Daniel Radcliffe joins Wolf Creek Director Greg McLean in the Bolivian rainforest for the gloriously tense survival thriller Jungle shot by the award-winning cinematographer Stefan Duscio.
Interview by Hemma Kearney.
AC – Can you tell us a little bit about Jungle?
SD – It’s based on a book called Jungle written by Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli man who in the early 1980s travelled around America and South America and wanted to live the backpacking life. It’s a true story. When he was in Bolivia he met a Swiss guy and an American guy and they started traveling together and became good friends.
Then they met an older German man who told them that he was going on an expedition to the unsung to study a lost tribe and he had done it many times before. So they all get seduced by him to go on an adventure in the Amazon, something they had all wanted to do, and it all starts well but after a couple of weeks in there things start to go wrong and the group starts to fight and the group splits. It’s about Yossi’s survival story after that. Half the film is about the group dynamics and the other half of the film is about how he has to survive in the Amazon for weeks by himself. It’s a very famous book, particularly for those who have travelled in South America.
AC – Did you know the Director, Greg McLean, before the film?
SD – I had known him for years but we had never synced up and so I was so excited by Jungle because I’ve always wanted to film in South America. I know of so many great South American filmmakers, they are some of the most exciting people in film today. I just loved going there.
AC – From the other features you have done it seems that you are very adept at being in the jungle. Did you take a similar approach in how you created tension in the film?
SD – A little bit, yes. I had filmed Canopy (2013) in Singapore which was a survival film in the jungle. That was similar, however this opportunity came up and I was able to do a lot of things that I wanted to do in Singapore and become a much better cinematographer.
AC – What was your biggest challenge on this shoot?
SD – Oh, heaps and heaps of challenges! Locations were really hard. Pre-production was gruelling because, for funding reasons, we had to split the filming up across Queensland and Columbia, and both locations had to look like they were Bolivia and Peru. Trying to figure out what looked right was really hard. I always find pre-production the hardest because it’s where all the heavy thinking is done, and where all the actual filmmaking is happening. Sure, production is hard but pre-production is sometimes the most creative place for the film.
We were a bit disappointed by some of the Columbian locations. It was just so dry and we needed lush green rainforests and rivers. We were stuck with dry rivers and dry forests. So we started looking in Queensland more for rivers but there were no good rivers on the Gold Coast either, so we had to go far up north which wasn’t very production friendly… and had a lot of crocodiles.
Thankfully we went back and re-scouted Columbia and in that time there was a bit of rain and the landscape changed a bit. I spent hours on Google Maps looking at rivers in Columbia and trying to find good spots, then the Director (McLean) and the First Assistant Director (Ian Kenny) spent hours driving and driving looking at different rivers and forests.
Eventually everything fell into place but it took weeks of searching. The real Amazon does go into Columbia but it’s deemed unsafe for filming because of guerrillas, and there was nowhere for crew to stay. It was also hours and hours away from the capital.
AC – So how was the time split?
SD – We did about four weeks in Columbia and four weeks in Queensland. In Columbia, our focus was more around rivers, towns and villages whilst Queensland was more focused on jungle interiors. A little studio work as well.
Queensland was great in terms of being able to park right where the jungle scene was, and the crew were used to those kinds of locations, whereas in Columbia we were shooting in places that had never been shot in before. We had to develop pulley systems to get equipment down to rivers and gear had to be walked in very far. We couldn’t get in with four-wheelers.
One spot we had to get donkeys to take gear in and out, we were there for four days. The entire thing was a big logistical exercise. The Columbian crew was great to help facilitate all this and we did have extra crew to support with this.
AC – What did you shoot on?
SD – Alexa XTs with Cooke anamorphic lenses. We also had some Optimo Angenieux zooms. 30-72mm and 55-152mm but we pretty much shot 90% on the primes. With the zooms we used them when we had no time to change lenses. For example, when we were going down the river on rafts shooting from one raft to the other, I could get different shot sizes quickly. There was no focus puller in those shots so I was doing that too! The rafts would move apart and the river had some very rough areas.
AC – How did you protect the camera from the water?
SD – We literally just put plastic over it and crossed our fingers. It got pretty hectic but it all worked out. We had professional white water rafters steering the rafts while I was shooting, so I was in good hands. You want to really avoid green screens when it comes to showing the actors rafting but also not have the footage too shaky. It’s still composed well in a cinematic way. The actors had to be in full dialogue and in scenes in the raft also. It wasn’t just action sequences it was them going through drama together as well as steering.
Australia had its own challenges. In Columbia we had twelve-hour days and in Australia we only had ten-hour days. It would start to get dark at about 3pm so we had to shoot a lot quicker here and with less crew.
AC – Who did you take over as part of your camera crew?
SD – Just my First Assistant Camera, Luke Thomas, and the rest were all local including a local Steadicam guy. The language barrier was tricky as they all had fairly broken English.
AC – How big was your total crew?
SD – Approximately one-hundred-thirty in Columbia and about seventy in Queensland.
AC – Were you happy with how everything went in the end?
SD – Yes, I think we definitely blended the two location very well. We just needed to be very aware of how things were going to be cutting together.
AC – Was it mostly single camera?
SD – No, it was 80-90% two camera coverage and that was driven a lot by Mclean. He really wanted two cameras and we very rarely cross shot. It was mainly two cameras on the same actor or two cameras down the line but often it was an ensemble cast so we were trying to capture live reactions, it was fantastic.
AC – Did you approach Jungle differently to others films you have done?
SD – I approached this one more invisible than I had been in the past. I wanted the compositions to be more classic, still and locked and I wanted the camera movement to be a lot more deliberate. I had done a lot of handheld in the past and I wanted to steer away from that a bit more and do this film on dollys, sticks, sliders, cranes and Steadicam. I wanted it to be really dramatic, classic and centred. Taking inspiration more from someone like Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC where his work feels just effortless.
I tried to keep the camera moving a lot in the jungle interiors because in the past when I have shot jungles when the camera is still it is really hard to read the jungle as a three dimensional space because it’s hard to tell what trees are foreground and what are background. Wherever possible I would keep the camera moving just to keep the parallax happening so you could read the jungle in a three dimensional space. Each time I did the image and the world came to life.
When we got to Queensland we did a lot more lighting because the days were just so short, sunset was at 5.15pm and in the jungle it meant it got dark at 3pm. Well before 3pm I was pulling out large HMI bouncers just to get some fill light under the canopy and get exposure under there. As the light dropped I had to keep riding the levels until it got dark and then sometimes if we were running a bit overtime we had to shoot night for day which was even trickier for a film that’s meant to look so natural just to get exposure and finish a scene. Keeping the feeling of a naturally lit scene whilst giving McLean enough time and freedom to finish a scene was one of the biggest challenges.
AC – How was it working with Greg McLean?
SD – He was very collaborative and we did a lot of work in pre-production together. He really liked Deliverance (1972, cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond HSC ASC) and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004, Eric Gautier AFC) and we met somewhere in the middle with it. There was always an open dialogue with him and he was always enthusiastic, positive and happy to be there everyday. His energy was limitless. Particularly after twelve-hour days, and after four weeks he could have kept going.
In terms of lighting, he really let me do my own thing. He was more coverage focused and it was great that he let me do that and gave me guidance when it was needed. It felt quite seamless and we shared similar taste with style so it was perfect. Coming from Wolf Creek (2005) he definitely didn’t take the horror approach with Jungle, but more the thriller which worked really well.
AC – Finally, what was a highlight moment that stood out for you?
SD – Probably white water rafting whilst holding an Alexa with Daniel Radcliffe… and trying not to fall out of the boat!
Hemma Kearney is a Vice President of the Queensland Branch of the Australian Cinematographers Society.