While I was flying out to LA for The Jungle Book Event, I caught an old episode of Friends and couldn’t help but get excited to see Jon Favreau on the screen playing Pete Becker, Monica’s millionaire love interest. It got me digging and prepping for the interview with him and new child actor Neel Sethi.
Quite the Ying and Yang perfection for an interview, where we have a seasoned actor, writer, producer, and director with 24 years in the business next to such a young, sweet newbie actor. Talk about luck. Neel was chosen out of thousands across the globe that auditioned for the role of Mowgli, and is the only real human character in the film with everyone else providing voices for animals. Spending most days playing pretend as the film was made in a studio building, he easily had the most difficult role with most of he takes were in front of a green screen.
Being the only live actor on set, and also being his first real acting role, Neel and Jon gave a candid interview about the process. One of the things I love about this interview is how Jon mentions his wife, and how thanks to her, one of my favorite scenes made it in the film.
Jon Favreau takes on The Jungle Book and Neel Sethi
Walking into a room filled with applause, Jon seems a little taken back and Neel’s smile couldn’t be bigger. On the table were some small toys of the characters from the film. Neel instantly grabs Mowgli and giggles, “That’s me!” and with this, the interview begins with Jon sharing a story about The Jungle Book merchandise.
Jon: I still get a kick out of it. Can I tell you a story about the merchandise? Elf had no merchandise and I was, you know, so sad that there was never merchandise. None of the movies (I had worked on), and 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 the 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 say “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 — 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, about this big and then they start delivering it for the whole episode, they’re bringing in packages of meat 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. Everywhere, 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 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.
So what is it like seeing yourself as a toy?
Neel: It’s amazing.
Do you have it?
Neel: I do not.
Jon: Did you see the singing Baloo yet? Oh, the singing Baloo is great. Do we have a singing Baloo? I keep bringing them in. They keep disappearing. It’s a good thing I ordered 10 boxes of them. He sings and he says a few lines in the movie when he squeezes his paw and if you hit it like 4 times, he’ll sing “Bare Necessities” and “Dance Around” so it’s awesome!
Tell us what made you take on The Jungle Book?
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 park all comes to life in full scale. They get separated, and as a family has 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. 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 “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. 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 Lagato actually who is our Visual Effects Supervisor on this. After I met him, 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 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 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 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, if Disney had a Castle this big, (showing a massive difference in size with his arms and hands) 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 dreamlike quality so you see the whole thing through kid’s eyes.
And 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 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 the 3 years we’ve been working together has been a wonderful experience. Every time I show them a new version of it, we started off similar to an animation where it would be pencils and we’d 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, it’s just been a wonderful experience and now that people are seeing it and reacting, you know, they believe in it and have their belief, it’s 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.
How did you know when you found Mowgli?
Jon: I can’t take credit for this talented young man. He just wasn’t that experienced but he had a quality and being a Father, I recognized it was confidence. He was a fully formed version of himself and so we kind of got who he was. He’s 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, 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 looking at 2,000 kids, well 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. He’s a little younger than we thought. He’s from Manhattan, that helped. I’m from New York. I like his sense of humor. 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 and you are going to get a stuntman”. And I was like, this kid’s having a good time! Then we brought his — 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. His parents both dentists. His sister actually really sealed the deal. She was 16, and 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, you know, they’d be on the set. And the whole set became a family. They did a great job. He was an athlete that also, you know, I had the stuntmen put him 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. What’s your version of it? (looking at Neel)
Yes, tell us, what was it like for you, the process and then finding out you got the part.
Neal: Yeah, so 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 and they really liked me so we flew to LA, and then 2 weeks later, like we flew to LA again and we’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 Ravioli!
You had to act with a lot of things that weren’t there. What helped you do that so well?
Neel: Yes, so I just like made it natural that if this was a puppet (pretending to have a puppet in front of him) 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 not a puppet, like I just made that in my head that’s not a Puppet. That’s Baloo. Hi Baloo. And then instead of seeing a puppet, I would see something like that. And that made it a lot easier and the puppet’s like sometimes they made them look like Baloo and that helped a lot, and John actually got into the puppet sometimes and that helped me interact with him.
Do you attend a normal school?
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. And all of my good friends and everybody went to the same school as me. And I would really slip right back in and then we did the test the state test and it was just normal again and everybody thought it was cool for like a week and then like all right, you know, enough.
A couple of months ago a few of us interviewed Harrison Ford and he said that–
Jon: I heard — I heard — I heard it was a very interesting unique interview, right?
It was very exciting. He said that out of everything he’s worked on over the years, the only film he kept something from was “Cowboys and Aliens” that he worked on with you and that he and Daniel Craig took their horses.
Jon: And that’s where they went! I have to check with them.
Out of everything that you’ve worked on, have you taken anything meaningful from the set of one of your films?
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, well, the cowbell.
How did you decide which songs to use?
Jon: 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 and when the music in Cinderella starts popping 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’m like, I know I got to give. And as a matter of fact, there was one of the songs that weren’t in the earlier version and my kids, and 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’s 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. 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 you want to– And 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. And I started working on the “Bare Necessities” and then we worked in the one with Walken. But the trick, of course, is if it’s a musical, it breaks the tone and so it was John Gaffney, the Orchestration of the Music helped tie it into the entire piece.
And so 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. And 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 isn’t boring to the 14-year-old? And then, of course, you know, for my age as well. It’s a really interesting sampling. I’m really excited because tonight the cast will see it for the first time. Neel saw it for the first time.
Neel: I loved it.
Jon: And that was really cool for me too, you know. 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.
After joining the cast at the premiere and then being able to ask them what they thought of the film during the after party, I can say, they were blown away. As you will be too.
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The Jungle Book opens on 4/15/16