How a Lack of Diversity in Christmas Classics Led David E. Talbert to Create Jingle Jangle
The new Netflix musical is sure to become a holiday favorite — and it might become a Broadway classic, too.
David E. Talbert grew up loving larger-than-life characters. He was raised on movies like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. As a young theater artist, Talbert decided he wanted to create a Caractacus Potts and Mary Poppins of his very own. In 1998, he hatched the idea of a property that wouldn't come to fruition until 22 years later.
Talbert is the writer and director of Netflix's critically acclaimed holiday movie-musical Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. It's the phantasmagorical story of a genius toymaker (Forest Whitaker) whose prized invention is stolen by a former assistant (Keegan-Michael Key), and how his granddaughter (Madalen Mills) helps reignite his creative flame.
After years of trying to figure out how to put it on stage, Talbert realized that the ideal venue for Jingle Jangle was the screen — so families like his, and children like his son, Elias, could see people who looked like them in a Christmas movie. And Netflix was more than happy to help.
How did the birth of your son influence the creation of Jingle Jangle.
I started writing Jingle Jangle in 1998 as a Broadway show. I could never get the songs or the world right, and no one was checking for me to do a Broadway production. At that time, no one cared about inclusion and diversity and representation matters. After my son was born, I started showing him my favorite movies. I'm singing "Bang bang! Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and I look over at my four year old, who's looking at me like, "Who is this big Black white man singing 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'?" What I realized was, that's my childhood. There was no other option. But he wants to see people who look like him. That's when my wife said, "why not turn it into a movie?"
I took the idea to a couple of studios and they didn't see a path. I had shot an independent film for Netflix in 2017 called El Camino Christmas, so I got a general meeting with [executives] Scott Stuber and Nick Nesbitt. I told them that every time we sit down as a family during Thanksgiving or Christmas, there's not one movie we can watch with anybody who looks like anyone in my family. And if that's the case with me, imagine how many other families of color would like to see a holiday film with people who look like them. I pitched the idea for Jingle Jangle a week later, and they bought it in the room.
How did you get the music right, after initially not being able to?
Julia Michels is our music supervisor. This is our fourth movie together. I told her the kind of music I was looking for — I like Wicked, I like Frozen, I like Hamilton, I like that musical-theater isn't so traditional anymore. It's not people talking and then they break out into song. That's old school stuff. Julia told me about Philip Lawrence, who wrote all of Bruno Mars's songs, and how he wanted to get into film. I brought him in to do a test song, and I said that I wanted to out-Frozen Frozen. I want a song that I can get sick of the way I got sick of "Let It Go." Phil invited me to his house and played me "Square Root of Possible," and I'm saying "Wait a second, this song is for my movie? You've just created an anthem." From that song, I hired him to do all the songs.
The sets in Jingle Jangle are massive. Was it a bunch of green screens or is it real?
All of it was real. We had like five sound stages. We could have lived in this town; all you needed was indoor plumbing. I'm a big softy, so the first thing I did was cry my eyes out. I'm looking around like, "are you kidding me?" I perceived that this only happens for other people. But I'm standing in the middle of this town square, and that's when it hit me that this was my dream coming true, and I was now one of those lucky people who got the backing and support of a studio.
The thing that changed my life was when Nick Nesbitt said, "Don't write the budget; write your imagination. We'll figure out the budget later." Nobody had ever told me that before. I looked around to see if Ashton Kutcher was going to jump out of the closet. I thought I was being Punk'd. But they meant it. And the reason it has that scope and scale is because they weren't making a "representation" movie. They were making a classic holiday film for the family, that happened to have people of color in it.
Your cast is filled with icons — Forest Whitaker, Phylicia Rashad, Keegan-Michael Key, Ricky Martin, Anika Noni Rose...
I've known Forest for 20 years. He's friendly and kind, but he's elusive. He's very particular. I wanted to sit with him when it came time to cast Jeronicus Jangle, because I wanted someone who was grounded in humanity. We're in a restaurant and he's telling me stuff about the character that I hadn't even written. In the middle, he stopped on a dime and said "So, do you want me to play the character?" And I'm like "I don't want you to play it. I need you to play it." And he reached over and shook my hand.
Before we even got the green light, my wife said that Phylicia Rashad had to play the grandmother. Her agent called us and said "Ms. Rashad can't wait to do it, but her character is supposed to fly, and we don't think that will be good for her physically, so you have to figure out something else." I meet her for the first time and told her that, and she said "Mr. Talbert, I've been watching Peter Pan my whole life. There is nothing that's going to stop me from getting in whatever harness you need and flying." And there you have it.
You got great reviews. People really love it. How does it make you feel, seeing it come to life with such a warm response, especially this year?
I'm framing every last one of the reviews. I'm gonna line them as wallpaper around my house. But it's beyond "Oh, I got a good review." I watched these movies as a child and they inspired me. To be able to create one that stands alongside those as an instant classic is really life-affirming.
With the horrific things we've had to see, there's never been a time when a whole community, a culture, has needed this more. This is like a beacon of hope. It's a bright light that lets people know that there is a better day out there. It's eerie the timing of it all, but it's divine, I guess.
Is it headed for the stage next, finally?
Oh, yeah. It's going to the stage now. I don't have to do cartwheels. People are wondering why we didn't do this before, and I'm like "Because y'all wouldn't finance it." But now it seems obvious. I talked to Forest Whitaker, I talked to Anika Noni Rose, I talked to Keegan-Michael Key, I talked to Madalen Mills, I talked to Ricky Martin, and all of them have said that they would do the maiden voyage of this on Broadway. This is a once-in-a-lifetime project. I'm a big kid, but what I didn't realize is that it awakened the kid in everyone in this film, too.