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THE BIZ / JAMES BATES

Company Town : The Civilizing Force Behind Disney's New 'Jungle' Movie

December 23, 1994|JAMES BATES

In Walt Disney's new version of "The Jungle Book," opening Christmas Day, actor John Cleese as Dr. Plumford leads Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli into a ballroom. There he shows him the finest wine and food of England, describing it as "all the bare necessities of life."

It's a subtle Disney inside joke, referring to the best-known song from the studio's 1967 "Jungle Book" animated hit. This time the studio is putting on the screen a live-action film costing nearly $30 million, a bet that Rudyard Kipling's tale will still enchant and excite audiences 100 years after it was first published.

To get them the bare necessities needed to make the movie--and get it in the theaters by Christmas--Disney went to grandfatherly producer Ed Feldman, best known for such films as "Witness" and "Green Card." Feldman, 65, is part of a small circle of Hollywood "hired guns"--producers best known for their skill at taking potentially difficult films already developed and delivering a quality show both on time and on budget with a minimum of friction with the studio.

Good thing, since what Feldman faced was logistic nightmares ranging from getting his hands on 1,400 liters of bottled water a day for the crew to the discovery of a dead rat in a fuse box, interpreted as a bad-luck sign by some locals in India.

One of the first problems was discovering that the jungle in India didn't have the exact rain-forest look that filmmakers envisioned. So the "jungle" in this film in reality is a lush state park in Tennessee--with a few exotic plants placed within camera view--and the same South Carolina island that doubled as Vietnam in last summer's hit "Forrest Gump." Feldman jokes that "Jungle Book" has historical ties to the United States anyway, because Kipling wrote the book in the exotic wilds of Vermont when he was living there.

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Nonetheless, the film required seven weeks of shooting in India and had to deal with that country's creaky government bureaucracy. It took up to four days for the crew to get its camera equipment through customs and five days to get its walkie-talkies.

Concerned about sanitary conditions, Feldman spent $70,000 on bottled water. Four people were hired just to make sure the water bottles were delivered sealed.

Before filming at a 550-year-old palace made to look like a British Army headquarters, Feldman spent $250,000 uprooting telephone poles and wires within camera sight so the area would have a late-1800s look to it. Wires were buried underground.

But the rat in the fuse box was seen by some as a bad sign, so at the end of shooting Feldman had the poles and wires put back.

Then there was a caterer's son whom Feldman insulted when he criticized him for handling food with his bare hands, saying, "You know, we're not animals." The caterer quit that night.

Feldman lured him back, but only after apologizing in front of a crowd of people. "I'd rather be humiliated than to have to face 150 people who haven't had lunch," he says.

Feldman, a Bronx native, began his Hollywood career as a studio publicist after graduating from Michigan State University.

He sent press releases to each movie studio, referring to himself in the third person and "announcing" that he had graduated from college.

"I said the same thing about each company--that I wanted to work for them because they were the most progressive and forward-thinking one," he says.

20th Century Fox called and eventually hired him at a position so junior that he was frequently summoned into the executive steam room, where, dressed in a wool suit, he had to jot down instructions.

After stints at Paramount, Seven Arts and Warner Bros., Feldman worked for Filmways in the early 1970s, where he oversaw production of such movies as "Save the Tiger," which earned Jack Lemmon an Oscar.

Feldman might never have become an independent producer had he not made Filmways a lot of money by developing for $22,000 the movie "The Other Side of the Mountain," which reaped about $30 million at the box office. Feldman thought he deserved a bonus but was spurned. So he quit.

As a producer, he made a batch of films that included the Oscar-nominated "Witness" with Harrison Ford, a raunchy movie called "Hot Dog--The Movie" that was a critical bomb but a financial success, and the box office and critical flop "Wired" about the late comedian John Belushi.

All the while he developed a reputation for getting movies done in a workmanlike way, something former producing partner Charles Meeker attributes in part to Feldman's lack of a big ego.

"The studio knows with Ed that they aren't going to get one of those wacky demands at the last minute--like, 'This film is 183 minutes long and the director doesn't want to cut it, so learn to love it,' " Meeker says.

"When they spend a lot of money on a project, he's the guy they can put in who is going to be a stabilizing influence on the whole production and who is going to get the picture done in a way that is reasonable, businesslike and hopefully successful."

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