Mowgli: Andy Serkis on why they couldn’t shoot the Netflix movie in India, and that Tintin sequel
To watch Andy Serkis immediately after the world premiere of his film, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, perfectly summed up both his and the film’s journeys. What began as a passion project turned into an obstacle course over the years, plagued by numerous delays and a last-minute dumping by the studio. But on that evening at Mumbai’s Yash Raj Studios, which had been decked up for the gala event, Serkis was visibly emotional as he hugged his family, his cast, and patiently shook hands with the queue of fans waiting to congratulate him.
He couldn’t, however, shoot in India - they filmed in London and Durban, instead. “It was a budgetary issue,” he explained. “We really wanted to shoot here, but we couldn’t.” Serkis ended up hiring dozens of Indian expats for a key village-set sequence in the film. “South Africa has the largest population of Indians outside of India, and from that we drew our cast,” he stated incorrectly. More NRIs reside in the Middle East - in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - and in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Watch our interview with Andy Serkis here
In addition to performing directorial duties on the big-budget film - technically his debut, but thanks to the delayed release, he went and made (and released) another film in the meantime - Serkis also plays Baloo the bear.
His take on Baloo - keeping with the film’s general revisionist tone - is unlike any version of the character we’ve seen before. Serkis insists his Baloo is more in line with what author Rudyard Kipling originally intended with The Jungle Book. “It all came from the book, from quotes in the book about Baloo being a very tough teacher to the wolf cubs,” Serkis said. He plays Baloo like a ‘drill sergeant’ in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, someone who is more likely to give his pupils a smack in the face than sing them Bare Necessities.
It is said that the original script for Disney’s classic 1967 cartoon film, which was remade in live-action by director Jon Favreau in 2016, had some of these dark themes that Serkis says are in Kipling’s book. But Disney injected the film with a whimsical Sherman Brothers soundtrack and transformed our perception of the Jungle Book forever. Serkis wants to bring the characters back to their roots.
“I really wanted him (Baloo) to feel affection towards Mowgli but never show it,” Serkis said, pointing out that Kipling ‘wrote a lot about young, working class British soldiers, so I very much based him (Baloo) on that idea.’
He insists that his film is the truest representation of Kipling’s Jungle Book, and its dark themes. But the author has a rather controversial reputation in modern India - he is seen as a symbol of an imperialistic past that has greatly affected the country’s progress. “I was aware of this,” Serkis said. “Before taking on this project, I was working on an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Orwell and Kipling couldn’t be more diametrically opposed,” he continued.
Both Orwell and Kipling ‘were children of the British empire,’ Serkis said. Orwell was born in what is now Bihar, while Kipling was born in Bombay Presidency. But their politics couldn’t have been more different. Orwell in an essay called Kipling ‘a jingo imperialist’ who was ‘morally and aesthetically disgusting.’
“The complex nature of Kipling’s story - he was raised in India, speaking Hindi, and he was sent to England, which he absolutely hated, and his parents were artists who taught in Lahore - really fed into our version of the story,” Serkis said. He makes a direct statement on Kipling’s colonial values by introducing a ‘white hunter character’ in the film, played by Matthew Rhys, and named after Kipling’s father, John Lockwood. This character symbolises an external threat to the jungle, and is ‘a slight comment’ on these controversial aspects of Kipling’s past.
“We also used the music of the empire,” he said about using compositions by Edward Elgar, whose ‘indigestible’ music was compared by writer Edward Sackville-West and the music critic Desmond Shawe-Taylore in 1955 to the ‘boastful self-confidence, emotional vulgarity, material extravagance, and ruthless philistinism’ of the British Empire.
The film’s score, however, is composed by British-Indian musician, Nitin Sawhney, ‘a close friend’ of Serkis’, who has previously written music for The Namesake and what ended up becoming Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe.
The numerous delays as a result of the extravagant visual effects necessary for the film, and the decision taken by Warner Bros to create enough distance between Mowgli and the 2016 Jungle Book, allowed Serkis to make Breathe in the meantime. But a few weeks after releasing a trailer and announcing an October release date for Mowgli, Warner Bros, after seemingly having second thoughts about the film’s box office potential, sold its distribution rights to Netflix - a decision Serkis has welcomed.
This isn’t the Jungle Book we grew up with. Serkis has assembled an all-star cast that includes the likes of Christian Bale (Bagheera), Benedict Cumberbatch (Shere Khan), Cate Blanchett (Kaa), and Naomie Harris (Nisha) to play characters through motion capture, a technology that he is considered to be a pioneer of.
Serkis, who has been involved in blockbuster film franchises such as Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, also provided an update about the long-in-development sequel to Steven Spielberg’s Tintin film, in which he played Captain Haddock, also through motion capture. “What can I say,” he laughed. “I know that there’s a great appetite to make it, and I know that (director) Peter Jackson is very keen to make it, and I’m sure at some point it’ll come back into being and we’re all waiting to make it.”
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle will be made available on Netflix on December 7, and has been given a limited theatrical release in the UK and the US.