Jon Favreau has come a long way since his Swingers days. As a director, he has evolved as one of Hollywood’s most assured filmmakers. From Elf to the underrated Zathura: A Space Adventure, Favreau has learned to balance visual effects with story, character and a consistent sense of humor.
Those elements are present in the director’s biggest film to date, the big-budget adaptation of Iron Man, the story of weapons manufacturer and billionaire Tony Stark who creates the iconic robotic creature while being held prisoner in Afghanistan. In this exclusive interview, Favreau talks about the challenges he faced creating the first tentpole film of the summer.
Question: Were you ready, at this particular point in your – in your brief but auspicious directorial career, to take this on?
Favreau: Yeah, I think I was ready for it. I mean, you know, you gotta just tell a good story, I think. And I think – you know, there’s no better training ground for that than independent films, where all you have is your story and your characters and your dialogue. I think Hollywood has seen that they get the best versions of their superhero movies when they take small films or genre films and sort of step them up into the – into the bigger superhero films, as opposed to taking people out of commercials or action movies, or – you know, music videos, and giving them those same opportunities. And if you look at the crop of superhero movies that are looking – you know, the most promising, like – you know, you’ve got Sam Raimi directing. Brian Singer, Chris Nolan and even Peter Jackson, the Wachowski Brothers, if you lump them all in, you’ll find that the people who were sort of rattling around the independent film circuit when I was, who’ve stepped up and worked on these big movies, have brought a lot of personality and quality to a genre that in the past had suffered, I think, from mediocrity. So I think that I sort of fit the bill, oddly, of the people that they’re giving these opportunities to.
Question: Where do you strike the balance between all those different disparate areas? Character, story, and big visual effects?
Favreau: Well, that’s really the hardest part of my job, because as a director, you’ve got people doing everything for you. You’ve got them getting you your coffee, you’ve got them acting, you’ve got them writing, you’ve got them lighting, editing. And you’re at the centre of this whole thing, and your big job is to set the tone and set the balance of this big production, and give it its personality. So it’s a question that I really consider as I make the film, pretty closely. I think the first thing that you always have to remember is that story is king. It always comes down to story. Whether you’re talking to somebody making an independent film, or you’re talking to John Lassiter making a Pixar production where you have every bit of technology to him that you could imagine – he would still tell you that it’s all about story and character.
So once you have that, then you have to balance the rest of the things around it. And I think that moving – working on a Marvel movie, there’s a certain level of visual interest and excitement that you need to live up to the expectations of people what are loyal to the brand. Even though it’s the first Marvel Studios movie, it’s not the first movie that’s considered a Marvel film. And so they were most concerned that the action be up to a certain standard. Now, beyond that, for me, I’ve got to make sure that the movie’s good and different.
Something I’m proud of. Because you can make – you know, you can make money with a bad superhero movie if the action’s good. But that doesn’t mean that it reflects well on the director, or it’s something I would be proud to be involved with. So for me, I wanted to make sure that I had a cast that would really set this film apart, and a tone and personality and message that was – was going to – you know, make this movie stand out from among a very crowded marketplace of superhero movies.
Question: Why did you want to do this particular comic? What was the attraction of Iron Man specifically?
Favreau: I think the technology’s there for Iron Man, finally. I think that there’s – you know, you may or may not know; I’m not a big fan of CGI, the way it’s used, normally. And I think that making a non-organic, hard surface, metallic character, really stacked the deck in my favour, when it came to photorealism and CGI. You look at the work of Transformers, and it’s very convincing. But we’re still having – you know, it’s stiff sort of hit and miss what you can do with organic characters. I think it worked really well with King Kong. I think it worked well with – you know, I think Peter Jackson’s really done a fine job with it. But I think that for the most part, I can tell when it’s digital and when it’s not, when you’re dealing with organic characters. And certainly my experience in Daredevil was such that when I watched that movie, I – you know, the moments when Daredevil changed to CG were pretty obvious to me.
Question: Now, Raimi and Singer have both said that they wanted to do Spider-Man and Superman, respectively, because they were such ardent fans of the source material. Do you need to be an ardent fan of the source material?
Favreau: I wasn’t an ardent fan of Iron Man growing up and as a matter of fact, he wasn’t the kind of guy that had a definitive story line or personality, like those characters. Even Daredevil had his Elektra series and the Frank Miller books and they each seemed to have their moment when they really shined. Or The Dark Knight. You know, Iron Man never really had that golden sort of series of stories. Or even a pantheon of villains that were sort of locked in an ongoing struggle. You know, you’d have him fighting Fin Fang Foom, and it just – it was more about the suit, and it was more about the technology, and it was more about the character of Tony Stark, and the personality of him. And I guess when you get to the civil war, you start to reveal even more of the complexity of the character. But Iron Man was always sort of an outsider among a whole pantheon of outsider heroes in the Marvel universe. So it gave me a lot of freedom to explore areas where I think you’re locked more into it with the other heroes.
Question: And there seems to be a different set of expectations, I would imagine, from fans, for this one, as opposed to those other characters that have been done in so many different reincarnations.
Favreau: Yeah. This guy’s never been done. I think that you just want to capture the attitude. And there was a certain subversive quality to the books that isn’t always maintained in the movies. Because Marvel was a reaction to what was going on with, like, the Supermans of the world. These stalwart, you know, bigger-than-life heroes that were flawless. And they live in Gotham City and Metropolis, and they sort of – you know, aspire to something inhumanly perfect. And then you had the Marvel Universe, where they’re all living in New York City, and they had problems, and they kept bumping into each other in each other’s stories, and they were arguing with one another. And it really brought out their foibles. And there was a certain subversive sense of humor to Stan Lee, even in his editorial sections, that was anything but epic. The battles were always strong and exciting, but the personality of the books was always subversive. And – and I think that because the Marvel movies are so big, they tend to take on this operatic, epic quality. But I really wanted to try to maintain, in the first Marvel Studios film, that attitude that existed in the books even back in the ’60s. And so hopefully this was a little bit different than what people have come to expect from a comic book movie, and maybe a more true representation of what the personality of the books originally were.
Question: Now, the casting of this is very interesting, because you’ve gone out of your way to cast actors as opposed to movie stars. I mean, not that they’re not movie stars. But they are really grounded actors.
Favreau: Right. I think that’s fair.
Question: Was that always your intention, or was that a studio decision?
Favreau: No, the studio, I think, would have been happy with anything from the way – you know, the way Fantastic Four was cast, with sort of younger, less-known actors, or something a little bit more distinguished. They were equally comfortable. There was no pressure to cast anybody who was a star, because in these superhero films, they consider the character the star. And the – you know, the actors are more the supporting cast, in their estimation. But I think Chris Nolan really opened the door for bringing a cast together that you would for any other movie. And, you know, I think it made it more palatable for actors to be involved with a movie like this.
And in casting Robert, I think it was an opportunity for him – and a rare one at that – because there aren’t a lot of superheroes that could be his age, and have his characteristics and body type. But for Tony Stark, it seemed to really make sense. And he really went after this role. And for me, it was the one thing that set this movie apart. I knew it would give it its personality, and give it an extra sense of depth. And it would – you know, I was hoping that people would react to it as they would – as they did when Johnny Depp was cast in Pirates. And all of a sudden people took notice of a movie that otherwise wasn’t that interesting, before that announcement.
I think that we were really running the risk of being just considered some poor man’s Spider-Man, or second-tier, B-level superhero that was being sort of scraped from the bottom of the barrel, as Marvel set out to begin their own studio. I mean, that’s what the headlines were reading. It’s like, does anybody care about these superheroes? And then when Downey was cast, all of a sudden the conversation changed.
Question: Do you feel pressure that you are responsible for a tent pole studio film?
Favreau: There’s a lot of pressure to be on time and on budget, but I always do that. That’s part of how I like to work. So once I sort of was – proven that I could be responsible with this size of a production, the next thing I felt responsible for was to make it a good quality film. You know, especially having worked on Zathura, which just bombed and it was Sony’s most critically acclaimed film of the year, and it just disappeared. You know, the release of that film was disastrous and I still suffer from post-traumatic stress from it. I still wake up in the middle of the night worried that Iron Man’s gonna disappear, after working so hard on that movie, and having it just go away.
But there was a sense of actually – a sense of relief that came with knowing that Iron Man was going to have some wonderful, compelling action sequence every 20 minutes or so that was gonna pique the audience’s interest. And it actually takes pressure off of you as a filmmaker to know that you have this whole other side of the movie that’s gonna support the movie and carry it. And people have gotten away with doing sub-par work on these movies if the action looked good, and had successful films.
My fear wasn’t that the film wasn’t going to sort of support itself commercially. My biggest fear was that we weren’t gonna make a good movie. And so all of my effort went into getting the proper cast, and putting enough energy and attention into the story, and making the whole thing make sense, and making the visual effects convincing, so that it wasn’t just a popcorn thrill ride that was gonna make money but be sort of panned by the critics and have the fans roll their eyes at it. I wanted this to be something that stood out and was special, for my own personal reasons. And so the pressures came from fighting off the constant tide of mediocrity that seems to sort of creep up on you on movies like this.
Question: Would you want to direct a sequel to Iron Man?
Favreau: Yeah! Of course I would. I mean, I loved working with Marvel, and I loved working with these actors. And the second chapter always seems to be more fun, and of higher quality than the first, if you look at Spider-Man and you look at X-Men, and you look at – you know, everything I’ve seen about Dark Knight, it all seems to point to the fact that you don’t have to worry about casting it, you don’t have to worry about establishing your tone. You already know how to do it. The learning curve’s over, and now it’s time to sort of has fun.
Question: Would that be your next directorial challenge, to do a sequel? Or do you want to go back and do another Swingers-type?
Favreau: Depends on timing. If they’re shooting for ten, 2010, you know, we’re already – we’ve got to hit the ground running. But we don’t – there are no plans to make a sequel as of yet. So if they take the Dark Knight path and take three years off, we’ve got a little bit more room, and I might be able to do something before then. I’m certainly acting in a couple things, which is quicker and fun to do.
Question: What are you acting in?
Favreau: Four Christmases, with Vince and Reese Witherspoon. I finished working on that. And there’s another one, I Love You, Man, it’s called, that John Hamburger’s directing. I’m doing a part in that as well. So, you know, that’s fun to do. But if this is – if we have a few years between this one, and if we’re fortunate enough to make another one, I could either put a small one in the middle or go right into the sequel. I really don’t know what’s gonna happen.
Question: Have you reached a point in your career where you would like to cut down pretty much on the acting, and focus on filmmaking full-time?
Favreau: Yeah. you know, acting’s fun. But you only want to do it with people that you like, and people that you trust. Because the big thing about actors – and this is what – I don’t know whether the studios or people understand this, always – is actors just want to be in movies they’re proud of. They want to be in movies that aren’t embarrassing to them. And you have so little control as an actor. That’s why people want to work with filmmakers that they respect, because they want to be made to look good. And as long as they are gonna be in a movie that they’re proud of, they’ll – they’ll sign on. And I think that’s how we got the cast we did. I think when they saw that it was Robert and I, they knew that we had a body of work that they were willing to take a risk on.
Even though the script wasn’t locked, and even though there were a lot of elements that weren’t in place, I think they trusted the people they were collaborating with. And that’s how I feel as an actor. If it’s a filmmaker that I like, or another actor that I want to work with, I’ll do it. But fortunately, I don’t need to do it to make a living. I just need to do it for fun. And it’s hard to fit those gigs in around the directing, because it’s such an all-encompassing occupation now, because these movies take two years of full-time work to do.
Question: And you and Vince will continue to collaborate, won’t you?
Question: Because fans expect that of you two.
Favreau: Yeah. We’d like to. You know, he’s really making hay in the comedy genre, and now I’m getting into the superhero movies. But, you know, I got to work with him on that one – on Four Christmases, and I’m currently working on a script for him. So, we like to – we definitely are big fans of one another and enjoy working with each other whenever we get the opportunity.