January 23, 2018

Oral History: Making ‘Jumanji’ With Robin Williams

Oral History: Making ‘Jumanji’ With Robin Williams


JOE JOHNSTON The studio said they would make the film if we could get Robin to do it. He had passed on the original script. A bunch of us stayed up all night doing a cut-and-paste job and changed a lot around [the screenplay is credited to Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor and Jim Strain], and Robin liked it enough to say yes.

The filmmakers assembled the rest of the cast, including Jonathan Hyde, who played dual roles as young Alan’s aloof father and a hunter who terrorizes the players.

JONATHAN HYDE It was a strange shoot. We were in Vancouver through the winter. It’s a wet, cold city. For five months, that became a bit of a drag.

JOHNSTON I was a little put off by Bonnie Hunt’s performance on the first day of shooting. I thought it was completely over the top. But once she made me understand what her character had gone through to become this crazy lady, she sold me.

BONNIE HUNT (via email) Joe had a clear vision. Naturally, Robin wanted some improvisation, so those two worlds had to meet. Respectfully, we always did takes as written, but then Robin would ask, “Joe, could we please have one more for us?”

JOHNSTON I was a little apprehensive at first, based on what I’d heard about Robin and how he wants to ad-lib and go crazy. It wasn’t like that at all. He understood that he needed to be this very critical part of the machine. It was a tightly structured story. He never went out of the box.

BRADLEY PIERCE A lot of things Robin would improv would go over Kirsten’s and my heads. He would go on these Ethel Merman riffs where he would sing all his lines like her. It was hysterical, but I didn’t realize he was imitating a real person.

The film combined animatronics and puppetry with computer-generated effects that had to be added in postproduction.

LAURA BELL BUNDY I was told, “You’re going to be chased by bats. There will be no bats, but you have to run around screaming your head off as if there are.” Actually, there was one mechanical bat on my shoulder. The O. J. Simpson trial was going on at the time, and the crew nicknamed it Ito [after the judge]. It was really cute.

Through the long hours of shooting, Mr. Williams would keep the mood light on the set.

HUNT In between setups, we would drop our “Jumanji” roles and improvise, just to get it out of our system. Characters would spring to life based on the daily headlines or waiters from dinner the night before, and the crew was a wonderful audience. It was pure joy.

ADAM HANN-BYRD Robin was such a gentle soul. He had this larger-than-life manic persona, but he could turn that off when he wanted to. He was a complicated guy.

PIERCE Robin’s son, who’s my age, would come up, and they would invite me to join them at the zoo or the aquarium or a movie. It was great to see him as a dad and a friend rather than just a comedian. It was amazing to get to know the man behind the characters.

HYDE Every Monday night, Robin went to a comedy club in Vancouver and did an hour and a half of improv with the locals, then another hour and a half of solo stand-up — three hours of burning off excess steam. He was glorious.

Although she was only 12, Ms. Dunst was already a seasoned veteran, having co-starred in “Little Women” and “Interview With the Vampire,” among other films. The actress wouldn’t comment for this article, but she made an impression on her cast mates.

BEBE NEUWIRTH (who played her aunt) She did have a depth. Even as a child, she was a very interesting actress who had something unusual about her.

PIERCE I won’t say I didn’t have a crush on Kirsten. She’s only about six months older than me, but she had done more film projects than I had. It was nice to have a friend my age to give me guidance. She gave me tips on how to keep your energy up so you’re ready to film the next scene without being so rambunctious that it’s unprofessional.

When the film was released in December 1995, it was an immediate box office success, but some critics suggested its violent action sequences were too scary for children.

JOHNSTON That did surprise me. Maybe I was too close to it. I assumed people knew it was a fantasy.

HYDE Children love to be frightened — I think it’s an important part of childhood. People between 25 and 35 come up to me and say, “You scared the [hell] out of me when I was a kid.” I have to say that’s usually quite gratifying. That’s what was required.

Over time, “Jumanji” has become a cherished classic, with families watching it over and over.

JOHNSTON There’s a little bit of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to the story. What if you could go away and come back and see what life would be if you hadn’t existed?

HUNT Kids always remember the first movie that makes their hearts pound. Then that feeling becomes nostalgic, and you want to revisit it and share it with a new generation.

PIERCE There’s something very relatable about the fears of the characters. Yes, the lions and mosquitoes and crocodiles are very scary, but the real fears came from the interpersonal relationships — the fear of being yourself and being comfortable in your own skin. That really made the film connect with people.

The cast looks back on the making of “Jumanji” with great fondness, and some of them still have mementos they took from the set.

NEUWIRTH I have hippopotamus salt-and-pepper shakers. I don’t remember how they fit into the story, but somehow I have them.

HANN-BYRD I ended up taking one of the massive vines that grow on the walls of the mansion. I had to get it back to the States, so we took it through customs, and everyone freaked out, so I had to explain. I still have that vine in my parents’ house.

PIERCE Robin gave the cast hard-bound copies of the script as wrap gifts, and he signed them. He wrote something like, “You were a great monkey boy and a pleasure to work with. You have a bright future ahead.” He was very much an inspiration, not just as a performer, but as a person.

Video

Trailer: ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’

A preview of the film.


By SONY PICTURES RELEASING INTERNATIONAL on Publish Date October 19, 2017.


Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive.

Watch in Times Video »

The original ensemble wishes the makers of the new film well but said it wouldn’t be the same for them without Mr. Williams.

HYDE I was hoping they would make another “Jumanji” while we were all still alive.

HANN-BYRD I was totally devastated when Robin died. He really did care about everyone around him. There was only one Robin Williams.



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