Jon Favreau and Scarlett Johansson on the Lion King Remake and the Benefits of Improv

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Scarlett Johansson and Jon Favreau. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Last September, Jon Favreau signed on to direct a “reimagining” of The Lion King. For Favreau, who already has Iron Man and most recently The Jungle Book under his belt, adaptations are becoming something of his bread and butter, and on Friday, the director shared his approach with Scarlett Johansson as part of the Tribeca Film Festival directors series.

On each of his remakes, Favreau said, his first task was to make a big list of everything he remembered from the original version. “I think memory is compression software,” he said. “You can’t remember everything. Most people can’t. So you prioritize what you’re going to remember.” On The Jungle Book, he remembered the snake’s eyes and Baloo going down the river with Mogli riding on him like a raft. Both scenes made it into the new release. Whatever doesn’t make the list, he said, “you have more latitude to shift and change those things.” For an example of how he’d like to pull it off, he pointed to Prince.

“I think about when Prince played halftime at the Super Bowl.” Favreau said. “There was more entertainment packed into that however many minutes it was, because he hit every song that you wanted to hear and he did it the way you remember it or better. He knew how to put on a show like that. And then he’s singing ‘Purple Rain’ and it starts to rain! If you can do that …”

Favreau’s methods rely heavily on improv, a fact that Johansson said gave her “sweaty palms” before shooting Iron Man 2. “I don’t know why I am afraid of it,” she said. “I think it’s because I don’t like not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s a control thing.” But Favreau spoke about the merits of ad-libbing, saying he’s found it very effective both for writing and for acting. “Learning about improvisation in Chicago, I learned about storytelling,” he said. “It wasn’t very precious. You find yourself just going onstage with nothing. It was a very open creative process. As a result, when I started writing, I didn’t bring with it any of that pressure.”

“It is very helpful for acting for the screen,” he continued. “A lot of people who get really big in theater, they tend to perform at a certain level – unless they’re very skilled – where sometimes it’s overwhelming for the camera. Whereas improvisers tend to play in this area where they’re uncertain what they’re doing and there’s a spontaneity to it.”

The lesson? If you’re working with Favreau, expect some improv. Sorry, Scarlett.

Jon Favreau Talks Lion King and Improv at Tribeca Film Fest