HEAT VISION

How 'Jumanji: The Next Level' Found Its Premise

Producers Hiram Garcia and Matt Tolmach recall the risks and rewards of the sequel: "With any successful swing, there's always a potential for that bad miss."
Hiram Garcia
Producers Hiram Garcia and Matt Tolmach recall the risks and rewards of the sequel: "With any successful swing, there's always a potential for that bad miss."

Two years ago, the holiday season lasted well into January for the team behind Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The film had impressive staying power throughout December and January on its way to $962 million globally, with the film starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan hitting bigger than anyone expected.

"Emojis were flying and all sorts of happy stuff," producer Matt Tolmach recalls of texts to folks like Johnson, director Jake Kasdan and Sony film boss Tom Rothman. "It was a little bit like Christmas every day."

Sony naturally wanted a sequel, so the pressure was on to craft the film that would eventually become Jumanji: The Next Level, which once again finds teens sucked into a dangerous video game. "The timeline for this movie was so much shorter than the last one," notes producer Hiram Garcia, who adds, "I remember all of us as filmmakers just saying, 'We can't agree to do another movie unless we can crack the right take.'"

Indeed, the only question bigger than how to line up the schedules of its busy stars was how to re-create the magic of Welcome to the Jungle while doing something new. Johnson in particular liked the idea of playing other characters within this world, a continuation of the 1995 film starring Robin Williams. And Kasdan brought the team his own vision, which would see Johnson and Hart play estranged friends Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Milo (Danny Glover) — "a grumpy old men within Jumanji" approach, Garcia recalls with a laugh.

Black, too, was able to play another character this time around after portraying teenage Bethany (Madison Iseman) in the previous installment. The script, from Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, called on Black to play Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), one of the four teens sucked into the game. Black and the Jumaji team knew that the white comedian playing a black teen in Next Level had to be handled with care.

"With any successful swing, there's always a potential for that bad miss," Garcia notes of body-swapping comedy. "It's always that very delicate line you want to toe."

Black started experimenting with his performance, running things by the First Level team, including Blain and Hart, along the way.

"Jack is so good and he is so aware, that it's really just giving him the space to find it," says Garcia. "He was dialing it in, working on it every day…and working with Kevin and Ser'Darius just to make sure that he was getting deliveries right, doing the nuances of these characters."

While Jumanji comes during a Hollywood era in which IP arguably eclipses movie stars, Tolmach notes Next Level shows the power of combining known properties with big stars.

"I do believe in movie stars. I do believe that people love movie stars and I think when you marry those actors to the right material, things go really well and everyone responds," says Tolmach.

Jumanji is just one of a number of high-profile projects on the plates of producer Tolmach, a former studio exec who produces Sony's Spider-Man movies and spinoffs, and Garcia, one of the forces behind Johnson and Dany Garcia's Seven Bucks Productions. Tolmach has the Jared Leto-led Spider-Man spinoff Morbius (July 31, 2021) and a Venom sequel coming up, and notes that he still thinks of moviemaking lessons from late grandfather, legendary producer and executive Sam Jaffe.

"It's Jared Leto and Matt Smith, two extraordinary actors you can't stop looking at. And there's just a great story there," says Tolmach of Morbius. "My grandfather would have loved the IP side of it. He was a showman. That's the era he came from, but he would have said, 'What's the story within it?' And Morbius is a great example, as was Venom."

Garcia has many irons in the fire, but few stand out like Warner Bros.' Black Adam, the long-gestating project that will star Johnson as the DC character, who has been both a villain and anti-hero in the comics. The Shazam! spinoff opens Dec. 22, 2021, just five days after Avatar 2. ("We like being right next to the big giant movies," Garcia says with a laugh.)

"We went through a bunch of iterations, but I got to say, there's always been a very clear perspective on what we wanted to do," says Garcia, who notes the team did not go through a lot of drafts of the script. "Our first draft was on the dart board. It definitely landed, and right away everyone was like, 'Oh, OK. Wow, we got this. We get it. we get where it's going' and now we've been honing it from there." Garcia added playfully: "We are going to come in there and we are going to restructure the hierarchy of power in the DC universe."

Thinking back on Jumanji: The Next Level, both producers note the cast got along unusually well when cameras weren't rolling. And there were plenty of things that couldn't fit into the movie that could potentially make its way to the Blu-ray.

"There literally would have been a 20-minute gag reel...because of the amount of outtakes of them laughing and making each other laugh," says Garcia. "Between takes, Jack is singing, Karen is singing. Kevin is doing bits. DJ [Johnson] is cracking up. It's one of the most delightful sets to be on."

Jumanji: The Next Level opens Friday.

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