I was always a very big fan of the 1995 Jumanji movie, but I’m still shocked that I can’t get enough of talking about the new installments. The more I think about it, the clearer it’s becoming that this has a lot to do with writer-director Jake Kasdan’s approach to the movies – embrace the original but don’t pander to fans and also make sure each installment can stand on its own to feet. So now he’s delivered Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Jumanji: The Next Level, both of which feel firmly rooted in the history and lore started by that first film, expand the world further and also function as very entertaining standalone adventures.
If you haven’t seen The Next Level yet, it’s available to own on Digital, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD now, and I can’t recommend it enough. But, if you haven’t seen it yet, this is where I have to leave you because this conversation I had with Kasdan is loaded with spoilers. Check out the interview below to hear about how Lamorne Morris wound up casting himself as the repairman, about what Bebe Neuwirth brought to the film, the status of the next Jumanji movie and if we’ll ever find out who’s playing the avatar Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann)!
JAKE KASDAN: [Laughs] The first one, I guess we called it Jumanji. And then the second one, the whole time we called it J-19, which was just sort of a working title to put on all our stuff. And then we were trying to figure out what the actual title should be on a daily basis the entire time [laughs], and ended up with The Next Level. Have you looked at the extras on the
Some of them!
KASDAN: There’s a lot of stuff of Jack [Black] riffing, pitching on what the title should be, and that was actually what we were doing the whole time. And Jack had a lot of pressure on him because the first one, the only really good titling story was, one day we were in Hawaii and the whole time Jack enters singing a lot of the time, like you hear him before you see him. He’s got this big amazing voice and it’s kind of awesome. You get to hear him sing all the time when you make a movie with him, and he was always singing “Welcome to the Jungle” when he’d walk on set. Then one day, he came up to me and said, ‘I’ve got it. The movie should be called Welcome to the Jungle, and we should get the song.’
And actually, we hadn’t really thought of that and it ended up being, I just thought it was inspiring! It was inspired on every level because the song is sort of the perfect way to realign people’s expectations for what Jumanji is, from the movie 20 years before. It’s just a good title for that movie. So he had a lot of pressure on him the second time to come up with a title. [Laughs] And he took that pressure seriously and was pitching mainly song titles the whole time. Then we ended up at Next Level.
How did you wind up casting Lamorne Morris as the repairman? And is he a character you plan on bringing back?
KASDAN: That actually is kind of a funny thing. He and I have worked together for years because I worked on New Girl for years. The other shows that I’ve worked that closely on either never made it past the first season, like Freaks and Geeks. Really, it was the first time I’d been on a show that made it past one season, and I was around in a very hands-on way for the first few years and so I had worked with Lamorne a lot and knew how amazing he is, and we’d become friends because a show like that does become a family of sorts.
When we were trying to put together a table read for the second Jumanji movie, I couldn’t get everybody in one place to do a full table read while we were in pre-production because the great big cast and people were spread out all over the world. So I got Lamorne to come pick up some parts. And at this table read, I thought he might do it for fun and he was available that day. Which is not all the time because the guy works like crazy these days. And I was just like, ‘Can you give me a favor and come do this reading with us, and you can meet everybody?’ And he was fantastic and very helpful, and he’s just a brilliant actor. And as we were walking out and he says, ‘Who’s doing the heater guy?’ [Laughs]
I said, ‘If you’re free, it’s all you, man!’ I just knew that was a brilliant idea and was so happy to have a minute. And then there’s this funny thing where we shot that scene right in the beginning of the schedule. You know, we did all this stuff with the real world before we did the game world. And as we were doing it, I was like, ‘I think this is one of my favorite scenes we’ve ever had in one of these movies!’ There was something about the way he’s looking at that machine and everything, I loved it. And then we start screening the movie and people were just so excited to see him at the end. It made me so happy. I felt like that was a lucky thing where he’d be an amazing addition to that world.
Back at the junket, you told me that Bebe Neuwirth’s role in the movie was a late breaking thing so I was wondering, what did the end of the movie look like originally when you didn’t have her part of it?
KASDAN: I’m trying to remember. The whole movie happened pretty fast. Once we had that scene, it was kind of the first time that we felt like we had a really good ending. You know, like the right ending for the story. What I loved about that was the idea kind of came from, this is where you want to see Eddie’s story land. That after reconnecting with his friend and getting this thing that had been kind of an injury that he wasn’t tending to, you know, his estrangement from his best friend, and after their reconciliation, a really bittersweet story between them, that he’s looking at the world differently and receptive to the world in a different way. And I love what happens purely from a character standpoint, I just loved what happens for him in that scene.
And then with the additional thought that Bebe could do it and play the same character and we could have this really nice, organic connection to the original movie, which is the way that I like that to work is that it feels like they’re in a world together but it’s not forced in some pandering way. There’s a connectedness between them but it’s not your classic sequel connectedness. They’re not in a story together until that moment, and then suddenly they are kind of in the story together, right at the very end of the second movie! You see that connection forged and I thought it was a funny and romantic kind of idea.
And the thought that Eddie has learned to smolder in his time away, all of that. That was the part of it I got really excited about. And then when Bebe agreed to come do it, then it got to be truly exciting. It gets this whole other dimension because having her there in the first place, was just exciting. And then, she’s just so good. She’s just this wonderful actress. So she walks in, she’s in the movie for a minute and a half and what she does I think is just so fun. And gets a huge laugh because her reaction to him! She does this sort of take when he turns it on, and there was actually a big laugh in the theater and everything. You see her flesh in a way that’s unbelievably hard to act and she’s wonderful, you know?
That she is! How does time in Jumanji work? Specifically, why do Judy and Peter in the original movie not remember anything, but the kids in your movie do?
KASDAN: We’ve tried hard to stay kind of consistent with the set of rules that is started in the first movie, but not really designed for the way that we’re – the design in the first movie does not take into account the weird reconception that would happen 25 years later, unsurprisingly. [Laughs]
They don’t remember it because they were not – Allen Parish remembers it. So in other words, Robin and Bonnie’s characters remember it because they’re the ones who emerged with the memory intact. And the way that the first movie ends, because they have emerged at the time that they entered the game, the way we’ve tried it, the way we’ve sort of played the role also, right? Which is like, you come back out at the time that you went in.
They are able to preemptively prevent the kids from having that experience in the first movie. Do you see what I’m saying? So the kids show up in town at the end of the first movie, they recognize them, and there’s the scene where they tell the parents, ‘Don’t go on a ski trip.’ There’s this moment at the very end where they alter the course of the present day in the original Jumanji, 1996 right? And prevent the kids from ever having the experience of playing the game. Whereas they had the experience as kids 25, 30 years before, Bonnie and Robin’s characters. They remember what happened, you follow?
KASDAN: Does that make sense?
I can’t believe how much time I’ve put into thinking about that, and how much that answer makes sense and seems so obvious to me now. [Laughs]
KASDAN: [Laughs] Believe me, I fully sympathize. I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out, that exact thing. And specifically trying to figure out how it would, because it created this issue in the first movie where we really wanted to find a good organic connection. With the first movie, my first movie, we wanted to find a good organic connection to the original. But what made that so challenging was exactly the thing you’re talking about which is, the end of the original movie sort of undoes the events of the movie, so none of the characters other than the two have moved past that moment with the cumulative experience that they would remember.
I have a feeling you’re getting asked about this a lot right now, but where are you at with the third film?
KASDAN: We’re just starting to talk about all of that, and the truth is we’ve barely started. We were just getting into the conversation before this global calamity and we will re-engage it as soon as everybody’s settled. We all love working together and we’ve loved making these. To me, the thing that’s always been most critical when talking about a sequel, first in the first movie and now in the possibility of another sequel is, it would have to be exciting on its own two feet in a way that’s comparable to what the first two were for me. I would have to love the idea just as much. So I think there will be a third one and it’s just the earliest days of trying to figure out what that would be.
And lastly, will we ever find out who is playing the avatar, Jurgen?
KASDAN: That’s one of the things I would love to – I love that idea! [Laughs] Again, as we’re doing it we were just like, ‘This could be really cool.’ But I would love that.