I was living on a sheep ranch in West Marin County in 1994 when producers Scott Kroopf and Bill Teitler tracked me down with a script. It was based on Chris Van Allsburg’s beautifully illustrated children’s book, Jumanji. The script didn’t work and Scott and Bill knew it, but a great idea was at the heart of the story. We hired Jonathan Hensleigh to wrestle some logic into the script while making the magic of the book more commercially viable.
Sony wanted Robin Williams to play the grown up lost boy, Alan Parrish. Robin wanted to do the picture but he wasn’t happy with the script. Our pre-production offices were in a crummy two-story stucco building on Ventura Boulevard, a mile from production designer Jim Bissell’s house. We knew that if Robin gave the studio a definite no we were probably going to get the plug pulled. A group of us including Jonathan, Jim Bissell, and first assistant director Betsy Magruder met at Bissell’s house overlooking the valley and pulled an all-nighter.
We took the script apart scene by scene, working from a vague list of issues that had come from Robin, through Marc Platt and the studio machine and finally down to us. It was a little like playing “telephone” where you whisper a message in your neighbor’s ear, around a circle of a dozen friends to see how badly butchered your original message comes out. Bissell’s dot matrix printer was still chugging away when the sun came up. We all went home to sleep.
I got a call from Marc Platt in the early afternoon. “Robin likes it. He’s in.” We moved into new offices on the ground floor of an office building on the corner of Wilshire and Westwood. I even had an assigned parking space. In Hollywood that means you got a green light.
In the lunacy of a studio schedule we were shooting in Vancouver in February, trying to make it look like New England in the summer. There was even a day where we had to melt snow off the lawn of the Parrish house for a day shot, then truck it in from the nearby mountains for a night shot of the house decked out for Christmas.
Jim Bissell had built the massive Georgian revival façade on a vacant lot in a Vancouver neighborhood and the interior on one of the larger stages in the Bridges Studio complex. The set was so shoehorned into the stage that the actors couldn’t walk out the front door without hitting the stage wall.
While we were shooting the sequence where the monkeys steal David Alan Grier’s police car, stunt coordinator Betty Thomas was using a video camera and monitor so she could drive the car from a hidden position on the floor, with the monkeys added later in CG.
The camera was attached to the front of the rear view mirror, invisible to the film cameras. Betty made a trial run down the street at half speed to make sure her path was straight. She then got out of the car and one of the teamsters (who shall remain nameless) got in the car, adjusted the rear view mirror and drove around the block to bring the car back to the starting point.
With the cameras rolling on take one, Betty burned rubber down the street in a diagonal line and to the horror of the cast and crew plowed head on into a tree at sixty miles an hour. An ambulance-chasing news crew showed up minutes later, leaping from the news van with tape rolling. I had the intense pleasure of positioning myself between the news camera and the crash, using every four-letter word I could think of and a few I invented on the spot so that the videorazzis couldn’t use any of their footage on the nightly news. The cops wouldn’t send the news crew away, but they wouldn’t shut me up either. The news guys finally gave up and left with a few of my choice words for a farewell. That might have been the most fun I had on the whole shoot. Betty was shaken up but not injured.
Robin Williams was great fun to work with. He knew that the script and story were so tightly crafted that there wasn’t much room for improv but he used it between takes to keep the crew laughing. Bonnie Hunt filled in for him in his absence. Kirsten Dunst was surprisingly intuitive for being fifteen. No surprise, given the wonderful actress she’s evolved into.
After the rigors of Vancouver in the winter we moved to Keene, New Hampshire and North Berwick, Maine in the spring to shoot the first act with the young Alan Parrish played by Adam Hann-Byrd. It was like being released from prison.
We did our post-production at Skywalker Ranch, an idyllic forty-five minute drive from my sheep ranch. Industrial Light and Magic was just over the hill where computer generated animals were stampeding from British Columbia to New England. By the way, NO live animals were used in the visual effects sequences in Jumanji. There were idiotic rumors that an elephant was killed during production. As stupid as that sounds, someone on the studio side did actually suggest training a herd of rhinos to crash through a balsa wood set of the Parrish house. You don’t have to be a mensa candidate to get a job in Hollywood. In fact, I’m sure it would be a major disadvantage.