THE JUN­GLE BOOK

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS IAN FREER TYPE LUKE LU­CAS

From Swingers to The King Of The Swingers… Jon Favreau di­rect­ing the live-ac­tion Jun­gle Book means we can fi­nally make that joke.

IT’S ONE OF THE BEST-LOVED AN­I­MATED FEA­TURES, AND NOW THEY’RE MAK­ING IT FOR PHOTO-REAL — WITH ADDED TOOTH AND CLAW. JON FAVREAU RE­VEALS HOW HE’S TACK­LING DIS­NEY’S MOST AM­BI­TIOUS LIVE-AC­TION ADAP­TA­TION YET

If you’ve fol­lowed my ca­reer, you’ll know that I’m a bit of a Lud­dite,” ad­mits Jon Favreau. “But now I only think in ze­ros and ones. I’m us­ing a lot of RAM. I think that’s good for the brain. It helps with age­ing…”

The var­i­ous tech­nol­ogy-based chal­lenges fac­ing Favreau on The Jun­gle Book are enough to turn him into Ben­jamin But­ton. It is early De­cem­ber 2015, and that strange whoosh­ing sound in Favreau’s ears is the film’s April re­lease date hurtling to­ward him.

Favreau is in the UK check­ing in with Soho ef­fects-house MPC, which is car­ry­ing the lion’s share of the work­load. He has spent the morn­ing talk­ing Em­pire through some im­pres­sive footage — in­clud­ing as­ton­ish­ingly life-like dig­i­tal birds, a ter­ri­fy­ing stam­pede and a bear float­ing down stream with a kid on his stom­ach — and has now set­tled into a comfy ho­tel suite to chat more. An en­gag­ing mix­ture of Amer­i­can can-do op­ti­mism cou­pled with a sin­cere de­sire not to spin you film-in­dus­try bull­shit, his talk is strewn with tech­ni­cal jar­gon such as “dy­namic range” and “laser pro­jec­tion” un­til he catches him­self.

“I’m sorry,” he smiles. “Just be­cause I’m liv­ing in this world, doesn’t mean you have to.”

The Jun­gle Book isn’t Favreau’s first en­counter with Dis­ney his­tory. In 2012, he an­nounced Magic King­dom, a film about Dis­ney char­ac­ters and at­trac­tions (or ‘IP’, aka in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, if you’re so in­clined) com­ing to life à la Night At The Mu­seum. That project is cur­rently on the back burner, but it is an in­di­ca­tion of Favreau’s deepseated pas­sion, knowl­edge and re­spect for the stu­dio in gen­eral, not to men­tion the The Jun­gle Book in par­tic­u­lar.

“I’ve learned from ther­apy that the im­ages of these char­ac­ters and archetypes were a very early frame of ref­er­ence for me,” he laughs. “I didn’t re­alise how im­por­tant this was. Mowgli was in the first dream I ever re­mem­ber hav­ing. So maybe it’s kis­met that I ended up work­ing on this thing.”

Favreau’s love For Dis­ney is

in­fec­tious. He talks with rev­er­ence about the stu­dio’s clas­sic first run of fea­tures that started in 1937 with Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and ran to Pinoc­chio, Fan­ta­sia, Dumbo and Bambi, and he waxes lyrical about the Mul­ti­plane, Dis­ney’s then-rev­o­lu­tion­ary an­i­ma­tion cam­era. But he’s acutely aware he can’t re­peat The Jun­gle Book beat for beat. Work­ing on two Iron Man movies, Favreau learned that, “It’s not what was in the source ma­te­rial that is most im­por­tant, but what you con­nected with in that ma­te­rial.” So he drew up a list of mo­ments and im­ages from his child­hood mem­ory bank: 1) Baloo singing The Bare Ne­ces­si­ties; 2) Baloo and Mowgli float­ing down river; 3) Bagheera find­ing the baby; 4) King Louie; 5) The snake with the hyp­notic eyes.

If you don’t recog­nise any­thing on that list (what did you watch in your child­hood?), here’s a quick primer. Adapted from Rud­yard Ki­pling’s 1894 sto­ries, The Jun­gle Book sees man­cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi in Favreau’s ver­sion) go on an In­dian road­trip with pan­ther Bagheera (Ben Kings­ley) and Baloo the bear (Bill Mur­ray). He meets snake Kaa (Scar­lett Jo­hans­son) and mon­key King Louie (Christo­pher Walken), all the while tracked by tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba).

The film is the next stage in Dis­ney’s re­tool­ing of its an­i­ma­tion back cat­a­logue into live ac­tion, fol­low­ing Alice In Won­der­land, Sleep­ing Beauty do-over Malef­i­cent and Cin­derella. Next up is Beauty And The Beast. It’s a project that has raised prof­its (Alice alone made $1 bil­lion world­wide) but also hack­les and eye­brows, from how-dare-you-tam­per-with­the-clas­sics rants to charges of cre­ative bank­ruptcy.

“If you look at film his­tory, each time there’s a new tech­nol­ogy, film­mak­ers re-ex­plore ma­te­rial that peo­ple have con­nected with in the past,” says Favreau. “What’s nice is that when these tech­nolo­gies first emerged, they were used mostly for big, ex­plo­sive ac­tion movies. So it’s ex­tremely re­fresh­ing to see emo­tional movies be­ing told us­ing these same tools.”

Re­vamp­ing fairy tales, with their princesses and evil queens, is one thing — re­boot­ing The Jun­gle Book presents a whole world of strife. It re­quires photo-real an­i­mals that Mowgli (played by first-time ac­tor Neel Sethi) can in­ter­act with. Even if the state-of-the-art tech can de­liver life­like an­i­mal per­for­mances, Favreau has to cre­ate a tone that en­ables the au­di­ence to be­lieve in them.

More im­por­tantly, The Jun­gle Book is in­cred­i­bly beloved — it’s the Dis­ney film liked by peo­ple who don’t like Dis­ney. There is no pin­ing for the day when a prince will come, no twee wood­land an­i­mals help­ing with the chores. In­stead there are mem­o­rable tunes, a swing­ing jazzy vibe, tan­gi­ble dan­gers and, in Mowgli and Baloo, a bro­mance that Todd Phillips can only dream of. What’s more, Favreau has to con­tend with all of this in the shadow of a ri­val Warner Bros. ver­sion di­rected by Andy Serkis.

In Declar­ing him­self a “lud­dite”,

Favreau wasn’t ex­ag­ger­at­ing. In Elf — and this was in 2003, mind — he used stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion, some­thing de­clared ex­tinct in 1993 by Juras­sic Park. On 2005’s Zathura he em­ployed the same mo­tion-con­trol tech­nol­ogy that was used in Star Wars 30 years ear­lier. Favreau needed binoc­u­lars to see the cut­ting edge that Steven Spiel­berg and James Cameron have been liv­ing on.

Now he is fac­ing down the un­en­vi­able task of cre­at­ing re­al­is­tic walk­ing, talk­ing and singing an­i­mals. Rather than shoot live ac­tion then cut and paste an­i­ma­tion on top of it, he de­cided on the more com­pli­cated step of build­ing an en­tire jun­gle — an­i­mals, fo­liage, trig­ger-happy den­tists (maybe not) — in the com­puter. Favreau filmed Sethi as Mowgli on a small Los An­ge­les sound­stage, with a strip of real jun­gle 15 feet wide and 100 feet long, to help ac­cli­ma­tise his ac­tor, and then un­der­took the kind of world-build­ing usu­ally re­served for sci­ence-fic­tion.

“Peo­ple have done 3D movies and peo­ple have been suc­cess­ful in cer­tain ways. I thought Grav­ity was very suc­cess­ful in of­fer­ing an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, but no­body has re­ally built out a whole world. We thought if we could build ev­ery­thing from scratch, we can take some sub­tle lib­er­ties with scale and design, make it a lit­tle hy­per-real while never los­ing sight of the photo-re­al­ity of the im­ages.”

MPC’S vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Adam Valdez de­scribes show­ing Favreau his ini­tial tests of birds as “a real hold-your­breath time. I think ev­ery­body felt it was a lit­tle bit larger than life, but it’s closer than you’ve ever been to a real bird. It feels like you’re watch­ing the real thing.”

Once Favreau was happy with the jun­gle, he turned his at­ten­tion to the char­ac­ters. He con­sid­ered mo­tion cap­ture but de­cided that map­ping hu­man ex­pres­sions and emo­tions onto an­i­mals was just “plain weird”. He con­sid­ered the Babe ap­proach that used real an­i­mals com­bined with an­i­mated mouths, but that cre­ated is­sues within his team.

“I lost an Os­car to that talk­ing pig,” laughs vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Robert Le­gato — Babe pipped his Apollo 13 to the Best Vis­ual Ef­fects Academy Award. In­stead, he pri­ori­tised the

painstak­ing ap­proach of key-frame an­i­ma­tion to “present these hu­man emo­tions in an an­i­mal’s lan­guage.” With 850 artists em­ployed, Favreau says it is “the most hand­crafted movie I’ve ever made.”

Favreau did shoot ref­er­ence footage with young Sethi and Bill Mur­ray as Baloo (“I just gave him enough room to get loose and per­form,” was Favreau’s Mur­ray-di­rect­ing method), but his ac­tors mostly avoided skintight Ly­cra and ping-pong balls for the more re­laxed set­ting of the record­ing booth.

“I’ve not played an an­i­mal be­fore,” says Sir Ben Kings­ley, who voices Mowgli’s men­tor, the pan­ther Bagheera. “In Sexy Beast, I based Don Logan on a Rot­tweiler. Does that count?” Con­versely, he pic­tured Bagheera as a kind of Bri­tish reg­i­men­tal of­fi­cer. “The lin­gua franca of the film are peo­ple’s own voices,” he says.

Mean­while, Idris Elba, who voices Shere Khan, dis­cussed with Favreau the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a tiger. “We thought about the men­ace of the char­ac­ter and tried to bring that to life,” says Elba. For Kaa, Favreau saw an op­por­tu­nity to di­lute the testos­terone level of the orig­i­nal by adding Scar­lett Jo­hans­son into the mix. “You can’t draw a lot of ex­pres­sion into a snake and have it still look photo-real,” he says. “Scar­lett’s voice is a re­ally in­ter­est­ing bal­ance of dan­ger­ous and se­duc­tive. It’s a very ef­fec­tive combo.”

Christo­pher Walken came in to of­fer his off-kil­ter ca­dence to King Louie, the Jun­gle VIP. Dis­ney cre­ated Louie as a swing­ing orangutan, voiced by pop­u­lar singer-trum­peter Louis Prima. The prob­lem for Favreau, given his de­sire to re­main lo­ca­tion ac­cu­rate, is that orang­utans are not na­tive to In­dia. Rather than elim­i­nate an iconic char­ac­ter, Favreau’s re­search un­cov­ered a Gi­gan­to­p­ithe­cus, a yeti-like fore­run­ner of the orangutan that once in­hab­ited the sub­con­ti­nent. To an­i­mate Louie, Favreau turned to Weta Dig­i­tal. “I hear they are pretty good with mon­keys,” Favreau quips.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, scat­ting orang­utans didn’t fea­ture in Ki­pling’s orig­i­nal text. But King Louie is at the heart of the orig­i­nal film’s best se­quence, and there was no ques­tion that he had to ap­pear in this ver­sion too. Yet, as much as Favreau wanted to recre­ate the en­ergy and en­chant­ment of Dis­ney, he also wanted to cleave closer to the source than cud­dly Un­cle Walt ever dreamed of.

Mowgli has two fa­thers on screen

— Bagheera and Baloo — and a pair of dad­dies off-screen, too — Dis­ney and Ki­pling. Favreau is aim­ing to blend the colour and fun of Dis­ney with the dark­ness and drama of Ki­pling’s sto­ries. How will he unify two seem­ingly in­com­pat­i­ble flavours?

“That’s the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion,” he smiles. “If I guess right, we’re great. That’s the trick­i­est part of this project — more than the tech­ni­cal stuff.”

Kings­ley de­scribes his di­rec­tor as “bright enough and clever enough to hold that beau­ti­ful fine bal­ance be­tween the in­no­va­tive ge­nius of Dis­ney and the Vic­to­rian, muted imag­i­na­tion of Ki­pling.”

Amid the moral mes­sages, Ki­pling’s sto­ries are marked by vi­o­lence (“Ten min­utes later lit­tle Kotick did not recog­nise his lit­tle friends any more, for their skins were ripped off from the nose to the hind flip­pers”), and that cast doubt on the hope­d­for PG rat­ing, es­pe­cially once mag­ni­fied in live ac­tion, 3D and IMAX. Favreau is turn­ing to clas­sic Dis­ney to gauge the tone, cit­ing how Pinoc­chio and Bambi can spin from ex­u­ber­ance to in­ten­sity on a dime. “Your palms will sweat,” he as­sures us.

Per­haps the big­gest chal­lenge faced by Favreau is how to in­ter­po­late the songs. From I Wan’na Be Like You to Trust In Me, through That’s What Friends Are For to The Bare Ne­ces­si­ties,

The Jun­gle Book has the strong­est song­book of any Dis­ney flick. “I had the sound­track al­bum on vinyl,” en­thuses Elba. “It’s so em­bed­ded in my mem­ory.” But can a be­liev­able an­i­mal king­dom, where death is al­ways just a tiger’s pounce away, re­ally en­com­pass song and dance rou­tines?

“You don’t want it to be a mu­si­cal, so peo­ple feel char­ac­ters can’t get hurt or killed,” says Favreau. “But these songs are clas­sics. There’s not as much mu­sic as in the orig­i­nal, but the key mo­ments that you’re look­ing for, you’ll find we hon­oured.”

Dis­ney’s mu­si­cal her­itage is one dif­fer­ence be­tween Favreau’s Jun­gle Book and the Andy Serkis-di­rected adap­ta­tion, cur­rently ti­tled Jun­gle Book: Ori­gins and due Oc­to­ber 2017. Serkis will use the per­for­mance-cap­ture tech­niques he has helped spear­head, and will play Baloo along­side Chris­tian Bale (Bagheera), Cate Blanchett (Kaa) and Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch (Shere Khan). This co­in­ci­dence of com­pet­ing projects has hit Favreau be­fore, both as ac­tor (he was in Deep Im­pact up against Ar­maged­don) and di­rec­tor (Bradley Cooper’s Burnt was in de­vel­op­ment at the same time as Chef) but he isn’t too con­cerned.

“You don’t do your­self any favours think­ing about any­thing that dis­tracts you from mak­ing the movie,” he says. “You have no con­trol over it. It’s my gig to get in there and fly the plane. Some­one else can worry about air traf­fic con­trol.”

It’s cus­tom­ary for di­rec­tors com­ing off the back of huge, tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing movies to say that their next film will be some­thing sim­ple, in­die and cheap. But, em­bold­ened by his Jun­gle Book ed­u­ca­tion in high-tech, Favreau re­mains de­fi­ant. “Maybe I’ll dive back into some­thing like this,” he of­fers. “Now that I know what I am do­ing.” And with that he is off to check the dy­namic range. The ex-lud­dite has left the build­ing.

The Jun­gle Book is out on April 15 And will be re­viewed in A fu­ture is­sue.

Clock­wise from above: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) with his new wolf fam­ily; Favreau on set last year; lit­tle Mowgli with Gi­gan­to­p­ithe­cus King louie and his mon­key crew.

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