Dwayne Johnson is everywhere because he wants to be. A prodigy born from the WWE, the performer is not only one of the few pro wrestlers to make the jump to Hollywood’s big time, but also stick around for 20 years. That might be because, in the mid-2010s, Johnson decided to leverage the currency of his stardom to start his own production company, Seven Bucks Productions, to make his biggest dreams come true. One of those dreams was to make his own Pirates of the Caribbean (because, like Polygon, The Rock really loves Pirates of the Caribbean). That’s where Jungle Cruise came in.
“DJ always had a dream of doing a big Disney movie,” Hiram Garcia, president of production for Seven Bucks Productions, tells Polygon. “He was so enamored with Pirates. The first time he saw the first trailer for Pirates, and seeing that ride come to life, and what the ride meant to fans, to see that world, he was always like, ‘Man, I hope one day I can get to a point where Disney would would want to do something like that with me.’”
In the early days, Johnson was always trying to crack the code of what a larger-than-life, wrestling-anointed performer was supposed to do on the big screen. His major break came from 2001’s The Mummy Returns, with his cameo as the Scorpion King, a role souped up with then-state-of-the-art-technology. (“The Scorpion King came in a really tough time of CG,” Garcia says with a laugh. “If you ever go back and watch that he was really not involved.”) But Johnson spun a moment of cringe into a franchise — his work on the series spinoff The Scorpion King would set the adventurous tone for his career. He dabbled in kids movies, connected with auteurs, latched himself on to the Fast franchise, but eventually Johnson figured himself out. Part of that was establishing Seven Bucks Productions, in order to do what he really wanted to do: make giant movies that mass audiences want to see. Some might raise an eyebrow over Johnson’s commerce-meets-art approach, but as Garcia puts it, that’s just the P.T. Barnum-esque dream.
“We absolutely love four-quadrant storytelling,” Garcia says. “I think for us — Dany [Garcia, Seven Bucks co-founder], Dwayne, myself — we’ve always been fans of four-quad movies like Jurassic Park, ET, Back to the Future, the kind of storytelling that you can take the whole family to, eight to 80, everyone has a good time. That’s the maximum version of a big communal theatrical experience.”
The plan has translated to everything from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle to Rampage to Stephen Merchant’s more intimate wrestling-themed comedy Fighting with My Family. But Jungle Cruise, it turns out, is the culmination of a number of Johnson’s interests.
“Ironically, Jungle Cruise was DJ’s favorite ride,” Garcia says. “And luckily, Disney was in a place where they were interested in trying to get something going with Jungle Cruise. But DJ had this wish that we never even knew he had, this aspiration of like, ‘One day I want to be able to do that.’ So it all came together. It all came together in a great way just several years later from the first time we talked about it.”
While Jungle Cruise makes good on Johnson’s dream to lead a movie in the mold of Pirates, Indiana Jones, and The Mummy, it’s also given him another key collaborator: The Shallows and Non-Stop director Jaume Collet-Serra. The two forged such a connection on the set of the Disney adventure movie that Johnson recruited the director to helm his long-gestating comic book movie, Black Adam.
“I think everything that happened for a reason,” Garcia says with absolute glee in his voice. “I remember while we were filming Jungle Cruise, having a lunch with Jaume and being like, ‘Dude, you would be so perfect for Black Adam, let me pitch you this movie that we have this idea what we want to do. And luckily, he was like, ‘Oh, absolutely’ — it fit everything that he wanted to do. And Jaume, as you can imagine, having such a history in genre, and knowing edge and the kind of scares we wanted, he was perfect for Black Adam. But at the same time, I was also watching him do this big world-building movie with Jungle Cruise. So in Jaume, we could merge the all the elements we wanted for this.”
For more on Black Adam and Johnson’s future projects, check back next week for the rest of our interview with Garcia. Jungle Cruise is out now in theaters and Disney Plus Premier Access.