'Jingle Jangle': David E. and Lyn Talbert Create a Christmas Film for All Families

Lyn and David E. Talbert
Photographed by Damon Casarez

“Netflix didn’t buy a Black movie, they bought a movie,” says David E. Talbert, photographed with his wife, Lyn, on Oct. 20 at their Los Angeles home. “I’m used to hearing, ‘Here’s $2.50, make this movie.’ No one had ever told me to write my imagination and not a budget.”

The married director-and-producer couple behind Netflix's movie wanted to create a holiday film in which their son can see "people flying who look like him."

David E. Talbert has a thing for spectacle. The playwright counts Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Doctor Dolittle (the originals, not the remakes) among his favorite films. Attempts to share that love with his 7-year-old son, however, don't pan out so well — something he learned during a screening of the Dick Van Dyke flying-car fantasy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. "We get the popcorn, and I'm like, 'This is Daddy's favorite movie of all time,' " he recalls. "I'm watching it, singing along, and he says, 'You mind if I go play with my Legos over there?' I didn't realize how white that shit was until I sat down with him."

On Nov. 13, David and his wife and producing partner, Lyn Sisson-Talbert, plan to tuck in for what they hope to be a more relatable family moviegoing experience. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey — Netflix's lavish, special effects-laden holiday musical that ranks among the streamer's pricier original films — arrives 20 years after David, its writer and director, first got the idea. It has all the elements of Christmas movie cheer: Victorian-era snowscapes, dance battles, toys that spring to life and original songs by John Legend. But, with a cast headed by Forest Whitaker, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Hugh Bonneville, Keegan-Michael Key, Ricky Martin and newcomer Madalen Mills, it looks nothing like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. "Growing up, whenever I saw little white kids, I just knew they could fly … white kids were magical," says David, laughing. "When my son sees this film, sees people flying who look like him, he'll know he's just as magical as everyone else."

Originally envisioned as a stage play — one that proved too pricey to pull off — Jingle Jangle finally found momentum in 2017 when Lyn suggested that her husband reapproach it as a film. David — who had released his third feature, Almost Christmas, the previous year — sold Jingle Jangle to Netflix in the room. Budget was not discussed. And when the one that was ultimately settled upon doubled, the Talberts say they experienced zero pushback. "We really had to hammer home the idea that this was for a global audience, so they could think as big as they possibly could," says Netflix vp original film Tendo Nagenda. "All too often, underrepresented talent isn't free to think that way because there's a predefined lane where seemingly they can participate in the commercial marketplace. We're trying to upend that."

Before COVID-19, a wide release of the film was on the table. "Of course, we would have loved to have been on the big screen," says Lyn, who has worked with David since the late '90s — shortly after they started dating thanks to a mutual connection in her native Las Vegas (he's from D.C.). "But the timing is actually perfect. We have this captive audience sitting at home with their families."

A future theatrical run hasn't been ruled out, and the Talberts plan to maintain interest with an assault of tie-ins, including the soundtrack and several companion books. Merchandising based on Jingle Jangle's CGI characters is in the works, and David is again trying to mount a stage version. But, having encountered loose purse strings for the first time in his three-decade career, he's also reassessing his options. "All I want to do now is make these four-quadrant family films like the ones I grew up on from Steven Spielberg," says David. "I want to be the Black Amblin Entertainment. Blamblin Entertainment."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.