Thursday, April 14, 2016

An interview with Justin Marks: Part III - Making THE JUNGLE BOOK

Part I - Breaking in and the road to STREET FIGHTER
Part II - Assignments and SUPERMAX


Let’s jump ahead to THE JUNGLE BOOK. So how did you get the assignment in the first place?

THE JUNGLE BOOK came about as the result of my work on a movie with Disney called CAPTAIN NEMO, which I was doing back in the day when McG was still involved.

This was pre-Fincher, then?

Yes. And I’d worked with an executive named Brigham Taylor and a producer named Sean Bailey, who’s now the head of production at Disney. So the whole team from CAPTAIN NEMO is still at the studio and Alan Horn came to the studio post-LIFE OF PI and said, “I think that the effects were up to par enough that you could do a JUNGLE BOOK movie now. Why don’t we star figuring out how to do it?” Alan really loved the stories and thought it would be a good Disney live-action movie.

So Brigham called me because we’d worked together – and this is really instructive for other screenwriters if you think about what the process is. The idea was “We don’t know what this is yet. We don’t have a movie. Why don’t we bring a writer in to work together and figure it out.” That was largely what we did with CAPTAIN NEMO. So when it gets back to that conversation about how you want to be that person who’s a positive part of the process, probably part of the reason I got the job was, we were just partners trying to figure out a story. Until we have a movie, we’re just talking in the blue sky.

And at that point, they want someone who they can stand to sit in a room with for eight hours a day.

And that’s what I did. They threw me in an office for about seven months. I was there putting scenes on the wall. This was before a director was involved. This happens a lot . The experience of being a screenwriter before there’s a director, you’re not writing the movie in its most brilliant form. You’re like the advance recon guy. They drop him into the jungle a couple months ahead of the army and you’re just in there to be like. “I know which roads we should take. I know we might get some ambushes.” You’re there to know the material very well and to start to paint an answer to the question “Could this be a movie?”

We began to carve out a scriptment, and then a script. Jon [Favreau] came in and as is the process with every director, said, “This is all great. I like this and I like this. I want to do my version of this story and I have a vision for what this is.”So the next question is, does that vision line up with what you can offer as a writer?”

So I had some meetings with Jon and eventually we were ready to give this a try. He was good enough to give me a crack at writing the next draft. He liked that draft. It felt like his movie now. The studio wanted to make that draft, so at that point, he just kept me on for the entire part of the process to be constantly aware of what was going on and to be making the changes. Once you decide to start making a movie, that’s when the real work starts. So that’s kinda how it began.

I remember that a re-release of THE JUNGLE BOOK was one of the first films I saw in the theater as a child. Was that animated version the blueprint for yours, or did you back to the Kipling novel?

It’s a lot of both. It’s an adaptation of two pieces of material – one, the original Kipling stories, and two, the 1967 Walt Disney film. Because if you’re going to do a movie at the Walt Disney company, you’re going to do a remake of the 1967 Walt Disney film. I say that now, but in hindsight that’s not always the case. When I was just a writer alone, I was exploring a thousand different versions of what that could be. It’s really Jon [Favreau] who came into this and said, “I understand what this movie is. I know what it meant to me as a kid and I want to update and evolve that story in a way that feels responsible.”

So it very quickly became a lot more similar to the 1967 film. But we were able – because of the Kipling book – to endow the film with a lot more mythos. Kipling wrote it all to fit atop a very similar coming of age structure, which is why it was a marriage of the two.

Probably the first question you come to when you do it in live action is “How are the animals going to talk?”

Yeah, how’s it gonna work?

Was there a point where you were worried about that? You’ve got photorealistic animals speaking with the voice of Bill Murray and Christopher Walken.

The biggest fear and challenge of the project – and it did affect the script – was would the effects be able to render emotion? Would the effects be able to convincingly portray talking wolves and a talking bear in a way that didn’t make us laugh, or didn’t make us nothing because we’d feel like we were looking at a dead face.

Until you start to see things – and you’re very far down the pipe when you start to see things – it was always a question. It was like "we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that we have to play this movie almost entirely off our live action actor’s face, where all the emotions come from him." And so in the script you had to be very careful about that. Then when the effects started to come in, Jon saw it was incredible what MPC, the effects company is doing. Then we loosened up a little.

And also, we wanted to do things like the animals behaving like animals, so a wolf does not cry. These things you have to be very careful about. That was the biggest challenge.

And you’re not even shooting in real environments. It’s all rendered. You have an actor in a blue-screen room. And you’re shooting for months, waiting for the first finished shots to come back. Is that how it is?

Here the thing that no one talks about with what Jon brought to this process and I think that’s why he deserves all the credit for making the movie as good as it is. And I’m really proud of the work. I’m impressed by what he’s made. When he first came into the process he said to me, “Look, I appreciate this script. What I’d like to do, if you’re okay with it, is we’ll just do this as trial-and-error at the beginning. I want to make this movie going back to the process Walt Disney used going back to the old animated films.”

Is it similar to the Pixar process of doing like a pencil test version of the film and refining it?

It’s exactly that. It’s all iteration. That’s all they do. What that means is we’d start with a script that is a story from beginning to end that everyone likes, then hire a story department to work with the script department – which is one person. That’s me. To make it better one scene at a time. The story department is made up of animators, most of whom come from the Walt Disney school of building story where it’s just one image, flipbook, another image, and they draw these animatics, which we look at on a wall, or now with computers they can render it and we all watch it together.

Because they come from this Disney school, they won’t just take what’s in the script. [They add their own ideas and actions] and we’ll test it. Jon has this theory that ten people can read a script and have ten different opinions as to whether that script is any good or will make a good movie. When ten people watch the same scene from a script on a television in front of them, everyone agrees it’s either good or bad. You cannot argue with something you’re watching in front of you.

And yet, we still argued. Jon would bring me in and he built himself a team of rivals, what he called The Lincoln Cabinet Theory. You’d have a bunch of people fighting for different ideas in a scene and he was the ultimate arbiter of which idea was going to win. So we’d do that for every scene and it became a marriage of all of these points of view. That is the Disney process.

So Jon did that to the point where – I’m gonna get my dates all wrong – a year and a half, maybe two years ago, we had a finished version of the movie in flipbook for that we all watched with no actors yet, and we could watch it and ask, “Does this feel good?” Then began what was called the pre-vis process, but really it was the motion capture. Neel [Sethi] was cast to play the role of Mowgli, the other voice actors had been cast, and we were on a soundstage in Playa Vista that was a motion capture stage. That was like a 40, 50 day shoot where the entirety of it was motion capture. Neel himself was in a motion capture suit so Mowgli himself was motion capture.

We’d do that and watch scenes every day where the motion capture process is so amazing where you don’t have to fix your camera in any way. You can choose where your camera is after the fact. [Cinematographer] Bill Pope would have an idea where he wanted the camera, but he could still change his mind later in the process. So that allowed us to see the movie again another time before a single frame of actual live action footage had been shot.

In some ways, that was when the writer was most important to the process because Jon would [call me] in my office, which was about a mile away from where the stages were and say, “Can you come over and watch this scene that we just shot?” And he’d [show me what he felt wasn’t working. I’d suggest something else] and he say, "Why don’t you go write it and we’ll try it tomorrow." Then we’d just shoot the same scene again the very next day. It was an incredible way to see your mistakes in front of you and correct for them in real time.

Another thing I should say about Jon is he is such a generous guy and I have never worked on a movie like this before. He was so willing to allow me as a writer to make these mistakes and to teach me through these mistakes. It was the first time ever that I’ve had a teacher in this process, someone who was able to carry me through what I guess is basic storytelling. It was really fun and amazing and all of that was before they did the 100-day live action shoot downtown when everything really started to happen.

It’s a pretty intense process. I don’t thing any movie has really been made that way. Even AVATAR, which used the simul-cam and all these things, they didn’t have the time that Disney was willing to give Jon to get the movie right.

Cool! Well, I’m looking forward to seeing that. As you said, it’s a very different way of making a film.

People ask, “What are scenes you wrote that ended up on the cutting room floor” and it’s like, there is no cutting room floor for this movie.

It’s like a theater workshop is what it sounds like. You’re working it out and then by the time you’re shooting it for real, everyone knows what their part is.

Yes. And figuring it out and just getting better and better and better. So when they’re doing the live action component, all Jon is focused on is the visual aesthetic of the film, the incredible sets that the art department designed, just the area around Mowgli, like within 30 feet of him. And that’s the first time Neel’s performance is captured. It’s about finding life in that performance and to be able to focus on just that and not focus on “Is this scene boring? Does this scene make any sense? Do we need this scene?”

In that sense it’s the most-efficient and least-efficient process of all time. It’s least-efficient in the way that we shot it multiple times, but it’s the most-efficient in that once you’re doing the most expensive part of the shoot, you’re doing exactly what you need. Jon conceived of all of that. He was like, “We’re taking all the best parts from animation and all the best parts from live-action and mixing them together.” It’s fun.

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