An Oscar nominee for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, composer John Debney found in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book the fruition of a very personal family legacy. The son of Disney Studios producer Louis Debney, John is among the few who can claim vivid personal memories of Walt Disney himself—not to mention the Sherman Brothers, the legendary songwriting duo behind the original animated Jungle Book and many Disney classics. Speaking with Deadline, Debney recalls his extraordinary childhood experiences among Disney legends, explaining the ways in which the Disney of old is stitched into Favreau’s adaptation.
You have an interesting personal and professional history with Disney. What attracted you to The Jungle Book?
This would be the fourth film I’ve done with Jon Favreau. The fact that Jon was doing Jungle Book, once I got wind of it, it was just something I felt I had to be involved with somehow. We did our normal lobbying, as agents and artists do. I’ve worked for Disney a lot, thankfully, and I think they liked what I did for them. It was a process of Jon making his wishes known to the studio, and lo and behold, I got the call. I was a huge fan of the first Jungle Book, as we all were and are. I actually knew the original Mowgli, speaking of my history—I knew the original guy that played him, Bruce Reitherman, so there’s sort of a family tie-in.
My dad worked for Disney for over 40 years, so I sort of grew up on this lot, and with the Disney kids, and what have you—extended family. Once I got wind of this new Jungle Book, I really was hopeful and trying my best to convince everyone over here that I was the right choice. Thankfully, Jon was my biggest cheerleader, and Mitchell Leib, the head of music over here, so I was very fortunate that everything lined up and I got to take the trip with Jon again.
You’re among the few who can say they had a personal experience of Walt Disney—not to mention the Sherman Brothers, who wrote music for the original Jungle Book.
Growing up in Burbank with my dad, a long-time employee of Disney, it was sort of the nature of things that we would come over to the studio on a weekend, my dad and I, and he would show me around the studio. I must have been about five or six. There’d be really no one at the studio on a Saturday usually, and we would invariably, often, bump into this man that I later found out was Walt Disney. I remember Walt was a very warm and gregarious, kind guy and he would tousle my hair. I was sort of part of that family.
My dad actually knew the Sherman Brothers very, very well, and my dad asked Dick Sherman one day if they would mind terribly if his son could maybe sit in with them in their office while they were writing some music, because I had a love and an aptitude for music. That’s when I first met the Sherman Brothers. I spent a day with the Sherman Brothers while they were writing music, and they took me to lunch, and I was probably eight years old. It left an indelible impression on me, certainly.
I would visit sets—like I would visit the Mary Poppins set when I was around that age—and lo and behold, fade out, fade in, 40-some-odd years later, I’d be involved doing this Jungle Book with Dick Sherman. If you would have told me that at the time I wouldn’t have believed you, but that’s what happened. Dick Sherman is a lifelong friend of mine, and he was of my dad’s also. It’s sort of full circle for me.
You created a scrapbook to land the gig. Is that typical of your pitch process for any project?
My agent, Richard Kraft, who’s brilliant— a wonderful strategist and partner—he thought it would be a cool idea to create a book that highlighted my history with the company, and with that, introduce a lot of people to the studio, the next generation of people that maybe didn’t know that history. The book was intended to give a little snapshot of my history with the company.
To be honest with you, it’s not a normal thing that we would necessarily go to those lengths, to create a whole book, but I just felt it was kind of a special thing to do, for myself and as a tribute to my dad, who worked here for many years. I was doing it as a wonderful memento of my own history with the company, and to hopefully get noticed a little bit by some of the folks at the studio that maybe didn’t realize that I had that history. It wasn’t necessarily something we would do all the time, but I thought it was a terrific idea and that’s why we did it.
With this film, where did the process begin? Where did you look for inspiration?
I do like to listen to a lot of music when I start getting my feet wet, or when I’m starting a project. I listened to a lot of movie scores, other versions of The Jungle Book that have happened years ago. There have been many iterations of it. I was curious and wanted to sort of educate myself a little bit, so I listened to a number of those scores.
Ultimately, my work began listening and then going to my keyboard as I always do, and then trying to write some initial themes. I wrote some initial themes, which turned into maybe eight to ten little themes that I then played for Jon Favreau, after a couple of weeks of ruminating about it. Jon would come over early and he’d guide me as to what sort of sounds he liked, and what themes he was leaning towards. Luckily we have a shorthand, because we’ve worked together so much. It was very quick that we happened upon two or three themes, new themes, for this movie that I knew I had to come up with right away, one being Mowgli’s Theme, which was very, very important. Once I got that and Jon was happy with what became the Mowgli Theme, then it was a matter of creating ancillary things for the other characters. It was just a nice, sort of longish process of trial and error with Jon.
Then also, we knew going in that we’d have to embrace a couple of the iconic songs from the original. “Bare Necessities” and “Wan’na Be Like You” were always on the table as things that Jon Favreau wanted to explore, and I think rightly so. He’s fond of saying, “If you didn’t include those songs, there probably would have been a riot in the theater.” Then it became my job, honestly, to interpolate those and make them feel organic to the film. In terms of those themes and those songs, that was the job that I was given, to try and incorporate them and make them feel a part of this whole fabric of the film score.
Were there cultural inspirations as well?
Definitely. Jon Favreau and I spoke many times, especially early on in the process, that we had to be culturally correct. We had to give the nod to the culture, of course, and be true to it. We talked very often about the type of score. He didn’t necessarily want a Life of Pi score, he wanted it to skew more classic Disney with the proper cultural influences, so that’s what I basically did. I created a large, orchestral score with influences from India, be they different type of flutes, different type of percussion instruments, all kinds of instruments that are true and correct for the culture.
That’s what I tried to do, is to give it a flavor that was real and organic. Yet, as Jon I think rightly said, he didn’t want it to necessarily be a score that was sort of a cheap facsimile of the real thing. We were very conscious of that. We wanted to, every step of the way, make sure that we were both giving the proper homage to Walt and the legacy of the studio, but also the cultural aspects of it.
When beginning your work on a film, do you think about certain questions or ideas than encapsulate your musical intent?
That’s a very good question. A lot of what I do happens pretty organically. It’s kind of trial and error and then sitting with a director and we try things. You kind of find your way. It’s not as intellectual as it is, for me at least, more from my heart and what I’m feeling. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some disagreements along the way. There always are. It’s a collaboration.
Jon is such a great storyteller that he would sort of guide me through the whole film, especially in the early stages of a film that was so dependent on technology, and this new process of creating this world in the computer. It’s an organic process, although there were a lot of discussions about tone and the cultural aspects of it.
What went into composing and conducting the film’s rhythmic, fast-paced action sequences?
That was one of the more exciting parts of the whole process. I brought in four great percussionists, just world-renowned session players here in LA, and they’re great artists in their own right. I brought them in and we literally filled up Sony Studios. It was a very big stage, and we filled it up with every kind of percussion instrument you can imagine, from bell-like things and huge taiko drums, and of course some tablas of all sizes. We really just had a huge battery of percussion in the score.
Then, I would augment it with some sounds I created. It was really a pretty exciting part of the process for me, sitting on the stage and letting these different artists go crazy a little bit. It was a fabulous, fun journey.
Just giving everything a little extra spice and color, I thought was a really wonderful thing, and I know Jon Favreau got a big kick out of that. There’s an old Disney term called “Fantasound,” and many years ago—I think it was during Fantasia—they had experimented with stereophonic sound in the theater, which had never been done before. Jon wanted to come up with the contemporary version of that, sort of an extended or heightened Atmos mix, and that’s sort of what we did. We flew many sounds around the theater, more than I’ve done before, and just had a lot of fun with it—made the environment come alive, both with music and sound, to create these jungle environments.
Could you elaborate on the range of instruments used in the studio? The incorporation of flute particularly stood out.
That was my friend Pedro Eustache—he’s just a wonderful world instrumentalist. We actually created flutes for the film in different keys, and bamboo flutes, didgeridoos, ceramic flutes. All kinds of different flutes of different sizes. I personally feel that Pedro imbued the score with a lot of its emotional and cultural color, in the best way possible. There’s times when he’s playing along with the orchestra, and there’s sort of a texture that feels exotic, maybe. He really gave it such life.