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Interview with JUNGLE producer Dana Lustig

October 19, 2017

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Producer Dana Lustig is as resilient as Yossi Ghinsberg. Who is Yossi Ghinsberg? Well, he’s a lot of things now – a motivational speaker, a humanitarian and an author – but thirty-seven years ago, when he was a 21-year-old adventurer, he managed to survive an uncharted region of the Bolivian Amazon jungle on his own for three weeks.  He wrote a book about his terrifying ordeal which became immensely popular in his native Israel as well as an international best-seller, and now, Momentum Pictures is releasing “Jungle” a feature-length thriller starring Daniel Radcliffe as Ghinsberg, that tells of his harrowing experience. This wouldn’t have happened without Lustig apparently.  I was told this by her publicist – not those exact words, but the email I received stated, “Lustig is the one that actually convinced Yossi to turn his story into a feature film – she’s the catalyst for all of this!”

Like Ghinsberg, Lustig was born in Israel and after moving to Los Angeles, she found herself involved in filmmaking – directing five feature films and producing over twenty independent features, such as Rian Johnson’s “Brick”, “Kill Me Later” starring Selma Blair, and “A Thousand Kisses Deep” with Dougray Scott, Emilia Fox, Jodi Whittaker, and David Warner.  Lustig was also involved in the production of “The Frontier”, a film noir which premiered at SXSW in March 2016 and was picked up for theatrical distribution by Kino Lorber in November 2016. Now, there is this adaptation of Ghinsberg’s unbelievable experience.

“Jungle” isn’t your typical survival film though. The characters feel relatable, authentic and just as complicated as you and me. Directed by Greg McLean (“The Belko Experiment” and “Wolf Creek”), “Jungle” follows an enthusiastic Ghinsberg (Radcliffe), who convinces his two friends, Marcus (Joel Johnson – “Safe Harbour”) and Kevin (Alex Russell – “Unbroken“) to embark on a jungle excursion led by Karl (Thomas Kretschmann – “King Kong”, “Avengers: Age of Ultron“), a mysterious adventurer who offers them an experience of a lifetime. All four soon find themselves struggling to work together and stay alive after losing their way, resulting in a psychological and physical endurance test.

During my recent phone interview with Lustig, her passion was apparent as she recounted what Yossi’s story means to her and the lengths she went to persuade him that she would make sure a movie adaptation would be loyal to the source material. You’re bound to get an idea just how enthusiastic Lustig is about Yossi Ghinsberg, Daniel Radcliffe and “Jungle”, in the interview below…

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: How did you first hear about Yossi Ghinsberg’s Amazon jungle experience and did you immediately think it would be a story that would translate well to a movie?

DANA LUSTIG: So, I’ll start with the second question – yes, I immediately felt that it’s incredibly cinematic, exciting and adventurous and yet it has a very deep, primal message. There issues of friendship and survival to explore and finding the hero within you and surrendering to the elements. It’s so deep. It’s so much deeper than just another survival movie. I felt that once I read the book, many many years ago, it gave me inspiration and it gave me strength and it gave me hope. That was way before I knew I could get the rights for it, but the book always stayed with me after reading it for the first time, many years ago.

That’s the long answer for your second question. As for the first question, the book is a must-read in Israel. It’s a huge, huge bestseller. In the culture of Israel, it’s very rooted that from high school, we all go to the army and after the army, everybody just takes off – not everybody, but almost everybody – either six months off or whatever, before you start life. And you just go backpacking around the world. So, Yossi’s book is sort of a must-read for all those young adventurers within the last twenty-five years.

So, I read it then, loved it and cherished it. In 2004, I directed a movie with Jennifer Love Hewitt (NOTE: 2005’s “Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber”) and I had to leave my family and be away from home for a long time. And when I came back, I said, “Next movie I have to do something incredibly meaningful – especially if I have to leave home and leave my family and kids.” And I was just standing in front of my library at home, in front of my bookshelf and the book just jumped into my hands and I was like, “This is it! I got to get the rights to make this movie. It’s incredible!”

And I approached Yossi and practically begged him to give me the rights and he didn’t agree right away. And I had to really convince him that I’m going to be totally committed and will make it happen for him. And he did and, you know, it took a long time, with many ups and downs, but we made it.

 

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DJF: Was it a matter of earning his trust? What did you do to persuade him to get this going?

DL: You know, I can tell you from my end, but it would be an interesting question to ask him what actually worked. But, I had lunch with him in Hollywood and we talked and we ate and all that and at the end of the lunch, he said, “Nope. I’m sorry I cannot do it.” And I was incredibly upset and I went home and I was like, “There’s no way. I’m not going to let this go.” And he was leaving town within like two hours. I knew that once he leaves I won’t have another chance for a long time. So, I got back in my car and raced over before he leaves for the airport and I went to him and just looked at him and said, “Yossi, you got to understand. I’m going to make your movie happen. I’m going to give it everything. I’m not going to abandon it. I’m going to give it everything.” And I guess something about my passion and commitment – he felt the commitment and he felt how close it was for me. How strong and sincere I was about it. He was convinced and I’m so grateful to him because it took so many years and there were so many times where he could’ve said, “Okay Dana, you had your chance. Goodbye”, and he didn’t! He trusted me and we continued as partners.

One of the things that I promised him when he gave me the rights, is that   I will keep the integrity of the characters. So, I’m not gonna try and make, you know, the Karl character, into a Rambo in the jungle or change the characters in order to make it more commercial. I’m just gonna stay with the truth and respect the characters and I think that’s something that was very very important for him.

DJF: Obviously, in a project like this, location plays a huge factor. How did you decide to shoot in Queensland, Australia as opposed to somewhere along the actual Amazon?

DL: Well, we did four weeks in Queensland and four weeks in Columbia. So, basically all the river, the white water river, all that stuff was shot in Columbia and all the city stuff that had to look like Bolivia, all that was shot in Columbia. What they did in Australia is that they have great jungles and they have great incentives. So, the Australian government really helps – um, something America should do – but, the Australian government really really helps. If you go shoot there, you get a lot of funds and financial help from the government. On the other hand, you also have great film infrastructure.  So, they have the studios, equipment and a lot a lot a lot of very talented crew – and so does Columbia. So, between those two countries, we maximize the public funding and self money and also, you know, worry about the shooting in really exotic and beautiful, gorgeous locations.

And it wasn’t easy. It’s not easy to shoot in nature.  There’s many challenges that you don’t even think about before you go in.

 

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DJF: As a producer, do you take a hands-on approach? Were you there every day on the set?

DL: Yes. I’m very very hands-on. From optioning or partnering with Jossi on the script or the book and being intricately involved in that, like finding the writer, working very closely with Justin on the script and then scouting, being on the set every day. There were a few days I had to fly back when my father was hospitalized, but other than that, very very hands-on – and so were my partners. I had very good partners. Hands-on is definitely my style, for better or worse.

DJF: Were you involved in the casting process as well? What was it about Daniel Radcliffe that made him the right guy to portray Yossi Ghinsberg?

DL: I think that he is just an incredible actor. He is very young – what is he 26, now? But it’s like working with a 60 year-old, in terms of the amount of experience he has and the amount of depth and how fast it is for him to connect. He’s so connected to every hos physics and to his inner strength. He has all the tools so available to him, all the time. Plus, he has an unbelievable ear. So, he worked very hard on the accent. I would give him maybe a note about a particular characteristic and he would pick right up on it. He was such a pleasure to work with and it would be my pleasure to work with him again. He’s the nicest guy too.

DJF: Can you talk about what was involved in his physical transformation? He looked convincingly emaciated and then there’s the issue of the character’s infected feet….

DL: Well, he went on a very closely supervised diet plan, eating like one hard-boiled egg a day or something. It was very severe, supervised diet. For two months he hardly ate anything – and poor Daniel, when we were all wrapping for lunch, he would go into his trailer by himself and eat his protein bar. Really really committed to do it. It was a big day when he was able to stop the diet and start slowly eating back to normal.

DJF: What was the most important part of Yossi’s ordeal that you wanted to see told in this movie?

DL: Well, the message, in my opinion, is of hope and faith – and it can be faith in whatever, whatever you like or put your faith in – and trusting the elements, I would call in. Trusting that what should happen, will happen. Trusting that the hero is within you. You can survive and withstand everything, whatever comes your way – even if that means, I don’t wanna say “giving up”, but even if it means not living. Yossi, towards the end, he don’t know whethere he’s going to live or not, but he found peace. He tried everything. He was the hero of his own story. He really became one with nature, with the elements. It’s surrendering and trusting and seeking hope and I hope that was in the book and I hope that the message comes through in the movie.

DJF: Very well put. Dana, thank you for your time this afternoon. 

DL: Thank you so much. Enjoy the day.

 

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Momentum Pictures will release the thriller “Jungle” in select theaters and On Demand/Digital HD on October 20th.

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