Jon Favreau for “Zathura”

Jon Favreau has gone from Swingers to mainstream Hollywood with, it seems, effortless ease. An actor whose solid everyman quality has endeared him to audiences and critics alike, Jon Favreau first made his name with 1996’s Swingers. The story of a group of rat pack-obsessed, out-of-work actors slumming amiably through life in L.A., the Indie-comedy was one of the year’s biggest sleeper hits and made a star out of Favreau, who also wrote the script.

A native of Queens, New York, where he was born on October 19, 1966, Favreau was raised as the only child of two educators. After attending the Bronx High School of Science, he did an abbreviated stint at Queens College before heading to Chicago to pursue a comedy career. In Chicago, he studied improvisational comedy with Del Close and was a member of the ImrovOlympic troupe. Favreau’s time in Chicago ended when he decided to head to L.A. to try and break into film; his experiences as a lovelorn, out-of-work actor would later provide the inspiration for Swingers.

After years of false hopes and false starts that took the form of supporting roles in such disappointing films as Rudy and P.C.U., Favreau began channelling his experiences and those of his friends (who included fellow Swingers star Vince Vaughn) into a rudimentary script for Swingers. Encouraged to make his script into a film, the actor despaired of securing enough funding for the project until he met fledgling director Doug Liman, who convinced him that the film could be made for 250,000 dollars. Costs were cut by filming largely without permits and making use of inexpensive shooting locations such as Favreau’s own apartment. The film’s low-budget charm was sufficient enough to sway the powers-that-be at Miramax who picked it up for distribution. When Swingers was eventually released in 1996, it was hailed by critics as a funny and painfully accurate account of the L.A. scene and its various faux-hipster denizens, as well as the dynamics at work amongst a group of guys (Favreau, Vaughn, and company) and the women they try so desperately to impress. In the wake of the film’s success, Favreau, who was being hailed as the latest in the long line of Hollywood “Next Big Things,” chose to star in Very Bad Things (1998), a black comedy directed by actor-turned-director Peter Berg. After playing the eponymous boxing legend in the made-for-TV Rocky Marciano in 1999, Favreau returned to the screen in 2000 to star as a football player in The Replacements, a sports comedy directed by Howard Deutch. That same year, he returned to the Indie scene with Love & Sex, a take on urban romance.

In 2001, Favreau re-teamed with Vaughn for Made, a crime comedy that cast the two actors as aspiring mobsters and marked Favreau’s feature directorial debut. Also in 2001, Favreau made the jump to the small screen, producing and hosting Dinner for Five, a candid roundtable program featuring fellow actors and filmmakers. In 2003, not only did Favreau show up in supporting roles in the hits Daredevil and Something’s Gotta Give, his directorial effort, the Will Ferrell holiday comedy Elf proved to be one of the season’s biggest crowd-pleasers, grossing over 100 million dollars at the box office. Favreau is back behind the camera with his family friendly fantasy charmer, Zathura. Based on the popular novella, the film tells of two brothers who discover an oblong box in the park, which they dismiss as “just some dumb old game.” The boys turn their attention away from the game’s “jungle adventure” board to discover a second game board inside with an outer-space theme and a collared path leading to the purple planet, Zathura. Mayhem ensues each time one of the boys draws a game card or rolls the dice. Facing meteors and giant robots, the brothers begin to appreciate each other and their sibling rivalry dissolves. In this exclusive interview Garth Franklin talked to the always engaging actor/director.

Question: Are there any parallels between Elf and this movie – I mean do is there a child within you that clearly wants to make fantasy films like this?

Favreau: I think well first of all, what everybody does once they get some money is they go and buy the car they always wished they had when they were little, so this is like my Stingray, you know? I used to love watching these types of movies, especially the fantasy and science fiction movies, and as an actor sometimes it’s fun to get to play in them, but as a director it’s like playing with a big train set, as they say. So for sure part of it’s a fixation that I’ve had. It holds my interest. But I think a lot of it is there’s a similarity and sensibility, not just between this and Elf, but I think between… going back to Swingers even. I think the sense of humour is similar. I think that the sense of storytelling, the emotional core of all those movies, and the message of these movies I think share something in common – granted these movies are about as different as you can get from each other.

Question: Right, and Swingers dealt with sort of much more realistic adult, adult problems. Here you’re dealing with, with problems faced by a family – and both of these movies are about, about characters who are disconnected by their family.

Favreau: But if you look at the dialogue between the two kids it’s not unlike the relationship between me and Vince in a lot of the movies we’re in… you know, so definitely my comedic sensibility is that there’s certain patterns to it. This one, you know, is a PG movie – and much like Elf you have a certain responsibility to make a movie that’s not inappropriate for children. That being said, we did everything we could to make it a story that was entertaining for us and people our age, and I think that that tradition has been lost in family movies. You know, we look back to the early Spielberg films for inspiration, you know, and looked at what made ET a movie that was, ah, both appropriate for children but also compelling to adults. It wasn’t considered a kiddie movie. It was a movie beloved by all. Now f that movie had, had… you know, had been judged against other movies of its day it would have been compared favourably I think to the movies of its time that were made for adults – it didn’t have its own little category like family movies do now. And the trick was to make it emotionally real and to treat the relationship with the brothers, not soften it or dumb it down for the kids, but treat it as you really would see these kids communicate, and then let the tension build and let the fantastic events that occur around this intimate family drama not undermine or derail what was going on emotionally between these characters. That’s not something that’s done now. Now what’s done is, you know, you sort of set the table with the characters and then the fireworks begin until the movie runs out of time and money and then…

Question: Now the book is a very quick read and very short. It must have been a challenge to adapt.

Favreau: That’s David Koepp and John Kamps who adapted it, and I think David Koepp was bringing some of his personal experience -the separation that he’s gone through and the boys that he has and… I think the dynamic was very well realised and that’s part of what was appealing to me with this script. After Elf I had gotten a lot of scripts to direct and this one was not necessarily seen as one that is the logical progression after that film.

Question: Why not?

Favreau: The genre’s different. You know, Elf was a movie that was a comedy at its core and had some special effects in it. This is a movie that has, special effects at its core with some comedy around that. It doesn’t fit into traditionally what was seen as my wheelhouse, which is dialogue and comedy; although a lot of effort and work went into the comedy and the dialogue it’s still seen primarily as an… you know, as a science fiction adventure movie.

And I also didn’t really have – I mean I had Dax in there who’s a bit of a proven commodity with his background in improvisation, but I didn’t really have… you know, the real stars of this film are two young boys, so I didn’t really have that to fall back on – you know, great comedic performances that were, that were guaranteed by, you know, a career of experience.

Question: If you have to give up a year of your life doing a movie as a director, and by its nature giving up whatever roles come along in the way of an actor, how really selective do you become as a filmmaker?

Favreau: Well you have to be incredibly selective as a director. You have to read a script – and it’s sad, because I’ll get a lot of scripts that are very good and I want to work with the people that send me the scripts but, that thing that has to click that says to me, not only do I want to be involved with this movie but I want to, you know, shoulder this burden for the next two years and then promote it, and also gamble my whole career on this movie – because I’m like an actor who could take three different roles, four different roles over the course of a year and two of them could bomb and if two of them are hits he’s doing great – as a director you have to sort of let everything ride on each movie because you only get to do one, and you’re only as good as your last film – which is great when they’re a hit but it’s terrible if, ah, you know, you have…

Question: So how do you cope with that pressure?

Favreau: You’re just very selective about what you work on, and you only work on things that are exciting and are fun because if you’re excited and enjoying yourself you’re going to engage yourself creatively, both consciously and subconsciously, and you’re going to instil a certain enthusiasm to people around you. But I’m always sort of a long-haul type of guy. I do better when I can sort of build with a project and think about it, obsess on it, read about it, research it – it starts to come to me slowly, and then at the end of this year or two you end up with something that has a lot of care and thought has gone into.

Question: Now Swingers and Made notwithstanding, why do you avoid casting yourself in these… is it because there’s just too much responsibility?

Favreau: I think, you know, I like acting but it’s a different part of your brain that you’re using and to put yourself in a position of being the one being scrutinised and judged is a lot different than being the one who is observing and judging somebody else’s performance and the way the story is going down – just by nature, the nature of the beast, you have to completely put it out there and lay it all on the line to be an actor, it takes a lot of bravery and a lot of, ah adrenalin and confidence to go out there; and you can only think about one thing and that’s the perspective that your character sees the world and the situation – that’s your job, you have to completely buy into that very selective reality. As a director you have to watch everything and make sure to shepherd everything forward, and if you’re trying to do that while being an actor one or the other is going to be compromised. Now that’s not to say that I won’t do like the John Carter of Mars, I won’t stick myself in there somewhere… you bet your ass I’m gonna, you know, that’s part of the appeal – where in Elf I was the doctor, but to be the central figure in it, I don’t think that I’m the best piece of casting, and I also don’t think that I’ll do my best job as a director if I did that.

Question: I guess if you went back and did another Swingers type movie, which is basically a dialogue based…

Favreau: Yeah, it was small. You know, so much of my concerns are not dialogue when it comes down to the actual filming of it, you have to be a coach, and it’s hard to be a coach and a player at the same time.

Question: Are you consciously aware of the maturity that you’ve attained as a filmmaker if you go back to the genesis of your directorial career?

Favreau: I think I’ve become mature in learning how to deal with people, which is a big part of directing. I think I understand how to get the best out of people better. I don’t take things quite as personally. I have a little bit better perspective on things. I’m more patient, so in that way I’ve matured. And I think I’ve matured in that my sensibilities are less irreverent now, I’m a bit more mainstream in what I want to put out there in the world and I’m much more conscious of the message and the effect that my movie’s gonna have. When you start off you just want to be noticed and so you might do shocking things or say shocking things just to get attention. When you’re confident that the attention will come and you see the effect that the work that you’ve done has had on the world, even in little ways – things that have moved people, touched people, made them laugh, got them through hard times – you start to really appreciate that aspect of it, and you put a lot of thought into what energy you’re putting out in the world. And so as I look at projects I’m not just looking to find the opportunity to score or forward my career but I’m looking for an opportunity to actually change, however slightly it might be in each individual, I think the amalgam is that a movie can actually change the way people feel a lot and change… make people’s lives a little bit better. If you can take their minds off problems or… or maybe present a theme that might change the way people think or treat each other.

Question: Does it make you also in some ways a kind of more understanding actors when you… when you’ve directed and when you’re on somebody else’s set are you less bitchy about the time that’s being taken to set a shot up or…

Favreau: Well in some ways you’re less bitchy and in some ways you’re more bitchy, in that you have a lot less patience for people who aren’t doing their job…When people are inept and you know what goes into it, I think I have less patience for that, but by the same token I understand that creating a movie everybody has their own way of doing it and the best thing I can do as an actor is just do my job and bring a certain amount of inspiration to my part of it, but I really try not to overstep my boundaries as an actor.

Question: And you are, in fact, currently acting, aren’t you?

Favreau: I did The Break Up, which Peter Billingsley produced with Vince. I met Peter through Vince, ah, and Peter was a producer on Made and a producer on Dinner for Five that we worked on together. And then he did a cameo for me in Elf and now he was a producer on this movie, and then finally The Break Up. And I went out – Peter made it very easy, he knew my schedule, there was no way around it and he said, “we’re gonna make it fit”, He found my off weeks and they scheduled me to do a role in The Break Up, and that was a lot of fun. …

Question: Who do you play in that?

Favreau: I play, you know, Vince’s buddy who he’s basically bouncing off of when he’s concerned how the relationship with Jennifer Aniston is going.

Question: What about the DVD to this Zathura?

Favreau: This one? We got a lot of stuff for this. We have auditions from the kids.

Question: What do you hope that adults will get out of seeing Zathura?

Favreau: Ah, hopefully adults will have an experience that reminds them of the experience that they got when they were younger watching the movies that we grew up with. You know, hopefully they’ll appreciate the effort that was put into the filmmaking, using the practical effects and using the older techniques – and also the older style of storytelling. And hopefully adults will respond to, you know, my sensibility and sense of humour that I think has worked its way into this movie.

Question: And what’s next for you…

Favreau: John Carter of Mars is next. John Carter of Mars. So now I’m not gonna have the sort of safety net of working on a PG family movie and I’ll be working on a big movie that’s gonna be, you know, scrutinised – as is all the other grown up movies that are out there.

Question: Do you have a cast yet?

Favreau: No, not yet. Not yet. There’s a number of ways to go with it, but not a lot of people that I think are right. And there’s always the idea that you should go with somebody unknown just like Bryan Singer does. I have to sort of see what the studio’s thinking and develop material…