Rapid Round: Jon Favreau on 'Jungle Book' Nostalgia, Returning to Acting and Keeping Up With Elon Musk (Q&A)

Jon Favreau GETTY - H 2016
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The former 'Swingers' star, now married and the father of three, talks about his new film's connection to the 1967 animated Disney version, why he wants to return to acting and his loyalty to Team Marvel.

Jon Favreau, 49, has come a long way from his indie Swingers days back in 1996, when he and Vince Vaughn played a couple of wannabe-actors cruising the L.A. club scene. While he continues to act — his biggest recent role was the title character in 2014’s Chef — he’s moved on to directing and producing, making perennial holiday favorite Elf and contributing to Marvel’s rise with the first two Iron Man movies.

But that Swingers catch-phrase, “You’re money,” has turned out to be prophetic. His $175 million, live-action/animated The Jungle Book, based on the Rudyard Kipling classic, opened Friday and immediately appears to be on a hit trajectory. And Favreau and Jungle Book screenwriter Justin Marks are already talking with Disney about a sequel. “There’s a lot more from Kipling to draw on that we didn’t include, because it may point us in the direction of what future stories might hold,” Favreau tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Did The Jungle Book resonate more with you now because you're a father or were you drawing more from your own childhood?

I think the nostalgia for me means more. But I think that there was definitely things that had to be done here to make it relevant for my 14- and 12-year-old.

What were the nostalgic elements in The Jungle Book that appealed to you?

The '67 [animated] film resonates most when it's emotional or humorous — and some of the music. The fact that it's a musical and the dangers are played away comedically would not work well today, and I was unwilling to make this a movie just for little kids. We were shooting for PG here, so I didn't want it to be too intense and inappropriate for children, but I think there has to be a sense of danger. We looked at Disney's Big Five [animated classics]. I looked at Bambi a lot, Snow White. When Walt [Disney] was making those movies, he was doing big-budget cutting-edge technology and he was making it for everybody, he was not just making it for kids. By the time Jungle Book was made, it was starting to skew a bit younger and although there was tremendous artistry with the character animation, it was not the high-water mark for technological achievement opposed to when they were introducing multi playing animation technology [in movies like Snow White]. 

How did you discover Neel Sethi, the 12-year-old actor who plays Mowgli?

There were, I think, 2,000 auditions. It was whittled down a bit before it was presented to me, so I didn’t see all of them, but he was one of the people that kind of popped. He was from Manhattan, he didn’t have any experience, he’d never auditioned before, but he had tremendous charisma. He was very unflappable. He didn’t seem to have any fear in the audition, and when I met him he was incredibly self-assured and didn’t seem intimidated, and that’s a quality I remember from Mowgli in the animated cartoon. He reminded me very much of the kid from the animated cartoon, even the physicality and the way he moves around. I thought he brought this really nice watchable human quality to a character that a lot was going to be pivoting on.

What was the toughest scene in the movie to shoot?

There were hard parts, those parts that separate us from the films that came before us in terms of the interactivity of practical and digital characters. Moments like Mowgli saying goodbye to [mother wolf] Raksha and running his fingers through her fur is a shot that most people would avoid, but we put it front and center in a very emotional moment where it has to work perfectly. It can’t draw attention to itself. Otherwise, it blows the emotion and humanity of that moment.

You tweet a lot about Tesla's Elon Musk. Are you two friends?

Yeah. We met on Iron Man because Robert [Downey Jr.] suggested we meet with him because he was the closest that we were going to find to somebody who had the life of Tony Stark. Here was a rocket scientist, an innovator, a futurist and so we met with him, and we kept the relationship going. He was very helpful with Iron Man 2. The headquarters of Justin Hammer [Sam Rockwell’s character] is actually [Musk’s company] Space X. He let us film there for nothing. We’ve been keeping up all these years.

How so?

He’s the busiest guy I know. And it’s a very different world from movies, but there’s an overlap with the technical aspect. He was actually on the set [of The Jungle Book] and I was showing him what we were up to. And, you know, the technical stuff from each field borrows from one another. There’s a lot of overlap. So it’s always interesting to see his reaction to the stuff I’m doing.

Speaking of Tony Stark and Iron Man, are you keeping tabs on the Marvel Universe?

Oh yeah. I’ve seen Civil War — an earlier cut. It’s great. I’m really digging what the Russos [directors Anthony and Joe Russo] are doing. I think they've got a really good handle on the characters

There’s a big debate now about whether comic book movies should be serious or should be fun. Where do you stand on that?

Back when we were doing Iron Man, we were doing one tone and [Christopher] Nolan was doing another tone (with his Batman movies]. There was room for both. Each hero has a different tone. Tone comes through story, and it also comes from the filmmaker. When you have the right filmmaker combined with the right character, a lot of those other things unfold in an organic way.

Just like there’s a battle of tones, there’s also the battle between Team DC and Team Marvel. It's getting pretty intense.

I’ve been part of that one. I’ve been part of the Disney sphere, and it’s filled with people who have this tremendous loyalty and emotional connection to the source materials. Being respectful to the source material seemed to work well for us in building the Marvel Universe. Putting fans first is a good rule of thumb for developing material that’s based on existing characters where people have an investment in them.

Do you think about doing more acting?

Yeah. This movie has taken up all my time. But it’s always fun to be on somebody else’s set and watch how they work. That’s how I learned to direct, from being on other people’s sets.

Who is the one director you want to work with?

My favorite is the director that I look up to the most: [Marty] Scorsese. I only got to work a few days on The Wolf of Wall Street, but I loved being around him. As a fan I would love to see what it's like on the set of a Coen Brothers movie. Their personalities come through so much in their work. And in conversations I’ve had with Joel, they seem really unique and smart. As a director, you’re always looking for people who are good at what they do so you can emulate them.

— Andy Lewis contributed to this report