With a name like Brigham Taylor, it’s not hard to believe that the producer of “The Jungle Book” has ties to Utah.
“My father grew up here, down in Provo,” Taylor said. “He had moved to California by the time I was born, so I grew up there, but I came back (for) school.”
I met Taylor during a recent visit on his promotional tour for his new live action adaptation, which opens Friday nationwide.
Having graduated from Brigham Young University in 1992, where he studied Humanities with a Film emphasis, Taylor has been with Disney for more than 20 years, first as an executive and now as a producer. Taylor has helmed several large franchises and tentpoles, including “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Oz the Great and Powerful,” “Tron: Legacy” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
But it all started in Utah.
“(BYU) was sort of my launching pad,” Taylor said, “and while I was here I also started volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival and the Filmmakers Lab, and that’s where my sort of passion and geekdom for film blossomed into a hopeful career.”
The Filmmakers Lab at Sundance was founded by Robert Redford “in response to the shared conviction that the budding independent film movement had the potential for far-reaching creative and cultural impact if given adequate resources and a place to foster self-expression and a sense of community,” its website says. For Taylor, the Lab was a valuable place to observe filmmakers at work.
“I was just a fly on the wall listening to these screenwriters and these directors dispense advice, and so I got a little glimpse into how it was made,” Taylor said. “It was an amazing education.”
If Utah’s institutions helped launch Taylor’s career, Utah’s audiences have no doubt played some role in helping his films throughout his career. Disney executives have long appreciated the particular success their films typically find here in the state, he said.
“I remember coming up in the film group at Disney Studios and learning from our head of distribution at the time how much he loved the filmgoers out here,” Taylor said. "Our films always over-performed wildly in Utah.”
The state population, more than half of which are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has a noted affinity with Disney movies.
“I think it’s, there’s a focus on the family in both groups,” Taylor said. “And so there’s an obvious overlap, and so that all makes sense.”
Before “The Jungle Book,” Taylor struck gold in his career in a surprising place.
“I think I’m only sitting here because I was part of a small team that … helped develop and launch ‘Pirates,’ ” Taylor said. “That was something that, it was a vocabulary that the studio hadn’t dealt in in a while, I mean these sort of large general audience action/adventures. We were pretty good making family comedies and a few family dramas and some sort of big adaptations like ‘Flubber’ and ‘101 Dalmations’ of other material, but this was one we felt like sort of was a quadrant we had left aside for a while, which was this big, general audience action/adventure films that we’d grown up with like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ ”
As Taylor and his team considered what stories could work in that genre, another member of the team with Utah ties, a screenwriter who has taught classes at BYU, came up with the idea.
“Josh Harmon, another local son here who teaches nearby, just threw out the title, like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ” Taylor said. “And it seemed crazy even to us at the time. But after five minutes in thinking about it and what the possibilities were, we were really intrigued.”
After pitching the idea to Disney and investing in its development, Taylor got “Pirates” into the hands of Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski, and a new tide in Disney entertainment had begun. For one thing, “Pirates of the Caribbean” was the first PG-13 movie under the Disney logo, Taylor said.
“Obviously that rating had only existed since whatever it was, '85, '86,” he said, “but still there had never been one, and this was the one title that Dick Cook, chairman at the time, felt like it deserves it.”
With zombie pirate action and some scary moments, the film was officially given the rating for “action/adventure violence.”
“It felt like it was in the spirit of the ride itself, and we weren't violating -- I mean, you know, I think Dick realized that even in the park itself there are rides where you have to be so tall to get on, and this is just one of those rides, in film form,” he said.
When “Pirates” became a hit in the box office as well as with critics, gaining five Oscar nominations including one for Johnny Depp, the film spawned not only several sequels (the next one’s set for 2017 and Taylor is producing) but also a whole new kind of movie for the Disney company, which has gone on to include Marvel superhero films and “Star Wars.”
Although “The Jungle Book” has been rated PG (for “some sequences of scary action and peril”), the new film, directed by “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau, also fits in the same tradition that “Pirates” launched: it's a big, action-packed adventure, darker in some ways than the 1967 animated version.
“This is the journey of a mancub in the jungle,” Taylor said. “And the conflict is, is the home safe for him anymore there, does he have to leave it? But we did want to make a film that stood on its own or that had its own wrinkles creatively from the story that Walt told in '67, and we did make some changes ... that in our gut felt like for today might resonate better. I mean there’s nothing wrong with '67, that is a sort of perfect experience, but we wanted to throw some curve balls.”
The setting of “The Jungle Book,” and its main cast of characters, required many special effects, on the level of “Avatar,” “Hugo” and “The Lord of the Rings." Weta Digital handled many of the effects.
Audiences may not realize, when they see the photorealistic animals moving around in a lush, sun-lit jungle, how much of the film was actually filmed on a soundstage in California.
“All of it,” Taylor said. “I mean it was all between two small stages in downtown Los Angeles. … We stepped outside of the stages, like 100 yards to build a very small bathtub basically that we could put (Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi) in when he was supposed to be in a river, but that was it. You know the closest we got to a jungle were some trees like in Reseda or somewhere. … Everything that was actually photographed and in the movie was on these stages.”
With so many effects shots, the film is practically an animated film itself, Taylor said, a fact that was reflected not only in the final result, but in the production process, which mirrored the process more typically found in animation.
“We mimicked best we could the early process of creating story reels,” Taylor said. “We had a story department, just cranking out sketches and ideas, and we cut all that together, and that was the initial version of our movie.”
They also sought advice from both Walt Disney Animation and Pixar, and John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Disney and Pixar, had an idea that took the new "Jungle Book" back to the 1967 animated version, which had opened on a short live action segment with a book opening up onscreen.
“John sort of conceptualized and was insistent that we find -- we actually tracked down the original prop that was the physical book that was shot in 1967,” Taylor said. “And so we went to our friends at the Animation Archives and they found it. Ironically if you open it, for whatever reason that has maybe been lost to the sands of time, but you opened it and the cover page was actually ‘Robin Hood,’ as we know was produced in 1973, so they somehow mixed and matched, (but) we were able to use that original hardcover, and we were able to, rather than opening, we were able to close that book and be a true sort of bookend to what we feel like was a spiritual beginning of this in 1967.”
In that way, the 1967 and 2016 version are both largely animated movies with a tiny bit of live action mixed in. So far, audiences are responding with enthusiasm toward the film in advance screenings.
“I’ve been very pleased to hear a lot of these wonderful reactions,” Taylor said. “It’s really gratifying to feel people reacting the way you wanted them to, to be really immersed and swept along on a journey, and to feel the emotion of it, and that there’s humor and there’s intensity, and so that it feels like there's something for everyone. And that was always the goal, and it felt like that’s what it was to audiences in '67, and we felt like in creating a different experience and going for this live action aesthetic, we felt like we could do that again and have something that appealed to hopefully everyone.”
Another trend that Taylor has noticed, and not just at Disney, is the increasing reliance by studios on larger, big-budget movies, like "The Jungle Book."
“I think that it's hard, in the studio environment, it’s hard to whittle down numbers below a certain point,” Taylor said, “because of just the way we operate, and the kind of overhead we have, and how we have to function with our unions, but these kinds of films, you know, coming out of Sundance, that can be produced at an intelligent level, and don't have to go out and earn so much, that’s where there’s still freedom for these smaller ideas. And I think that there will always hopefully be a market. (But in) the studio environment, it’s harder and harder not to just lean into these bigger films where you feel like you can capture a lot of attention.”
Big movies are not the only ones Taylor has worked on, however.
“In truth I’ve worked on a lot of lovely lower budgeted movies (as well),” Taylor said. “One of my last movies as an executive was ‘Million Dollar Arm,’ which I really adored working on, and one of my earliest favorite films from an executive standpoint was ‘The Rookie.’ Intimate movies, and I loved those two, but yeah, I've had the great opportunity to work on a lot of these sort of tentpole-style movies. And I love that, too.”