INTERVIEW: New York Storyteller; Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's "King of the Jungle"
by Sarah Sundberg
(indieWIRE/ 11.09.01) — “King of the Jungle” is writer and director Seth Zvi Rosenfeld‘s second feature length movie. The first was “A Brothers Kiss” (and not feature-length, but worth checking out, is the “We Deliver” series that Rosenfeld made for Sputnik7.com earlier this year.) “King of the Jungle” follows Seymour (John Leguizamo), a mentally challenged man with an NBA obsession, who witnesses his mother’s murder, runs away, and steals his best friend’s gun looking for revenge. While it sounds, at best pointlessly depressing, at worst unbearably corny, “King of the Jungle” manages to avoid sentimental pitfalls. Despite exploring some of the darker sides of life, such as violence, the inner-city and complicated parent-child relationships, “King of the Jungle” is ultimately a hopeful movie.
The honesty of the film and its all-star team of New York indie actors play an important part in making “King of the Jungle” what it is. There’s Seymour’s alcoholic father (Cliff Gorman), Mona’s lover Joanne (Rosie Perez), and the late Justin Pierce of “Kids” as the killer. Michael Rappaport, Marisa Tomei, Anabella Sciorra and Rosario Dawson also appear. Maybe it is the New York setting or the fact that Rosie Perez is in the movie, but there is something reminiscent of Spike Lee about “King of the Jungle.” While it takes the viewer through much violence and emotional trauma, it is a romantic ode to the New York neighborhood and the people who inhabit it. indieWIRE spoke with Rosenfeld about going from play to film, community and preparation.
indieWIRE: Why did you want to make “King of the Jungle”?
Seth Zvi Rosenfeld: It started out as a stage play, way back. I wanted to make a movie about violence and it’s effect on someone’s psyche. I also wanted to make movie about innocence. About how to conduct oneself in, and deal with, a dangerous environment. How to protect one’s family. The issues kids in rough neighborhoods have to face growing up. There is someone like Seymour in every ‘hood. I had never seen an urban character like that on screen. The Seymours of this world are really at the mercy of the forces of good and evil. Some people are out to protect him, others to use him.
iW: When did you start thinking of making a movie out of the stage play?
Rosenfeld: At the time I wrote the play I wasn’t interested in making movies. That changed over the years, though. I wrote the play in 1988. It was about ’95 to ’96 that I started thinking of it as a movie and started working on the screenplay in between other projects. When I had finished my first movie “A Brothers Kiss,” I knew that this was the next movie I wanted to make. Then, like all these things, it took a while for it to come together.
iW: Which are the main differences between the movie and the play?
Rosenfeld: They are totally different. The only thing in the movie left from the play is Seymour. Originally there were only two characters on a basketball court.
iW: “King of the Jungle” is a very New York film. Was that your ambition or did it just turn out that way because you grew up in New York?
Rosenfeld: I’d answer that by saying it was both. It is shot in the neighborhood I grew up in. One of the things that I wanted to show was that when I grew up, in Manhattan, in the seventies, New York consisted of many smaller communities. I don’t feel that is the case anymore. Not in Manhattan anyway. Seymour definitely has a community, it’s an odd one, but it is a community.
iW: The actual shooting of this film was done in a very short period of time. How did you make that work?
Rosenfeld: We broke down the script, beat by beat. We thought about what it was we wanted to say in each scene, how it brought the movie forward and what the motivations of every character in the scene were. The DP and me went to all the locations and shot still photos of every scene. Then we made a book out of the photos that the whole crew had access to. That way, everyone knew what every scene needed to look like, what had to be done, what kind of lenses we needed to use and so on. Basically, it was all about an extreme amount of tedious preparation.
We wanted to create the impression of Seymour being somewhat separated from the world around him, so we used long lenses when shooting his scenes. We also wanted to create a feeling of him having a lot of information to take in at once, to do that we used wide lenses. Everyone else was shot on medium length [lenses].
iW: When you see mentally challenged people on film, they are usually in a relatively sheltered environment. Seymour’s mother does her best to shelter him, but still he lives in New York, one of the most unsheltered places in the world. Why did you want to explore how he would survive in that setting?
Rosenfeld: When making this film I plugged in to myself at the age of ten or eleven, how any kid navigates the streets. I wanted an innocent at the center of the film. Seymour’s character was a good way of doing that. I wrote the screenplay without having done any research on the subject. Then, when we started making the movie, John Leguizamo and I did a lot of research, spending time with mentally challenged people. I discovered that I wasn’t that far off.
iW: “King of the Jungle” starts out as a classical revenge movie, with Seymour going after his mother’s killer. But it takes a different direction when he doesn’t end up using violence. Is that a statement on your part?
Rosenfeld: Seymour is a person that is perceived as being less intelligent. Yet he ends up not making an emotional decision. He uses the morality he was taught by his mother to solve the situation.
iW: After having seen “King of the Jungle,” I felt that it was essentially a positive film. The characters go through a difficult experience and considering the circumstances, they come out okay.
Rosenfeld: In my experience, you are never the same after trauma. This may sound corny, but it is like after September the 11th. You have to go on. The human spirit is to go on with life. It is an honest ending, if not necessarily a happy one.
iW: Dan Nakamura a.k.a. Dan the Automator (a producer, most recently involved in the “Gorillaz” project) did the soundtrack for “King of the Jungle.” How did you come to work with him?
Rosenfeld: Urbanworld showed the script to Tommy Boy. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to work with the cream of the crop of Tommy Boy’s artists. This is Dan’s first film score. His music is very cinematic and he was ready to do music for an actual film. He wants to compose for movies and this was his first one, so he did it for a low price. I feel very lucky to have had him work with us.