The road to making the Jungle Cruise movie a reality is long and winding. The origins of Disney’s theme park attraction adaptation date back to 2004, fresh off the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. The studio was itching the capitalize on their new unlikely franchise with additional movies based on theme park rides, but despite a few updates over the years (at one point Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were poised to star), Jungle Cruise languished in development for quite some time. That is, until Dwayne Johnson came along.
As producer Hiram Garcia puts it, Dwayne Johnson and Jungle Cruise was a fated match made in heaven. During an exclusive, extended interview, Garcia (who is the president of production at Johnson’s Seven Bucks Productions) revealed how Jungle Cruise came about, in addition to talking about the many exciting projects on Seven Bucks’ upcoming slate. Like many others in the 2000s, Johnson was a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and had hoped to one day make a film of that scale and scope. And as it turns out, his favorite Disney ride is Jungle Cruise. So when Disney’s president of production Sean Bailey asked Johnson and Seven Bucks Productions if they were interested in doing something with Jungle Cruise, they jumped at the opportunity.
Garcia explained that it took a few years and several drafts of the screenplay to get the tone right – they wanted something in the vein of Pirates and Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone – but it was actually a shift in the lead character dynamic that “unlocked” the movie. Garcia describes it as a “revelatory moment” when they hit upon the notion of seeing the movie through the eyes of Emily Blunt’s scientist character, which then allowed Johnson’s skipper character to be looser and a bit more fun, much the same way Jack Sparrow is the goofy supporting character in the original Pirates trilogy while Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan are the story’s main protagonists.
By most accounts they succeeded. Initial reactions are wildly positive, and audiences are fired up and ready to experience this fun-filled adventure. Speaking of, I also asked Garcia what went into the discussions that led to releasing Jungle Cruise both in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on the same day, and while he notes it was a big decision, ultimately he said it was an easy one given Seven Bucks’ “Audience First” motto.
Garcia and I also spoke about why they chose Jaume Collett-Serra to direct Jungle Cruise (which led to him directing Johnson’s big DC movie debut Black Adam), the experience of collaborating with a studio like Disney, and whether a potential Jungle Cruise sequel is in the works for the big screen or if a TV spinoff on Disney+ is under consideration.
This is only the first part of a much longer interview with Garcia that touches on everything from Black Adam to Hobbs & Shaw 2, so stay tuned to Collider for more with Garcia soon.
For now, check out what he had to say about Jungle Cruise below. The film will be released in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 30th.
So how did this happen? Did Disney come to you with Jungle Cruise? Did you guys have the idea, and then what was that original idea and how different is it from what the film became?
HIRAM GARCIA: Well so, it’s a couple aspects to it because it’s actually been in development a very long time. So look, as filmmakers, you always have a dream of making a big, giant Disney film, especially a big four-quadrant film that people ages eight to 80 can see. And for us, at Seven Bucks, that’s our specialty, right? We love to make films that make people feel good, deliver wish fulfillment and escapism. And in conjunction with that, DJ years ago — he always famously says he remembers seeing the first Pirates trailer and just being so enamored with it and just appreciative of what they made and what they were able to do with Johnny and thinking to himself, “Man, I hope one day I get to a point where, in my career, I can do one of these movies.” And ironically, the Jungle Cruise ride was always his favorite Disney ride.
So, sometimes things just tend to work out. Obviously when he first had that dream, several years had to pass before it happened. But at one point, Sean Bailey and Disney said, “Look, we would love to do something with the Jungle Cruise ride. What do you guys think?” And you can imagine what those words were like — “Well, look, not only is that Dwayne’s favorite ride and not only are we these giant Disney fans, but yes, of course we would love to.” And then we began the long process of developing the film, and after several writers and passes of really wanting to make sure we did it right, we were able to get the script to a place that we felt paid homage to the kind of films we wanted to do, but also lived up to what we felt a big four-quadrant Disney film like this should be, which is that kind of big, fun action adventure that is fun for the whole family. And has those elements that everyone loves so much from an Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone, all combined into this fun start and representation of this very famous ride.
Was there one like moment or thing that unlocked it and was like, “Oh, this is what the movie is,” and then it really gained steam?
GARCIA: I think as we were developing it, I do think there was a moment where we kind of realized how we wanted to structure the character DJ plays and the character Emily plays. And it was a really kind of a revelatory moment for us when we realized, “You know what? There’s something really fun to almost seeing the movie through Emily’s eyes and allowing DJ to be this kind of fun, con man, swindled cruise leader of this ship.” And it gave DJ this freedom to be a little bit more fun and loose with the character. And it was something that we felt that the Pirates movies had done a really good job on in terms of how they let Johnny be this free flowing character and circling around someone else who might be driving the story. So that kind of a template for us allowed us to start to shake things up. And we didn’t exactly mirror that, but we did a hybrid of it that allowed us to have the freedom that we wanted for both characters. So that both Emily and DJ could really play the version of these characters they wanted, while still driving the story together in a really fun way.
I think that’s really smart. So many different films have tried to imitate those Pirates movies, especially the first three that Gore Verbinski did. And this feels like it’s the closest to like, “Oh, that’s the thing that I love about those movies, that’s the tone, that’s the feel.”
GARCIA: That was our hope. And I’ll tell you one of the things that we really appreciated and we thought it was so funny was when the first trailer came out, how many people also alluded to The Mummy [franchise], which ironically was where DJ got started in the business. So we just thought, look, we’re such fans of those movies. We thought it was a great compliment. And I think all those kinds of movies, Indiana Jones, Mummy, you name it, Romancing the Stone. So it’s just big, fun, adventuring types of movies, those were the template we were always going for with Jungle Cruise. So to hear audiences instantly feeling the similarities to those other movies was really exciting for us.
So Jaume Collett-Serra was a bit of an unexpected choice to direct, but you look back at Gore Verbinski, he was also an unexpected choice for Pirates. What made Jaume the right fit for this? And obviously it was a good experience because then you guys teamed up on Black Adam.
GARCIA: Yeah, well I think we had been watching Jaume for years and I think when you look at the films, he did, Jaume does so much with so little in his previous films, right? A lot of those movies weren’t big, but what you see what he did with The Shallows, which he made that movie feel huge. And when you know the production stories behind it, that was a very small movie and his ability to tell great stories, but to also wheel genre really well, he loves dark and edgy stuff and that was something we wanted in our movie. Obviously, we want big fun action adventure, but we also wanted it to have some bite and definitely some scary moments in it as these adventures are going up against incredible obstacles and supernatural things.
And when we met with Jaume, he just had such an unbelievable vision of the movie and he was able to pitch on all the kinds of scale we wanted. But when he cut down to it, he just really drilled down on what the core of the movie was. He just said it was about love. And I felt what he drilled into that, I remember we were actually meeting, we were on another movie and he had come and we were sitting in DJ’s trailer and I just remember DJ’s eyes lighting up and Jaume just got it. And it was the beginning of such an unbelievable relationship because I cannot say enough about Jaume. And he’s been such an incredible partner to us and become such a close friend of ours where there’s just not enough Jaumes to go around because of all the projects I want to give him. He’s truly a brilliant filmmaker.
I really think the world is going to respond in a big way to what he did with this. And it was during Jungle Cruise, just realizing this chemistry and synergy that we had with him, that I remember sitting him down for lunch and saying, “Look, I have this idea, we’re doing Black Adam, I would love you to be our director on Black Adam. Let me just start to pitch you.” And he got it right away. And he was like, “Oh, I’m in, I’m in.” And the guy is such a machine and he was finishing up Jungle Cruise, and he was starting to think about Black Adam and we’ve just kept him busy, but I can’t keep him in into family enough for Emily, DJ, myself, Dany, everyone at FlynnPictureCo were so obsessed with Jaume and he’s really a great partner. And look what he did on Jungle Cruise is amazing, and I can’t wait for you to see what he’s doing on Black Adam. You’re going to be fired up, man. He’s a machine. We’re very fortunate to have him on board.
I’m also curious what the collaboration process was like with Disney, because this isn’t just like a new Disney movie, this is like an iconic ride that is at their parks and they do not want to tarnish the legacy of this franchise. So what’s that negotiation like?
GARCIA: I got to tell you it was awesome. They’re such an efficient machine over there and there’s such care in their properties. And from the top down, we deal so much with Sean Bailey, who’s just incredible, but our partnership with them and the Disney Imagineers and the care and focus that goes into a property like this, that is such a beloved ride. It was obviously one of Walt’s flagship rides when he created Disneyland. He was the first skipper ever on a Jungle Cruise ride. So working hand in hand with them, making sure that we were properly utilizing it because we really wanted to sprinkle in Easter eggs and really pay proper homage to the original ride as well as the park in general. And they were right with us every step of the way, really supported us in everything we wanted to do.
And when you have a studio partner like that, that really lets you get under the hood and they’re getting under the hood with you, and as we were going along, there were things we wanted to adjust or tweak. They had our back in every way and they were such unbelievable partners and really allowed us to make the best version of the movie we wanted to. And I think walking away from it, we couldn’t have been happier. We’re so grateful that we got to do it with them. We have big ambitions to do other things with Disney. We can’t do enough with that family, but I got to tell you, as a partner, they were phenomenal. And to this day, even in terms of how they support the movie, hopefully you’ve been seeing, you can see the movie everywhere, they are 100% behind it. And they’re really the perfect kind of partner you’d want to when making a movie like this.
Yeah. So, I wanted to ask you about that as well. I mean, you guys had a huge decision to make when the pandemic came along, how did the decision for the hybrid theatrical Disney+ Premier Access release come about?
GARCIA: It’s funny, it was a big decision, but it was an easy decision and something you always hear Dwayne talking about is something Dany and I love to talk about and we always equate it to really our bosses, is we always just start with the fans. And I think our main goal was how can we make sure that we deliver the movie to the fans in the best way possible and the most comfortable way possible. So we never want it to be in a situation, given the uncertainty of what’s going on in the world obviously with the pandemic, of making fans see the movie one way. There’s going to be a lot of people that are uncomfortable maybe going to the theater right now. So for us, it was what’s going to allow us to get the movie in front of as many eyes as possible and in the most comfortable way for them to enjoy it?
And for us, Disney was a great partner in that, as we all decided, “Look, let’s do a theatrical release along with Disney Premier Access and people can choose.” Do you want to see it in a theater?” Great. Well, we’re going to provide that option for you, but would you rather stay home? Great. Well, you have that option as well. And I think once it always comes back to just trying to take care of the fans and what are they going to enjoy most, I think that the path was laid out clear for us. So I think we’re all feeling really happy with the decision we made, especially it’s kicking up again as we can feel it over here. And we feel like we have enough options now for audiences that they can still see the movie however they want to see, and see it in the way that they’re going to be most comfortable seeing.
So if Jungle Cruise is successful, this is interesting because I would usually say, are there plans for sequel? But now you have the Disney Plus component, if there is a future for Jungle Cruise, is it on the big screen? Is it on the small screen or is it both?
GARCIA: Well, I always think there’s a version on the big screen. I think the way we make these movies and the way we want to tell these stories, it’s definitely on the big screen, but I think going forward, I think we just realize all things that start on the big screen are going to have a small screen component too, right? So I will say, but as the filmmakers, our design of the film has always been intended big screen first, that’s what’s designed for, our goal is for the whole family, all your friends from eight to 80, this is the kind of film, those kinds of throwbacks films. But you don’t see as many made anymore where everyone can go have a good time, go on this kind of crazy adventure, a bit of escapism.
And I do think with all this been going on in the world, this is a kind of film you need, right? Where I just think a little bit, we can all use a little bit more escapism, a little bit of wish fulfillment, something to just kind of take our mind off of some of the stuff that’s going on in the real world. So you can leave with a smile before you have to get back to whatever challenges may lay before you, but always theatrical, big screen is our point of entry, and then where we go from there, we’ll always let the world dictate.
Jungle Cruise opens in theaters and will be available on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 30th.
A writer is currently working on a script for a Val-Zod limited series, according to sources.
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