'The Jungle Book' Composer John Debney Talks Scoring Disney's New Film, Director Jon Favreau's Secret Musical Talent

Dan Goldwasser
John Debney

Scoring Disney’s new fantasy adventure The Jungle Book was a “large and wonderful process,” said John Debney. It was also a dream come true for the composer. 

“Emotionally, it means more to me than any other movie I’ve done,” said Debney, who has scored more than 70 films, including Elf, Iron Man 2 and The Passion of The Christ, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. The Jungle Book opened in theaters Friday (April 15).

That’s because it felt like the completion of a journey that began more than 50 years ago. Debney’s father, Lou, started working with Walt Disney in 1934 and ended up producing such TV shows as Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro. Because of his dad’s work, Debney grew up on the Disney lot.

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"We’d walk around the studio on the weekends, my dad and I, we’d bump into this guy I saw a lot of warmth from. He’d lean down and tussle my hair. I’d ask my dad who that was and he’d say, ‘That’s Walt Disney,’” Debney, 59,  recalled. “This movie was a reconnection to my dad and his time at the studio.”

The Jungle Book, based on Rudyard Kipling’s stories and inspired by Disney’s classic 1967 animated musical, marks Debney’s fourth collaboration with director Jon Favreau following Elf, Iron Man 2 and Zathura. Despite their history, Debney’s selection was not a given, so Debney decided to lobby for the job by putting together a scrapbook full of photos from his youth that chronicled his lifelong relationship with Disney. It worked.

Included were shots of Debney as a young boy with Richard and Robert Sherman, the legendary songwriters responsible for some of the most beloved Disney tunes, including “I Wan’na Be Like You” and “Trust In Me” from the 1967 Jungle Book. “I met the Sherman brothers when I was 7 or 8 and got to spend a day with them in their office creating music for something -- I don’t remember what,” Debney said. “It made such an impression on me, I started to play the guitar and then piano. The whole experience started me on the road to loving music and film.” 

Working with Sherman on new versions of his original Jungle Book classics for the 2016 update was “amazing,” Debney said. Though the new movie is not a musical, “Jon said he wanted to find a spot to give a nod to a couple of the original songs." (It also turns out that Favreau is quite the ukulele player, so much so that he played on “I Wan’na Be Like You” sung by King Louie.) 

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Debney didn't limit himself to the score.  Mark Ronson produced a new version of “Trust In Me,” performed by Scarlet Johansson, for which Debney wrote the orchestral arrangement, and Dr. John recorded a Dixieland take of “I Wan’na Be Like You” (more akin to the 1967 original than the one performed in the movie) that plays over the end credits with Debney supervising  the New Orleans musicians on the track. 

Favreau brought Debney on nearly two years ago to begin work on the film. “Jon said early on that the music had to play a very important role in the movie since it was wall to wall and had to help guide the audience to impart the emotional aspects of the characters in the different areas and different locales,” Debney said. Indeed, Debney created 90 minutes of music for the film, which he recorded with a 105-piece orchestra and 60-voice choir.

“Disney didn’t bat an eye and I mean that in the best sense,” Debney said of the enormity and cost of the musical process. “They knew they had to have a certain type of score that the filmmaker wanted and they honored that. It was really a wonderful time for me-- to have no limit to what I wanted to express.”

And he wanted to express a lot. Each major character had his or her own theme and each part of the jungle had its own personality, with each requiring different musical templates. For example, music for Baloo the bear (voiced by Bill Murray) included marimbas and tubas. For King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), low drums were the key to capturing his menace. No detail was too small, Debney’s woodwind player even created a new instrument to capture the sound for the civets, which are like little forest foxes.

“I gave my woodwind player my impression of the sounds I wanted and he made two bamboo wood flutes that were a cross between a flute and a double reed instrument,” Debney said. “It was really remarkable. I’ve got every  percussion instrument known to man represented in the score just to give it authenticity.” 

Kipling’s The Jungle Book takes place in India and Favreau wanted to respect that rich musical heritage, but not be limited by it. “The story is so timeless,” Debney said. “I asked Jon early on if he wanted to have more Indian influences in the score and he said he wanted to honor everything culturally, but he didn’t want it to ever skew such that someone might categorize it as one kind of score. He wanted a classic Disney score that has colors. This is definitely a technicolor score, it’s not monochromatic at all.” 

The most challenging section to score was the last 20 minutes, which is non-stop cat-and-mouse action as Shere Khan, the villainous tiger, chases man-cub Mowgli through the jungle. “There are three or four cues in a row, it’s continuous,” Debney said. “There’s probably a good stretch of 15 minutes or so of straight music. Jon really made me work at it, where to bring the music down, where to bring it back up, where to have a scare or two. It’s pretty relentless.”

Also difficult was that since the movie is all CGI other than Mowgli, Debney was not regularly seeing footage to which he could score, “I really needed Jon’s guidance every step of the way because there were vast stretches of the movie that weren’t done so he would have to explain to me what was going on," he says. "He always gave me what I needed.”

The soundtrack was release Friday on Walt Disney Records.