Director Jon Favreau on the themes, casting choices, music and lessons learned on The Jungle Book

We recently sat down for a surprisingly detailed discussion about Jon Favreau’s new project that’s about to hit Australian cinema screens – a live action version of The Jungle Book. In Part 2 of our interview (Look back at part one HERE), we discuss the themes, the casting choices, and music used in the film and ultimately what Favreau learnt from his experience.

As with Kipling’s source material, the film touches on a number of themes, including family, belonging, and being an outsider. Favreau admits that as a filmmaker he finds the notion of theme inclusion tricky, that he wrestled with the resolution of the story, and that he only ever thinks about themes when he looks at the film as an observer. But he’s adamant that by no means does that mean that the themes aren’t important or intended, just that it’s not a conscious decision sometimes. We quiz Favreau whether he felt like the film had other themes to express to its audience.

Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) meets Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson) in "The Jungle Book"
Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) meets Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson) in “The Jungle Book”

“A hundred years ago the stories were written, fifty years ago the animated film was done, and now here we are and our relationship with nature is much different. Our relationship with the world is much different, the world is becoming smaller. People are dealing with each other in a way that they never did back then when Kipling was around, it’s a much different world. And now we as human beings have to decide how we’re going to fit together, and also how we’re going to fit with nature. And so the idea of man coming in with the red flower, with the fire, and having agency over the world around him, doesn’t mean the same thing as it did.”

“Now it’s about how do you fit in, what’s our responsibility, are we stewards of the world? Is the world something that we consume? Is the world something we protect? Is the world something we’re part of? Can you be a human being and fit into the scheme of things and still fulfil your destiny as a species? All of these things are questions I don’t have the answers to, but I think it’s important that you don’t just treat it as a plot point but make the kid wrestle with this stuff as he comes of age. Just as we’re coming of age as a technological society.”

In our current climate, it almost seems impossible to not address the notion of environmentalism and the part that humans have played in the destruction of the natural world. The character of Shere Khan even mentions that man is destructive and Favreau makes a point of discussing the character motivations.

Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney. Pictured: Ben Kingsley; Lupita Nyong'o; Neel Sethi; Jon Favreau
Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney. Pictured: Ben Kingsley; Lupita Nyong’o; Neel Sethi; Jon Favreau

“I think everybody (the characters in the film) makes good points, to me whether I’m writing for villains or heroes, they’re just so much more powerful if they have defensible positions. Some characters like Shere Khan, he says man doesn’t belong here and whenever man shows up things happen. He’s scarred from an encounter with Mowgli’s father and from fire, and that’s definitely a position that one can maintain. Then there’s also the sense that Mowgli has, that this is my home too and I fit in and he has to make certain sacrifices to fit in.”

When it comes to the casting for The Jungle Book, there’s a stellar lineup for the voice cast. Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson. Favreau admits that when it comes to casting he believes that his strongest asset is an ability to recognise talent and put people together in a good way, both in front of and behind the camera.

“I’m fortunate that I’m in a position now and this movie was interesting enough that I was able to get all the choices that I wanted which is another part that you’re not always in on. Nobody was forced upon me. Whether it was Neel Sethi who we searched 2,000 kids to find, or Bill Murray who was a bit of a scavenger hunt to try and even get a hold of the guy. But I was very persistent because I knew that if I had a good cast it’s like having good ingredients I can make a good meal. But even the people behind the camera like Rob Legato (visual effects supervisor) who’s done Titanic, Avatar, Apollo 13,or Bill Pope on camera, what you see and the way people are fooled by what you’re seeing is a testament to the depth of the talent pool going beyond just the cast.”

©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

For this new version of The Jungle Book the film only features 3 songs. 2 of which are in the main body of the film, the other in the credits. Whilst composer John Debney has done an intricate job of inserting some of the other musical themes as score flowing throughout. It’s a blatant departure from the animated film which Favreau says is due to the nature of how they were approaching the film. When mentioning the animated feature, it seems a shared consensus that it can’t be a Jungle Book film without the hit song “The Bare Necessities”.

“The question was how many songs can you get away with without turning into a musical because a musical changes the tone. And the original animated film was a G rated kids movie and this one I didn’t want to be that, this is a PG rated film that hopefully feels like it shares tone more with the big 5 Disney movies, that had scary moments but also humour and music. But I wanted to have the stakes and the intensity and the broad appeal to all ages. I didn’t want this to be written off as a kids film, and so we traded some of the younger audience members that might be scared by the visuals for a story that’s a bit more sophisticated whilst still maintaining hopefully the nostalgia, and warmth and the emotion of the original animated feature.”

“When I’d been hired there was no music and a resistance to the music, they wanted to make something that was more reflective of the books. It departed tremendously from the animated film, but I connected so much with the animated film, and I feel like you do which is how do you not have the song? So I snuck that back into the script and it felt justified because that was the type of character he was, and then I eventually worked the other one back in as well.
King Louie’s song was slightly tweaked, in the end credits you’ll hear something that feels a little more familiar. But if we played it the way it was played in the original it was too much of a departure from the tone, because here we set up King Louie almost like the introduction of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. So we relied upon John Debney our composer to create an orchestral version of it. But it’s one of those things that if you don’t have that in there, it feels like you’ve got a tooth missing, it’s just a hole. So that was the balancing act, if you don’t have it, it’s missed, and if you do have it, you have to be very careful how you grease it into the rest of the film. I feel like it would’ve been odd if you didn’t have those 2 songs in there.”

Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) and Baloo (voice of Bill Murray) float down a river in "The Jungle Book"
Mowgli and Baloo (voice of Bill Murray) float down a river in “The Jungle Book”

For Favreau, this film has been both a challenge but also a learning curve and an ability to add to his skillset as a filmmaker. Exploring the use of 3D technology to use for a dramatic film about emotion, relationships and nature is something that he feels doesn’t happen often, if at all. He’s interested to see what other stories could be told using these tools that aren’t just for spectacle. But at the end of the day, he still needs to be interested in a project to even want to be involved.

“Well coming off of Chef it was fun to do something really big. I feel like I finally have my feet under me and really understand this medium when it comes to the technical aspects of it. I would love to find something else to do using the skillset that I’ve learned but it’s always what’s the best story and what sparks my obsessive interest. Because you need that level of obsession to really see a movie through as a director, whether it’s a small movie or a big movie, otherwise you’re not firing on all cylinders and you don’t get your best work. This one was completely engaging, it’s a good sign, I’ve worked on it for 3 years, I’m promoting it, I’m still as excited about it as when I started, that’s asking a lot of a project to engage you on that level so deeply for so long.”

The Jungle Book is released in select Australian cinemas from 7th April 2016, with a nationwide release from 14th April 2016, through Walt Disney Studios Australia. Check your local listings.

Part one of our interview with Jon Favreau is HERE.

Headline Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney. Pictured: Lupita Nyong’o; Jon Favreau; Neel Sethi; Ben Kingsley; Alan Horn

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Carina Nilma

Office lackey day-job. Journalist for The AU Review night-job. Emotionally invested fangirl.

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