Andy Serkis Didn't Know Disney Was Making A New 'Jungle Book' When He Began 'Mowgli' [Interview]

When Disney's live-action Jungle Book came out, it had already been announced that Andy Serkis was directing another adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling classic. The film, which is now called Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, was going to be a darker take on Kipling, using the performance capture technology Serkis pioneered with Gollum, King Kong and the Planet of the Apes films. After theatrical standees and trailers were in theaters, Netflix decided to buy Mowgli from Warner Brothers.

Rohan Chand plays Mowgli, the boy raised by animals in the jungle. The cast of animal characters includes Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Naomie Harris, Serkis himself, and more. Legend of the Jungle puts more emphasis on Mowgli being torn between the worlds of animal and man, at one point even contemplating leaving the jungle behind.

Serkis spoke with /Film in Los Angeles last week after returning from Mumbai for the premiere of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. Mowgli is now in select theaters and premieres on Netflix on Friday, December 7.

So you started this movie and you knew there was another take on The Jungle Book.

I didn't actually, no. At that point there was no other version when this was originally commissioned.

Oh, well even so, it's not unusual for Hollywood to make similar movies, but they're usually about volcanos or asteroids. There was this whole journey of waiting and it was going to be Warner Brothers theatrically, and now it seems like Netflix is the right home for it. What has this journey been for you waiting to unveil Mowgli and finding the right home?

It doesn't really feel like I've been waiting because we've been developing it for such a long time because the process of using the performance capture technology and making those shots come to life, the facial capture of the animals took a long time. So we really did only finish the film in July of this year. Basically, when I came on board there was no other version. Then we found ourselves in this race when the Disney one came along. Then we decided we're not going to try to beat them to the punch because we want to take time and do the facial capture part of it. Then there were other projects that I was working on simultaneously so it worked. It wasn't ever a sense of waiting for me. But, then the transition from Warners to Netflix, which happened relatively late because we were going to release it in October with Warners. Literally on the last day of completion, we'd already started promoting it with Warner Brothers. We went to Cinemacon in Las Vegas and Barcelona for CineEurope. Then I got a call saying, "Netflix want to acquire it. They love the movie." And actually, it has been the best thing for it because they have always had a more global approach. This film was always more of an international film I think. It wasn't a typical four quadrant popcorn movie. It was slightly darker in tone, had a European film sensibility. It was a slightly elevated genre piece. So it was more Life of Pi than strictly speaking animated fantasy picture. And now, being able to reach, for instance having the world premiere in Mumbai where the story originates from, and it will be seen in 190 countries and it can have a theatrical life. It has worked out really well.

Was Mowgli ever going to be in 3D?

It is in 3D too. You can see it in the Arclight in 3D for the next two weeks actually, and I'm really proud of the 3D. It works brilliantly. I'm not a big fan of 3D myself but I do really love it in this movie because we use it very conservatively until we wanted to use it dramatically in particular ways.

You have a different concept of Baloo than I've ever seen in a Jungle Book adaptation before. What was your idea to make him not this playful slacker we've traditionally known?

Yeah, it comes from the book. It comes from the notion of tough love. Kipling wrote a lot of calls. They're called Ballads of the Barrack Room, about working class soldiers in the colonial British empire. So I was drawing from that for inspiration and also in the book, that Baloo enables him to survive. He's a teacher. He's a tough teacher. He hits him about. He's called Iron Paws in the book so he does knock them about when they're not paying attention. It's all for their own good. The affection that he has for Mowgli is definitely there. It's just not overt. He keeps it close to his chest. His emotions are kept very close to his chest. He's much more granite faced and drill sergeant-like.

Do the actors perform the growling and roaring too as part of the performance capture?

Yes, they do. Everything. Even though it's mixed in with other animal sounds, all the breaths, that's the crucial thing about it. This is why it's so different to doing an animated movie where you go and stand in a booth and do the voice. I love animated movies, don't get me wrong. I've done that where you stand in a booth, but this is much, much more akin to live-action shooting, using performance capture technology where the actors are all on set. All of their body movements inform the breath. So you get these incidental breaths and snorts, wolf growls and things that the actors are actually doing. They're not just sounds placed on top. They're actually making those facial expressions which is why we wanted to get the facial capture absolutely right. The design of the animals, the animal's faces to match the actors so that you could see all of those expressions making all those sounds.

When you show man as a hunter, did you have to show that ultimately Mowgli can't separate his man side and his animal side? It's always man vs. animal.

Yeah, especially at that point in the story. he's almost, he's just at that stage where he's about to [leave the jungle]. He said, "This is my home now." I think he really believes that Lockwood owned the village. He's just about to assimilate where then he realizes that he would be betraying his own kind. That is the big turn in the movie where he realizes he can't possibly be solely of the world of man, nor solely of the world of animals. He is somewhere in between.

Was Mowgli's sort of identity crisis what interested you about The Jungle Book?

Very much so, yeah. It's the central thing. I suppose when I look at my life and Rudyard Kipling's life and some of the characters I've played, I had a father that was Middle Eastern. He was from Baghdad. He was originally Armenian but settled in Baghdad. My mother and older sisters all grew up there and came back to England when I was born, so I used to go backwards and forwards to Baghdad. I sort of similarly felt this sense of not being of one or either world really. I never felt fully British. Rudyard Kipling had the same experience so that's where I think the impetus comes from wanting to write this book. He grew up in India. Hindi was his first language. And then at a fairly young age, he was sent back to England to grow up and felt very isolated and in fact was brutalized in the boarding house that he grew up in. So he longed fro India. That sense of being of neither world was very present in the book. But also, when I think about some of the other characters I've played along the way, a lot of them do focus on the idea of being an outsider. Gollum, Caesar, there's something about that notion of the whole thing about performance capture and becoming something else is why, in a way, the confluence of all of that in this piece I think is interesting.


Caesar's journey is over but do you imagine you could create another character in the Apes world?

That's the great thing about performance capture. If it does go on, I do love that world. I think it's an extraordinary storytelling world to be part of, a great metaphor and says such a lot about the human condition as I think this story does too. So yes, I'd jump at the chance to do it.

Has Amazon reached out to you about the Lord of the Rings series they're doing?

No, they haven't. It's fascinating, that. I think their take is, I don't want to misquote, but I've heard they're taking the world of Lord of the Rings as such and the universe of the characters and telling other stories, not just the actual main story of Lord of the Rings.

Yes, it's new stories, but unclear whether they're prequels or going on simultaneously to the books and movies.

Yeah, so I don't know too much about it.

How would you feel to see a different new take on Smeagol if that's the way they go?

Oh, look, I mean, that's the way life is. You do a version and then you hand it over to the next generation and that's how it goes. I've done that, with Planet of the Apes, Roddy McDowell, and the 1933 King Kong and then Peter Jackson making his, one in between with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. That's the nature of these great mythical stories that can go on being retold and reinvented. That's what storytelling is.

Are you developing an Animal Farm film with performance capture?

Yes, so we're making that with Netflix too. We've got an incredible cast lined up for that and it couldn't be more timely.

Is that why you chose Animal Farm or would you be interested in adapting that anyway?

No, I'd been developing it with Jonathan Cavendish, my business partner at The Imaginarium. We'd had the rights to Animal Farm for some years, in fact before we started on this. That was going to be ahead of Mowgli and then it worked out better that we did this.