King of the Swingers: Justin Marks on The Jungle Book
Screenwriter Justin Marks on Jon Favreau, how Apocalypse Now and Goodfellas influenced The Jungle Book, and his dream project, Top Gun 2.
By Christopher McKittrick.
After the massive box office success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Walt Disney Pictures began exploring producing other feature film versions of the studio’s beloved animated classics. Of the recent live-action remakes perhaps the most surprising was The Jungle Book, which Disney had originally made as an animated film in 1967.
Disney already released two live-action versions of the Jungle Book: one in 1994 starring Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli, and a second direct-to-video version titled The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story in 1998. However, the 2016 version would take advantage of new advances in visual effects to create an immersive experience for the audience.
To tell a new version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic Mowgli stories, Disney turned to screenwriter Justin Marks. Years earlier, Marks had been hired by Disney to rewrite the script for the studio’s remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was later canceled.
In fact, because a number of the projects Marks has been attached to have been stuck in development hell, The Jungle Book is his first blockbuster-budget feature screenplay to go into production. Marks and director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef) developed a film that took advantage of the latest advances in visual effects to bring Kipling’s lush jungle world to life on screen.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Marks about shaping the screenplay with with director Jon Favreau, how movies like Apocalypse Now and Goodfellas influenced his version of The Jungle Book, and why he is working on his dream project with Top Gun 2.
What was your previous familiarity with The Jungle Book before writing the screenplay?
I think for everyone in the process there were two entry points: the 1967 Disney film that we all grew up on – and obviously in that case I had a pretty in-depth familiarity as I think most of us do – and the other big source was the two collections of Kipling stories.
I had a strong familiarity with the first collection, the original Jungle Book and the Mowgli stories within. Up until that point three years ago, The Second Jungle Book had escaped my radar, so I was able to discover the continued adventures of Mowgli with new eyes when I started on the process. We used a lot of those to inform the structure of the film.
The Jungle Book has been done so many times on film – including Disney’s classic animated film, which was obviously a big influence on this version. What did you set out to do ensure your screenplay was traditional, but also distinct?
From the very beginning of the process everyone at Disney knew that they wanted this to be a live-action movie that would push the boundaries of visual effects. Right around the time when this got underway, Life of Pi had just won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. There was a feeling that it might be possible to render animals who could emote on screen.
I think for Jon as the director it was a huge priority for him too. The idea behind how to differentiate this Jungle Book was, “How do you create an aspirational world that we’ve never been to?” A place that could render the jungle with the same excitement that James Cameron was able to render Pandora with in Avatar, a place that you just wanted to live in for a while with characters that you wanted to live with.
We said, “Let’s pretend it’s possible. Let’s pretend that the effects will be able to do this, and let’s write to that.” The incredible thing that happened is that the effects exceeded it. It was incredible what they were able to do, and it was amazing to see it all come together.
Because this borrows many elements from Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book, was including certain elements in the script – like “The Bare Necessities” and other songs – required by the studio?
No, everyone was very open to the best idea. I don’t think at any point in my involvement – and certainly not with Jon involved – was anyone saying that “This has to be here.”
If we didn’t have the idea for how “The Bare Necessities” would live organically inside Mowgli and Baloo’s story, it wouldn’t have made sense to put it in the movie. It was always being tested and evaluated, and everyone was always very much back-and-forth. I don’t think that there was anything really set in stone.
Instead, there were just these key ideas from the 1967 film that everyone shared in their memory: Mowgli floating on Baloo’s stomach down the river. Kaa coming towards Mowgli with the spinning eyes. Mowgli’s relationship with Bagheera as this sort of harsh father-mentor and Baloo as the fun uncle-mentor and the dynamic between those three. Those were all very important things and it wouldn’t feel like a Jungle Book movie without them.
Everything else we added to taste over a period of several years while working on the movie as we started to figure out when it works and when it doesn’t work, and how far you can push it and how far you can pull it out. The credit goes to Jon because what a director does is manage all of that. I’m just a small part of it, and he was able to find that tone so perfectly.
Jon Favreau is an accomplished screenwriter on his own merits. What role did he play in shaping the story?
At the end of the day when you’re writing on a movie like this, you’re working on the director’s film. I also work in television, and the writer has a very different role there. We were all kind of working in service of Jon’s vision.
That doesn’t mean you’re not working your ass off too to provide a piece of yourself that you hope he shares as a piece of himself, but what Jon was great for – for me especially as someone who is a relatively young writer with what I like to think is a lot of energy – is that he is a guy who was always able to receive that energy and take those ideas and then look at them. If he likes them, he’ll tell you he likes them.
If he doesn’t, he will help you to reshape them. He will sit there and say, “You know what? Here’s the problem with the scene. I’d run into this problem a lot when I’m doing scenes like this, and here’s the kind of thing that I found would help. Why don’t you try breaking up the dialogue like this?” I would go off and do that, and it’s such an incredible thing because I never really had a teacher like that.
To be privileged to stay with him throughout the entire process and to always be a kind of bird on a branch looking down on him and watching the process both from afar and within was an incredible learning experience. I don’t think a lot of directors are as confident enough to work with writers in that space and to know how you can use a writer to augment your vision in a bigger way. I think that it’s the fact that he’s also a writer and an actor, and he can approach all these disciplines together to make his process of directing very holistic.
Sounds like collaborating with him was a wonderful experience.
Everything is just fun. You never dreaded going into work. He just has this dry humor, and he’s so well-read when it comes to film history.
You would have never thought some of the influence that we could bring into a movie like this would be relevant to a Jungle Book story. We spent so much time talking about Westerns, especially the traditional John Ford Westerns, which is one of my favorite eras of cinema. Also the way that movies like Shane, Apocalypse Now, and Goodfellas could impact our story.
There are a lot of disciplines that he could take from this huge vocabulary that he has. We could go on a two-hour digression together talking about a movie or TV show that everyone has been watching recently and still find a way to come back around and use it to inform a bigger, more interesting vision.
Speaking of Goodfellas, one of the more entertaining creative decisions – which is obviously helped by the casting of Christopher Walken – is how King Louie, who is not an original Kipling character, is portrayed like a mob boss. Can you talk about the development of that idea?
To go backwards, it came together in full color when Christopher Walken was involved. I remember I was on vacation with my family in New Hampshire and I got a call from Jon and he said “So we got Walken.” I said, “That’s great!” He said, “Yeah, but you know, if we’re going to do this scene we need a speech worthy of Walken.”
So we just bounced stuff around and took a crack on the page of what kind of words it would be fun to hear Christopher Walken say. Like “paw paw,” the name he gives to the fruit, though that’s actually a lyric in the “Bare Necessities” song. We started to come up with that and write speeches around it.
But while King Louie was added by Walt Disney to the 1967 film, the idea of the Bandar-log, this kingdom of primates and monkeys, was in Kipling’s stories. We went to that text to look for motivation. For Jon, every character had to be motivated by their own agenda and not just be comic relief.
I think that the idea of “mob boss” that you responded to is interesting, because – while Walken’s New York accent can speak to that – honestly a lot of the influence for Louie from the very beginning of this film was that Mowgli has come all the way down the river, and that ends up at Kurtz, like in Apocalypse Now. I think if you look at the way Jon even lit that scene you just see so much of Brando in there in some ways lingering in the shadows until he comes out.
The fun part would be to play it as if it’s a scary scene. If you look at it straight it is, but then because it’s Christopher Walken and because of the way he speaks and the brilliant way he can communicate lines, you start to get this uneasiness that borders on comedy. It makes it fun and safe on top of it.
I would never know how a director would do it, how Jon manages to balance that tone in the execution of that scene. I think when they were shooting that scene Jon was actually doing a lot of the motion performing for that character just to help Neel Sethi (Mowgli) out. He would do that for a lot of characters and to see him moving around like that and setting the pace for it under Walken’s words is a special kind of skill.
Who came up with the bit to have Mowgli pick up a cowbell shortly before meeting Walken’s King Louie? [Note: A clear reference to Walken’s famous “More cowbell!” Saturday Night Live skit]
If there’s anything that is a Jon Favreau touch, that’s the kind of thing that you see. He told us, “You see what he’s gonna hold? He’s got a cowbell. He’s gonna play with the cowbell right before King Louie shows up.” I’m glad you noticed it. He’ll be very thrilled that people are registering it.
One thing I noticed about Mowgli in this version is his use of tools, which evolves over the course of the film and shows him become closer to man’s world. What was your intention behind that?
The movie is about identity – a boy who grows up among a certain people where he doesn’t belong. It’s very obvious that he doesn’t belong and we wanted to create certain distinctions between him and the wolf pack. The tools were definitely one of those things.
The animals are also afraid of this ingenuity because there is something in them, in a very primal way, that understands where these innovations lead eventually – to things like the red flower or fire, and possibly weapons of subjugation – reasons why animals would fear man. As Mowgli grows up among these people and loves these people, there is also this gradual realization that this can’t last forever and that someday he’ll have to return to his own people, which was always part of Kipling’s lore and the 1967 film did it as well. We just added the ingenuity on top of it, which Kipling definitely had a lot of.
The idea became interesting not when it’s a straight-line story, where he just goes home to his people, but the idea that he makes this decision that his people are where he grew up. He doesn’t have to become man, at least not yet. He doesn’t have to become everything they think he’s going to be.
Identity is not a matter of what you’re born into, it’s a matter of choice. It’s a matter of the people you associate with. I think that was a very important message for the movie to convey in the spirit of the Peace Rock that establishes the water truce in the earlier scenes – this feeling that the jungle is a place where many different people come together.
Why can’t man be part of that? That’s not to say it doesn’t come without its own complications, but if a boy has his heart in the right place, who’s to say he can’t be there?
On that note, I was intrigued by how this version has a very different ending than that of the animated film, and it isn’t as final in terms of where Mowgli will go next. What was the thought process on that?
It was definitely decided as a team, and there were a lot of different versions proposed. But I think that at the end it came down to “What is the story we’re trying to tell?” and “What is the theme that we’re trying to convey?” Would it best end with him realizing that everything has to go back to where it belongs?
I don’t know if that’s necessarily the most satisfying choice from an audience’s place, not when we see a boy sitting on the fringes of the wolf pack yearning so much to howl with them. You want to see him finally get to that place with the only family he’s ever known. Once we started to see it from that thematic mindset, it started to fall into place very easily.
There are also other Kipling Jungle Book stories to move forward with as well.
What’s interesting is that in Kipling Mowgli would go back and forth from the man village constantly. I can’t say that necessarily anyone else in the process shares it, but I always liked the idea that the man village in general, the light that emanates, and the place it represents in Mowgli’s mind as he’s inhabiting this story is almost like an unreal place.
To use a Sopranos reference, it’s the lighthouse in Tony’s coma dream. It’s the place that’s calling to him in some way. There’s something about going there, seeing it, and living there that takes away some of that magic. It felt more that if we were going to tell a movie like this as an “endless summer” story – where you just want to be here forever – then the light of that man village represents inevitability, but it also represents something that you can delay for as long as your heart is still here. It felt like it preserved the iconography of it without ruining the magic.
In terms of writing iconic characters, your name has been connected with writing Top Gun 2. Being that Top Gun is one of the quintessential 80s action movies, what are the challenges of working on the script for a potential sequel?
Top Gun is the first movie that I remember seeing in theaters, and I saw it seven times in the theater because of my mother. We had just moved to Houston, Texas and she knew nobody there. I was six years old at that time, so she brought me with her. We both loved it for probably two very different reasons. I realize as I get older why my mother would love watching a movie about fighter pilots.
It’s a very iconic film in my memory, and in a lot of ways it’s one of those movies that I hold up when I say, “This is why I want to make movies.” I can recite it for you line by line, so when the opportunity came when they said they needed a new writer to start to figure out what this movie could be, I really just approached it from that place of, “Well, what would I not want it to be? What would it ruin for me? What would really, really make me angry if I saw it on screen? How would I start to build a story that would feel like an evolution from the first film, but also feels like something that would very much connect us to why we loved Top Gun and Maverick as a character in the first place?”
That’s really where it grew. It also came to the other facet that I really like to embrace – and I got to embrace on Jungle Book as well – which is that I like to get lost in the research for a little while. I like to dive into the world and go to these places.
We spent a lot of time at the zoo for Jungle Book, and I spent a lot of time researching animal behavior and studying this great book that was about wolf pack behavior that found its way into the story. Similarly, with Top Gun just researching the Joint Strike Fighters, the F-35, the different notions of where the Navy is today was a very interesting insight and it started to give me ideas of what Top Gun would represent in a current era.
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