A true story of survival against all odds, four travellers set off into the heart of the Jungle, but what begins as a dream adventure quickly deteriorates into a nightmare.
As the opening film to the 66th Melbourne International Film Festival, Jungle follows the ill-fated trek of the 22-year-old Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), who in the early 1980s set off from the Bolivian city of La Paz to hike in the Amazon. Ghinsberg, along with two friends – Swiss teacher Marcus Stamm and American photographer Kevin Gale – would soon find himself stranded in the dense rainforest, turning what was meant to be an expedition of a lifetime into a desperate fight for survival.
Best known for Australia’s most successful horror movie, Wolf Creek, director Greg McLean offers another side of his filmmaking skills in this tense picture, based on the best-selling memoir by Ghinsberg.
“As soon as I read it [the script] I was very moved by the story, it just made me cry,” McLean reveals. “It just had a very powerful emotional impact and I just thought this is such an amazing story, so inspiring, and the fact that it is true just made it all that much more powerful. I just fell in love with it and fell in love with the character of Yossi, and Kevin, and was kind of fascinated by how the group came together and how they fell apart.
“It’s one of those things, people who work in this industry, directors and actors, all we do is kind of look for stories that are moving and stories that make you feel something. I was looking for a different kind of story to tell as a director,” he says, “But I thought also it would be a huge challenge for the film-maker to actually try and pull the film off because people had been trying to make the film for 20 years and no one had worked out how to do it,” he says.
As a survival story based on Ghinsberg real life, it was key for McLean to ensure the core of this enlightenment was still present in the script. To guarantee complete accuracy, McLean and Ghinsberg sat in a room for two weeks so the director could extract all the details he wanted of what really happened.
“I had a screenplay that I inherited from a previous set up of the film and I just wanted to go through it with him [Ghinsberg] and ask him directly about things that were described and say ‘is this how this really happened?’,” McLean reveals. “And often I found that things had found their way into the script that didn’t happen or didn’t happen the way they were described, so my goal was to basically go back to the best telling of the story, which to me, was the book. I just wanted to make sure that what we were telling and the essence of the relationships that were showing, was as close to reality as possible. We were just trying to get clear on the truth of the situation.
“People can get side-tracked,” he continues, “people try to make it more like a movie, or more cinematic because they don’t think the audience will be interested, they try and manufacture interest, whereas to me, the most interesting thing was the truth of it, and the simplicity of it.”
Telling as much of the story as humanly possible, the depiction of some events portrayed in the film become both confronting and inspiring, as Yossi is left alone with himself, and with the jungle, and is reduced to a raw, vulnerable core, while holding on to hope that he will be saved.
“They are all real, all those moments were straight from the book and from what Yossi described happened,” McLean says. “Once he escaped the Jungle, he spent 12 months recuperating, and then within 12 months he wrote down the book, and he pretty much wrote down exactly his experience was and what happened. And all those things, they’re some of the really amazing parts of the story that were really compelling – what he went through physically to survive this and just his determination to not just give up and die and let it happen to him, and I think the determination in his character is something that I was really drawn to because that’s really interesting to see what people are capable of in these extreme situations. It’s really inspiring.”
The nightmarish journey took place in Bolivia, but to achieve the best production values for an Australian film, and to enable the best framework for a South American context, shooting took place in Colombia and in Australia.
Along with the setting and the confronting portrayal of survival, it was also the tensions and dynamics between friendships in the story that came to represent a truthful depiction that is both relatable and believable.
“I’ve heard that a couple of times, that people felt like those accurate depictions of how very good friends can sometimes fracture,” McLean confesses. “I mean everyone’s been through a situation in life where you have really close friendships that just fall apart and it’s for odd reasons sometimes, why that happens, which is an interesting element in the story.”
A true credit in Jungle has to be given to Radcliffe himself, who truly gave himself to the story proving to be a superbly versatile talent. Specifically, Radcliffe’s preparation for the role would be multifaceted — beyond the extensive exposure to Ghinsberg himself via Skype and developing an Israeli accent, he went through a process of extreme dieting.
“It’s amazing and it speaks to his professionalism and commitment as an actor to really go there and to do something where he pushed himself and challenged himself to this extent, he is just a very committed, very smart actor, great fun to work with, great on set,” McLean explains of Racliffe, who starred alongside Jungle co-stars Alex Russell, Joel Jackson and Thomas Kretschmann.
“It was interesting because we had four very different personalities play the four different characters and they kind of did absorb a lot of their characters while they were working together, in same ways they kind of became like the group. They had to get along, they had to become these people very intensely for long periods of time,” McLean says.
“Luckily, they were all up for the size of the challenge and all up for the adventure and they really had to be because it was pretty extreme conditions shooting the film. They really had to be on board with really going there, and going to the jungle, and telling the story.”
Creating a bold and compelling story, McLean takes on a different kind of terror, all the more potent for being true. Jungle is a stunningly shot, edge-of-your seat story of survival and self-discovery, and is one that needs to be seen.
When & Where: Star Cinema, Bendigo – September 8-10; GPAC, Geelong – September 15-16; and Regent Cinemas, Ballarat – October 13-15. More info via miff.com.au.
Written by Talia Rinaldo