Interview: Max Winkler on a Vision Worth Fighting For in “Jungleland”

In only three films, it’s become apparent that you don’t watch a Max Winkler film so much as step inside one, with the appearance of a world that’s familiar to all deceptive to both those onscreen who are often deluding themselves and those off it who are invited to dig a little deeper for an experience they haven’t exactly had before. Naturally, the director himself isn’t one to visit the same place twice.

“I get so bored of doing the same thing and I’m not good at my job if I’m even a little bit bored,” says Winkler. “All I try to do is take risks and try things that I haven’t done before, and I think if I prepare correctly and work really hard, I can do an okay job at that.”

Winkler has acquitted himself better than that, and his curiosity and restlessness has resulted in films that are difficult to categorize from one to the next, except they impress as fully defined and cohesive individual worlds for the characters who feel out of place in this one. Though it may seem his latest “Jungleland” is a departure, set in the somber backdrop of autunmnal New England with two blue collar brothers – Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion (Jack O’Connell) – imagining riches on the West Coast where a lucrative prizefight in San Francisco beckons the latter, the film establishes its own distinctive reality as early and thoroughly as Winkler’s previous films “Ceremony” and “Flower,” in which the guise of madcap comedies gave way to probing what desperation looks like, feeling as if you had reached into a box of Red Vines and ended up biting into a licorice stick instead. The equation is flipped in “Jungleland” where there is sweetness within the brooding brothers, eventually adopting a dog and a fellow traveler named Sky (Jessica Barden) as they make their way to California on a road bathed in light that can look like gold or rust depending on the angle, with Stanley believing the former as he pushes Lion toward fulfilling his promise as a bare-knuckle brawler.

Fitting when the sport at hand is often won with agility more than brawn, “Jungleland” is wily, presenting the villains in Stanley and Lion’s path as having come and gone with the reduction of jobs that pay a living wage giving way to a number of low-level thugs that can be intimidating but also outsmarted and exploring a bond between the brothers who discover as much as they help each other they may be holding one another back. Hunnam and O’Connell, who lean on their own working class backgrounds in England, contribute to the film’s bone deep authenticity with their empathetic performances, as does co-writer David Branson Smith’s knowledge of the Massachusetts terrain which led Winkler and co-writer Theodore Bressman to dive headlong into reading Joyce Carol Oates’ “On Boxing,” with a little John Steinbeck and Russell Banks sprinkled in, to fashion a tale of a fighter whose hardest battles are fought outside the ring. Following the film’s premiere last year at the Toronto Film Festival, “Jungleland” is making its way to audiences on digital and on demand as a result of the coronavirus and as it rolls out, Winkler spoke about the film’s low-key stylistic touches that make it so immersive as well as making the stakes so high for his characters and working with his cast and crew to strip away the artifice of a film as much as as possible

You’ve said you actually had this script just after “Ceremony.” What was it like returning to it after a few years and some more experience under your belt?

I started writing this when I was editing “Ceremony” and I think there’s probably a lot of similarities thematically and as far as the melodrama between the two male characters. The script changed throughout [the years]. You make another movie and you get other ideas and you put it down and you come back to it with a fresh perspective and something that didn’t work in the last thing you did, you don’t want to make that same mistake twice. Thematically, you see things you’re interested in [generally] because on paper, people are always saying, “Your movies are so different from each other,” and they are obviously, but the main characters all go through a similar experience. It’s always protagonists that are trying to through their own sheer will trying to make the world work the way they want it to and coming up against immoveable objects in the universe, smacking them back down. So I feel there’s a kinship between the three movies in a way because the protagonists are all trying to work out being their most authentic selves and also coming to terms with how intensely scared they are.

The relationship between the brothers is really special – you’re able to show how they make up for each other’s shortcomings in how fluidly they move between between being strong and sensitive, balancing each other out. Was that difficult to get on screen?

Yeah, I see the relationship in the movie between the brothers as almost more like mother and son — I always saw Stanley more as a single mother than as an older brother. His entire existence is dedicated to imperfectly getting this young man with this wonderful talent to realize that gift. It’s also a bit of a breakup movie because the brothers are so deeply enmeshed with each other and they don’t know how to say goodbye, yet they both know it’s the best thing possible. They’re overstaying their welcome and [from the beginning of the film] Stanley feels like he’s not going to be around for a lot longer. He’s one of those characters that right when you meet him, you’re [thinking], “You’re burning the candle at too many ends.” It’s not sustainable the way in which he lives his life as it frustrates his younger brother so deeply.

One of the last things we filmed was a scene in the locker room before Jungleland [the boxing event] at the end and [Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell] were both getting into character and it wasn’t scripted that they were supposed to cry. we started on a medium shot and they both kind of broke down and they said something, which I never scripted, which was “I’m going to miss you.” I have chills talking about it right now and it was the last day of filming, and what I think they were saying is “I’m going to miss working with you” because they’d gotten so close. Both were from these working class parts of England and had come to America and working as actors and the displacement that comes from that, but it also worked within the scene in a way because it’s [felt like it was] never going to be the same now. They’ve gone too far. And that moment always felt so authentic and emotional to me.

The fights are quite visceral, but more impressively they play an active part in the narrative of the story in expressing the relationship between the brothers – was that interesting to develop?

Totally. Each fight scene had its own theme. Never were we like, “How do we make this scene look cool?” It was always how do we move the character to this next place. The goal of the first fight is to see how deeply gifted and talented Lion is and how natural he is and yet out of principle and morals, he’s willing to throw it all away as if to tell his brother “I’m not going to do this any more.” Jack did all of his own stunts — he’s such a talented boxer, he trained for this movie like he was training for a fight — and we were able to show these fight scenes in big wide shots, which you don’t normally have the benefit of doing.

And bare-knuckle boxing is different than regular boxing. Sometimes these fights last for two minutes tops. They’re so tight and they’re trying to hurt each other so bad, so there’s a messiness of just how tired these big burly guys were and not in great shape and them missing each other. “Barry Lyndon” does my favorite fight for that at the beginning of the movie, and the second fight [in “Jungleland”] at the mechanic’s [shop], the sadness of it and [seeing Lion as] someone fighting against their will to take care of their brother and the decision to not want to do that anymore and then seeing that it’s from the perspective of the audience and of Sky [played by Jessica Barden], [I wanted to show] “This isn’t ‘Rocky.’ We’re not in a movie here and what these guys subject their bodies to to get by and the way they hustle [is hard]. And then the final fight, without giving it away, is something completely different – it’s Lion actually finding his roar, accepting his role as the wild animal that he’s been so diligently trying to keep inside.

Something impressive about the film is how it travels, but you’re able to get so much of the environment into the frame without the obvious indicators — you’re able to draw on the places to get a real feel for them just in the sounds and backgrounds. Was that tricky to accomplish?

Yeah, that was something we talked about with the editor really early in. [Since it’s a road trip] the fades were really important to me [to indicate] just the time passing and the dreamlike surreal quality of what it actually feels like to drive across the country — the people you find and the locations you come across and the lack of sleep. There used to be so many fades and people were like, “There’s too many fades.” [laughs] And we shot in these real beautiful jewels of the Northeast – New Bedford, Raynham, Taunton, and Fall River, Massachusetts and those real working textile mills and abandoned houses on a hill. These are neighborhoods that were once the richest neighborhoods in all of the world and industry has just left.

The locations were beautiful. Our production designer had to do really little — we [actually] just had to do less. We would do things and when we would look at each other, Damian Garcia, the cinematographer, would say “No, make it feel the way it was before we walked in here.” One thing that was super-difficult and annoying to deal with on the movie was locations and we had a genius location scout named Alex Berard, who was as much of a filmmaker in this as I was. [We] really weren’t settling for anything that didn’t tell the story. There were no [set] builds or anything like that. We were really shooting in abandoned Greyhound racetracks and basically turned that into our sound stage. People were really getting splinters in their hand and cutting their knee and the script was overwritten actually when we shot it and we found as we starting showing the film early on in screenings that a lot of the work had been done just by the actors and the locations and the way we lit it. We get their backstory, we get their routines by seeing them go in and out of this window and taking care of each other in such a way it told the story, and there was little else I needed to do.

There’s both a real nobility and a sense of that classical Northeast spirit in the Lorne Balfe score – what was that like to work on the music?

Yeah, I didn’t want the score to be depressing because I don’t think the movie’s depressing and I don’t think these guys see their circumstances as depressing. I was really interested in [the Renaissance era composer] William Byrd and the way Hal Ashby used music in “The Last Detail,” which is a huge influence for me. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time and there’s this mournful death march kind of sound that we used in the movie. But I wanted the score to reflect the way that Stanley was really this optimist despite everyone and everything telling him he should stop, continuing to propel us forward with his hope and his smile and his modest charm and the best pants he could buy. I was thinking of those ‘90s Miramax movies — I love the score for “Good Will Hunting” – that Danny Elfman score so tapped into Will’s wonderment and the actual little boy in him that I wanted our horns and our brass to be the inner voice of Stanley.

“Jungleland” is now available on VOD and iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.