Greg McLean, director of ‘Jungle,’ starring Daniel Radcliffe, talks to DGO

by Patty Templeton

SPOILER WARNING: You find out if the main character lives or dies by the second question of this interview. I mean, it is a true story from the ’80s so, seriously, smalls, there’s been time to find that out, but just letting you know. Greg McLean is an intentional director who deals in deep truth. His movies, such as “Wolf Creek,” are marked by the brutality of being and enduring savage circumstances. McLean’s newest film, “Jungle,” is slated for an Oct. 20 release and is based on the true story of Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) who, in 1981, was lost in an uncharted part of the Amazonian jungle with little to no supplies. It is a harrowing film that follows the gruesome course of a starving man, losing his mind, but still setting his heart on hope and gratitude.

DGO caught a preview of “Jungle” at the Telluride Horror Show. It’s the kinda flick that’ll make you cringe in your seat, hold your breath, and immediately want to talk about it. We caught up with McLean to discuss “Jungle” and wandered into a convo covering everything from mythic structure to never killing the dog.

Why was “Jungle” an important story for you to tell? I was looking for a movie that would take me on a journey, personally, that was one reason. I was looking for something different, a film that wasn’t strictly horror. I found it to be a very moving story, a true story, and it kind of made me cry. Anything that has that effect on me, I get drawn to. It was inspiring. That’s why I wanted to do it.

“Wolf Creek” was based on a true story, “The Belko Experiment” is based on real, morally gray psychological studies, and “Jungle” is based on a true survival tale. Why work in true stories? I think scary stories that have an element of truth are always scarier. That’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to the “Wolf Creek” story. I originally started writing a script that was a silly thriller and then I found out all these true stories that were so much more terrifying than what I could come up. They were real and I had something to grapple with.

A lot of the great horror films have an element of truth, whatever shred it is or however much it is manipulated to make a movie. “The Conjuring” is based on a true story. I love those films, but if you know anything about the cases you go [raises eyebrow]. It’s such a shred of truth, but it doesn’t matter. It helps the audience connect to it in a different way.

“Jungle” is all about telling a true story and, in a way, removing myself and the filmmaking out of the way of that truth. The book itself was written by Yossi Ghinsberg, who was not a writer. He blurted out what happened in a confessional way. I was trying to capture that simplicity in the filmmaking.

Did Yossi Ghinsberg give you any tips about how to portray his story?He identified the mythic structure of the story that unintentionally happened. Each of his friends who were drawn together had archetypal qualities ingrained. It made the situation that happened able to happen. All archetypes have a positive and a negative and his friend Kevin, who is the hero in the story, he is the knight archetype, but the downside of the knight is that he can be so rigid and strict that he can be brutal. Yossi was the fool who is innocent but naive to a detriment where he fell into his own trap. Yossi laid out the mythic, archetypal qualities and I tried to draw those elements out in the film. The film is simple, the story is simple, but there is a hope to it and a depth through these archetypal qualities.

Do movies get easier to make the more you make them? I’ve done a couple movies, but I still feel like with every film, I am just beginning to learn how to make films. “Belko” was a shift because it was a comedy, as much as exploding heads can be a comedy. I thought it was funny. It was not my script. It was set in an office building. The fun of that was saying, “We’ve done these films with characters in external environments and the emotions they go through. Now you have a frame of an office building with a certain number of floors and how do you make that dramatically interesting?” That was a challenge for me.

I think the next thing I do, I want it to be completely and utterly different, as well – try and keep developing. There are so many things you want to do as a writer or a storyteller, and if you make one thing that works in one genre, everyone is like, “Oh my god, you do that. That is your love.” But artists love everything. You absorb everything and one year you’re really into this and the next you’re really into that.

Is there a lush costume drama hidden inside you? What does “completely different” mean?Yes, definitely. I have a script now that I’ve been dancing around and it’s a gothic horror costume period drama. There are forces in my life saying, “Don’t do that,” but I’m drawn to it. I love films that are all atmosphere and texture, like “Rebecca” and “Jamaica Inn,” films that are all about enclosed areas. It’s a challenge.

People invest in you doing one thing and it is shocking to them if you can even think about doing something else. I understand it. From an industry level, people need to be able to compartmentalize people. Christoph Waltz just did a film. It was a film originally written for him and people were worried and asked why he wanted to do it and he said something like, “Branding is the end of all creativity.” Basically, once you start branding yourself and saying “I’m off brand” or “I’m on brand” – what the f**k is brand? It’s you signing up to what people are trying to pigeonhole you into and celebrating that pigeonhole and saying, “I’m just going to do this.” That’s evil in a way because it kills the spirit.

The idea of showcasing not what you deeply care about but what you think people expect out of you. It’s a trap because it can be confusing for people. They see something that works and then chase that thing as opposed to saying, “That was the great for that and now I’m going to try this.” Everyone makes things that don’t work. Whatever you produce, whether you’re an artist or writer or whatever, you’ll make stuff that doesn’t work, that doesn’t connect. George Lucas did “Howard the Duck.”

I LOVE HOWARD THE DUCK. [Laughs]I know! Right? But it wasn’t necessarily a huge hit. Within all of us and our styles, there is a “Howard the Duck.” [Laughs] I always go back to that. When people worry that they made something that doesn’t work, it’s like, “Well, it’s your ‘Howard the Duck.’” It was seen as a film that was completely misguided, but it’s a great movie.

How important is humor to your work? It’s just sort of there. It’s really weird. I did the second season of the “Wolf Creek” TV show. I’m just finishing it now. I directed the first few episodes. I had the light episodes, the set-up, and wasn’t really doing the scary horror stuff. I got to do the character development and that was fun. There was a lot of humor and fun and the actors kept saying, “You gotta do a comedy, you gotta do a comedy. Why aren’t you doing comedy?” because I love mucking around on set. I love being around actors and we laugh the whole time. The scenes tended toward being silly because I’m a pretty silly person.

And why not do a comedy? Horror and comedy, and I’m not the first person to say this, are two sides of the same coin.

If you did a non-horror comedy what kind of comedy would it be? I don’t know. Before I did “Wolf Creek” I did a bunch of screenplays in all different genres because before that I was in art school for six years and was going to be a painter. That was what I was doing with my time. I started getting into film and went to theater school and it was a long way around to being a director. I wrote an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” but in a contemporary setting. That was one of the scripts that I was shopping around. I had directed a student production of that play and I fell in love with the character of Rosalind and thought, “Oh my god, I love this story. I want to tell this.” I wrote that script and wrote a horror script, which was “Wolf Creek” and “Wolf Creek” got made, but I could have been the comedy guy, if that other script was made.

How do you think horror movies train people to handle real life? I read something recently that watching a horror film, for some people, is a release of their own anxiety. It is other people having a problem and it allows the person to separate themselves from their own life in a pure way. It isn’t you having the anxiety or the fear, it is the character.

Horror films can be confusing to people in the mainstream who see them as nasty or evil or bad or antisocial. They miss the point of what scary stories are and what scary stories do. When you think about fairy tales and mythology and if you look at all the ancient myths, they all have so many horrific elements to them. If you want a horror story, look at the Bible. There are so many fantastic horror images in it. The purpose of the horror tale, whether it is religious or a fairy tale, is that they are teaching stories. They are moral stories. They’re all about action and consequence. Modern horror stories, whether it’s “Friday the 13th” or “Evil Dead” or “Paranormal Activity,” the good ones that resonate have a core idea that speaks to people about what you should and shouldn’t do and social mores we were telling 5,000 years ago. Don’t go to this place – if you do, something bad will happen. If you break this rule or moral code, bad will happen.

Last good story you read? I have a book now by Sofie Laguna, an Australian author, called “The Choke.” It’s really fascinating. I’m about quarter of the way through. A dark tale set in 1950s Australia.

I’m also reading “Danse Macabre,” by Stephen King, for the third time, right now, and I adore that book so much. I read it years ago and I have a beautiful hard copy that I have with me and I don’t want it to end. It’s like hanging out with someone and talking about genre and I don’t want to leave the room. It’s so fantastic.

Is there something you wish you could take back from the screen?I think something that was a mistake was in “Rogue.” There’s a dog that’s owned by one of the main characters. In the end, the dog gets chewed up on screen by a crocodile. At the time, I thought this was really great, but basically, there’s a rule that you do not kill the dog in the movie. I did not know that rule. The film was my ode to the old-time classic, ’70s, monster out of control movies. It was that, until that point. At that point, I feel like I lost the audience. I was at a screening. People getting ripped apart by a crocodile? Great! Dog getting eaten on screen? Bad move for that movie. I would probably let the dog live. Let him run back in the end like Lassie and save the day.

You can kill a cat, you just can’t kill the dog.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity.Patty Templeton


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