Thank you to Disney for sponsoring my attendance at the #JungleBookEvent!
I’ve never really been star struck before, but prior to April 4, 2016, I had also never been in a position to interview some really famous people. When I walked into the room at the Beverly Hilton where we were to interview some big names from “The Jungle Book”, I was largely overwhelmed. I chose a seat about 3 seats down from where the talent was so sit, and almost immediately regretted it. Would I be able to squeak out a question? Would being this close mean that I HAD to ask a question? What if things got uncomfortable, like silence-wise, and the star looked at me during the uncomfortable pause and I didn’t know what to say but, a timid “hi.” or a terrified doe-eye look that says, “I’m mute, don’t look at me! MOMMY, HE’S LOOKING AT ME!”
Luckily I didn’t have to worry about all of those things for too long. Our first interview of the day was with Director Jon Favreau (JF) and Neel Sethi (NS) who played Mowgli, and is for all intents and purposes, the only living and real thing in “The Jungle Book”. Some Jungle Book merchandise was set up in front of the seats where the talent was sitting. Jon and Neel walked in to loud applause and some whoops, maybe a little cat calling, the energy was fun and crackled with energy. Jon and Neel noticed the merchandise as they walked up to the table, and Jon Favreau started the interview without us having to ask a single question:
JF: I still get a kick out of it. Can I tell you about the merchandise?
Crowd: “Yes!” (Because, DUH! Who wouldn’t want to hear Jon Favreau talk?)
JF: So, on Marvel Movies, there’s, you know, there was merchandise. Elf had no merchandise and I was, you know, Uuugh! And so sad that there was never merchandise. None of my movies (had merchandise), and finally on Ironman, there’s merchandise and they send you like one, so you’re protecting it like “Don’t open the box!” 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 until it comes out, it’s gonna be forever, because the way merchandising works is there’s different quarters and cycles, and if you want to get it when the movie comes out, order it now.”
So I look at the pictures and this doll of 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, and I fill out the thing and I don’t think anything of it. Are any of you old enough to remember “I Love Lucy”?
JF: Do you remember when she gets a freezer and orders a side of beef? And she says, I don’t know, give me a side of Beef. And cause there’s a freezer in her [house], about this big (shows with his hands how large), and then they start delivering it. For the whole episode, they’re bringing in packages and packages, and in fact, the whole set gets filled up with all this meat that’s hanging. And that’s what it felt like. Every day, there would be boxes. They delivered about 20 boxes the first day and that was the first shipment. And my wife goes like, “What’s going on here?” Our whole, the whole dining room is filled with boxes. Then I get back from Australia, the entire driveway is full of boxes. So we had so many stuffed animals, and every kid that comes over, it’s like Christmas cause it’s like, “Take one of these, take one of these. You have this, you want this!” and if it’s still around by Halloween, there’s gonna be very lucky kids in the neighborhood.
Question to Neel: So what is it like seeing yourself as a toy?
NS: It’s amazing.
Question to Neel: Do you have it?
NS: I do not.
JF: Did you see the singing Baloo yet?
JF: Oh the singing Baloo is great. (To his assistant) – Do we have a singing Baloo?
Assistant: No I don’t think he’s here today.
JF: I keep bringing them in and they keep disappearing. It’s a good thing I ordered 10 boxes of them. I brought two and he sings, he says a few lines in 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, it’s awesome, yeah.
Question to Jon: How did you get started and if Disney came to you or you went to them?
JF: I was working with Disney on, a project called Magic Kingdom which I thought was really cool. It was essentially the park coming to life. A family goes to the park, that goes every year, the daughter is about to go away to college, she doesn’t want to go, you know, it’s like the one last time [they] get to go to the park and uh, something happens and the park changes over, and 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, come back together again, get separated, So big adventure, but inspired by all the different lands of the park and the different attractions I grew up with. Almost like a dream, like the dreams I used to have when I was younger about Disneyland. And so, we were working back and forth with this, and at the same time, this was years ago, Disney begins doing films like Cinderella, Maleficent, Alice, and so each of these properties are being explored, “Pirates” of course, being explored as their own franchises.
So 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 worked on effects movies where we build these big sets and then you end up replacing them, and you pay for it twice, and it seems wasteful, inefficient, and you know, to me, I want to get all the money they’re gonna spend on the screen. And so I met with Rob Legato actually who is our Visual Effects Supervisor on this. After I met him, he was on the awards tour for Hugo, which I thought was a wonderful film, and I was discussing with him how would I do this if I want to do this for 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, talked about Avatar, Titanic, working with Marty Scorsese, talked with Jim Cameron. He’s just a very experienced guy who really understood visual effects and what you could do with them. I didn’t really think anything of it after that, and then I got the call from Disney to come in. Alan Horn loves 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 didn’t really understand, I knew the animated film. Doing a photo real version of that didn’t seem like, well, it didn’t seem obvious how to do that, but as he discussed Life of Pi and he talked about the tone of that film, and he talked about Avatar, it got me thinking, “Well, 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 which was, you know, create [a world] where if Disney had a castle this big (shows a small amount with his hands), make the castle this big (he shows a much larger size with his hands). If the branches of the 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. And so it was their enthusiasm, and their commitment to doing this. Honestly, [it was] the confidence they had with the success of the other live action adaptations that made me realize that they were an enthusiastic partner. When you’re making a movie, that’s huge, because they’re not fighting you over every little decision. There’s a little bit of a relaxed comfort that comes with that, that as an artist, you really want that kind of support. When somebody’s scared and green lights the movie but is nervous about the budget and nervous about this, you’re gonna end up with an energy that’s very hard for me to put out of my head as I’m trying to be creative. And so the whole thing, the 3 years we’ve been working together, has been a wonderful experience. Every time I show them a new version of it, (we did it … similar to an animation where it would be pencils and show reels, 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. They were partners throughout the whole thing. And now finally, when it’s all completed, you know, it really feels like we’ve been a journey together and it’s just been a wonderful experience, and now that people are seeing it and reacting, they believed in it, … and it is beginning to be confirmed that their taste is being shared by audiences. It’s nice to feel that support and then know that it was responsible, and that they’re gonna be, and that they weren’t misguided in offering that support. I’m sorry, they won’t be all this long, the answers. We’re out of time.
(Insert nervous laughter here as we all imagine transcribing answers that long)
Question to Jon: How did you know when you found Mowgli?
JF: I can’t take credit for this talented young man. He wasn’t that experienced, but he had a quality, and being a father, I recognized it, it was confidence. He was a fully formed version of himself and 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, they auditioned and after, I was looking at 2,000 kids, well, they had looked at , I looked at, you know, not all of them, but they would send me the best of the lot, and he was one and we said, “He’s a little younger than we thought”. He’s from Manhattan, that helped, I’m from New York, I like the Century Theatre. And there was something [about him] that made me smile. He started doing martial arts. After the audition was over, he says, “I do my own stunts, are you going to get stunt man?” and I was like, this kid’s having a good time and then we brought his family out and I met with the family. It was a big important part because it could be a disruptive experience. If you don’t have a good support system around you. The parents are both Dentists. His sister actually really sealed the deal. She was 16, 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.” And the whole family was there. They’d be on the set, and the whole set became a family. He did a great job. He was an athlete that, you know, the Stunt Men, I had them, put him through the paces, to make sure he could keep up with all the strenuous activity and really sell that he’s a kid who survived in this environment, and it was just a weird combination of things that we were lucky enough to find this gift.
(Looks at Neel who thanks him)
JF to Neel: You’re welcome. What’s your version of it?
Question to Neel: What it was like when you got the part? What was the audition part like and that?
NS: Yeah, so I was in a dance class and the teacher for the dance class said I’d be very good for it. I never thought about acting before, but I auditioned and they really liked me, so we flew to LA. Then 2 weeks later, we flew to LA and we were in the hotel, and the Producer called and were like flipping and jumping and we were so happy. We were so happy, we went out and got my favorite food.
Question to Neel: What’s that?
NS: Lobster and Ravioli
Question to Neel: You had to act with a lot of things that weren’t there. Did you have something in your mind when you were actually filming, and how close was the final film to that?
NS: Yes, so, um, I just like made it natural that if this was a puppet like I would just make it normal that it’s not a puppet, it’s like a bear or a panther. And I just made it like that was, it’s not a puppet, like I just made that in my head and made sure, “Oh, that’s not a puppet, that’s Baloo, “Hi Baloo!” and then instead of seeing a puppet, I would see this or something like that. (motioned with his hands) And that made it a lot easier. and the puppets, sometimes they made them look like Baloo, and that helped a lot. Jon actually got into the puppet sometimes and that helped me interact with him.
Question to Neel: My son is 7 and he wanted to know, what was the scariest scene for you to film?
NS: To film? Well, none of it was really scary cause I was always 30 inches off the ground, but I didn’t really like the mud, so I guess you could say that was kind of scary. So, it would dry on me, and then it would get all hot and itchy, and then they would spritz it with cold water for it to get muddy again and I didn’t like that. I had to act like it was normal but I’m getting chased by a stampede of Buffalo.
Question for Neel: I have some questions from the 6th grade at Logos Academy in York Pennsylvania. They read the Jungle Book in their Literature Class this Fall. They would like to know about school. You did go to a traditional school. what was it like to transition from school to set and back again, and how…
Interrupted by Jon Favreau who wanted to make sure we knew about a special person who was also in the room with us:
JF: And Lois is here so make sure you answer right! That was the Teacher, and also helpful as an acting coach too I would say.
Finishing question for Neel: It was because they go to a traditional school…
NS: Yeah, so I was in a normal school and the part, when I auditioned, it was actually the last day of 5th grade, the last day of elementary school. And so our school split up into 2 schools basically for middle school, and all of my good friends and everybody went to the same school as me. They just like, I would literally slip right back in. And then we did the test I think, when that was coming up, the state test, and it was just like, it was just normal again and everybody thought it was cool for like a week and then they were like “All right, Neel, enough.”
[laughter, because he’s SO darn adorable]
Question to Jon: A couple of months ago a few of us interviewed Harrison Ford and he said that…
[Interrupted by Jon Favreau with a question of his own]
JF: I heard — I heard, it was a very interesting unique interview, right?
Question to Jon Continued: It was very exciting, but he said that out of everything he’s worked on over the years, the only film he kept something from “Cowboys and Aliens” that he worked on with you and that he and Daniel Craig took their horses
[LAUGHTER, including from Jon, which is far out, you know, to make a comedic genius laugh]
JF: And that’s where they went.
Question to Jon Continued: Out of everything that you’ve worked on, have you taken anything meaningful from the set of one of your films to hold onto?
JF: Yeah I do I do so my wife’s chagrin because it ain’t going nowhere, it’s all just piling up, but the one I took from this was, if you notice when he goes into the temple where King Louis is…the cowbell.
At this point, none of us could contain ourselves and all 25 of us shouted, “THE COWBELL!” at the same time Jon admitted he had kept the cowbell from the film. We all burst out into laughter, and I found my window to get a little wit in, so I looked at Jon and said:
“I thought it needed a little more cowbell.”
Which then made him laugh again and was, at that point, the highlight of my afternoon.
Question to Jon: How did you know what musical scores would go into it and how did you incorporate it? It was very beautiful how you put the music in, how did you decide that?
JF: Some of it was intuition, a lot of it was trial and error, and honestly it was the part I was most concerned about as the plane is leaving the runway now, because if you don’t have the music… I know when I’m watching Creed and that Rocky theme comes on, I’m like, “YEAH!” you know? And when the music in Cinderella starts pumping up, and so I remember as an audience member, I want it. As a film maker, you’re scared, you’re like, “Is it gonna break the tone?” but as a film maker, I know I’ve got to give. As a matter of fact, there was one of the songs that wasn’t in the earlier version and my kids, and my wife, actually – it was my wife, she’s very smart. She’s like, “It’s fine, everything is great!” She’s very supportive and very, very rarely goes against what I’m doing because she knows that as a film maker, you’re facing a lot of different opinions and things. And when you go home, it’s nice to have support and enthusiasm, and you know, confidence that you’ll figure it out and work it out. But this is the one time she was like “You’re not gonna have that song in?” And I’m like, “No, no, it might not fit tonally, and she’s like, “I think you should have the song!” And the kids wanted to hear the song, and so it was early enough in the process that we worked it in, because when I came on board, there was no music in it at all. I started working on the Bare Necessities and then we worked in the one with Walken. But the trick is if it’s a musical, it breaks the tone, and so it was John Debney, whose Orchestration of the Music helped tie it in to the entire piece. My wife’s actually a doctor too, which is, I think, maybe why – and Neel’s family are dentists, and so I think that there’s a good relationship that when do something opposite and you both respect what the other person does but also are a bit in awe of it, it makes for an interesting dynamic. So what’s also fun about that is now that I’ve made adjustments and they see the movie like this, you’re kind of seeing it for the first time because other movies are shaped gradually. This one all kind of happens like a ship in a bottle and comes together right at the end.
A great thrill for me is to show the kids and and the whole family what we’ve been doing, and then you get your first sense by looking in their eyes. Sometimes you show them versions that are almost done because you know their taste, and I know it from the perspective of me, I’m 49. I have 3 kids that are different ages. Each one of them – seeing how scary you could make it, see when they’re scared but they like it, see when they’re laughing, see the jokes that they get or don’t get, and what each age is doing. Can you make [a movie] for the 9 year old that isn’t boring to the 14 year old, and then of course, for my age as well. It’s a really interesting sampling. And now I’m really excited because tonight the cast [will see The Jungle Book], a lot of the cast haven’t seen it. Neel saw it for the first time.
NS: I loved it.
JF: And that was really cool for me too. So right now is the fun part for me as all these choices that seemed so precarious at times – how to work and balance the music, how to balance the tone, how to balance the action and the humor, and how to make that all work together. This is the part where it’s fun because you see where you knew or you didn’t know.
At this point, we took a group photo with Jon Favreau and Neel Sethi who were both insanely personable and fun to be around. It was a lighthearted, easy interview and completely eliminated any nervousness I had felt about talking or asking the stars questions. It wasn’t the last time I spoke with Jon Favreau that day. He had a little something to tell me during the red carpet World Premiere after party. Want to know what it was? Visit my juicy article that dishes all the red carpet and after party happenings. And make sure you’re at the theater on April 15th to see The Jungle Book on the big screen in 3D, RealD 3D, and IMAX 3D!
For more Jungle Book press trip fun, check out our interview with Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito, our trip to the set of Walk the Prank, and my complete red carpet and after party experience where Jon Favreau raved about my ink. Yes, that really happened.