Jon Favreau on The Jungle Book: Bill Murray singing Bare Necessities was “the highlight of my career”

The actor and director talks about the casting process for the film, recording in New Orleans and growing up with The Jungle Book

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Hearing the Jon Favreau — the director who brought you Swingers and Iron Man — has made a new version of The Jungle Book is a bit like hearing that the Fonz is directing your kids’ school play. Favreau gives a cool edge to the mainstream, while The Jungle Book is a Disney family classic. Did he take the job merely to insert ironic jokes?

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“The Jungle Book isn’t just something I grew up with like everyone else who’s seen it,” he explains. “If you look back, it has actually been part of my work since the beginning.” Really? “Sure,” he says.

“The soundtrack to Swingers had Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s version of I Wanna Be Like You. I got it into Chef, too. Loads of places. And the original 1967 movie has some perfect, perfect moments that will live for ever. But if you watch the whole thing all the way through now – and I have – you’ll see there are parts of it we could improve on.

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“It’s like the original Iron Man books. Some great, great moments – but if you just put them on screen, they’d be unwatchable.”

He recruited a stellar cast for this remake (in cinemas from Friday 15 April) with Bill Murray voicing Baloo, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson as the hypnotising Kaa and Christopher Walken as King Louie.

He adds that, “We have all the animals except orangutans – Walt Disney took a few liberties transposing that species to India – and we don’t have the Beatle-vultures.”

He sounds a little sad about that. “I did talk about trying to get Paul and Ringo into the film, because they wanted the Beatles for the original, but I couldn’t get them. We came to the idea too late. Maybe if there’s a sequel…”

He stays true to the original film in many ways. Although the animation seems to take more inspiration from Life of Pi and Avatar than Walt’s hand-drawn version, there are little changes… simply updating the piece. However, two huge differences come to mind between old and new – the music and the kid.

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“It isn’t a musical,” Favreau carefully explains, “We didn’t want the film to be limited to a family audience, but the music is one of the things everyone loves about the movie so it needs to be there. We’ve got the key songs. We have Bill Murray singing Bare Necessities. When we recorded that in New Orleans, it was pretty much the highlight of my career so far.

“New Orleans gave the song its swing, and Walt himself was gripped by the city. The animatronic figures in the Disneyland rides were first inspired by clockwork birds in cages in New Orleans.”

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And then there’s Mowgli. While everything else in the film is created with state-of-the-art CGI, Mowgli is a real boy, 12-year-old Neel Sethi. That’s pronounced “Seddi”, he explains on the phone from New York.

A casting director spotted Sethi in a Bollywood dance class where his dentist parents had sent him to expend some of his excess energy. There was an audition, then he spent an afternoon playing American football with Bill Murray while Favreau cooked brisket and Sethi’s dad looked on, amazed. “It was green screen that was a little challenging, but Jon really helped me through it all,” says Sethi.

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“Like, when we shot in mud, I didn’t really like it but he got down in the mud with me and rolled around and made it OK. When I was doing a scene he had puppets all over the set and basically he taught me everything about acting. He told me not to overact and made everything fun. I’m going to either be a footballer or an actor now, thanks to him.”

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Favreau’s own route to stardom was equally unconventional. After university, he worked on Wall Street for a year then quit his job, bought a motorcycle and “had this fantasy that I’d go cross-country like Easy Rider,” he laughs.

He rode from New York to LA and on the way back stopped in Chicago to see a friend doing improv comedy. He figured it might be fun to give it a shot and ended up working for legendary improv troupe Second City.

Then he was cast in the movie Rudy, met Vince Vaughn on the set and moved out to LA. “That period of my life is what inspired Swingers.” He shrugs, keen to stress it was loose inspiration. “Vince wasn’t quite as cool as the movie makes out and I wasn’t quite as hopeless.”

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He insists too that, despite his action movie career, from Iron Man to Cowboys & Aliens to the recent TV fantasy epic The Shannara Chronicles, it’s comedy that remains his first love. “Emotion and comedy,” he nods. “Although I’ve learned one thing. When I directed Elf as a comedy movie, I got lots of notes on all the jokes. When I directed Iron Man I wove lots of jokes into the script and I got no notes on them at all. So if you want to direct a comedy, just call it an action movie!”

He likes to make cameos in his movies, too. He’s an elephant in The Jungle Book and has also appeared on screen in everything from the hit sitcom Friends to Daredevil to The Break-Up. These days he sees himself as a director who acts rather than an actor who directs.

“I certainly get a lot more offers to direct movies than act in them,” he admits. “Also, as you get older, you get a little less patient with the occupation of acting. It’s a great career for the young and hungry, but it’s kind of tiring.”

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Does that mean we won’t be getting a Swingers 2? He laughs, pauses, seems to take the question seriously and then laughs again. “You know what? I thought about it a few years ago. But I think we’ll do it when me and Vince are old guys. I think that would be way funnier than a movie about a couple of middle-aged men at a barbecue.”