Producer Matt Tolmach might be best known for his work on developing various Spider-Man movies while he was the President of Columbia Pictures, but in recent years, he’s been branching out as a producer with his Matt Tolmach Productions.
Next week sees the release of Tolmach’s long-time passion project Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which branches off the 1995 movie and the Chris Van Allsburg book on which it’s based to tell a more modern story. It involves four disparate high school teens who end up in detention together, where they find a video game console with a mysterious game cartridge inserted.
As the four start to play the game, they are transported into the jungle world of Jumanji where they become the avatars they chose. Nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff) is transformed into rugged action hero Dr. Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson. “Fridge,” the jock of the group is turned into significantly shorter zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart), while cell phone and selfie-obsessed Bethany ends up in the body of cartographer Prof. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) and the practical Martha is transformed into a ass-kicking Ruby Roundhouse, played by Doctor Who star Karen Gillan. Together, they must save Jumanji from the machinations of the evil Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) who has stolen a gem that will give him power over all the animals of Jumanji.
Based on early tracking, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is looking like it will be a significant holiday hit for Sony, thanks to the fantastic pairing of cast with the direction of Jake Kasdan (New Girl, Bad Teacher). If the movie does as well as expected, both Tolmach and Sony will be able to take a victory lap as they begin 2018.
Tolmach hasn’t ventured too far from Sony’s Spider-Man franchise, though, as he’s currently producing a long-in-development Venom movie with his Amazing Spider-Man co-producer Avi Arad, starring Tom Hardy. They’re also developing a new movie tentatively called Silver and Black which will introduce Spider-Man “foes” Silver Sable and Black Cat.
The Tracking Board got on the phone with Tolmach earlier this week mainly to talk about Jumanji, but also to touch upon some of his other projects including the Spider-Man-related movies he’s producing.
I know Sony released the first Jumanji movie in 1995, so what were the conversations like to revive it? Was it something you came up with or you and Amy Pascal?
I literally was reading the book to my kid’s class one day. There was a thing when he was in preschool or something, and I found I was reading the book. Like everybody, I loved the book, and I loved the movie. The material is so good, and it’s just so hard to find movies for everyone. It’s just such a giant idea that I thought, “Why don’t I try to revisit this?” That was the beginning. At the time, Amy was running the studio and said, “Absolutely.” Later, as we had a script, and things had changed, Tom Rothman was running the studio, and he read the script and said, “Absolutely.”
It was always something that people rallied around, but to me, I love games. The truth is as a kid, we were a board game family and a very sort of avid one. I always had this weird sort of longing or curiosity about, “What if you could live in the game?” Typically, games do that in a purely escapist way on a bad day, in a tough time in your life. It all seems like it would be so much easier if you could just fall into Chutes and Ladders or Monopoly or Clue— probably not Clue— just that wonderful, escapist, fantastical idea. I’ve always had that relationship to games, and similarly, I remember seeing Jumanji the movie, and thinking, “Where did he go? What was that like?”
So, cut to many years later, and a very talented writer walked into my office with an idea about a guy who at the end of every day at school would go home and jump into the body of an avatar just to escape the pain of adolescence. That was the greatest gift. That was the birth of this take on the material. In a world where video games have to a large degree replaced board games, how do you tell a story like this that resonates with people on a very real level … the question of, “What if I could be anybody? What if I could go anywhere, do anything? What if I could be the person that I think I actually am inside? It’s a very sort of Wizard of Oz-like question. So that was the idea that we all rallied around, and the movie now lives in the world. It’s kind of amazing.
Was Chris McKenna the writer who first brought you that idea for the film?
Yeah, it was, it was. A really talented guy. He and his partner Erik Sommers wrote the first draft of it. They took turns. Scott Rosenberg came on later when those guys went off and did Spider-man, so Jeff [Pinkner] and Scott came in and also did a tremendous amount of good work on the deck so it was an embarrassment of really talented writers, and I think everybody kind of came to it similarly, with a fascination with the power of games and the idea of escaping yourself, and then coming back to who you might have always been.
It’s deceptive because they’re just two different teams. It reads like four different names, but when Chris came in to write it, he said, “I want to write it with my buddy Erik.” They had worked on Community together as a writing team, and then Jeff and Scott wrote as a writing team, so it looks like a lot of names, but it wasn’t a situation where the script was ever in any way broke. It was just an unavailability issue, so bringing in people that we thought were really additive. The actual development of it was quite seamless, and it’s something that everybody rallied around very readily. It’s the first project I ever talked to Tom Rothman about when he came to the studio.
I was going to add that TV is different because there are a lot of writers in the writer’s room, and it seems like film studios are trying to steer things toward that mold where it’s more common to have a group of writers.
They’ve done that on a bunch of franchises. That was very much not the case here, but you know there is value to it. Movies are a very different creature than a television show of many, many episodes. Maybe I’m a creature of a different time, in that I believe in as much of a singular vision that you can maintain on a movie is probably the best thing, but a couple sets of writers is not unusual. But you’re not wrong. Aside from having nothing to do with this movie, people are in general trying to replicate that writer’s room experience because look what’s happening in television. The idea that if you put a bunch of really talented people in a room, you get the sum of all that talent and those great ideas. But it isn’t how we did this one it just happened to be two different sets of writers.
Jake Kasdan managed to really pull everything together. He’s done a lot of comedies, both movies and on TV with New Girl, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him doing action-adventure. What made you think of him to direct?
I had worked with Jake when I moved back here with Tony we made a movie that I love very dearly.
Walk Hard. Yeah, I love that movie.
I worked with him and Judd [Apatow], and I just got to know him very well. You know Jake’s a father, and he’s always been a great storyteller and a great comedic writer/director. I just knew him, and I knew he was at a place in his life that he wanted to make a movie like this. We had talked about it; he wanted to make a big movie for all audiences, but they’re hard to find. His angle is always comedy. The prospect of taking this big idea and marrying it to a very comedic group of actors for a comedic tone was something he really relished. He’s also a great filmmaker and a great student of movies. He understood exactly what the alchemy of the movie needed to be and how to do it. He had sort of a stunningly clear vision for this thing literally from the day that he read it. It was a perfect sort of pitch and tone for it.
Had Dwayne and Kevin already been doing Central Intelligence when they were cast in this or was that movie already coming out?
That film was coming out around the time. It was just coming out or it was done. It was just around the time that we started putting our movie together. The chemistry that those two guys have is so infectious, and they’re like brothers. They love each other, they give each other a hard time, they play off each other. There’s just an amazing chemistry that they have, and the relationship between those two characters, Fridge and Bravestone asks for that. And at the same time, they’re two of the funniest, most talented movie stars in the world.
Some movies are so hard to assemble, we all know, but this movie came together really seamlessly in that way. We went after Dwayne. We went after Kevin. We went after Jack. We fell in love with Karen’s audition for the movie, so we knew right away she was the one. It just came together in a way that made you feel like this was meant to be. These are those people. Each one of these actors had to be both capable of being sort of an avatar slash icon, and at the same time, they all had to have a whole other layer because they’re playing vulnerable teenagers. They all have and had to have real chops to play the A and B side of each of the characters. The people in the movie are the people that we went after. That never happens.
It seems like the characters are so specific to them, although Jack Black is amazing, and I don’t think anyone will go into this movie realizing that he will steal the movie, but he does.
I agree. Jack’s performance is so brilliant. He plays her with such integrity. It’s not arch or broad; he plays her with real integrity. It’s stunning. He is so crazy talented.
Did the older actors actually get to meet any of the younger actors who they’re playing at any time?
Yes, they absolutely did. That was really fun and cool. They weren’t acting together, but you’ll see little nuances that they each share. You can see they were picking up on little things in one another. Throughout the movie, you want and have to believe that inside of each of these characters is that other character. One of those little moments, those little subtleties that you recognize. They all riffed off each other, and it was really cool to watch.
I’m sure you’ve heard how hard it is to make a movie based on a video game, but this one works, maybe because it’s not a real video game. As I watched Jumanji I kept thinking about the Uncharted movie that Avi’s been trying to get made forever, and I thought that Jake made the type of action-adventure that would appeal to Uncharted fans.
Listen, I love Uncharted, and I really hope that movie gets made. Avi’s obviously my partner on Venom, so I’m an Uncharted fan that’s rooting for it. I think something really special happened, and I think it was somewhat liberating that the game doesn’t exist persé so you’re able to invent a certain amount of mythology without having to marry it to anything. People aren’t bringing any preconceptions about the game persé.
It also lives separately from the 1995 movie which I liked, too. I don’t think you need to see the 1995 movie to be able to watch this one and enjoy it.
No, this movie is very much on its own, but at the same time, we were super-conscious of wanting to pay our respects to that movie and to the spirit of that movie and the spirit of Robin Williams in that adventure. It was very much on our minds the whole time, but the story we wanted to tell was, as we referred to it, a different, new Jumanji adventure entirely.
Was there any temptation to get Kirsten Dunst to come back and play a role, or was it just too much?
Again, we wanted this to be a different Jumanji adventure, so you start linking the two movies, and then you start creating all kinds of questions about mythology, and this movie stands on its own, and I think that was important to us, to have enormous respect, like I said, for the old movie, but be its own thing entirely.
You’re working on Venom right now, so was it hard convincing Tom Hardy to do another superhero movie?
No, it was not. Tom loved this character. That’s a different interview we should do, you, me, and Avi, but he’s so extraordinary, that guy.
You won’t have to worry about Tom saying anything, because he always remained mum on Bane and Mad Max when asked about those films while doing press.
Yeah, and all I’ll tell you is like a master class watching him act. It’s really cool.
Did Michelle Williams have to take time off from Venom to do the re-shoots for Ridley Scott’s movie, for which she was just nominated for a Golden Globe?
That was all happening while we’d been shooting. She’s such a great actress. I’m super-happy for her. I haven’t seen the movie. Actually, it all worked seamlessly, I mean she was able to do that on days where she wasn’t scheduled so that never became an issue for us. Yeah, it was really easy. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but it was easy at least in terms of our schedule.
The last time I spoke to you and Avi, possibly for the first Amazing Spider-Man, you had been talking about doing Sinister Six, and you started building to that with the sequel. Is that something that might still happen or has it been tabled?
Who knows? If that movie suddenly gets made it will be brilliant. Obviously, a lot of things change, and evolve, but right now for us it’s all about Venom. We are deep, deep in it, my friend. We are very proud of it and very excited.
I know it’s been a long time you’ve been trying to get that movie made, too.
Avi and I were talking about Venom for forever, since the early days of the Raimi movie we started talking about it.
What about Silver and Black? Was that more of a recent idea to make that movie?
Yeah, I mean we’re moving fast towards making that movie too with Gina Bythewood, so that’s super exciting.
I have to admit that while I love the Black Cat, I’m not such a big fan of Silver Sable, as far as Spider-Man femme fatales go, so it will be interesting to see how that works out.
I think we’ve come up with a really good reason for you to dig it that makes a lot of sense with Black Cat. I’m open to that challenge.
Is there going to be some kind of overall imprint for these Spider-movies like Venom? How does that work with what’s going on with Spider-Man: Homecoming and its sequel?
It’s just making movies whenever you can, whenever they come together and being nimble. There’s nothing formal that way.
Do you think you’ll have an announcement soon about casting on Silver and Black?
We’re moving quickly to put it together so I would say sooner than later … without any specifics.
Since the Tracking Board is a website primarily for screenwriters, I do want to ask you what you look for in a script or a writer to work with on a project? I feel like you work with a stable of great writers, so what do you look for in a new writer?
Just like a really unique voice. For me, there’s so many — especially now in the movie business where the kinds of movies that are getting made in the studios tend to be big branded IP, the danger is sort of a homogenization of movies. I think what separates the really good ones from the herd are unique voices. It’s all about writers, all about the interpretation of character and coming up with provocative, strong, honest, authentic writing, and a voice. Just like when you’re seeing a movie. You sit down and you read it, and you’re like, “Wow! That’s something I haven’t heard. That’s something I haven’t seen. It feels true and provocative and real, and I want to see that person.”
Even in those types of movies, the uniqueness of character and a point of view. Why is this different? Why is this unique? What makes this version of this movie worth telling? That always comes down to it. Strong writing and a real willingness to take risks and tell a story that feels like something you’ve never seen before.
I always just put myself in the position of sitting in a movie theater. How do I want to see it? Do I feel like I’ve seen that before? Is it something I could get lost in? Just great writing that makes you feel like you forgot about everything that was happening for a while. It’s always about character; that great character in any setting. It doesn’t need plot. It doesn’t matter. Plot matters massively, but plot from a unique, strong character is what stops me in my tracks.
I don’t read as many scripts as I should, but unless you’re Aaron Sorkin, writers rarely get the credit for their words, especially when performed by a great actor.
It’s very tough without words, you know what I mean? I give so much credit to the writers. You can’t make a movie without a script, and you certainly can’t make a good movie without a good script. That’s what it always comes down to. You learn the hard way when you’re making movies, so often when you run into a jam on a movie it’s because you didn’t have it on the page. That doesn’t mean that things don’t get interpreted and altered and tweaked and adjust, but you have to have it on the page. You have to have that idea, that voice, to then allow you to give life to it. It’s all about the script.
What about some of these other projects you’ve been developing? Are you still doing a movie with Edgar Wright?
Yeah, we are working on Grasshopper Jungle very busily right now with Edgar, and this great movie called Dark Matter, based on the Blake Crouch novel with Sony, putting together a little independent movie called Bitterroot that Michael Gillo wrote and is going to direct based on Black Listed script from years ago. I have a T.V. show on Hulu now called Future Man with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, so just a lot of cool stuff.
Are those guys going to do another animated movie like Sausage Party? That was a fun surprise.
That was brilliant. I didn’t make Sausage Party, but those guys, I’ve made movies with them for years, and now this TV show, and I will always aspire to work with Seth and Evan. I think they are as brilliant a voice as there is out there. I love those guys.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens nationwide on Weds, Dec. 20, while Venom is scheduled for Oct. 5, 2018.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor