Jungle director Greg McLean talks survival, profound storytelling and Daniel Radcliffe's physical transformation
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As this month features the release and return of many a spooky horror film, October also sees the release of a film which tells the story of one man’s greatest nightmare which wasn’t confined to fiction or imagination.
Jungle tells the true story of Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe), who is forced to survive for three weeks alone in the jungle after a rafting accident leaves him stranded and detached from the rest of his group. This incredible true life story is told through the medium of film for the first time by director Greg McLean based on Yossi Ghinsberg’s book of the same name, retelling his ordeal.
The National Student spoke to Greg about the incredible tale of survival and the filmmaking experience. The project came to McLean when a producer he had previously worked with brought the script to him, and after a previous attempt with a different crew which never came to fruition, McLean was to be the force to bring Yossi’s story to life.
While McLean is not exactly drawn to adventure in the way Yossi was, explaining “I’m not very dangerous…I’m really boring”, the Australian director says that it was a deeper element to the survival story which drew him in.
“What did speak to me was the idea that Yossi in the story found a way to use his imagination to help him survive this horrible scenario, and that was really the kind of thing that I was drawn to”.
The film features dream sequences in which Yossi attempts to deal with the extreme situations he finds himself in mentally and physically. McLean continues, “to me it was really profound, this idea that, you know, as human beings we use our imagination and we use dreams and storytelling and art and music to escape in some way or to transcend the sort of boredom, or whatever situation in life that you need release from.
“To me he unconsciously told a very profound idea which is that humans can survive anything with their emotion in tact”. McLean explains that this element to the story was “very poetic” and that was what really drew him to it.
The reality of Yossi’s situation really comes to life through these elements, highlighted by McLean as he stressed that he was so terrified to be alone at night into the jungle, that the fantasies were his escape, and incredibly, Yossi believes he didn’t fully sleep for the entire three weeks that he was in the jungle. However, despite the absurdity of Yossi’s hallucinations, McLean poignantly notes that this is a “great metaphor for art, that’s what we use it for”.
McLean also spoke about the universality and common interest in survival stories, simply stating that “I think people are drawn to see what people are capable of in extreme situations.
“Seeing people survive these extraordinary situations and being inspired by that is something that I think is universal; it's universal fascination”.
The director also took a moment to think about what he would have done in Yossi’s situation. “I think another big part of it is wondering what you would do in that situation...I’ve thought to myself what would I do in that situation that Yossi found himself in…probably just curl up into a ball and cry until a jaguar ate me or something!”.
However, what gives Jungle a totally gritty and authentic edge is Daniel Radcliffe’s impressive performance. McLean recalls Radcliffe’s incredible willingness to go the extra mile for this performance.
“When we first spoke about this on the phone we agreed that to do it we’d have to really go for it in terms of trying to portray what it looked like and what it felt like, and what it’s like to go 19 days without eating, and obviously he didn’t do that, but he did work out a method with his trainers to guide diet, to basically arrive at a particular weight level.
“He was kind of incredible on that level”, he continued. “The physical transformation is amazing, when he came out in those last days and he was just eating an egg for 2 days and stuff…it was amazing how skinny he got”.
Importantly, McLean stressed that it was about trying to be authentic “so people would really understand what Yossi went through”.
The director also praised Radcliffe for his willingness to go above and beyond and well out of his comfort zone. “One of the things that was super impressive about him was A) he was just super smart and B) as an actor he’s basically trying to find the hardest thing he can… he’s really seeking out really interesting roles which just push him into new places.
“It’s really cool to work with someone whose on the same page and just really go there and give it 110 percent”.
The director stressed just how important it was to capture Yossi’s story, and with the help of Yossi himself and the commitment of Radcliffe, Jungle is a real thrill ride which tells a story of the triumph of the human spirit in the worst of adversity.
Jungle is out now in cinemas and on demand, distributed by Signature Entertainment.