When audiences finally witness Jon Favreau’s big-screen reimagining of Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK when it opens this Friday, those who stay through the credits will notice an interesting line for a film set deep in the heart of India… “Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles.” That line is a testament to just how good THE JUNGLE BOOK is, a film that beautifully captures the spirit of such exotic locales, while being a completely digital creation aside from the work of its young star, newcomer Neel Sethi. Last week, I sat down with Sethi and Favreau at the Beverly Hilton to discuss the new film, all in an informal setting alongside 24 friends and fellow writers. For me, the meeting was particularly exciting, if only because I’ve been such a fan of Jon Favreau dating back more than two decades – a creative talent whom I’ve always viewed as being sort of a kindred spirit, and one who my wife and I have sort of watched “grow up” from an actor, to one of our generation’s top filmmakers. From the very 90’s performances in PCU and SWINGERS, to his 2001 theatrical directorial debut, MADE (which my wife and I saw on opening night at an art house theater in Highland Park, Illinois), his career behind the camera has been has been impressive – with the ability to balance cinematic spectacles like ZATHURA, IRON MAN (and IRON MAN 2), with smaller fare like CHEF, and TV projects like REVOLUTION (a short-lived series which I loved). And then, of course, there’s his perennial holiday classic, ELF. With THE JUNGLE BOOK, Favreau’s storytelling has reached a whole new level, a marvel of technological toys that has spawned a few plastic ones, too.
As our group gathered for the morning, I set things up for a little bit of toyography, placing THE JUNGLE BOOK figures from Just Play Toys at the head of the table. Bagheera, Baloo, Mowgli, King Louie and Shere Khan from the 5-pack set, along with Kaa for added flair. Immediately upon entering the room, Favreau was excited to see what was waiting, picking up a couple of the figures to get a closer look. “I still get a kick out of it,” he said. “Can I tell you about the merch?
“On the MARVEL movies, there’s merch, but I’d never had any [before that]. ELF had no merchandise and I was so sad that there was never merchandise. None of the movies [I did had it], and finally on IRON MAN, there’s merchandise and they send you like one. So you’re protecting it! So this time as we were looking at JUNGLE BOOK merch, they said, ‘Well if you want to order it, you should order it in advance, because if you wait ’til it comes out, it’s gonna be gone forever.’ With merchandising, there’s different quarters and cycles and — and if you want to get it when the movie comes out, order it out.”
“So I look at the pictures and this toy here, ‘give me 10 of those, give me 20 of those. Oh, give me 50 of those! I want to give some of those out. Give me 3.’ I fill out the thing, I don’t think anything of it.” Jon proceeds to ask the group if any of us happen to recall the old episode of I LOVE LUCY in which she orders “a side of beef.” In that episode, entitled “The Freezer,” Lucy gets a walk-in freezer and proceeds to order “a side of beef,” but then deliveries keep coming, with package after package of beef showing up, eventually filling the entire set.
“That’s what it felt like [with the toys],” he continues. “Every day, there would be boxes. They delivered about 20 boxes the first day and that was the first shipment. My wife goes, ‘What’s going on here? Our whole dining room is filled with boxes!’ Then I get back from Australia, and the entire driveway is full of boxes. We had so many stuffed animals, every kid that comes over, it’s like Christmas — and if it’s still around by Halloween, there’s gonna be some very lucky kids!”
When asked what it’s like to see himself as a toy, Neel Sethi says “It’s amazing!,” beaming with an infectious smile that will likely become one of his signatures.
“Did you see the singing Baloo yet?,” asks Favreau. “Oh, the singing Baloo is great! I keep bringing them in, and they keep disappearing — It’s a good thing I ordered 10 boxes of them. He sings, he says a few lines from the movie when you squeeze his paw, and then if you hit it like 4 times, he’ll sing “Bare Necessities” and dance around, so it’s awesome!”
While the folks at Just Play and Disney Store have all of THE JUNGLE BOOK toys that families could possibly want, what’s truly remarkable is the work of the toys and tools used in collaboration between Disney, Moving Picture Company (MPC), Weta Digital, and even The Jim Henson Creature Shop (among others) to bring the film to life on-screen with a realism never-before-seen. Using new technology, THE JUNGLE BOOK is a likely contender for Oscar gold next year on the FX front, but the way it all came together was also very much rooted in the old-school Disney traditions – perhaps a subconscious callback to the fact that 1967’s JUNGLE BOOK was the last film that Walt Disney himself personally supervised.
“Every time I’d show them [the studio] a new version of it, we started off similar to animation where it would be pencils and show reels,” Favreau explains. “They’re used to looking at that for Pixar and Disney Animation — so they were on board with the story I was pitching the whole time so in each iteration, nothing was a surprise.”
With penciled reels on the way to showing off the film, there was also something else quite organic and old-shool on set with Neel Sethi – puppets created by The Jim Henson Creature shop to give Neel Sethi something real to interact with… something natural.
“I made it natural that if this was a puppet, I would make it normal that it’s not a puppet,” says Sethi. “If it was a bear or panther, I made sure that in my head, that’s not a puppet – that’s Baloo! ‘Hi Baloo!’ Jon actually got into the puppet sometimes and that helped me interact with him.”
From MAGIC KINGDOM to an Urban JUNGLE: How the Movie Came to Be…
“I was working with Disney on a project called MAGIC KINGDOM, which I thought was really cool,” recalls Favreau. “It was essentially the Disneyland Park coming to life. A family that goes to the park every year, the daughter is about to go away to college – but she doesn’t want to go. It’s like the one last time they get to go to the park, and something happens — the park changes over. Whatever is implied by the park all comes to life in full-scale and they get separated, and as a family have to face these challenges and come back together again. It’s a big adventure inspired by all the different lands of the park, and the different attractions I grew up with, almost like a dream – the dreams I used to have when I was younger about Disneyland.”
During the development of MAGIC KINGDOM, elsewhere in The Walt Disney Studios, properties like CINDERELLA, MALEFICENT and ALICE IN WONDERLAND were beginning to take shape as part of Disney’s live-action “shared universe” – modern re-tellings of classic tales primed for new generations, this in addition to the theme-park spawned PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series, which was gearing up for another installment.
“We were working back and forth with this, and at the same time, these other properties are being explored. We weren’t moving forward with this MAGIC KINGDOM project, but I had been researching how do I do something with live humans, but a set that you’re not gonna build — because there are too many times when I’ve worked on effects movies where we build these big sets, and then you end up replacing them [digitally] and you pay for it twice. It seems wasteful, inefficient and to me, I want to get all the money they’re gonna spend onto the screen. I met with Rob Legato actually who is our Visual Effects Supervisor on this — he was on the awards tour for HUGO, which I thought was a wonderful film. So I was discussing with him, how would I do this if I want to do MAGIC KINGDOM, hoping of course that maybe it would get made and I would hire him. He invited me back to his place, showed me visual effects — how he did things in HUGO. He talked about AVATAR, TITANIC, and working with Marty Scorsese and Jim Cameron. [Rob] is just a very experienced guy who really understood visual effects and what you could do with them.”
“I didn’t really thing anything of it after that, and then I got the call from Disney to come in. Alan Horn [head of Walt Disney Studios] loves THE JUNGLE BOOK. He loved it as a kid. He loved the novel, the stories, and this was gonna be the next one after the success that they had, and they wanted to explore what could happen. I knew the animated film, but doing a photo realistic version of that didn’t seem obvious on how to do that. But as he discussed LIFE OF PI and he talked about the tone of that film, he talked about AVATAR.”
“It got me thinking that we could create our own complete environment, and if you do that, I could do something similar to what I was thinking about for MAGIC KINGDOM. You know, if Disney had a Castle this big, make the Castle THIS big. If the branches of trees in this movie in real life were this big or a panther is this big, make him as big as he was in the cartoon — make him bigger, play with scale. Always keep it photo real, but you could give it a dream like quality so you see the whole thing through kid’s eyes. It was their [Disney’s] enthusiasm, and their commitment to doing this, and honestly, the confidence they had with the success of the other live-action adaptations that made me realize that they were an enthusiastic Partner.”
The task of finding a proper lead was a daunting one that saw more than 2,000 kids try out for the part. In the end, it was newcomer Neel Sethi that scored the role, a stroke of luck in inexperience that Favreau credits for making the performance all the better.
“I can’t take credit for this talented young man,” declares Favreau. “He just wasn’t experienced, but he had a quality, and being a father, I recognized it. It was confidence. He was a fully-formed version of himself, so we kind of got who he was — very quick on the comeback, very confident, and I think the fact that he wasn’t a kid who was out there looking for acting jobs made it fun for him. It didn’t feel like he was concerned about failing, or concerned about getting the part or not. They came in on a lark. He saw a flyer.”
The fact that both director and potential star had NYC roots was also a plus, but also the fact that Sethi’s parents are both dentists, and Favreau’s wife is a doctor. In the end, it was family that truly brought everything together.
“[Neel’s] sister actually really sealed the deal. She was 16, and she turned out pretty well and actually prepared him for the audition. I was like if they raised this one, they’re good parents, and as he grows up, they’ll be able to handle that. The whole family was there on the set, and the whole set became a family.”
As we prepared to wrap things up, I mentioned something that came up a few months back when a few of us interviewed Harrison Ford leading up to the release of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. While it didn’t appear in my formal feature, Ford pointed out that out of all the films he’s worked on over the years, the one that he’d actually kept something from was COWBOYS & ALIENS, directed by Jon Favreau. He said that he and Daniel Craig both took their horses. So after more than 20 years in the game, I was curious what, if anything, Favreau had kept from his films, and if there was something meaningful that he’d held onto from THE JUNGLE BOOK?
“Yeah I do [keep things], so it’s to my wife’s chagrin because it ain’t going nowhere — It’s all just piling up. But the one I took from this was… [SPOILER] if you notice when he [Mowgli] goes into the Temple where King Louie is, it’s the cowbell.“
Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK opens in theaters everywhere, Friday, April 15, 2016. Get tickets now via Fandango.
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