*Mystical. Whimsical. Magical. Those three words may describe David E. Talbert’s newest sensation, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.” However, four words should be added-: A Cinematic Christmas Masterpiece. And lucky for you it’s in now select theaters (during November) and it’s currently streaming worldwide on Netflix.
Talbert, a brilliant writer, playwright, director and theater maker, has produced 14 national tours, including for his first play “Tellin’ it Like it Tiz,” which toured for two years, establishing him as one of the most successful directors, writers and producers in American theater. He has written and produced 14 national tours, has earned 24 NAACP nominations, winning Best Playwright of the Year for “The Fabric of a Man,” and is also a best-selling author, having written three novels “Baggage Claim” (2003), “Love on the Dotted Line” (2005) and “Love Don’t Live Here No More: Book One of Doggy Tales” (2006), which he wrote with Snoop Dogg. In 2008, he made his film directorial debut with the Sony Pictures comedy “First Sunday,” which starred Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan and Katt Williams. Among his impressive film credits are Fox Searchlight’s “Baggage Claim,” an adaptation of his own novel and “Almost Christmas,” for Universal Pictures, with Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union and Academy Award winner Mo’Nique, which was the highest grossing theatrical release of his career. His recent national tours include the widely successful “What My Husband Doesn’t Know,” which starred Morris Chestnut.
“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” a mystical journey of fantasy, magic and wonder, follows an eccentric toymaker (Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker), his tenacious granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills), and a magical invention with the power to reunite their family and change their lives forever.
“EURweb founder Lee Bailey spoke with Talbert earlier this week to find out about the interesting journey the playwright, now film director took to bring “Jingle Jangle” to the screen.
“It was 22 years in the making,” said David E. Talbert, who started writing the play in 1997. He wrote the film many years ago, but one major life event set the film on its course to success.
“When finally, our son was born, it kind of reawakened the kid in me,” said David about the birth of his son (Elias David Talbert) with wife Lyn Sisson-Talbert, who has produced all of Talbert’s plays and films.
“Looking at life through his eyes and I said ‘okay, well, it’s time to do it.’” He sat with his son and watched one of his favorite kid movies “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” His son was four, but didn’t quite have the reaction he was looking for.
“I was just singing all the songs and he was staring at the screen and he finally said, ‘Daddy can I play with my Legos?’” he laughed. “And he walked away. I realized he couldn’t get into the movie like I could when I was young- we had no other option but to see movies that didn’t have people that look like us. There was no other option. From ‘Willy Wonka’ to ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ to the original ‘Dr. Doolittle’ to ‘Mary Poppins’ there was just no option.”
David set to change the status quo, to make a holiday blockbuster that featured people of color, a film that not only is a holiday masterpiece, but a film in which people of color, including children of color, could see themselves in a huge blockbuster extravaganza.
“There was ‘The Wiz,’ but then again ‘The Wiz’ didn’t have any children in it. So that didn’t give you a chance to see yourself as a child. I realized on (Elias’) wall was ‘Miles Morales’ (A Spider Man character) and he rocked with Miles Morales because he looked like him. And that’s when it hit me that it’s time to do this, and that the world needed, my son needed, our community needed, our world needed to see people of color in this world in this holiday genre of films. And that’s when it took traction.”
Netflix took an interest in David’s “Jangle” concept after he worked with them on a small independent production, “El Camino Christmas,” which featured Vincent D’ Onofrio, Jessica Alba and Tim Allen. A meeting was arranged with the streamer’s head of original programming Scott Stuber and Nick Nesbitt, one of Netflix’s head creative executives.
“They really liked the way the movie I did for them, the smaller budget movie turned out,” said David. “I told them I wanted to do a big event movie. They asked ‘what kind?’ I told them about my son and my family and how families like me around the country and around the world have nothing to look at during the holiday season with anybody of color. And he said, ‘we need to do something about that.’ And he asked if I could come back and pitch it next week and they bought it with me in the room. It felt really good. I’ve never worked with a company like Netflix before who understands. Netflix is a global brand, so they’re in 192 countries in 32 languages around the world. They understand that they need to make content for the world and the world is filled with more people of color than not.”
Filmed in London, David wanted an international feel for the film.
“All the movies I loved growing up all had a European backdrop,” he said. “There’s something magical about the accents- it’s been around centuries. We shot in a house that was built in the 1300s. There’s a certain sense for me, a classic feel. When you shoot something in Europe it’s classic because you’re talking about a country that’s one of the oldest in the world.”
Talbert says he sought out to make a film with international appeal, one that seeks to normalize people of color in fantasy films.
“We cast people from all different cultures with accents and we mixed it up,” he explained. “I wanted to normalize Black people in the 1800s with images that didn’t have a whip on our backs. I wanted the Victorian era- that era to show scientists and inventors and thinkers and alchemists and kind of give a different visual for Black people in this era.”
Making a cinematic marvel can contain a lot of moving parts. One of the moving parts for this film was working with an Oscar-nominated Black British cinematographer, Remi Adefarasin, one of the top British cinematographers.
“He and I talked about scope and scale, and that was a big thing for us, we wanted to make sure the film had scope and scale,” he explained. “So, my question was ‘how high could that camera go on that crane?’ And he said ‘we can go 100 feet.’ I asked ‘well can you make it go 200 feet? I wanted to show scope and scale on a grand spectacle. I knew this was a big undertaking and it was important for this film to succeed, to have this kind of scope, so that people that want to do films like this with people of color after me people will be more open to it because of the success of this one.”
Working on a huge blockbuster film like “Jangle” had its challenges for David E. Talbert.
“It was really for me, it was like going back to graduate school,” he reflected. “I had done musical plays, but I had never shot a musical. I had never done choreography in my plays. I had never done digital effects, special effects, two CGI characters and animated sequences, and people flying. I had never done that in a film before. I give a lot of credit to Scott Stuber and Nick Nesbitt for believing in me. I’m used to, in my career, people saying ‘you’ve got $2 to make this movie. If it goes to $2.50 cents, that 25 cents is coming out of your money. I had never had an executive says to me ‘don’t write the budget, write your imagination and we’ll figure out the budget later.’ And that’s what Nick Nesbitt told me. It changed my life.”
Netflix pulled out all the stops for this production, bringing him some of the best personnel in the entertainment industry.
“They knew the importance of this film and surrounded me with the best visual effects team, the best music, Phil Lawrence and John Legend, the best production designer, who did all the ‘Star Wars’ latest movies, the best costume designer, a two-time Oscar nominee and proudly I say, I brought the best producer, my wife, who is the lead producer in the film. So, I was bullet proof. I had a Black woman by my side every step of the way.”
Casting Forest Whitaker as Jeronicus Jangle proved to be a stroke of genius. Whitaker provided a depth to the role that few actors are able to do.
“He was always my first choice,” said David of Forest Whitaker, who attended USC’s Conservatory of Music on a scholarship for Voice and also directed “Waiting to Exhale.” Talbert added: “I’ve known Forest for about 10 years, we had always flirted with doing a project together. The brilliance of Forest is that he does his homework. He understands nuance and backstory and making sure the character is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. I needed someone in front of the camera that could ground this character and make sure he’s a character and not a caricature., someone with those chops in front of the camera but equally as important, I need a big brother behind the camera.”
The breakout star in “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is Madalen Mills, who illuminates every scene she’s in.
“I think the heavens just dropped that little angel in my lap for this film,” Talbert gushed. “She has so much light in her. We did a worldwide search and we narrowed it down to five actresses from around the world. I flew into New York for the audition. As soon as I walked in, I knew it was hers. The other young ladies were talented, but she just had this thing where she wasn’t coming to audition for the role, she was coming to claim what was hers.”
Audiences will love the music which features songwriter Philip Lawrence, who has worked with Beyonce and Adele, and singer/songwriter John Legend. Luckily for viewers Lawrence also appears in the film alongside actress Lisa Davina Phillip, (Mrs. Johnston) as one of her background singers/dancers.
“When Phil wrote that song, we kept clowning in the studio adding more background parts, because I love the background parts and they were so funny, I said ‘Phil we got to have them on screen. You’ve got to fly into London, and with two other actors I had met there, Toge and Gabe and I said you all got to be Pips. She’s got to be Gladys Knight and you guys will be the Pips.”
“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is simply a flawless movie. With sensational performances from Forest Whitaker, newcomer Madelen Mills, Phylicia Rashad and a monstrous performance by Keegan-Michael Key as the villain Gustafson. The film allows him the opportunity to show the great range he has as an actor. Mills is a young superstar with a voice that captures the screen. In addition, the choreography is flawless and the production design and costuming, simply otherworldly (do we hear Oscar?).
Although this film features actors and actresses of color, this film will appeal to audiences of all ethnicities. In this time of isolation and strife, the world needs an inspirational story that inspires and encourages. “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” may be a Christmas movie, but it will live as a testimonial of triumph from the belief in human accomplishment. One line in the movie sums up its inspirational prowess- “If You Believe, It’s All Possible.” Simply, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is a masterpiece, a holiday Christmas classic that all families should view and have in their collections.
Follow David on Instagram @DavidETalbert.