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Improv helped Jon Favreau mix ‘crazy stew’ of ‘The Jungle Book’

Director Jon Favreau (left) greets Neel Sethi, who plays the lead character Mowgli at the world premiere of the new version of "The Jungle Book." | Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

In the process of casting the young actor who would play the only live-action character in his remake of the 1967 animated Disney movie “The Jungle Book,” director Jon Favreau knew he had to find “just the right kid. … It wasn’t easy, but I know when we found Neel [Sethi], I knew we made the right choice.”

The filmmaker, a noted actor in his own right, literally auditioned or watched recordings of some 2,000 boys vying to play the role of Mowgli in this new film, based on the Rudyard Kipling classic. With Sethi sitting right next to him during a visit to Chicago, he was a bit self-conscious about describing what set the 12-year-old newcomer apart from the rest.

“It’s hard to express exactly,” said Favreau. “But at the end of it, it’s about how much you enjoy watching the person. When it comes to acting, there’s a certain amount of skill that can be taught, and there’s something that simply just is something somebody has. I can teach the so-called ‘taught’ part to a young actor, but the actual charisma and intelligence — those qualities you can’t teach.”

Once Favreau and his “Jungle Book” team had narrowed down their choices for the part of Mowgli, Favreau noted how “Neel would just make interesting choices in conversation. That led me to know I had something with him that I could capture on film. Through the process of making the movie, it really was a one-on-one filmmaking workshop.”

“The Jungle Book” is the young New York native’s first feature. “Once I heard about the audition and got a chance to read the script — and then watched the old movie, the classic version from the 1960s — I really liked it. Now that I’ve gone through this process, I know it’s something I really want to do again and again.

“I guess you can say I’m hooked on acting,” the Indian-American kid said with a big smile.

For Favreau, the task of tackling the remake of a movie so many people cherish “was daunting, to say the least. But you can’t say I’m afraid to take on challenges, can you?” laughed the entertainer and filmmaker. “I trace a lot of that desire to mix things up back to my old improv training I got right here in Chicago — thanks to Del Close and Charna Halpern and all the work we did back then.

“My point is this. When I was first brought on to direct this project, there was a lot of talk about the old original Rudyard Kipling stories that were 100 years old or more. That led us to discussing a screenplay that would be a lot more intense and compelling than the ’67 film I grew up with. For me, that was all about music and emotion and humor.

“The improv thing teaches you how to mix all different images up into one perfect, crazy stew of ideas. I felt we had to pay homage to the Disney version, because without those elements in that film, this all would have seemed like a missed opportunity.

“While this is not the G-rated version of the old ’67 cartoon, I think we’ve come up with a nice, cohesive approach. Those who grew up with the ’60s version will see the elements there, and I hope will leave the theater with the same feeling inside they felt originally.”

“The Jungle Book” has a strong personal connection to Favreau as well. Reading Kipling’s book as a child had a big impact on him, because the relationship between Mowgli — the boy raised in the jungle by wolves — and Baloo the bear reminded him of his own relationship with his grandfather. “We were very close, and he was a huge part of my life growing up,” said Favreau.

The director had the added advantage of being able to take his young Mowgli with him when they had to record with Ben Kingsley (who voices the sly panther Bagheera) or Bill Murray (Baloo). Usually, actors voice their parts in isolated sound booths — with all the dialogue being merged together during the editing process.

“Since this was an action film, I wanted the actors to be more conversational. Fortunately, Neel could come with me when we had to record Sir Ben or Bill and the rest. We got a lot of improv from that process. We would do lots of takes and then in the editing room made it seamless.”

For young Neel, that special opportunity to travel around with Favreau and the “Jungle Book” team had certain, unique perks.

“One of the things I’ll remember the most was the time we flew out to Martha’s Vineyard, and along with doing all the recording I got to play touch football with Bill Murray, while Jon [Favreau] cooked smoked brisket for us on the grill. That was pretty cool!”

Yes, touch football with Bill Murray, a cookout orchestrated by noted gourmet Jon Favreau — who did star in “Chef,” after all — and starring in your first feature film. That does sound very cool, indeed!