It’s still strange to me that we primarily think of Jon Favreau as a director and not an actor since he first made name for himself in Hollywood with appearances in works like RUDY, SWINGERS (which he wrote), DEEP IMPACT, and even the original DAREDEVIL. But right around the time of that last title, he began getting behind the camera to primarily make movies that tap into our inner child (with perhaps the exceptions of MADE and 2014’s sleeper hit CHEF). ELF tapped into a kid’s love of Christmas; ZATHURA was about playing the ultimate game; IRON MAN 1 & 2 were about playing superhero; COWBOYS & ALIENS were about cowboys and aliens; and his latest, the live-action adaptation THE JUNGLE BOOK, is the ultimate trip to the zoo for any youngster, especially one named Mowgli, played by newcomer Neel Sethi.
Favreau’s version of THE JUNGLE BOOK leans a little heavier on Rudyard Kipling’s original book, but it certainly doesn’t ignore the endearing 1967 Disney animated version either—there may be a song or two you recognize in the latest incarnation. More importantly, the film looks like nothing you’ve ever seen. The animals (voiced by the likes of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, and the late Garry Shandling) look about as photo-real as I’ve seen CG characters look; the jungle locations are gorgeous; the 3-D is perfectly executed and lit (it was shot in 3-D); and the interaction between Mowgli and everything around him is seamless, which is shocking considering every frame of the film was shot inside soundstages in downtown Los Angeles.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to chat with Favreau, primarily at events in Austin, so I’m fairly certain this was our first interaction in Chicago. As a nice bonus, he was accompanied by young Neel Sethi, who actually had to leave the interview halfway through to catch a plane with his parents. As many conversations go with Favreau, he gets very detailed about the equipment used to make the film and about his inspirations on how best to tell this story and what elements he borrowed from what source materials. It’s a great, informative, and fun talk, as you might expect. I should warn you (because Jon asked me to) about mild spoilers regarding music more than story, since some of you might not know exactly how the songs fit into this new version, if at all. If this matters to you, read this after you’ve seen this film, which opens this weekend. With that, please enjoy my chat with Jon Favreau and Neel Sethi…
Capone: Good to meet you, Neel. Hey, John, how are you doing? Good to see you again.
Neel Sethi: Nice to meet you.
Jon Favreau: Capone! Yes, I know your avatar well.
Capone: Seeing this film made me realize something I did not know before: I think being killed by a snake with Scarlett Johansson’s voice is an acceptable way to die. It might actually be my preferred way to die.
JF: [laughs] It’s a very strange mixture of emotions when her voice is coming out of that scary creature, so loving and motherly. It’s very odd.
Capone: That’s one interpretation of her voice.
JF: It’s not a bad way to go.
Capone: You do have a couple of the songs that we know from the ’67 film, but Kaa’s song [“Trust in Me”] you save for the credits; I actually stayed to listen to it. Was it featured in the movie at some point?
JF: No. The way that the Disney movie is structured doesn’t necessarily tie together storywise, but I wanted to keep the basic structure of the Disney film, and there was an opportunity here to allow for the exposition of Mowgli’s deep past. It was a good mixture, because we wanted the hypnosis scene, but I didn’t want to start the movie with a prologue [of how Mowgli ended up being raised by animals].
To me, the best exposition is in STAR WARS. It all starts; you don’t what the heck is happening; you read the crawl; but by the time Obi-Wan Kenobi is telling him about the lightsaber, you’re sitting at the edge of your seat begging for exposition. You want to hear about the Clone Wars, right? But if you front load the exposition too much, it feels like you’re doing homework for the movie. So I wanted to hit the audience with the story of Mowgli’s beginning when they were curious about it. Mowgli is learning about his past as the audience does, and there was also something interesting about the notion of the hypnosis unlocking latent memories that he had of his deep childhood.
Capone: Right, because that’s actually what hypnosis is supposed to do.
JF: Right, or therapy—coming to terms with who you are and how you fit in to give him a context, because he felt like he was a part of that thing. It’s almost like ELF in that way, where he’s oblivious at first.
Capone: Neel, I understand you just saw the finished film for the first time yesterday. Tell me about your reaction, and what were some of the biggest surprises?
NS: Yeah. So when I first started the movie, I had a huge bucket of popcorn and I jumped, and it flew everywhere. It was so funny. It’s not really a spoiler, but there’s a tree trunk, and I’m in the tree trunk trying to get away from the tiger, and I look down, and the tiger is about to jump in my face, and in 3-D it’s kind of scary. So again with the popcorn, I was like “Ahh!” And it flew everywhere. And at the end when it said, “Introducing Neel Sethi,” I was like, “Yeah!,” and the popcorn was spilling all over my mom. [laughs]
Capone: When you’re first conceiving this and deciding how much to take from the film and how much to take from the book, what was your process in terms of pulling and restructuring?
JF: It was similar to IRON MAN really, because IRON MAN had so many stories for so many years, and I found that the best way was to see what I remembered first. What’s the stuff that got stuck in my memory? Because that gets weighted more heavily. So I just made a list, “Okay, what do I remember from JUNGLE BOOK” before I go and watch it again? And so I’m thinking: well, them on the river singing. I remember the snake coiling him up and him being hypnotized in the weird kaleidoscope eyes of the snake. I remember King Louie, I remember the music, the temple collapsing, the torch, I remember the tiger stalking him, the elephants marching, the baby elephant.
So you brainstorm and brain dump those things, and there was a script that was being developed before I got there that was very true to the Kipling stories. But I grew up with the animated stories, like, “Guys, this is Disney. We have to figure out a way to work in these memories we share as a culture.” But you don’t want it to be a G-rated musical, because it defeats the purpose of doing a movie to this scale. So what’s the PG version of this movie? So we looked at the big five [Disney] films—BAMBI, SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO, and borrowed images from films like that and DUMBO and also borrowed tonally from them. Even LION KING. They would have really scary, intense scenes, but then you would also cut it with humor, and you’d also have room for music in them without being musicals.
So I really tried to channel what Walt was going for back then when he was making movies that were really for everybody. They weren’t seen as children’s movies at the time, although children loved them. They were seen as movies for everybody, with thrills and excitement and scary moments, but also humor and good messages. Also, you don’t really show graphically the things that are happening. You allude to them, and sometimes that can be just as scary. It certainly takes a lot more restraint. That’s what we got here. I wanted something I would like, but also I’m a dad, so I know what my kids kind of dig too. I know what I don’t want to show and the way you can make people feel things just by cranking the tension up.
Capone: I realized as I was watching this that so many of your films, with a couple of exceptions, are wish fulfillment for kids. These are the things that kids get obsessed with, from Christmas, to superheroes, to games, and this to me is the ultimate trip to the zoo. I remember seeing this movie when I was young and thinking, “I don't think all these animals actually could exist in one jungle.” So to me, this was seeing animals that I might not ever get a chance to see.
JF: We really tried to maintain truth. That’s why we swapped out King Louie for a Gigantopithecus. We really tired to make it accurate, as much as you could, even though they are talking animals. We also exaggerated the scale too, so it felt more like a Disney film. So the panther is much bigger than a panther would be, and the tiger is enormous. And that’s also part of seeing it through a kid’s eyes. And because we did this AVATAR style, we could exaggerate the scale of the jungle as well.
Capone: I read you used a camera was developed for AVATAR but hasn’t been used since. Explain that exactly.
JF: It’s a combination of things. We used the [Cameron 3-D] Pace rig. So many films now, because a lot of them are filming out in the field, they’re just shooting traditionally then converting to 3-D. I felt the experience of seeing AVATAR was unique and I wanted to emulate that. So we had a lot of the people who worked on AVATAR working on this. Jim Cameron came to set and saw us working with the Pace rig, which is using two digital cameras to capture the 3-D.
We also were using SimulCam which is a technology that allows you to design the sets before hand, load it in, create a volume on the set, and when you move the camera, if you look through the SimulCam monitor, you would see the jungle and the animals around him, and then him against the blue screen would be in there, so it helps you frame up. We were using all that stuff, and it was great, because Jim knew everybody on the set. What we stepped up was the amount of interactive shots, because AVATAR is a lot of interaction with CG. Here, I was using the tricks from GRAVITY, which is move the matte line around, design the shots before you shoot them, and have your CG people on set.
Capone: What were you seeing when you’re shooting? What are you interacting with when you’re riding on an animal?
NS: I remember the one scene where I wake up on a bull, and it’s going through the mountain, and I was literally on a bull. It looked like a bull, it was shaped like a bull, and there was someone backstage controlling it with a controller, and it would keep rocking like that.
JF: So what that was, we actually created a new rig, which was code named the Favarator, in my honor, the people from Legacy built it, who used to be Stan Winston’s team—Shane Mahan and the team. What we would do is, we had Andy Jones, our animator, develop digitally the bull, or the bear, because it was used for both. They were two different rigs. And we would create the walk cycle. We would pre-animate the scene with a digital kid, and then we would feed the MIA files into this rig so it would move one for one with the animated creature. That way, he was interacting perfectly with the way the animal would move so there was no slippage. Generally what you do is you approximate it as best you can then you ask the animators to work around it, but it always looks a little bit weird. So we had a tremendous amount of discipline. Again, GRAVITY was a film that went out of its way to do the physics. That’s why it was so convincing, because they committed before hand to the movie.
Capone: In making the animals’ mouths move, that’s always been the sticking point for me whenever we have photorealistic animals talking. Here, it’s perfect. It really is.
JF: That’s good, because that part did scare me. We brought in the best examples and the worst examples we could find.
Capone: You know I want to ask you what the worst examples were.
JF: [laughs] I won’t say that, but we looked at films like BABE, which is very different than DOG WITH A BLOG, which is very different than BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA or GOLDEN COMPASS or CATS VS DOGS. So it has to do with how much you’re willing to allow the animal to behave like a real animal. I think what is good about BABE is they added mouths onto real creatures. If you look at BAMBI, compared to let’s say SNOW WHITE, and we listened to a lot of the notes that came from the story sessions, because Walt Disney kept a stenographer in all the meetings.
If you look at the BAMBI additional materials on the Blu Ray, they would read like a radio play the story sessions, which was very interesting, because they were wrestling with a lot of the same stuff we were. So he would look and he said, “I don’t want this to be like SNOW WHITE. I don’t want the animals to be cartoon-y. I want them to be like real animals, so let’s study the real animals.” And they would wrestle with how you shoot them talking and how certain animals you get away with it. The younger animals you get away with it more than the older animals. You can get away with it, for some reason, the bear and tiger are very easy. The wolves were harder, snakes were even harder. King Louie, very easy. We were working with Weta, and they have a lot of experience with that from the [PLANET OF THE] APES movies.
So it was a real balancing act of how to cover it, how to show it. If you notice, the trick in BAMBI they used a lot is they wouldn't show the mouth all the time when the adult animals are speaking, and you keep it down on the level of the little guys. So we added characters like Gray and other characters to help keep us in the world of the younger animals when we could, as well.
Capone: Is any of this motion capture?
NS: Yeah, I did three months of motion capture, and then the rest, six months live action.
JF: The way we did it, the beginning of it was like a Pixar movie or an animation film. We had a story department, scratch vocal tracks, pencils, and show reels. Then when that was bulletproof, instead of going to lay out as you would with a Pixar movie or a Disney animation film, we did what AVITAR did, which is we went to motion capture. We motion captured the entire movie with motion-capture sets, characters standing in, and Neel. Then we camera the movie, cut the movie together, and when that movie played, we then went GRAVITY style to “Let’s shoot the plates of what we need based on the cut of the film,” so it was like a big element shoot with just him. So if you looked at how they were shooting Sandy Bullock, they’d be moving the camera, they’d be moving the lights, they’d be moving the rigs around, and all it would tie into the effect that they had preplanned. That’s the same thing we did here. So if he’s riding the bear, we knew exactly where the camera should be. We built cookie cutter sets that were just the size that he needed to interact with.
Capone: Neel, it sounds like you need to go. It was wonderful to meet you. You were really great in this movie.
NS: Thank you so much.
JF: Have a safe trip, okay?
NS: Thanks. Bye.
Capone: I want to ask about the musical aspects. You handle the two musical number differently, because the “Bare Necessities” sequence is just two guys singing as they’re working or playing, very natural. And then the King Louie song [“I Wan’na Be Like You,” which has additional new lyrics by original co-writer Richard M. Sherman] is more like a traditional musical number. Why did you do treat them so differently?
JF: Again, those are the things that I felt we needed. The tricky thing is, how much music can you have without being a musical? That’s one of the reasons you don’t have Scarlett singing at the beginning, because in that part of the film, it would really feel out of place. Where as “Bare Necessities” you build with him saying, “Hey, everybody’s got a song,” and he hums it at first, and then they’re just celebrating, right? With the King Louie stuff, you kind of need that song because it’s so memorable. The justification that I found is he’s an odd character. Maybe the music’s there, maybe it’s not there. If you look at the kid and the surrounding characters, they’re not dancing and singing to the music. He may be the only one hearing it [laughs], and he’s definitely living in his own world.
Capone: He eases into it, too. It’s almost like he starts to sing before the music kicks in.
JF: He does. Yes, it’s sort of spoken word. It’s a taste of it, and we explore it further in the end credits in a more traditional way. But it felt like it was the right thing to do, and maybe I’m off. But it’s one of those situations that you can either do it and it’s a little bit strange, or you can not do it and it’s even more strange.
Capone: I think the reason you get away with it because it’s Christopher Walken giving his iconic delivery.
JF: Well, that’s it.
Capone: Anyone else, it might not have worked.
JF: That’s the weird part of my job. I don’t know how to explain it all. You just try something, and that’s was what was nice about this. I got to noodle with that thing for a year. You feel it, you show it to some people, you see if they shrink back from it, if they like it, if they smile, if they get drawn in by it. The big rule is: story, story, story. If you hurt the story with anything, you have got to get rid of it. But I think we found a way to reinforce the story and build the story with it, so it builds that moment even more and builds the moment where he’s rescued, which is something that became a bit of an action set piece.
Capone: Are any of the facial expressions on the animals taken from the actors who play them?
JF: Oh yeah. For sure. It depends on what the creature was. For Walken, very much so.
Capone: I could see Walken in Louie.
JF: Very much in the design of him and the way he moved. One end of the spectrum is the digital motion capture, like if you see the stuff from STAR WARS [THE FORCE AWAKEN] that Lupita did with all the dots. You can extrapolate the same information if you have multiple cameras, without painting up the face of the person. It’s more work for the techs, but we wanted the priority to be the vocal performance. He was not on a motion-capture stage. He wasn’t in the environment. We would have Neel or Bill Murray performing with him, but we would always just set up three cameras and that’s the way it was done. I think the first time they did Gollum, they did that way. I know on set doing Davy Jones [in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST], a lot of it was using Imocap.
So there’s the set-based motion capture that’s less reliant on all the digital data, and the digital data is extrapolated from photographic data. So we always had multiple cameras going. Even for Bill Murray for the bear, you would be pulling… With the bear, you could get away with quite a bit of anthropomorphic performance, but as you got into, like Idris as the tiger, it was more of getting the choices, the timing, the eye-contact patterns, some of the physicality. As you got further and further away from human, the less anthropomorphic those performances were the more they were interpolated by the animator for taking cues from the moments as opposed to the actual physical facial expressions.
Capone: Alright, best of luck with this. It really is so much fun.
JF: Thank you so much.
Capone: Good to see you again.
JF: You too. Make sure to warn about spoilers on stuff like the songs and things, because I don’t think people know what songs are in there and I think they’re still curious.