Hollywood operates on a circle of life. What once was popular has a very good chance of coming back around again, to be told and retold for a new generation. DUMBO and ALADDIN got their opportunities earlier this year. Next up for the Mouse House is an update of THE LION KING, with IRON MAN director Jon Favreau at the helm.
Favreau made sure that his summer blockbuster is packed to the rafters with incredible A-list talents. James Earl Jones returns to voice Mufasa, while Donald Glover and Beyoncé lend their voices to Simba and Nala. They’ll be joined by the likes of Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, Billy Eichner, Amy Sedaris, John Kani and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
The movie opens in theatres on July 19, and tickets for the sure-to-be crowd pleaser are on sale as we speak! Make sure to grab yours right this instant. Celebrating the day tickets go on sale, Jon Favreau spoke with AMC exclusively to discuss the music, humor and classic story of THE LION KING.
During an interview with EW, you said it feels like you're restoring a classic historical architectural landmark. Can you just share what was the determining factor when it came to altering certain elements of the story during the filming, and then leaving some as is?
Well, I think the trick is you want to make it feel like it's still the original piece. You want to honor what people's memories are of this production, whether they saw it on screen or on stage. And that has to do with characters, story elements and music. But if you're true to the major foundational elements of it, there's actually quite a bit of latitude that you have in areas such as casting and dialogue and even scene structure, in some cases — and certainly humor.
And can you share how you decided what absolutely had to stay in, what you could change?
What I tend to do when I am dealing with established properties that I care about a lot, like this — and I only choose to work on ones that I really care about, so I already have a sense of reverence for the material coming in. And so, as you go into it, the process that seems to work best is, before you revisit the original productions, you make a list of all the things you remember, because your memory tends to organize and editorialize what's prioritized in your mind. And so, whether it's THE JUNGLE BOOK or even working on the first IRON MAN film, you kind of list all the things that you remember about those properties. And in the case of THE LION KING, it's a very long list.
You remember all the songs. You remember certain moments; you remember the fire; you remember the cliff; you remember the stampede. And so, those things that you remember most vividly are things that you probably don't want to mess with too much, or at least make sure that you can emulate them in a way that the audience feels connected to it. And then you go back and then you watch the film — you watch the play — and you then see how many things you didn't remember. And chances are that the things that didn't jump to mind originally are areas that most people won't remember as well … and it's usually the things that don't stand up as well that you don't have in your memory. And so, you could go in there and try to improve upon things and update things from the old production that are not the foundational elements.
Talking about the technology, you've worked on IRON MAN and then THE JUNGLE BOOK. Can you share how the technologies evolved and how did you challenge yourself to even push the technology further with THE LION KING?
In the case of THE LION KING, we were building on, you know, I was working on THE JUNGLE BOOK with motion capture. But we didn't need any motion capture [in THE LION KING] because everything in the film is completely animated. So, what we had to try to do is figure out what technology could make an animated film look live action. And there was a lot of consumer-facing VR hardware that came out toward the end of THE JUNGLE BOOK. And we started experimenting with this new stuff, and we came up with a system where we created basically a multiplayer filmmaking VR video game that we could go into the animated film and operate like a real crew.
Then, we took the tech that we had learned about and actually went into the digital worlds that we were creating in animation and were able to set cameras in there using a real crew that was hooked up to devices that would move virtual cameras around within virtual space. And that was a technique very specific to this production, because we didn't want to make it look like just another animated film. … The performances are all animated, but the cameras are driven by devices that move the cameras around virtually.
I've read that Hans Zimmer, Elton John and Tim Rice are all returning. Can you share how they have influenced the evolution of the music from the original animated film and the Broadway musical, then now your vision of THE LION KING?
Well, I would add (South African composer) Lebo M. into there, too, because he was sort of another pillar of the original film and certainly the stage production. He's the first voice you hear in “Circle of Life,” and he was very involved with the stage musical and with the movie. And so, having all of them — before we ever even talked about music, I had to present to them what my vision was for this because they're extremely, this is such an important piece of their lives and their careers. And I found that everybody that I had talked to, whether they were involved with the stage show or the old movie, were very concerned with how this film was being treated. And so much of my time in the beginning was sharing with them what I was thinking and getting insights back from all of them as to what they felt was important or not important, and what they thought I should make sure that I preserved and kept in mind moving forward. So, that was extremely helpful because I knew that this was a very ambitious undertaking.
But as far as the music goes, what was wonderful with Hans was, you know, he felt that in the original, that he, it was not a classic film when they were making it. It was something that was done under a constrained time frame and budget. And so, it was an opportunity for Hans to go back and to really give it, to revisit all of the themes and music that he had composed originally and to do it with more time and care — more orchestral and interesting pieces. He had so many things he wanted to do to try to improve upon what he felt work was compromised the first time around.
I've also read that you filmed or you recorded several of the actors singing face to face in the studio. Can you talk about that experience?
We tried to get the naturalism that comes with recording in a more natural setting than a sound booth. And so, we created a soundproof black box theatre that allowed us to record the actors while they were walking around and holding the script, and allowed them to overlap and improvise and speak in more conversational tones than one normally would do for an animated film, where you need to try to push the performances to work with the animated material. In this case, we wanted it to feel live action, because even though we're using animation techniques, we didn't want it to feel animated. We wanted it to feel like we filmed real animals. And so, this contributed to the naturalism of the performances.
And then, having the actors singing together whenever possible was great. Often, that was done at Hans’ studio, Remote Control in Santa Monica. And so, for example, with Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen and Donald Glover, we would have them together, and then we would have JD McCrary who plays young Simba there as well, and we would pop them in and then you'd have Hans Zimmer there coaching them along. You had the fun of recording in the studio, like recording a band, but you also had the looseness of everybody being able to bounce off each other and improvise. And sometimes we didn't even have the musical track. We had live piano accompaniment to be able to work against the actors if they wanted to mess around, like in “Hakuna Matata.” And then, Hans went ahead and then he would compose the music around the voice performances. So, it was a very organic, fun, loose process.
You're a huge STAR WARS fanatic. Can you describe your emotions of working with James Earl Jones and especially in this iconic part?
Well, he's wonderful. It's a bit intimidating [laughs] because just when you hear his voice. … He was in New York and I was in Los Angeles, and you hear his voice over the headphones and it's hard to try to be the “director.” Because when he's on the phone and he says, “Do you have any direction for me as Mufasa?” I didn't really know what to say! I was like, “Anything that I have in my mind of what Mufasa is, is based on you.” So, you know, you want to be supportive and helpful, but all I could do is keep from tearing up when I heard him recite the lines. And much of his dialogue is very similar, if not identical, to the original production. That character and that character's dialogue held up extremely well. Then, that was one of the aspects I didn't want to change much because I felt that pretty much everything he utters is memorable.
Do you have a role that you've taken for yourself in the film?
No. No, not this time around. I had my hands full. I had my hands full with juggling. … There were so many aspects to juggle in this one, between the music and doing technical R&D for different things that aren't that interesting to talk about, but really inform the photorealism of the piece. And then, you know, being a director where every performance is animated, I'd never directed an animated movie. So for me to direct animators, that's a full-time job over the course of many years. Because although we used a lot of innovative camera techniques in recording it, at its core, we still basically have to make a completely animated film. And then on top of that, we went into virtual space to do the photography or set the cameras. And so, there was a lot of steps, and we were building this machine that has never, these techniques I've never used before. So, I felt like I was a director, and I was part of a tech startup at the same time. So, there was a lot to do. But thankfully, I got performers who were all so talented, not just with their voices and with their improvisational abilities, but you know, in the tradition of the stage of Broadway, they're all great singers. And so, because that's such an important part of this as well, I was very lucky to have the cast that I did, and I was fortunately able to relegate myself to them.
Make sure you grab your tickets to THE LION KING at your favorite AMC, and be one of the first to see how Favreau has brought this OscarÒ winner to life on the big screen in the year 2019.