Last week I was in La for the #JungleBookEvent and earlier in the day before the Red Carpet premiere we attended the Press Junket for interviews. First up was Director Jon Favreau & Neel Sethi (“Mowgli” – @TheNeelSethi) who both entered the room with HUGE smiles on their face. Can I just say how ADORABLE Neel was?! I remember way back during the D23Expo when he was on stage with Director Jon Favreau and he saw himself in the trailer for the first time. His face was priceless. It’s fun to see young kids excitement over a role and also to hear seasoned veterans like Director Jon Favreau who are truly passionate about their project. So let’s get to the interview!
Jon F.: Can I tell you about merchandising? Elf had no merchandise and I was so sad that there was never merchandise. Finally on Ironman, 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 forever because the way that Merchandising works is 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 (was like) 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. I don’t think anything of it. Are any of you old enough to remember “I Love Lucy”? Do you remember when she gets a Freezer and orders a side of Beef? She says, I don’t know, give me a side of Beef. There’s a Freezer in here, about this big and then they start delivering it for the whole episode, they’re bringing in package and in fact, there’s a 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. My wife goes like what’s going on here? 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 I’ll take one of these. You have this, you want this, and if it’s still around by Halloween, there’s gonna be a very lucky kid.
Q: How did you get started with The Jungle Book? Did Disney approach you or?
JonF.: 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 we get to go to the Park and something happens and the Park changes over. Whatever is implied by the part 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, the dreams I used to have when I was younger about Disneyland. So we were working back and forth with this and at the same time, this was years ago, Disney begins doing films like “Cinderella” “Malificent” “Alice” and so each of these Properties are being exploited. “Pirates” of course being exploited as their own franchises. So there were, 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.
It seems wasteful, inefficient and you know, to me, I want to get all the money, all the money they’re gonna spend on the screen. I met with Rob Lagato 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. So 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.
Just a very experienced guy who really understood Visual Effects and what you could do with them. And I didn’t really thing 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, they wanted to explore what could happen. And I didn’t really understand, I knew the Animated Film. Doing a photo real version of that didn’t seem like 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, 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. So it was their 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 and when you’re making a Movie, that’s huge because they’re not fighting you over every little decision. There’s a relaxed comfort that comes with that, that as an Artist, you really want that kind of support. When somebody’s scared and greenlights 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. 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, we started off similar to an animation where it would be pencils and — and Show Reels.
So 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 shows 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 believe in it and have their belief seems, 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 weren’t misguided in offering that support. I’m sorry, they won’t be all this long, the answers. We’re out of time.
Q: How did you know when you found Mowgli?
Jon F.: I can’t take credit for this talented young man. He wasn’t experienced but he had a quality and being a Father, I recognized it, it was confidence. He was a full 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 they had looked at, I looked at. Not all of them but they would send me the best of the lot and he was one and he’s 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. There was something that made me smile and he started doing Martial Arts. After the audition was over, he says, I do my own stunts. I was like, this kid’s having a good time and I like (it). I 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 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. The whole family was there, you know, they’re be on the set. And the whole set became a family. They did a great job. He was an Athlete that also, you know, the Stunt Men, I had them put them through the paces, make sure he could keep up with all the strenuous activity and really sell that he’s a kid, survived in this environment and it was just a weird combination of things that we were lucky enough to find this gift.
Q: What it was like when you got the part and what was the audition part like?
Neel: I was in a Dance Class and the Teacher for the Dance Class said I’d be very good for it and I never thought about Acting before but I auditioned. They really liked me so we flew in LA, and then 2 weeks later, like we flew to LA and you’re 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. Lobster and Ravioli.
Q: 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?
Neel: Yes, so 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. Like I just made that in my head and made sure, Oh, that’s not a Puppet. That’s Ballou. Hi Ballou. Instead of seeing a Puppet, I would see this like or something like that. That made it a lot easier and the puppet’s like sometimes they made them look like Ballou and that helped a lot, and John actually got into the puppet sometimes and that helped me interact with him.
Q: Did you go to a traditional school, what was it like to transition from school to set and back again?
Neel: Yeah, so I was in a normal school and 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. All of my good friends and everybody went to the same school as me. I would really slip right back in and then we did the test I think when that was coming up. The State Test and I was just like, it was just normal again and everybody thought it was cool for like a week and then like all right, you know, enough.
Q: Out of everything that you’ve worked on, have you taken anything meaningful from the set of one of your films?
Jon F.: Yeah I do I do so my wife’s chagrin because it ain’t going nowhere. It’s all just piling up. The one I took from this was, if you notice when he goes into King Louis, the Temple where King Louis is, [LAUGHTER] A little more Cowbell.
Q: How did you decide what Musical Scores would go into it?
Jon F.: 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 comes on, I’m like yeah, you know and when the Music in Cinderella starts popping up. I remember as an Audience Member, I wanted. As a Film Maker, you’re scared, you’re like is it gonna break the tone but as a Film Maker, I know I 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 who never, she’s very smart. She’s like it’s fine, everything is great. She’ll never, while I’m working on it, she’ll (be) very supportive and 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.
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. She’s like, I think you should have the song and the kids were like, wanted to hear the song. So it was early enough in the process that we worked it in because I came on board, there was no Music in at all. I started working on the Bare Necessities and then we worked in the one with Walken. The trick of course is not to, if it’s a Musical, it breaks the tone and so, it was John Gaffney, the Orchestration of the Music helped tie it in to the entire piece.
My wife’s actually a Doctor too which is I think that there’s a good relationship that when you 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. What’s also fun about that is now that I’ve made adjustments and they see the Music like this, you’re kind of seeing it for the first time because other Movies, it’s shaped gradually. This one all kind of happens like a ship and the bottle at the end.
A great thrill for me is to show the kids 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. Can you make one for the 9 year old that doesn’t, that isn’t boring to the 14 year old? Then of course, for my age as well. It’s really interesting sampling. I’m really excited because tonight the Cast, a lot of the Cast haven’t seen it. Neil saw it for the first time. That was really cool for me to. So right now is the fun part for me as all these choices that seem so precarious at times, how to work, 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 cause you see where you knew or you didn’t know.
The Jungle Book” is an all-new live-action epic adventure about Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), a man-cub raised in the jungle by a family of wolves, who embarks on a captivating journey of self-discovery when he’s forced to abandon the only home he’s ever known. Hits theaters April 15!
***Disclosure: I attended the #JungleBookEvent My flight, lodgings, and expenses were covered by Disney All opinions are 100% mine. ***