Interview: Chris Glass of “The Jungle Book”

Posted on August 29, 2016 at 3:45 pm

Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney
One of the most visually striking and just plain beautiful films of the year is Disney’s gorgeous live-action remake of “The Jungle Book.” The man responsible for the look of the film is production designer Christopher Glass, and it was a thrill to get a chance to talk to him about it.

“It’s kind of funny,” Glass told me, “because Jon Favreau, Bill Pope, Rob Legato, me, everyone working on the movie, all of us come from the same philosophy where more practical is better. You know we talked about CG movies, movies that were mostly done on the computer and the shortcomings or the strengths, what works and what doesn’t work, and then it’s kind of ironic because we’re making a movie that’s 98 percent computer generated. But I think that is actually good that we all had this healthy skepticism of the technology. Rob Legato is a master of the technology and so is Andy Jones the animator and Adam Valdez and Dan Lemmon. So really what we needed on this movie was kind of that spirit of doing things practically but yet we knew that a lot of it wasn’t going to be practical. But having said that there was a lot of practical stuff but it was all snippets and slices of sets and a prop sometimes like a cow bell would be real, like the stuff around Mowgli inside King Louie’s Temple next to him is real. We had some real fruit on the ground. We threw real fruit out of a fruit launcher when he throws the fruit down on the ground. But there’s some CG. You don’t know where the line begins or ends and that was kind of our intention. Jon wanted to blur the line between reality and what we create in the computer. We wanted to be fooled ourselves.”

In a non CG film you can see the footage immediately after it has been filmed. But because of all the effects, the crew would not see what the scenes looked like for months. “It wasn’t like the next day you would see the finished shot; it was an iterated thing. So our challenge was to see if we could fool one another and there were times when we were fooled, and sometimes it would be the reverse, sometime Jon would be like, ‘Oh that is so fake’, but it would be real. I would say, ‘No that’s actually my set.’ He would be like, ‘Oh, that’s the fakest part’ and I’d be ‘Oh no.’ It felt sometimes like it was backwards. There were literally times I was designing sets after we had already shot the scene physically and edited it then I would design the set; it was very odd.”

Ultimately the real and virtual worlds were so integrated that it was hard to tell where the line was. “Basically anything Mowgli is touching is mostly real. If his feet are touching it or his hands are touching it, but not always. The animals aren’t real, some trees are definitely not but a lot of the plants and the things he’s walking through are, and even the grass he is walking through when he is talking to Bagheera. We built a little strip of grass like 4 feet wide for him to walk through. Technically it served the purpose of giving him interaction. If you have to animate everything that the kid is touching and everything it would have made his task even more daunting than it already was. And if you do end up replacing stuff it’s a great lighting reference and physical interaction reference for the animator so that they can copy that when they are doing the rest of it so that it behaves in the same way or looks the same.”

Glass was very impressed with Neel Sethi, the young actor who played Mowgli, and how natural he was even when he had to imagine how it would all look. “A lot of the stuff he did do completely with nothing but blue and he did a great job. I think even well-seasoned actors have more trouble. A kid is pretending and he’s cool with it. He was talking to the puppets and it worked.”

Glass had been to India and other jungles before. “And we did have a team that went out and took at least 80,000 photographs of India. We had research that were on for many, many months; we just researched everything that we could. We used the Internet, we used books, we called consulates, we talked to directors who were shooting. There was the “Monkey Kingdom” movie that was shot in Sri Lanka and India. We talked to them about monkeys, how they behave and what kind of places they lived and they showed us their footage. We discovered the pangolin, the weird-looking scaly animal that’s highly endangered and I said, ‘Oh let’s put that in the movie.’ We took some liberties but we really tried to keep everything as something that could be realistically found in India. Now obviously we have exaggerated sizes, and we created a world that was more like the composite of India because the kid really couldn’t walk from a really jungle area to a really desert-y area overnight like that. In reality that would take months and weeks. And we looked at the Disney ’67 movie and we had to incorporate the feeling much of that film, too. It’s more colorful, with more flowers, more whimsy and I had to bring that into the real rendering of the plants and things. We tried to find the balance of where it starts to looked too weird, where it looked good. So it was all just a lot of experimentation and a lot of research.”

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Tribute: Gene Wilder

Posted on August 29, 2016 at 3:40 pm

We mourn the loss of actor Gene Wilder, who died today at age 83. Best remembered as the mild-mannered accountant enticed into fraud by Zero Mostel in “The Producers” and as candymaker Willy Wonka, and as the gunman in “Blazing Saddles,” Wilder also starred with Richard Pryor in “Stir Crazy” and starred as the title character and co-wrote one of the funniest movies of all time, “Young Frankenstein.”

Director Mel Brooks tweeted: “Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”

May his memory be a blessing.

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Trailer: A United Kingdom

Posted on August 27, 2016 at 11:16 pm

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo star in the true story of an African king who married a British woman in 1948, causing controversy in both of their countries. It is the inspiring true story of Seretse Khama, the king of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and his wife Ruth Williams.

Here is the real Seretse Khama.

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Interview: Peter Winkler on James Dean

Posted on August 26, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Copyright Chicago Review Press 2016
Copyright Chicago Review Press 2016

Peter Winkler’s new book, The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best, collects the memories of friends, family, and collegagues who remember the star who played just three lead roles in films but remains one of the most beloved and influential movie stars of all time. Elizabeth Taylor tells a story she would not allow to be published until after her death. Winkler found (and, when necessary, annotated) essays by Dean’s high school drama teacher, his male and female lovers, and his close friends, and one autobiographical high school paper written by Dean himself. In an interview, Winkler described his research in old movie magazines and archives and picked one Dean performance that is his favorite.

The most touching and, in a way, revealing essay in the book is the one James Dean himself wrote for a high school assignment. Where did you find it and what do you think we should learn from it?

Fortunately, Dean’s autobiographical sketch was saved and later published in a couple of the books written about him. It’s also available online. One thing we learn from it is that the trauma the nine-year-old Dean suffered when his mother died continued to haunt him as an adult. The other takeaway from his autobiography is his prophetic prediction, “I think my life will be devoted to art and dramatics.”

Which is your favorite Dean performance and why? Which do you think he was proudest of?

My favorite Dean performance is in Rebel Without a Cause. “Rebel Without a Cause” still feels contemporary today, whereas East of Eden and Giant feel like period pieces. The story and the characters’ situations remain relatable, and director Nicholas Ray’s film sense surpasses Elia Kazan and George Stevens’s. Dean is at his best in “Rebel;” it contains his most fully developed performance. He is immensely attractive. When he changes into his jeans, T-shirt, and red windbreaker, it’s as if a butterfly has emerged from his chrysalis: he suddenly becomes the iconic James Dean whose image has launched a million pieces of merchandise.

Dean never ranked his performances when he was alive: he had acted in only three major motion pictures at the time of his death but he was looking forward to making many more. If he ever thought about it, I think he would might been proudest of his performance in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Which director do you think understood him best?

Nicholas Ray was on Dean’s wavelength and granted him the greatest amount of creative freedom he would enjoy in his brief film career.

What resources did you use in collecting these essays and photos, and in your editorial clarifications and amplifications?

Most of the photos were provided by Photofest, a commercial photo archive that is available online. The rest of the photos came from my personal collection.

I obtained copies of decades old issues of Modern Screen, Photoplay, and other periodicals from eBay. Additional material was gathered from Ron Martinetti’s excellent website American Legends and from the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California. The autobiographies of Dean’s colleagues were loaned from branches of the public library. I then photocopied the sections containing their recollections of Dean.

The information contained in my footnotes and editorial comments are the result of having read just about everything about Dean’s life and career that is available in English, as well as my knowledge of his colleague’s lives and of Hollywood history.

Was there one that was particularly difficult to find or surprising?

Dean’s girlfriend Pier Angeli gave an exclusive interview to the National Enquirer in 1968. I had a hard time tracking down a copy of the issue of the Enquirer containing her interview. The Enquirer is intended to be a disposable newspaper; very few people collect them, and libraries don’t subscribe to it. I was finally able to purchase a copy from a seller on eBay.

I think that the excerpts from Ron Martinetti’s biography of Dean will surprise more than a few readers. They reveal just how important Dean’s live-in relationship with a gay advertising executive was to the advancement of his career.

How do you think Dean’s difficulty with reading affected his preparation for roles?

Dean drove his fellow actors crazy at rehearsals. He would put his head down and mumble incoherently because he couldn’t read the script easily. He needed a great deal of time to learn his lines.

Do you think he was an “existential pencil?”

James Dean told his friend John Gilmore that he was an “existential pencil” because he felt nothing when his girlfriend Pier Angeli jilted him and married singer Vic Damone. I don’t think Dean was being honest when he said that to Gilmore. Maila Nurmi (a.k.a. Vampira of Plan 9 from Outer Space fame) said that Dean was heartbroken by Angeli’s decision. I can’t decode what Dean meant when he called himself an existential pencil. Perhaps he wanted to sound profound. Existentialism was in vogue in the ‘50s and Dean wanted to be thought of as an intellectual.

What do you think fueled his fascination with matadors?

Dean’s hometown minister, Rev. James DeWeerd, showed the teenage boy home movies he had taken of bullfights. Like many young men of his time, Dean read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway’s equation of masculinity with the physical courage of the matador was more fashionable then than it is today. The idea of testing yourself in the ring against the possibility of instant death appealed to Dean. It was part of the brinksmanship he engaged in in every area of his life.

How reliable would you say the fan magazine pieces are?

Except for Elia Kazan, William Bast, and John Gilmore, none of the other people who recalled their experiences with Dean in magazine articles or in their autobiographies were writers. They undoubtedly worked with ghostwriters to translate their memories of Dean into coherent narratives. Without access to the ghostwriters’ original notes or tape recordings of their interviews with the credited authors of the pieces, it’s impossible to know how credible their stories of Dean really are.

Who, in your opinion, was Dean most himself with? (My guess, from the book, is Vampira.)

Dean was very guarded and found it hard to open up with others. He was always afraid they might use it against him. Elizabeth Taylor gave him emotional support and became his confidant when they filmed Giant.

I think he enjoyed similar relationships with Eartha Kitt and Maila Nurmi. He felt comfortable enough with them to drop his armor and reveal himself to them. They were kindred spirits.

What do you want people to learn from this book?

For all his personal failings and foibles, James Dean’s central animating energy compelled him to dedicate himself to becoming the best performing artist he could become, and by so doing, stake a claim to immortality—and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

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