This week Elvis sits down with writer-director David E. Talbert, whose newest film is Netflix’s “Jingle Jangle.” Talbert’s other films as a director include “First Sunday” and “Almost Christmas.” Talbert tells Mitchell that he had been working on the script for “Jingle Jangle” for two decades, but it took seeing and being inspired by “Black Panther” for him to finally get the script where he wanted it to be. And he talks about how the poignancy of the film “Up” motivated him to use animation for the emotional moments in “Jingle Jangle.”
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest David E. Talbert is a novelist. He's a playwright, and certainly a very successful writer and director of film. His newest project is "Jingle Jangle: a Christmas Journey." Before we got started, you were telling me the story about going to see "Black Panther" with your son and how it started off being what you expected to be one kind of experience and turned into something else.
David E. Talbert: Of course, I found every piece of Kinte in the house like most Black people. I went there with my son to show him this film, and I'm sitting there; I got my popcorn, I'm watching it. As it went on, when they said, "Do you know who you are?" I'm like, well, what manner of excellence is this? I didn't expect everything that I got to move me as much as it moved my son, in totally different ways.
I remember I went to my office at Universal that night, and I was working on a script for another film. I moved that script to the trash bin, and I hit delete, because I said, the level of excellence that I just saw, that film inspired me. If Ryan Coogler could push the envelope to put that level of excellence on the screen, then what the hell am I doing? And that's when I started putting the screws into "Jingle Jangle." And I said, I'm gonna throw everything and the kitchen sink into this, to make sure that that bar is raised as high up in the sky as possible.
KCRW: One of the things I would say that really makes this closer to the novels than plays or movies you've done is that there is so much story in it. Any act of "Jingle Jangle" could be an entire movie in and of itself. We can connect this to "Almost Christmas," which is another movie about a broken family, surrounded by a widower that comes together, when they all get together. And that's kind of the heart of "Jingle Jangle." But there's more than that, too, isn’t there?
Talbert: This was an opportunity, the first ever for me, to explore people of color or to normalize, to bring a new aesthetic to holiday classics. Where "Almost Christmas” was for my audience; it was for people that look like me, and it succeeded in that, "Jingle Jangle" is for the world. It's adding an aesthetic to the classic holiday cannons, where it's intentional in its representation, but it has nothing to do with color or race. It wears its heart and humanity in the forefront. That's what we lead with: heart, humanity, love, wonder, whimsy, just like the movies that I watched when I was growing up.
KCRW: One of the things that's so much fun about it is to see a Black cast in that kind of heightened artificiality. You know, this could be "The Shop Around the Corner," or "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
Talbert: The images we have of Black people in this era: there's a whip against our backs. That's it, you know. In the 1800s that's all we show, but there were scientists, inventors around the world, even in this country. There were innovators, all of this brilliance that we don't get a chance to celebrate. And so, when I showed a Black inventor, it was important for me to show the beauty of Africa. The patterns in the wardrobe are mixed: Victorian patterns with authentic patterns from Ghana. I don't want my son to just sit down, and every time we're talking about this era of Black people, there's always a whip against our backs. I want him to see someone look like him soaring and flying and inventing.
KCRW: There's kind of a classicism to the film. It's really formal in a lot of ways. We're aware we're in the studio set. It's really rare to see people of color in a setting that's not almost ultra realistic. To put that kind of fantasy world in it, or put people in a world that's specifically about visual fantasy really changes our expectation and upends them as we're watching.
Talbert: It does. We keep it real; we show what we know, we write about what we experience on a daily basis. In a lot of the inner cities in Black America, what we experience isn't whimsy and wonder and magic. We experience a lot of the ills of what goes on in a neighborhood, but in the midst of that, there is joy; there is whimsy; there is wonder; there is laughter; there is love; there are all those things. But sometimes as artists, we lean on what is most prevalent.
I grew up in Montgomery County, which was a suburb of DC in a predominantly white area, and there were only two Black kids in my elementary school. And then I moved to Capitol Heights, which is, of course, densely Black, so I got a chance to experience life on the other side. I got a chance to experience a sense of innocence that you don't normally get as much as we would hope in the inner city. So for me, I wanted to be able to provide for my community and for the world community, this whimsy and wonder, and I wanted for children of color all around the world to see that they have a seat at this table of wonder. You don't have to be Harry Potter, you can be Larry Potter. Wonder and whimsy does not just land and belong to one culture.
KCRW: The musical numbers, even though they go through all different genres and styles, have a kind of a gospel exhortation to them. There is this thing that runs through so much of your work, which is to basically set these dramas in a place of faith, where there's a battle between faith and cynicism, which is also a lot of the Black struggle too.
Talbert: Well, I grew up in Holiness Pentecostal Church. My great grandmother was a pastor, and I would watch working class people, through her words, Bible stories, the word of God change people's lives, touch people's lives, give joy. I'd see the old church sisters shouting in the pews and doing the holy dance. There was this hope, this promise of a better day. You know, we bought into that. And I think as a community, we still buy into that. But if we don't see images, then we don't know we can be. If we don't see it, how do you know you can be it? Cinema is such a powerful medium. And I think we have a responsibility to tell all kinds of stories and certainly give hope and show where you can push past pain to get through joy.
KCRW: It's a movie that, like you're saying, has a universal appeal to it, but also, for those of us who are of color, who've gone into those kinds of churches, even the musical numbers are, in their way, about faith. And I'm just thinking about Gustafson's number about almost fake faith. He's almost more like a televangelist. And these wars of faith are kind of what the film's about in a lot of ways.
Talbert: Jeronicus' journey is the journey of Job, who had everything and had it taken from him. But at the end of Job's journey, he got everything back sevenfold, tenfold. I haven't been in church in obviously 30 years.
One of my favorite lines is never be afraid when people don't see what you see, only be afraid if you no longer see. It's this man trying to find his faith, again, which is belief and find his way through having faith in himself, in what he has created, having faith in what he was created to be and do. I'm not a religious guy, and I don't lead with that. But I do believe in “Aesop's Fables” and stories and those things that have a lesson and a greater meaning behind them.
KCRW: There's so much about the pleasure of faith that we see through the kids, and through the women in this piece, too.
Talbert: I think we're born with belief. We're born with faith. We're born with courage. We're born with fearlessness, and we're taught then to be afraid. We're born with inclusiveness. We're taught that well, this is for one group; this is for another group. We're taught to question things and not believe, and I think a lot of the journey of a child, the journey literally of the character Journey, Madalen Mills, she has not allowed herself to be taught to not be everything she was created to be. She has to infuse that same sense into Jeronicus so that he can remember who he was.
KCRW: Jeronicus Jangle as an adult is played by Forest Whittaker. It's like he in a weird way goes from being Buddy Love to Julius Kelp. I want to talk to you about that character conception too, because it's like you've taken almost all the popular culture and baked it into this one thing.
Talbert: Forrest is a student of everything good, everything classic. He asked me how I saw Jeronicus Jangle, and what did I pull from? And I told him, it was a mix of Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," questioning his purpose or existence. It was a bit of Albert Finney in "Ebenezer Scrooge." It was a bit of Gene Wilder in "Willy Wonka" and a mix of Dick Van Dyke Caractacus Potts in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
Forrest made a bold choice as an actor; he was going to withhold joy from you. It was risky because he could have alienated the audience. But he held back joy, so that when the character as his story evolved, and he gave you joy, you felt like yes! His smile, your smile, and he lit up the screen! And that is just a reminder that he is a master of his craft.
KCRW: He goes from basically, as a younger Jeronicus from being like an adult, to after he's lost so much, he's retreated into being a child again, in a lot of ways.
Talbert: Jeronicus is me in many ways, where the Buddy 3000 was sitting up in his attic, this script was sitting in the attic of my hard drive for 20 years. Like the robot, the script always worked. And like Jeronicus, Journey needed to come; my son needed to be born. Because when my son was born, man, I began to see the world through his eyes. And then I began to see it through mine again. And he reminded me of that innocence and that purity. I relate so much to this character, and I think a lot of adults can, because it's beaten out of us, the joy, the exuberance, the innocence, the magic through life. Over the course of living and being an adult, it's beaten out of you, you're always told you’ve got to grow up. Damn it, I don't ever want to grow up.
KCRW: It felt almost like this metaphor for being in the entertainment business. You have this thing that you love that you've worked on, that means something to you, and having it go out into the world and the way people greet it, and losing relationships in that business. That was probably in some ways, conflated by your starting a family and then having that innocence and joy come back, because you can lose a lot of that chasing projects around, like you're saying, having this script in your hard drive in your attic for over 20 years.
Talbert: [His son] should get a credit. Written and directed by; he should get "inspired by." When I showed him the original design for the Buddy 3000. He was four at the time, and I said, well, what do you think? He says, I like it, Daddy. What can he do? And I said, well, he can walk and he can talk. And I thought I was really saying something that impressed him. And he says, Can he fly, daddy? And I hadn't written that in the script for him to fly. And I said, yeah, he can fly. He just lit up. He asked me a question, and it makes me emotional every time. He looked at me and said, Daddy, can I fly? And I looked at him and I said, Yes, son, you can fly, too, and he lit up; his eyes sparkled. At the end of the day, man, that's everything to me.
That is everything that every parent wants: their children to see themselves bigger than society may or bigger than they may even see. They want their children to soar and their imagination to fly. And for me to be able to give this to my son and to people around the world of color. That's everything.
KCRW: “Jingle Jangle” is also about not being complete. That's why I was thinking about "Almost Christmas" because it was a broken family that had to come together to complete itself.
Talbert: What I love so much about "Almost Christmas" is that this is a man's journey. He wanted to reconnect with his wife, who had passed. And if he could figure out a way to make this sweet potato pie like she made it, he would have a piece of her back. And that's what that whole movie was about. It was a man's journey to reconnect to the love of his life, once she had passed, and he did this through this pie and through his family.
All the stories that I tell you: they're all personal. My great-grandmother, Annie Mae made the best sweet potato pie on the planet, and the year she passed, my mother said she was going to make Ma's sweet potato pies. We couldn't wait. And so she served it, and it didn't taste anything like it. I had spent a lot of my adult life after my great grandmother passed traveling all parts of this country to find some sweet potato pie like Ma did. And when that character played masterfully by Danny Glover was able to find it, that taste, that feeling again, it was a full circle moment for me.
KCRW: We can even go back to "First Sunday," which is another story that takes place in a home of faith, where people are fighting cynicism and there's a family that's broken apart that has to rejoin. This idea of looking for this one thing: it's never material success, even though there's often a character in your pieces who's looking for that. It's always about coming back home to who you are.
Talbert: That concept in "First Sunday" was that people we consider good don't always do good things and people that do bad things aren't always bad people. It was trying to shake the tree on that and just try to look past what we perceive people to be.
KCRW: In "Jingle Jangle," these big emotional moments are not done with people but with puppets, which is a really interesting idea.
Talbert: So my wife says, let's go see an animated movie "Up." And I said, I don't want to go see this animation. So, we go; the movie starts, and in the beginning, there's no dialogue. And I see this beautiful, happy family. And I see the wife pass away by the end of the opening. And I'm sitting there staring. And I'm in my feelings. I'm trying to act like, sneakily wipe away a tear. And I'm like, now why would they do that to me? I came here to see a good movie. Why would you do this to me? By the time I got through that damn movie, and that man found his way back to joy, I said, it's one of the best movies I've ever seen in my life: "Up."
So when it came time for the storybook sequences, in this mixed media, I wanted to be able to show emotion and tug on your heartstrings through these computer generated images, full CGI world, but I wanted to go after how they got me in "Up." And one of the best things someone said to me was, "now why would you do that to me, David Talbert?” But I wanted them to feel something and they appreciated it. And so that was kind of an homage to masterfully what Pixar did and how you can really tug on heartstrings through animation.