Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with producer Hiram Garcia about Jungle Cruise and how a filmmaker can delight audiences from eight to eighty.
It takes years to get in the room. And not just a few years or even a decade. It takes a lifetime to get in the room. Once you’re inside, the joy is overwhelming. Then, the nerves settle in. You gotta prove that you’re meant to be there.
Hiram Garcia has not only made it into the room, but he’s also built a few rooms around him. He’s the President of Production at Seven Bucks Productions, co-founded by Dwayne Johnson and producing partner Dany Garcia. He’s helped foster numerous tentpole pictures to the screen, and he carries an infectious enthusiasm for them at all times. Although, if you try to tell him you loved Baywatch, he’ll heartily laugh, thank you, and acknowledge what a rarity it is for someone to say such an absurd thing.
His latest collaboration alongside his buddies Dwayne and Dany, is the Disney adventure ride adaptation, Jungle Cruise. As a lifelong movie-obsessive, he sees it as his opportunity to make Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone. With Pirates of the Caribbean‘s success, there’s no reason to think the pivot from theme park to big screen is impossible. A good movie is a good movie. The only challenge is to make one of those, which is obviously harder to achieve than flipping a green light.
Garcia did not necessarily chase down Jungle Cruise, but he was eager for a Disney partnership. And once they started talking, inside that fabled room, it was easy to discern what an incredible film they could make together. The potential was irresistible. To turn away from the possibility was offensive to everything that got him through the door in the first place.
“You work so hard in this business to get to a point where Disney wants to work with you,” says Garcia. “That was always a goal for DJ [Dwayne Johnson], Dany, and me. I remember DJ saying specifically when he first saw that Pirates of the Caribbean trailer, just how enamored he was with it and how much he admired what Disney was doing by bringing that ride to life. He always felt like, ‘God, I hope I get to a point where I can do one of those projects with Disney.'”
So, when Disney came knocking, and the project under their arms was Jungle Cruise, it was never a question of whether this project was the right one for them. They would make it the right one.
“It was more like, ‘You had me at hello,'” continues Garcia. “Needless to say, we were very excited about it. At Seven Bucks, we pride ourselves in telling those kinds of stories. We just love four-quad, big, fun, action adventures that eight to eighty can enjoy. Ultimately, fans can come to the theater or watch it at home, get a little bit of wish fulfillment, some escapism, and leave feeling a little better than when they went in. Jungle Cruise was the perfect type of property to allow us to tell that kind of story.”
Putting the film in front of as many eyes as possible in 2021 is more challenging than it was in the past. As they did with Black Widow, Disney will make Jungle Cruise available on Disiney+ Premiere Access on the same day it drops into theaters. Discussion surrounding Black Widow‘s second-weekend box office plummet does not phase Garcia in the slightest.
“I’m assuming Black Widow may have had a drop-off on the second weekend,” he says. “I haven’t really checked statistics or anything. But I’m very confident that it was viewed a ton on Disney+. You know what I’m saying? Given the landscape of the world, I think we saw all the people that did want to see it in the theater and who were excited to see it in the theater on that first weekend. It was a very front-loaded experience. The rest of the people just said, ‘You know what? I’m not comfortable going back to a theater yet. I’m just going to watch it at home.’ That’s the power of the model.”
Garcia is grateful for the chance to split the release between theatrical and home viewing. It’s not a question of changing the distribution method; it’s about doing whatever it takes to get the story to those that crave it. The future is still uncertain, but studios are creating avenues to get their stories out there. That’s all that matters.
“We’re in a time right now where it’s got to be about people first,” says Garcia. “It’s got to be about people, and it’s got to be about the fans. We have to put the fans in the best position to win. Where they’re just comfortable. We don’t want to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. As filmmakers, it’s our job to give you the opportunity to watch it at home with your family. I think [Black Widow] did extremely well, and if anything, with what’s going on in the world, the stuff we’re seeing with the numbers makes us more confident and more appreciative that we stuck with this decision. People are going to have the choice to see Jungle Cruise the way they want to see it.”
With Jungle Cruise complete, Garcia can already imagine the faces of those watching it. He’s one of them. He lost it at the movies, and at Seven Bucks, he has the gift to contribute to the river he’s been surfing his entire life. While they’ve made jungle-themed movies before (Journey 2 the Mysterious Island remains an underrated pleasure), they’ve never quite served up a screwball two-hander like this one.
“Emily [Blunt] and DJ take such joy in that headbutting energy between their two very strong-willed characters,” explains Garcia. “Emily really represents the female version of Indiana Jones. She’s an explorer, headstrong, tough, brilliant. And she encounters a similar kind of stubborn man, but he’s in a different place in his life. He’s not quite honorable. He has a little bit of shadiness to him. He’s a little bit of a con man, which makes for a great energy.”
When you have talents like Johnson and Blunt involved, the stress becomes in supplying a script worthy of their chemistry. The process is arduous, and the reality is that Jungle Cruise was in development for years before Garcia and his team felt they were ready to move on it. It’s not a matter of finding the right script; it’s more about smashing the many good scripts into the ideal script.
“Depending on the project and the process,” says Garcia, “it can get complicated. There were moments on Jungle Cruise where we did have so many different versions of the script. You would have sections where you’d say, ‘Oh, well, I did like this from this draft. How can we bring that into here and keep this but replace that?’ It’s a little bit of a puzzle.”
A puzzle that’s being managed by many hands. Relief comes through cooperation. If your brain seizes up, someone else in the room will pop a bright idea.
“That’s why you lean on your partners,” he says. “Together, all of us, we take these moments and look at the macro. We examine the versions we’ve had and the stories we’ve had, the ideas, and we start to pull out the best ones. We make sure we’re infusing all of that into the hero script, the script that is really going to be the one that gets us green lit. Once you’ve had a script written for you, you still have access to that script. That’s the beauty of it. It’s not like it goes away once you bring in other writers. It’s up to us to pick and choose.”
Garcia feeds on this collaboration, and he’s eager to champion the massive team that comes together to birth these films into reality. At Seven Bucks, it’s an endless process forever pushing toward the next project. Jungle Cruise might be hitting audiences this weekend, but he’s already well into development with several other ginormous projects, including Netflix’s Red Notice, Amazon’s Red One, and Warner Bros’ Black Adam. Garcia can’t speak too much regarding details, but he also can’t help sharing his excitement for Johnson’s arrival into the DC Comics universe.
“Black Adam‘s tone is much more aggressive,” he says. “There’s much more edge. Black Adam likes to dish out a certain kind of justice. The truth is most people that get that justice, they don’t walk away from it. So, that’s a very specific tone for the movie. We wanted to make sure that while we were creating something big and fun, that everyone’s going to really enjoy watching, it did have that edge that matched Black Adam’s might and power and darkness.”
The producer gets as much glee as we do witnessing Johnson tumble in and out of impossible scenarios. He marvels at the actor’s ability to bend his body and mind to meet the characters, but he’s also kind of used to it. Or, at least, that’s what he thought until he saw Johnson become the anti-superhero, Black Adam.
“Watching Dwayne immerse himself in this character,” continues Garcia, “the way he’s transformed himself physically – I mean, this is a guy who’s always in shape, in the best of shape, and somehow he got into an even crazier shape! He’s so dedicated to the character. It’s really been fun. I’m excited for comic book fans to see it, because, look, I’m a comic book fan. I know all the stuff that I’ve always wanted to see in movies like this. We push the bar in terms of effects, how he flies, how he utilizes his powers, meeting the JSA [Justice Society of America]. We’re establishing a big universe. JSA and Black Adam, there’s so much potential there for explosive fun and kick-ass action and really heartfelt storytelling.”
Hiram Garcia doesn’t believe a movie is one thing. His favorite films are the ones that do it all. Raiders of the Lost Ark takes you to heaven, and it drops you into hell, and it triumphs even when Dr. Jones gets walloped on his butt. That’s what Garcia sees for Jungle Cruise. That’s what he sees for Black Adam. A lifetime of fandom got him into the room with Disney, and he’s going to deliver a massive movie with massive emotions fit for a massive crowd.
Jungle Cruise will stream on Disney+ and open in theaters on 7/30.