THE JUNGLE BOOK
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.