'Jungle Cruise' Cinematographer Recalls The Time He Was Kidnapped While Making A Movie [Interview]

Cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano got to shoot his biggest picture to date with Jungle Cruise. The Disney film is based on a theme park ride, but for cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano, it's more influenced by old Hollywood classics. He wanted to shoot a movie with a sense of romance, bright colors, and natural beauty. As he told us, creating that natural beauty in a water tank in Atlanta wasn't easy.

The production was another collaboration between Labiano and director Jaume Collet-Serra. The two worked together on The ShallowsNon-Stop, and Unknown. Prior to his collaborations with Collet-Serra, Labiano shot Timecrimes and several Álex de la Iglesia films, including the delightful horror-comedy The Day of the Beast. One of the duo's previous films, in particular, Perdita Durango, is pure madness. It stars Javier Bardem and Rosie Perez in, basically, a meaner Natural Born Killers. Fittingly, Labiano had a wild time making it...and he was kidnapped during production. He told us all about it during a recent phone interview.

Jungle Cruise is your biggest movie to date, right?

It was. We shot it in 95 days. There were some reshoots after that, but principal photography was around 95 or 98 days.

What was reshot?

Some stuff in the third act that wasn't really working. Basically, a part with the tree we didn't finish completely.

How much more control do you feel shooting with a water tank than on a river? 

Well, 80% of the movie with the boat was shot in a boat on a tank in Atlanta. The whole first act was a village we built in Hawaii, where the boat never went. We designed the tank and everything. We had to match the village and the boat scenes. It was a lot of calculations of the sun and how it would look in the morning and afternoon.

One of my big challenges was trying to capture the heat you experience when you go to these countries. When you go to Brazil or South American countries, you feel the heat and humidity. I was trying to achieve the effect with the camera. The whole idea was to take the audience to one of those places, even though we were in a parking lot in Atlanta. I just tried to make it feel like you were in The Amazon. With the humidity, it's hard to breathe, and the idea was to photograph that. Sometimes we achieved that, sometimes we didn't.

Did The Shallows prepare you and Jaume for those technical challenges?

It did. The Shallows, too, we did in a small tank. We did 80% of that movie in a tank. We had already the experience of how to do it, like how to match it with an actual location. With The Shallows, we did find a location, and then we saw what the sun did there and matched it with the tank. With Jungle Cruise, since we both built a tank and a village, I mean, I don't think that'll happen again in my life [Laughs]. The tank was 100ft by 60ft. It was probably a five-story blue screen. With the village, too, we designed it like the tank was in the middle. Most of the time, it worked.

It's such a colorful movie. What colors did you and Jaume want to emphasize in the village?

I was really tired of movies with one palette or one tone and not going with the full spectrum of colors. I told Jaume, "Let's go big. Let's go big with the colors. We'll never be able to do it again." We didn't want to do a foggy, sad and blue London everybody photographs. I've been to London in the summer, and it's beautiful and colorful. It's fantastic in the summer.

We tried to go with the Kodachrome look, separating the primary colors. It's very difficult because you need to separate them from all the costumes and sets. We wanted an old Kodachrome look. It's very difficult, because once you get involved in visual effects, it's hard to follow them because you finish the movie, and they keep working on the movie for a year. We wanted a romantic, sunny summer, even in London.

I even used magenta, which I never used before, for the tree. We actually tinted the lights with magenta. It's a big magenta light. I thought, "Oh my God." It could be really ugly, but I think it really works. With a lot of colors, it's scary territory. It's very easy to make a mistake. It can be too much. Maybe you pick the wrong color and then the audience feels something different. Maybe you like the color, but somebody hates it. It's like food. It's complex.

As I said, in a lot of it, it works, but in some places, I don't know. We did have the money to do it. It was the first time we had the money to design all the interiors, know what to paint the walls, and how the costumes should fit. We had a lot of time to prep, which is a pleasure.

Romancing the Stone and The African Queen were references, but what also inspired you for Jungle Cruise?

One of the movies that really inspired me was The Wind and the Lion with Sean Connery. Another movie I used for reference for, in terms of going for big scale and not being afraid of anything, is John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King. I grew up on those movies. Of course, there were movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but I don't think they had the nostalgia... I mean, Indiana Jones 1 and 2 had it, but we wanted the old classic, romantic journey in an exotic place story they don't do much of anymore. Maybe the last brilliant one was Romancing the Stone. I don't know if people stopped watching those movies.

For The Man Who Would Be King, I miss that sense of danger and scale where you're just blown away by the parts of the world they visited.

Exotic, too, no? I think we have a little bit of that. Yes, we shot the movie in a tank in a parking lot, I mean, with the summer daylight in Atlanta. It was a big challenge for us to reproduce the jungle there. Sunsets and sunny days in a parking lot.

Do you think what you didn't achieve only you, as the cinematographer, notice?

I hope so. You know, cinematography, I always hear it spoken about as a big art. I really don't think so. To compare shooting a scene to making a painting, well, there are levels of talent, in my opinion. When you are a cinematographer, you may be shooting in a 15th Century chapel with great makeup artists, great wardrobe, and great talent, but then you just put a camera there. It's not cinematography, but just a part of the collaboration.

In my personal experience, the cinematography is more like a craft. After 10 movies and another 10 movies, knowing which lenses and exposures to use, you're more like a shoemaker, you know? After 50 years, they know exactly how to do it. It's a craft thing. I never see it as art with big letters, like ART. So many people are surrounding you and collaborating with you, so it's not just you, your intuition, and your talent. You need a director to tell the story, help express their view, and deal with the budget, politics, and a lot of hours.

You see yourself as a craftsman, not so much an artist, which is the sense I got from Jaume. There's a real self-awareness and lack of pretension in the movies you do. Do you feel compatible in that way?

Yes, and we try to respect the genre. Again, I go back to the movies I grew up with. It wasn't painters that influenced me. I don't know why people say that. For me, the movies I go back to I've seen 50-60 times. For some reason, I always go back. This was an opportunity to do one of those. I think it even has a very period look with much longer lenses. It's pretty much the opposite of a Marvel movie. You don't feel like you're in a video game, you know what I mean? We shot it in Atlanta against blue, too, but we wanted something more organic and with nature. Sometimes we achieve it, sometimes we don't. I'm very happy with most of the results.

Do you miss shooting on film at all?

In the beginning, to be honest, I didn't like it at all. It's for two reasons. For one reason, when you light on a movie set, you are looking through the viewfinder. You are there on the set and on the frontline. Now, you have to go to a precise monitor, which is in a tent. You're separated from the actual set, which is something I don't like. I like a lot of things, though, like more control of focus and more versatility. It's easier with continuity, being able to go back and look at the last shot and compare. There are a lot of really, really good things.

So many cinematographers say a part of their job is responding to what an actor gives them. With two big movie stars, how do you present their star qualities?

Both of them are very, very photogenic, as you know. By Dwayne putting the hat on, it really helped me out. I could give him a noir look. I could use shadows, so he could just give me one eye. It gives me a lot of moments to play. I can light him with a half-eye, to make him more mysterious. Dwayne is a very handsome guy. I watched a lot of his movies beforehand, and to tell you the truth, I was surprised by how little care they took of him. They shot him very flat, maybe because there's a lot of green screens.

Dwayne was very collaborative with me. We made so many jokes about the hat and the cool look. I had a great time photographing his face. I think he looks really great in the movie. With Emily, she's very easy. She has such energy. It's very easy to light her. Whatever lights bounce on her just reflects. It's so inspiring to watch her.

A movie that couldn't be more different from Jungle Cruise that you shot is Perdita Durango. I just watched it, and it's such a mad movie, but do you have fond memories of making it? 

[Laughs] Wow, man. We could have a long conversation about that. It was really, really crazy. It was a Spanish crew who left for the first time to Mexico with a budget. I mean, the things that happened on that movie... Everything happened in that movie. Javier Bardem got his arm burned from an explosion. I was kidnapped [Laughs].


[Laughs] Yeah, I was kidnapped in Mexico. I was kidnapped in a taxicab for three hours. I don't know, people disappeared. That movie was crazy. Completely crazy. Probably the cut you saw was another cut, but the first cut of the movie was very wild. Very wild times. We were young. We were very young. I don't know what you thought. What'd you think?

I like it, but I felt dirty for liking it, you know what I mean? It's not a movie I would tell people to watch.

[Laughs] You know Alex de la Iglesia, right? He's a friend of mine. I've done a lot of movies with him. We started with Day of the Beast. Have you seen that one?

I haven't. I plan to watch it on Shudder. 

Oh, you should watch that. It's a low-budget movie done over eight weeks, but we started with that movie [Laughs]. We made a bunch of them. It was... crazy times. Perdita was very different. It was the [Barry Gifford] novel, the pre-Wild at Heart. The producer bought the rights and got the money from someone. We went to Mexico, Vegas, New Mexico, and Tijuana to shoot that crazy movie. All the movies we did before were very low-budget. Perdita was an explosion. It was an explosion of colors and everything.

You got to show war, voodoo, and a shootout over a truck filled with embryos. The scale of it is nuts. 

[Laughs] Yeah, I completely forgot that time in my life.

You got kidnapped and you forgot that time in your life?

I did get kidnapped, but it was very normal in Mexico City then. They get you in a taxi and kidnap you for an hour, maybe an hour and a half. It was not a big deal. When I went to the police, there was a line of 50 people it happened to that night. They call these kidnappings "express" ones. They take your Visa card and go to two or three spots. Then, they leave you alone. You know, when Javier Bardem was in the war flashback, he really did get burned. It was his arm.

Were there days on that movie where you were, like, Jesus Christ? The content is so nihilistic. 

Everything was crazy. I don't remember much. It was just craziness. It was just like a long, drunken night, that's how I remember it [Laughs]. It's like going to Mexico City and drinking tequila.