compels Spencer to do the unthinkable – boot up the game again.
That starting point actually turns The Next Level into a very effective “next chapter” of Spencer’s coming-of-age story, and also a story of growth for most of the characters involved. While at the Jumanji: The Next Level junket in Cabo San Lucas, I got the chance to sit down with Kasdan for an extended interview and talk about just that – not putting the cart before the horse with the franchise, the depth Wolff’s performance brings to the film, what it was like reuniting with Johnson, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan, getting the opportunity to direct industry legends like Danny DeVito and Danny Glover, and so much more! You can read the full spoiler-free portion of our conversation below and then when you see Jumanji: The Next Level in theaters beginning December 13th, be sure to come back to Collider.com to read a very interesting spoiler chat with Kasdan that fans of the 1995 film should really enjoy.
When do you start thinking about another Jumanji movie? The industry does have a bit of a cart before the horse mentality, but based on my conversation with your producers, it doesn’t seem like you guys went that route. Do you start thinking about it immediately when those opening weekend numbers come in?
JAKE KASDAN: I can honestly say that we were not thinking about it on Welcome to the Jungle. I was not thinking about it at all. [Laughs] I just wasn’t focused that way – and not only wasn’t focused that way, when occasionally someone would suggest it, I thought it was probably not a good idea. I just wasn’t thinking about it in those terms. What was central to me was, we should make that movie in a way that makes that as complete as possible. Yeah, it’s cart before the horse, but it’s also just I wanted to tell that story fully.
You don’t have a writing credit on the first movie, but you do on this one so I’m curious, when did that come into play? What made you want to be a credited writer on this one?
KASDAN: Well, the first one I did a lot of writing and the way that all works I wasn’t credited, which I was fine with. Also, those are all people that I worked with and love working with. I had not initiated that. I came to that project, I came to that movie [and] there was already a really good script and then I came onto it and continued to write on it with, in fact, the people who are credited and they’re back. And so we’ve been working together on both of them for a long time. This one just was me and those guys from the very beginning.
With a sequel like this, especially after so much financial success, I feel like the typical path is, ‘Oh, that means we have to make it bigger and bigger and bigger!’ You guys do that, but not at the expense of good story. I was wondering, is there anything in the plot that you would credit with that “break story” moment? A beat that justified making another movie?
KASDAN: Yes. Because I had this sort of reticence about coming back at all, that was exactly the sort of conversation we were all having was, if we’re gonna do this, it has to have a story that feels worth it to us and that gets us all excited again the same way the first one did. And for me, that story idea had to do with bringing in the Eddie and Milo story. Bringing in these new characters who we could use this device that we had set in the first movie, the real people entering the world and the bodies of these avatars and what does that give you and who would you be if you could spend a day in someone else’s skin, and what does that adventure leave these characters with?
And we were able to sort of expand. Because that conceit is so strong, we sort of felt like, well, if we’re doing it again, they have to be doing something different. But what makes that worth it? Because you don’t want to do just another bunch of kids. We did that, we love those kids, those are our kids. You know what I mean? And then the idea that followed that was, it’s sort of just as interesting and completely different if you’re using characters who are at a really different point in their life. And that sort of led us to this thing and specifically to those two actors. That was the exciting story idea.
And then as you say, everything that follows is, you know, how do we amp up the sequences, do more? You know, we had more toys a little bit. I had more experience in terms of just, I’ve done it once. So I had a different sense of like, maybe if we did it again I could do it better. You know, there were things that I wanted to do.
What were some of those toys? Even in just a few years, there’s tons of new filmmaking tech advancements. Is there anything new you got to play with here?
KASDAN: Speaking at a really nerdy technical level, there are a lot of things that we were doing that we just didn’t even really attempt in the first movie. Given that a lot of the action, not all, but a lot of the action is built on these animal sequences, you know? They’re just a lot more complicated than they were in the first movie. These sequences have a different kind of interactivity and energy and there’s more shots, there’s more animation. You know, a monkey picks her up and throws her; there’s a lot of that kind of stuff. It’s just complicated and cool, you know?
That particular scene gives me such planning anxiety! Is that storyboarded to a T? And then what happens when you get in the edit room? Are you keeping your fingers crossed you didn’t miss a shot?
KASDAN: In some ways the panic that you miss something is slightly less because it does require so much planning, as you’re describing. You storyboard it and then really a lot of that process happens with, they call it pre-vis – I’m sure you’ve seen in supplementary materials – you do like a cartoon version of the sequence, basically. So you have like a little cartoon DJ running, but it lets you figure out all the shots and figure out what’s going to happen and figure out where the monkeys are. So you can sort of watch the sequence before you’ve shot anything in that form and then you go out and shoot it. So you have a pretty good sense of what you need to shoot. But then the shooting of it is complicated, and then afterwards the edit and the visual effects part of it is like incredibly complicated and requires literally thousands of people and animators. We were working with some incredible people. It’s enormously complicated. It’s also really exciting. Stuff starts coming in and you’re just like, ‘Oh my god! this is so cool!’ [Laughs]
I also wanted to ask you about your work as an actor’s director. I look at an ensemble like this and, not only are they major industry heavyweights, but it also seems so easy to them. Where do find yourself having to step in and give them notes?
KASDAN: I mean, they’re amazing. The cast is unbelievable and I love working with them. That was another huge draw to doing a sequel is just to get back out there with these people. And then we just added a bunch of people that I’ve always wanted to work with. So that aspect of it is fantastic. If I weren’t there, they’d be brilliant. The fact that I am there helps everybody keep track of what’s happening in their stories, in each of the character’s stories. So much of it is just, ‘Maybe it would be funny this way, maybe it would be funny that way.’ Try and guide them through it. And, you know, we talk about every single detail of it as we’re doing it.
Do any of them have drastically different styles where you have to do your job a little differently for each of them?
KASDAN: Yeah, sort of. I mean, all actors approach it a little different way, and if you’re somebody who that’s what you’re focused on, and that’s very much what I’m focused on. Prior to these two movies, everything else I’ve ever done, the movies I’ve made and the TV shows I’ve made, that’s 90% of what I’m doing. They all approach it differently, they all prepare differently, so you’re having slightly different kinds of conversations. But with this group it’s just kind of a joyful thing with all of them. And I do sit there like I’m the first audience and I sit there at the monitor laughing the whole time.
It’s not to say there aren’t pressures and parts of it that are challenging and all that, but when it comes to just watching this cast act these roles, it’s been truly one of the great fun things I’ve ever done. And that’s true with the real world cast as well. You know, the kids and now with Danny and Danny, which was just this like, for me like a powerful thing to be with them and you see them doing that.
What was it like directing them in that early scene? They seem so natural and effortless playing off each other.
KASDAN: Yes, and you’re just getting the benefit of these two legendary, brilliant guys that, among my all-time favorite people, favorite actors to sit down and play the living daylights out of this little scene that we wrote. It was amazing. For me, even though it’s a comedy scene sort of and it’s relatively quick – it was a day, a couple days of having those guys together – it was just this wonderful thing where you go like, ‘Oh, this is what great, great actors who are both, you know, this is what they’re capable of.’ And they’re both these hugely soulful guys, so they’re able to convey so much with their eyes. You know, the way that great movie actors can.
The way that Danny DeVito and Alex Wolff so quickly sell a whole history together, I was very impressed with that.
KASDAN: Alex is wonderful. He’s always been really talented and then lately I look at him and on this movie I was like, ‘This guy’s just a great actor.’ He’s somebody we’re gonna be watching for a long time.
He really is! I can’t wait to see where his career goes acting-wise, and also behind the lens too having just made his directing debut!
KASDAN: I haven’t seen it yet. He’s a great guy and we’ve had a really good time together doing this. But Alex, you know, it’s funny because I do think it’s because the cast is just so good that a few of them demand a certain amount of – we’re talking about a few of them all the time. I am. But, you know, quietly you get Alex Wolff in there kind of anchoring a huge piece of this. Both movies! What you get on his face and the way that his sort of emotional life plays on his face in not that many words and the way that he plays against people and what he shows you about how he feels about Martha in the first movie and how he feels about her in this movie and how he feels about his grandfather. It’s like, he’s doing a lot of the table setting for the whole thing. You know what I mean? It’s quietly a very important piece of it.
I also wanted to ask you about your working relationship with Wade [Eastwood], too. I was very excited when I noticed he was second unit director on this.
KASDAN: It was great. We had a really good time. I was a fan. I just thought he’d done some amazing stuff and I thought this is exactly the kind of person that would be great to bring in and sort of help me figure out how to expand that aspect of these, you know? And I got in touch with him, didn’t know him, got in touch with him. We had some people in common who worked on the first movie that were back for the second movie who had worked with Wade before and said, ‘You guys should talk.’ He knew Welcome to the Jungle, was into it and was into the opportunity and he liked the idea of helping me expand that aspect of it.
Is there any specific thing that he worked on and then you get the footage and you’re like, ‘Damn, I can’t believe he pulled that off?’
KASDAN: Yeah, a bunch of stuff! I mean, he did great stuff. They went out and shot a lot of the car stuff with the ostriches. We did a lot of it and then they did a lot of it, you know? They did a lot of the actual fast-moving distant car stuff. It was awesome. Just like spectacular footage. He did a lot of great work on that dance fight that is one of my favorites. He’s the real deal. Super talented guy.