Disney will be releasing the highly anticipated The Jungle Book from director Jon Favreau. The film centers on a young boy (Neel Sethi) who became an orphan when the ferocious Shere Khan killed his father. Taken by Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley) to live with a wolf pack, Mowgli learns the ways of the jungle from his new wolf parents Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). When Shere Khan threatens the entire animal community unless the boy is delivered to him, Mowgli volunteers to return to the man village on his own. His journey will take him across the dense jungles where he meets all sorts of wildlife, and befriends an easy-going bear named Baloo (Bill Murray).
Geeks of Doom was recently invited to sit down with a group of fellow journalists to hear about what Favreau, Kingsley, Esposito, and Nyong’o had to say about the film during its press conference. There they spoke about the visual effects of the film, Sethi’s physical work, voiceover work, and respecting the animated original and Rudyard Kipling’s works while also making it entertaining for the newer generation. Check out the press conference below.
1 – Revising An Animated Classic With Technically Innovating Live-Action Twist
It’s no secret that Disney continues to follow up the success of adapting their animated classics and turning them into live-action films. Following the success of films like Alice In Wonderland, Maleficent, and Cinderella comes The Jungle Book, with many more to come years after. Favreau says the time was right to bring a live-action Jungle Book to the big screen. “A lot of it was the enthusiasm of Disney, specifically Alan Horn who is really connected with this film and Kipling’s story as he was growing up,” Favreau said, “I connected very much with the animated film when I was growing up, and so we had a common ground of both having great affection for this property. And the question became: If we love it so much and those other films, why do it now? As he pointed out, you saw Life of Pi, you realize that the technology has come to a point to tell a story in a different way and maybe bring in something that existed in his imagination when he was growing up visually onto the big screen. I was very compelled by the idea of taking what we have done with great effects now and I was also very impressed with films like Planet of the Apes, Avatar, Life of Pi as well, and specifically what was done in Gravity the way they filmed the principal photography almost as though it was an element shoot or an effects piece. It became a big puzzle. After sleeping on that and thinking about it I came up with a take on it when we came back and all discussed it, it sounded really cool. So 100 years ago was the book, 50 years ago was the animated film, and now 50 years later it’s time to update for our generation.”
2 – What Drew The Cast To The Project
As for what convinced the cast to climb on board for such an ambitious project, they all had different reasons. Kingsley said the director simply asked him, with a “benign smile,” if he wanted to voice Bagheera. The two had met on the set of Iron Man 3, where Favreau admits he went from completely starstruck to impressed to feeling a lot of affection for him. “Sir Ben is an incredibly generous, warm, wonderful storyteller, person,” Favreau said, “being an actor I got to spend some whole days I am not used to having, and I used to have some time together in Miami.” Kingsley added “I think that the captain in charge of the project really brings his or her taste to the project, and I knew Jon well enough and I’m fond of him to know his taste in the project and his perception of humanity and childhood and storytelling were a gold mine, so it was a joy to work on the project with that beautiful mind of his.” Favreau joked if what Kingsley said would be available after the junket was done so that he could send it to his parents.
Nyong’o had met Favreau during her busy schedule, and said the he walked her through the idea of this version of The Jungle Book. “What struck me was the compassion of which he was talking about these characters,” said the actress, “there’s always the state of the art stuff he was going to do with it, but at the heart of it was the love of the story and real vision for each character he was going to bring to life. For me, that’s what got me.”
Esposito explained that he had first met Favreau while working on a trailer for the video game Destiny, and briefly described how in the beginning of that trailer a father was reading a story to his son. “Jon is so, as Sir Ben said, really in touch with all of his experiences, which is really wonderful when you meet someone who is that keen and that sharp, who has not only has the memory of it but has an actual feeling for it,” said the actor. A few months later he would receive call being the offered to play the alpha wolf. Favreau added “It was kind of surreal, because it was a script that wasn’t written by me, happened to be him, it wasn’t even the first version of the script, but Kipling’s public domain, so they had a parent reading a bedtime story and he was reading “Law of the Jungle” from The Jungle Book,” Favreau said. “And it was something set in the future with an old book, and I just in my head remember him reading “˜The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack,’ and as we were developing the script for The Jungle Book, a year later I remembered him reading that, when we were working on that, and said ‘that’s the guy we need for Akela who is sort of passing the law down to the next generation of wolves.”
The actor chimed, “For me the story came from my mother. My mother would tell my brothers, it was us three, we had to survive, it was the three of us, and it really meant something deep inside me. It’s like when I tell my four girls now: ‘Never leave a man behind.'”
3 – Getting The Cast To Be An Animal Pack
This being a film there is only one live-action actor in the entire film, Favreau tried to get the cast together as much as possible. Like animation films, everyone’s schedule is so different and everyone is so busy, so getting someone to record their voices for five hours is nearly impossible. “I wanted this to feel like a live-action film, not an animated film. The key was to get a very conversational performance, and I know very much from being an actor you rely on your scene partner and the energy of your scene partner matches your energy. We narrate each other. We key off each other. There are little status relationships going on. Scenes have to build and have a shape to them, and it’s like a team sport, you play it like a tennis match, you play it with the person you are in front of the camera with,” said Favreau. One of the critical combos was to get Neel to work with Ben, who was a great teacher and thespian to the newcomer which really added to the relationship between the two characters. Another vital pairing was to get Bill and Christopher to record together so that Favreau would have something to reference to.
4 – The Cast Releasing Their Inner Animal
The voice cast then talked about what it was like to “surrender” their looks to give life to their animal roles. For Kingsley, he felt as though he was really playing Kipling. For him, Bagheera is really Rudyard Kipling, and he didn’t realize this until well after he finished his work on the film.
Esposito added “Reading the book as a child allowed me to dream big. To have courage. To have a connection. For me, I always wanted to be Mowgli as a boy. There is a freedom within that and the freedom to express myself the way I always wanted to. I found that out being an actor. Seeing the movie it’s something else to my imagination. It allowed me to understand how we create relationships with each other, how those relationships are something we can really hold on to. I didn’t know what Jon would do in the room. But he is a challenger and challenges in a very graceful way to do something very different. He always challenged me to play against things, to do things a bit differently, to have strength, and not just be the loudest person speaking. Which then allowed me to see Raksha, Lupita’s face, to create that for myself in front of me. I’m honored to be a part of this movie because there are so many elements to go into it this day and age or any film.”
Nyong’o said surrendering into this role as opposed to surrendering into her role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens was very different. “For me, I like to try new things. Star Wars was an attempt at doing motion-capture, and this was my first voice role. I was attracted because Raksha is like any mother, she chooses to take care of this creature who is not her own but as if she was.” While she did some early recordings, the one that really grounded her performance was when she was able to record against Neel’s performance. The ability to see his vulnerability really helped solidify the bond between mother and son.
5 – Favreau Acknowledges Disney’s Legacy In Filmmaking
The one callback that you may not notice if you don’t stay through the credits is the film crediting Fantasound. “The Fantasound thing was something I have been bugging them about a lot,” said Favreau. “There is something about Fantasia that really speaks to me. The images for Fantasia I find myself mining for a lot of things.” The director spoke about how those early innovations in films like Snow White and Fantasia evoked real emotions. Fantasia would be one of the first concert films, and Favreau talked about how Disney wanted to put the audience in the middle of the sound. “They put speakers all around the theater, and even to this day would cost a tremendous amount of money. And they had to mic the orchestra using a lot of isolated microphones. 30 microphones. I don’t remember the specifics. But this was essentially the processes.” He then discussed with sound engineers and composer John Debney about possibly using Fantasound once more. That’s when he learned that Atmos sound uses the technology for sound effects and that there is no reason that they couldn’t apply for music. Debney is a huge Disney guy, having grown up on the lot, and hanging out with the Sherman brothers, he experienced everything that the studio had to offer. So he jumped at the opportunity to implore Fantasound in this version of The Jungle Book. So they isolated the music where they could. “When you see it in Atmos, experience what we were trying to channel, which was Walt’s vision was through this,” said Favreau. “That is one of one of the dozens of little opportunities we were looking for to tie back into the legacy. There were visual cues in the film as time goes on that people get more familiar with will start to notice, bits of Dumbo in there, looking at the Monstro chase in Pinocchio, some of the King Louie stuff, and certainly from The Jungle Book, you’ll see that are being pulled from one film to the next. To me, that is part of the fun of this. Just embracing the opportunity and the emotional connection that we have with those films. Just for an excuse to talk about what Walt was going for and for people who are fans and appreciate what we’re doing””just as the Parks change and grow, so should the movies, too.”
6 – Parenthood
Nyong’o credits her mother with inspiring her performance as Raksha. “She’s my example,” said the actress. “She’s a very good mother. I asked myself a lot of questions about what it would be like to lose one of my own, although I am not a mother myself I do love children.”
Favreau, Kingsley, and Esposito, who are all fathers themselves, spoke about being a father figure to Mowgli, and if their characters were a reflection on how they raised their kids. “I think you are blessed with children, you have to adapt to each child in each moment. You have to be very pragmatic as a parent. I think you have to give them a lot of attention and respond to the ever-changing complexities of a child’s needs and to address them moment by moment rather than have a certain set of rules,” said Kingsley.
Esposito said, “You first learn as a parent when a child comes out you want to form them, and do the right things for them, and then you look at them one day and you go, “oh they are already formed.” That was the moment for me that clicked in that they are each very, very different. I realize completely that each one is very different, and look at them that way, and I listen to them and their needs equally so in that way because now I have very distinctive relationships with each one, not based on or predicated on the one I had before.
Favreau essentially agreed with each of those assessments. “There is the room for a different style of parenting and storytelling which is what are the traditions? What are the myths and culture there for? It is to try to help the younger generation not have to learn lessons painfully because you could learn them through visualization through story. Rule systems are, effort, out of love to save the next generation from the pain that the older generation goes through. To explain to them that the stove is hot without having them touch it. Of course, that is a fantasy, they have to learn on their own as well. But that is a part of the strength of the culture. It’s that you can help them contextualize their struggles as they persevere and come out the other end they understand what it means, and it gives them purpose.”
So although there are three father figures and one mother figure here, the division is really a deconstruction of what parents are, they have elements of all of them. Just like Dorothy and her friends going down the Yellow Brick Road, they all represent different aspects of what goes on in our brain. As a parent sometimes I am Bagheera, sometimes I am Baloo, sometimes Akela, sometimes Raksha.
7 – Lose Yourself In The Role
Sethi, who couldn’t believe that his one audition got him the part, talked about the physicality of the role. He admitted that he isn’t a climber like Mowgli, mostly because he was born and raised in the city. “It looks like I am climbing and I am always climbing like 400 feet off the ground,” said Sethi, “but I can only be 30 inches off the ground. It’s just a blue pad and it looks like it’s so far down, but it’s really not.”
Favreau then chimed in saying that the young actor neglected to mention that he was put through the paces with stuntmen before he was hired. The director wanted to see what type of athlete he was because he was actually good at sports. “So when I would direct him, sometimes I would be like a coach,” said Favreau, “so sometimes in a scene, his body posture wasn’t right, so I would say ‘be more poised,’ or ‘be more explosive,’ and we weren’t getting there. So I asked him ‘do you play baseball? Do you ever steal a base?’ and he’s like ‘oh yeah,’ I said, ‘pretend you are getting ready to steal second base.’ So when you are watching him running away from the cattle in the stampede, that wonderful posture he had, he was stealing bases. So you get this incredible sense of focus out of him and really that is the trick of acting. You do it to yourself, depending on what technique you were trained in it’s tricking yourself into believing that what you are doing is real and creating an immediate moment, especially on film. So when you see his eyes light up, it would light up the screen.”
8 – Initial Fears And Proudest Moments.
The director then talked about what his biggest fears were going into the production of The Jungle Book and what he was most proud of coming out of it. “My biggest thing was not to drop the ball for the people who love this underlining property. Knowing inherently I couldn’t just take the G-rated musical for children and make it photoreal. I knew we were going to have to deviate in some basic and inherent ways from that and could you still preserve the soul and the charm and the first one while including aspects and changing it from a G-rated musical to PG-rated adventure that would have more thrills and be more exciting and be more scarier at times than the original. But also, maintain the heart and humor and the music too. This is something that belonged to the whole culture before we decided to update it.