Playback: Jon Favreau on ‘Jungle Book,’ ‘Lion King’ and 20 Years of ‘Swingers’

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

On today’s show, Jenelle Riley and I ponder the implications of the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Do surprise appearances from Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Nocturnal Animals”) and Emily Blunt (“The Girl on the Train”) portend anything, or are they just fluctuations in the ever-fickle awards circuit? Also, what do the Academy re-classifications of the “Moonlight” and “Loving” screenplays (both now competing for adapted) mean for those races?

Later on (21:28), I’m talking to “The Jungle Book” director Jon Favreau, whose Disney blockbuster brought in $966.5 million worldwide. He’s the only guest we’ve had whose film has come and gone from theaters, but it was a big one and we couldn’t let the year go without getting him in to talk about it.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

Favreau has made some massive splashes in huge, business-driving waters over the last decade. Eight years ago he was responsible for the film that would launch the Marvel juggernaut, “Iron Man.” Now he’s working in the realm of Disney’s revamped intellectual properties in a very unique way, and succeeding. When he was a struggling actor trying to make ends meet, was this the dream?

“I always loved reading Starlog Magazine and knowing how they made ‘Blade Runner’ and as a kid loving monster movies and Ray Harryhausen and makeup effects, so I loved that stuff anyway,” Favreau says. “To get to play with all of those toys and work with Stan Winston and see how they do it and work with ILM and film miniatures, all of that stuff was interesting. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that was my vision. Just the fact that I could make a living acting was amazing to me, and the idea that some day I could maybe write and direct.”

An early milestone for Favreau was of course the 1996 comedy “Swingers,” which put both him and Vince Vaughn on the map in a big way and is a film that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The interesting thing about movies like “Swingers” and “Clerks” and “Friday” are that they’re part of a certain subset of 1990s American independent cinema that spoke to its audience in such a way that it galvanized. They gave legitimacy to a whole generation’s voice and left many who were so inclined with the feeling that they could get out there and make a movie, too.

“I think Kevin Smith made us feel that way,” Favreau says. “And that was even more of an outsider story, in Jersey, black and white, very inexpensive, but a voice. And that’s when you kind of realized our generation, our voice, was interesting. And it was before it was making a lot of dough. Like, that voice eventually evolved into, I think, more mainstream comedies. So [‘Swingers’] actually didn’t do very well in the theaters. And that was also a lesson of that moment, is that the movies that are appreciated or find an audience — like ‘Rudy’ didn’t find an audience in the beginning, but everyone’s seen it now. There’s something about the significance of the staying power of a film and how many times you can revisit it. To me, that’s the real thrill.”

Finally, we also talk a little bit about his next big project, which will re-imagine “The Lion King” much like he re-imagined “The Jungle Book” this year, bringing it into a live-action realm.

“It’s a very powerful, simple, well-told, mythic story with emotional components that deal with subject matter that movies that are geared toward kids don’t often deal with,” he says of the 1994 original. “You’re dealing with death, with exile, very deep, strong — family, a sense of revenge and of injustice. I think they really hit it just right. Now we’ll see if we can do something that gives it a live action feel. I think with ‘Lion King’ you have a much tighter story (than ‘The Jungle Book’) and a much more emotional story. And the story feels more modern. And it’s not as distant a memory. So you have to see what the tools have to offer and make sure you’re connecting with the audience.”

Here about all of that and a whole lot more via the streaming link above.

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Jon Favreau photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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