After two decades of making memorable comedies, including directing the TV show Freaks and Geeks and the cult faux biopic Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Jake Kasdan has joined the family business: writing and directing sci-fi mega-hits.
The 43-year-old filmmaker jumped from raunchy laughs (he also directed Bad Teacher and Sex Tape) to blockbuster action with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the don't-call-it-a-reboot sequel to the classic Robin Williams comedy. As the son of legendary Star Wars and Indiana Jones screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, he's got genre entertainment in his DNA, and the critical acclaim — and nearly $1 billion worldwide gross — for the Jumanji update proved that he was paying attention as a kid on set.
Kasdan took an abbreviated version of the SYFY WIRE Survey to talk about his childhood, his career, and making The Rock seem like a dork.
What is the first script you ever wrote, whether it was as a kid or a professional?
Jake Kasdan: The first script I ever wrote was in high school, I was writing plays. I was that guy, like the kid from Rushmore. I started writing plays but they were sort of about ... they were very kind of first-person, young adult drama. They were sort of kinda meant to be funny and I started staging them with friends in theater programs in high school.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? Did you wanna be a playwright or a screenwriter?
I grew up around it, so I had like a front row seat to see that this was incredibly great work if you were lucky enough to be able to do it. Usually, I wanted to be a director. There were moments where I turned away from that and think maybe I didn't wanna do the same thing, but in general, that's what I wanted to do.
Once you became a filmmaker, what was the hardest scene to make?
You could probably say that there was stuff in Jumanji that was the most challenging, just because it was the most laborious and technical. I was learning a sort of new set of skills and different tools than I had ever used before. I think I probably never worked more on a scene than I did on the rhino-helicopter chase in Jumanji. That's probably the winner. The most complicated thing I've ever done. I had never done anything with this much action and definitely nothing with this level of visual effect.
What’s the best day you’ve ever had on set?
I'm lucky to have a lot that I look back on, just like an unbelievably great experience. There were a bunch of days on Jumanji that were pretty incredible. There were a bunch of days on Walk Hard that were just as exciting and fun as anything I've ever done. And then my first movie, Zero Effect, on the third or fourth day, when I finally got over the total anxiety about doing it all, I was like "oh my, this is incredible! This is really, really exciting."
What was it about that third or fourth day that made for such a revelation?
When that movie started the night before my first day ever as a professional director, I got like violently ill. I did like the first three days sort of under the weather, fairly seriously under the weather. And then, like on the fourth day I think it was, it just lifted, and it was just like the relief of not fighting that off. And it was the two guys [stars Ben Stiller and Bill Pullman] just doing a big dialogue scene that I really loved. Like a scene that I was excited to be shooting, and it was them on this rooftop in Portland, in a parking structure, and there was something about the simplicity of, I'm actually making this movie! I had been working on the script for a couple years and it was just so thrilling.
On Jumanji, how’d you get The Rock to channel his inner scared teenage dweeb?
He was completely game, even though it's a long way from what we're used to seeing him do. I think he really embraced that. He just loved doing it, he got what was fun about that, and was completely all-in on doing it. There was never a moment of feeling like he was resisting playing somebody with all of these very basic, human frailties. And there's something really funny about saying that on the strongest man in the world. It wasn't hard, we were talking about it the whole time, just trying to come up with ways of doing it and shaking up what we were doing and different colors and shades. I love working with the guy, he's the greatest.
Even for a guy like that, I think he felt like there were parts he could relate to. He didn't feel like, you know, this was like I'm playing an alien. I think he relates to, in whatever way, it may be different from me, but he does relate to having insecurities and anxiety. So, he was able to draw on that stuff. I think to some extent the character sort of talks a little bit like I used to talk when I was a teenager. I did some writing on it, specifically writing for how everybody talks, and I think I was the perfect person to coach him.
What’s the best creative tip or advice you’ve ever received?
I think the thing I was trying to figure out is, how real can you make the thing. How do you learn to relax and letting something be almost documentary real, even when it's in the context of something very stylized and broad. I think probably the best creative tip I ever got about it was, you're best off to think in terms of trying to find the voice that sounds authentically like yourself. And I don't mean dialogue voice, I mean that sort of sensibility that feels authentically like yourself, in the midst of all different genres. It has a tendency to eliminate ways that you can make them better than your own.
Who gave you that advice?
As I was getting ready to do my first movie, a lot of people did. I would get different versions of that same sort of thought from all of the really smart directors that I was talking to. Everyone has different ways of thinking about those issues, but that's the unifying theme: find the part that is you in any different kind of story. And that's what you're hanging on.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is available on digital download and hits Blu-ray on March 20.