Jon Favreau interview: Jungle Book, Zathura, PG movies

Jon Favreau chats to us about his new movie, The Jungle Book. Plus, Zathura, Statham and Gravity too…

Jon Favreau is building a growing reputation as one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors. He’s followed up his charming comedy drama Chef with a big budget, hugely cinematic take on The Jungle Book. And he spared us some time to natter about it.

Here’s how it went….

Does the sense of achievement feel any different as you get to the end of a film?

[Laughs] It too early days really! I’m not sure I’m counting it as an achievement yet. But I do like that the people I’ve spoken to and seen at the screenings seem to genuinely like what we did here. It is a sense of relief, it is exciting. We worked so long on it. It must be heartbreaking if you’ve worked so hard on something like this and it doesn’t ultimately connect with an audience!

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I do feel very proud.

I spoke to Kenneth Branagh after he’d finished on Cinderella, and he was in pretty much the same spot as you are. That he’d finished the film, knew it was going to get to an audience , but didn’t quite know how it would go down. You’re at that point?

Yeah! I remember talking to [director] Alfonso Cuaron after an early screening of Gravity. And I went up to him and said ‘oh my god, this is a masterpiece’. And he seemed unsure at that point! And of course it went on to be so well received. But it shows you that you’re almost in the worst seat in the house when you made the thing!

So how was this one to actually put together?

This one was more like a marathon. You just kept hitting it every day. The task changed so much that you never got bored. What you were doing at the beginning was very different from what you were doing at the end. It didn’t feel like you were doing the same thing for three years.

First you’re in the story department, trying to pound out the story with story artists. You’re looking at showreels, like you would if you were at Pixar. And then all of a sudden, lo and behold we were on a motion capture shoot. Designing virtual environments and rigging the motion capture performers and seeing it almost like a videogame. I think even using videogame engines – we used Unity, I think. You were seeing it like a game played out, then you would set cameras and edit that. And you were also doing the recording of the voices at the same time. Getting reference data on the performances, and facial work. All of it was different and all of it took everything we had!

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Finally we were doing the shoot, and then it was building the sets to blend in with the virtual cut that we had. The Gravity portion of it! Then it was post-production for a year, so I was an animation director!

Everything was a new set of challenges, but I always felt the work was good, and I really liked the people I was working with. I felt like if we went down the road we went down, people would be curious about it. And if we could tell a good story on top of it? We’d be in a good position about now!

I’m feeling like people are curious!

I write quite a bit on our site about Zathura, a film of yours I really like an awful lot. I wondered if this is you coming back to that audience?

A little bit. Although that was a very small audience! [Laughs] But it is the same type of story.

It’s in the PG sweet spot too.

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It’s a PG film in the States, yeah. You try not to shy away from the realism of it, and you try and tell an emotionally correct story with themes that are important, using all the visuals. With this one, the difference is that there are people who have a vested interested in what is done with this title. Because of the animated movie, or with the Kipling stories. In a way it’s good, as there’s an awareness of it. If you do good, people will hear about it. But if they don’t like what you’re doing, they’ll chop your head off, because they feel very possessive about the original.

And how is your head?

So far so good. [Grins] I only know from the few reviews I’ve seen and talking to people face to face. It won’t be until it gets out into the audiences, til we see how it plays in theatres to see if we’ve struck a chord.

Films do have a lot of time to strike chords, though. I’m sat here talking to you about a film you made 10, 15 years ago!

Zathura is a nice one because even though it does qualify as a bomb in the theatres…

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Does it really?

I think it does, yeah. It was seen as an unsuccessful outing. You could tell by how many people want to meet with you and how many jobs you get offered. That’s the truth of it. It’s all connected to how much money your movie makes. If they think you’re a good bet, they’ll send you scripts.

I think we got the best notices of any Sony film that year too!

I believe you did.

And it’s something that I was very proud of, and something that other filmmakers I know… Robert Rodriguez for instance says he’s shown it to all his kids. I’m very proud of it. I don’t think any less of it than the ones that were more successful.

In the case of The Jungle Book, there’s an audience that’s going to be aware of it, and they’re going to check it out if we do a good job.

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I’d be a terrible gossip magazine columnist I’m afraid, as I don’t know whether you have children or not…

I have three!

Ah, me too. The struggle I find as a parent when it comes to films is that the live action PG-rated movie sector is the most neglected, as far as I’m concerned. Animation serves it well, certainly, but it’s a frustration for me that live action doesn’t, and isn’t willing to try slightly more adventurous stories, and treat children more as grown ups. I think your film does that, but I’m curious if that’s part of the appeal to you?

Yeah. Elf was another PG movie I did. PG takes a few clubs out of your golf bag. You don’t have language, and you don’t have violence. But if you keep the violence off-screen, and you keep the sexual content out, and you keep the language clean, chances are you’re not going to get challenged on that rating. We never had a problem with this.

But what you can use are the tools that were used by the likes of Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg when we were growing up….

…. there were nods to Bambi right through this, I thought.

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Yes, yes, yes. You can have intensity, moments that are scary. And what it does is force you to create that without showing anything. Sometimes the off-camera stuff is scarier than the stuff you see. The build up to the moments where you do get confrontation, you’re having to invest everything in building the tension, because you can’t show things, or execute it in a graphic way.

But it’s amazing how much you can affect the way the audience is feeling by how you set things up. Then of course you have to balance those things, as Walt Disney did so well in the big five animated films. You’d have the funniest scene after the darkest scene. Same thing with the animated Tarzan, with The Lion King

Nobody talks about Tarzan! That’s a great movie. Digitally groundbreaking too.

Tarzan was good! He kills a cheetah in it. His parents get killed. He kills the cat that killed his family later, off camera. So the thing is if you look to the Disney roots, you can find a way to do something that’s appropriate for kids, has humour, and works. And you can also fit the music in, which was another thing I wanted to do. I wanted to fit the music in but didn’t want to make a kids’ musical. That’s why I looked at The Lion King, at Tarzan, at Bambi, Snow White. To see how do you mix these tones. It seems very binary now – it’s either dark or silly, and Walt Disney would mix it all the time. Star Wars mixed it too, by the way.

Rango’s an interesting one too.

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Yeah!

Anybody who has kids like us, I say you know your kid. If there’s any doubt, show your kid the trailer. The marketing department did a great job of depicting the darker aspects, the more intense aspects of the film. The trailer is as intensive, not less intensive, than the movie.

You touched on the music. Can I badly paraphrase one of your lines from your last film, Chef. You have a line in there about you don’t want to go and see the Rolling Stones, and find that Jagger doesn’t play Satisfaction.

That’s exactly how I feel about this. Yeah! I’ve actually quoted that line in an interview when someone asked me about the songs.

Ah, I didn’t see that. I wasn’t cheating!

It happened today, so you’d be a mind reader! But it is the thing: as a fan, when I see the films, if I see Creed, I’m happy when I hear the Rocky theme. When I see Cinderella, I love when I hear Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo come up. I want more. As a fan, I’m never saying that choice feels inconsistent with the tone of the remake. I’m seeing Jungle Book, there are certain images I want, and characters I want. It’s why I put King Louie in. He’s not Kipling. We did our own version of him. At the end of the day, I’ve learned you’ve got to give people what they want. In this case, I’m one of the people. I loved the old film, and I said what do I want to see? I want to see them singing Bare Necessities on the river…

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There’s the musical cue even as you open the film…

Yeah. Then we have Trust In Me worked into the score.

I was going to ask about that, as you have Scarlett Johansson singing it over the end credits. Was that intended to be originally in the cut?

No, no. There was always less music, and we slowly added more. But in the cut, it would have been the first song. And I think it would have set the tone improperly for the film. Bare Necessities, with the dialogue leading up to it, it felt like we leapt into it. And I Wanna Be Like You was the one where we were pushing it a little bit. Either way, we were going to have people who took issue with it if we did put it in, or didn’t put it in. But I would rather have stuff for the scrutiny of people who think it was forced.

Your dividing line appeared to me early on when the elephants turned up. I though at that point if we get Colonel Hathi’s March or not would in some way help define what kind of film you were going for.

Interesting. But that’s binary. Okay, I can’t have Colonel Hathi, and also have the mythology of Kipling. For me, the elephants opened up a door for me to get into this mythic territory, and having Bagheera being the one reciting the Kipling passages as if they were scripture, to me felt like it offered an opportunity to deepen the mythic aspects of the story.

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And if he became Colonel Hathi and sang, you’ve added a character to your film, presumably.

I think so. And then, what’s he referencing a specific moment in history.

It gets dark there.

I wanted this to be timeless. Even when you see the man village, you never really get a glimpse of when it is. So to me I love the notion of take the old stories and myths, do it super high-tech. That’s what worked for Star Wars and Disney, and it worked for Avatar.

I had an awful lot of sympathy for Robert Zemeckis last year with The Walk. I watched that film on a gigantic screen and felt queasy, in a good way. But I was conscious that he’d gone to all the effort there, but reconciling that it has to work on a phone too. It has to scale, and I’m not sure The Walk does. How conscious were you, when putting The Jungle Book together, of screen sizes? To make the characters work across the astonishing range of screen sizes.

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We picked an aspect ratio – 16:9 – that was going to fill up a screen. That’s how we shot it. As much as we want people to see it in IMAX, in 3D, most of the time you’re going to see this at home. Especially if you love it. Although there are 3D TVs, and as the new tech comes out, this will be ready for it.

I had the notion of not wanting to be letterboxed. I wanted to fill your whole screen, and that’s why I did 16×9. Generally you’d do widescreen format for a movie like this, but I was keeping an eye towards the future. I’ve seen it in 3D on a monitor, and it looks amazing. So I think it works pretty well.

TVs are pretty big now, too!

We’re out of time, so one last question. As you’re in the UK, it’s our job to salute the British king of action cinema, Mr Jason Statham. Do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

Lock, Stock. I’ll pick Lock, Stock!

Jon Favreau, thank you very much!

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