Interview: Jon Favreau on Swingers, Friends, Iron Man and Chef
23rd June 2014
This may not have escaped your attention, but I like films. I also like food, which definitely hasn't escaped your attention. I've loved the work of Jon Favreau ever since Swingers got me out of a five-year relationship slump, so you can imagine my delight when I learned of Chef: a film about food, written by, directed by and starring Jon Favreau. On the surface it's about sandwiches, but it's really all about getting back to your roots; for Favreau, it's a return to the style which made Swingers so beloved by proto-hipsters like myself. When given the chance to interview Jon, I practically bit his hand off. Because I was hungry. Hungry for journalism. And sandwiches.
I should start by saying thank you. I put on a screening of Swingers a couple of years ago around the time of the Olympics, and I emailed you to ask for comment and you wrote me an intro.
Jon Favreau: Yeah, I remember that! I remember it pretty well!
That was very generous of you! I wasn't expecting that at all, I was just expecting a "Go ahead, this is fine…"
JF: It was funny too, I remember it well. And you read it out to the audience?
I did and it went down really well, so thank you. I'd actually like to chat about Swingers first. You were in your 20s when you wrote Swingers; how does it feel watching it back now you're in your 40s?
JF: It's interesting because I've been thinking a lot about it. Chef's the first time I've written something the way I wrote Swingers, which was to just sit down and have a little bit of an idea where it's going, but not really. It wasn't like an assignment that I was hired to do, and I always knew that if I didn't like how it came out that nobody would have to see it.
What happens is you learn a lot about yourself because you're writing a story just to be entertaining, but the details, they're all coming from your subconscious. So as you're looking at it, you're really seeing a reflection of aspects of your life. Even though both cases I felt they were completely different from me – now people look at Swingers as though it's a documentary of my life – but definitely it's one of the aspects of my personality exaggerated, as is Chef. So it's interesting to look at the contrast. Of course you look young, it's like 20 years ago. I'm also struck by how flawed it is.
JF: Yeah, if you look at just the editing and the style and the way we covered it and the sound and the technical stuff. But it just shows you that there's something about the charm and the heart and sincerity of it that really made it. People forgave it all of its idiosyncrasies and it was such an important moment for all of our careers. It was done at a time when I was extremely lonely, I was still smarting over a failed relationship so I had written about a guy who had been in LA for six months, I had really been there a year. So it's a little bit of a snapshot of what I'd been going through, I was very torn up about being alone in a strange place.
Is there any Mike left in you now?
JF: I think that guy's kinda gone. I think about this a lot. Now I'm 47 so it's about 20 years ago when I wrote that thing and when you look at a picture of yourself, there's literally not one cell left in your body that was alive then. Especially as I look at myself on film, I'm completely different, like literally, physically a different person. I've changed, but yeah, what part of you is still the same and what part of you is different and how have you grown? But really we're constantly reinventing ourselves and constantly growing and learning and especially after such a long interval you realise how different you are.
But I think better. Life was not fun for me then. It was much harder. And then all the success that came with Swingers also was very difficult to contend with. I mean, it was a dream come true, I think everybody understands that. But going through so many changes, it's very shocking to you as a person and it takes a long time to metabolise that.
What's been fortunate for me is that though Swingers was a big success in my life, it wasn't really a commercial success; it was found charming by the critics and I was on the map, but really if you think about it, it wasn't until Elf many years later that I was seen as a commercially viable creative person. I was getting enough work out of Swingers to make me a living, mostly doing rewrites, a couple of little acting roles. Then Elf came along and the success of that jumped me up another level. Iron Man was what put me into a position where I'm feeling confident I'm going to be a making a living for as long as I'd like to.
Yes, I think it's safe to say this is your career now.
JF: [laughs] You never know. Things arc down as you get older for other reasons. But I'm very happy that I wasn't more successful quicker. Because I think it was that incremental growth that prepared me for a good, long, sustained career and a healthy life that balances out my personal life and my family with my career. That's another thing that I've really though about a lot with Chef, which I wasn't really concerned with around the time of Swingers.
Have you got a piece of go-to advice for any aspiring screenwriters?
JF: Movies are expensive, but scripts are free. There's no reason not to write. Most of my work as a director – all directors aren't this way – but most of my work as a director happens during the writing process. Even films where I'm not credited as a writer, oftentimes I've done a lot of writing. On Elf I wrote for a year. Iron Man I was constantly doing rewrites. So the writing process is storytelling and it's when you can work out your vision for a piece.
I also suggest that if you're writing and hoping that people try to buy your script, make your script, option your script… make it yourself. There's not that much of a differentiation between writing and directing, in my mind. They're similar. There are some people who are good at one and not the other, but I find that it's the same set of muscles. It's the best way to have proof of concept because there's nothing like watching your work in the editing room to make you realise that where you've been indulgent or where you hit it just right.
Even up until now with Chef, the passages and lines of dialogue that I wrote that I was most proud of were, as a rule, ones that I cut out of the movie in the editing room, because it just didn't feel genuine. So it allows you to find your voice. But yeah, get out there, pull it together on as small a scale possible and just start making your own movies. Self-distribute them, put 'em online, see if people want to hear what you have to say.
You mentioned that Swingers put you on the map. I would have thought that most people would recognise you from Friends. Is that the case?
JF: Certainly here [in the UK]. My first big break was Rudy, a movie about Notre Dame football. I had a nice supporting role but that film didn't do very well, but in the States it's a bit of a classic, everybody's seen it, it's a very inspirational film and was a wonderful experience. It was a bit of an apprenticeship for me to actually be able to be on the set every day and ask questions and be in the editing room, so that really trained me. I had previously done very small parts of extra work before then. But Swingers is what got me Friends. Friends I was only on about six episodes.
But they were good episodes, Jon.
JF: They were good episodes. I remember I was here when I'd just done Friends. I remember staying at Covent Garden promoting Swingers and I was up for a role in Rocky Marciano. I remember I went to Café Italia or something? [He could be talking about Bar Italia in Soho] There's a big poster of Rocky Marciano. I was just there yesterday. I remember seeing that when I was trying to keep my mind off that role. I had trained, I trained so hard after that for the role of Marciano because I had to, y'know, basically wear no clothes to look like a real boxer, and nobody ended up seeing that. It was a Showtime film before Showtime was Showtime. I thought that was going to be a big break for me, and it wasn't at all.
But then Friends was something I just took on a lark. I got a phone call saying they saw Swingers and they liked it. I wasn't really getting a lot of offers for anything but writing assignments from Swingers. I thought I'd launch an acting career or something, I didn't know what to expect. But they said "It's time for Monica to have a nice boyfriend. Would you like to do it?" I signed on for I think two episodes at first then they kept me around.
It still shows now, I saw one of your episodes at the weekend.
JF: Well here especially. People still recognise me as it's in syndication back home, but people recognise me more of course from the Iron Man stuff now, and Swingers seems to have permeated even though it didn't make a lot of money when it first came out. I'm even getting some Chef stuff, it's doing pretty well in the States. For the first time in the airport, people have been yelling "Hey Jefe!" It's always strange to have that but it's wonderful.
You mentioned Elf. Can you ever conceive a scenario where Elf 2 becomes a real thing?
JF: Somebody called me with a pitch for it. It didn't go anywhere but it was compelling. It's a strange thing working on movies: when they fail it's sad and they go away; when they succeed it's also strange. Elf and Iron Man are two opposites. Elf, because there's no sequel, because there's no merchandising, it just exists as that film and it pops up every Christmas. There's a timelessness to it, everybody feels like it's theirs, a lot of people grew up with it now.
Whereas Iron Man was heavily merchandised: there's a lot of sequels, there's Avengers, there's the whole Marvel universe. It's two completely different experiences. One feels like something that's frozen in amber, and the other feels like this thing that's still growing and changing and I don't feel as connected to it as I once did.
When we were making Iron Man it was very small and personal. We were flying by the seat of our pants, we were making a lot of decisions on gut instinct, there's wasn't a tremendous amount of oversight at the time. Nobody expected anything of it, it was a negative pick-up. The big thing was do it on schedule on budget and the struggle was to execute it. I knew I had my good cast, we were coming up with some special stuff. I don't know that everybody knew it was going to be funny or have the tone it did, but finally when it screened and the audience reacted, I think people understood what the movie was.
Then once it started making money that first weekend, then it was a brand. With that success you think you would get more freedom, but actually the opposite is true; once it becomes a brand that makes money, a lot of people rush in and want to be involved with any decisions made in the future. So the experience of Iron Man 2 was much more confining than the first time around, which I wouldn't have thought would be the case.
Arguably you started the current trend for superhero movies with Iron Man. How do you see the superhero genre evolving over the next ten years or so? Will critical mass be reached, or are they here to stay?
JF: I think that cultures are always drawn to myths. Each culture has a mythology. [Author] Joseph Campbell talks about it a lot. Star Wars is seen as a phenomenon, but it really was about tapping into – and Lucas talks about it – that 'Hero With A Thousand Faces' archetype of storytelling. I think that each generation has its way of telling the same stories, and the technology of the day allows you to do it a different way. In the '50s in America, it was the Western; the Western offered you a backdrop for the hero's journey. That fell out of favour and was replaced by both science-fiction and action movies, cop movies – same archetypes with very similar storylines. The samurai film, Kurosawa's version of it, also inherited that.
I think what's happening now is because technology and CGI allows you to have these bigger than life figures doing things like flying and smashing down buildings and fighting huge enormous monsters, I think that genre is surviving because it offers a new way to tell the hero's myth in a way that is so general that the whole world can jump in on it. It's not culturally specific. So I think until we exhaust what the technology can do, until there's a new set of tools to tell the same stories, I think it's going to be around for a while.
It has to be well done. I think there's going to be a lot of failed attempts because now there's such a glut in the marketplace people aren't just going to jump to the movie because it's a superhero film. But they've done well and I think they're going to be around for a while and they're making money and drawing in interesting filmmakers to do it and good actors, too.
So it's kind of one of the few relevant genres any more. I'm excited to see what JJ comes up with for Episode VII. I like all the decisions he's made so far that I could see from the outside, and again that technology offers a way to get to mythic storytelling as well. But the small movies unfortunately are becoming harder to make unless they're on a very small scale, and I think a lot of the interesting, more ambitious storytelling is going on in TV right now.
Say someone gave you $250 million to make a superhero movie of your choice, regardless of what's already been made… what would you make?
JF: I kinda of feel like I left it all on the field, if you know that expression?
Okay then: take the $250 million and pocket it.
JF: [considers] I feel like I did everything interesting that I could think to do there. I'm doing The Jungle Book next, which is virgin snow for me. It's a brand that people know but nobody has done anything with it for a while. Again, what can technology offer to tell a story about a boy living in an animal's world? How could you create a tone and an environment that's specific to this particular film? But yet something that could translate to cultures around the world?
That's a big part of filmmaking now. It used to be it was only American and European culture that were relevant in the marketplace, but now with Russia and Asia, South America and Central America all consuming the same product and being a big part of where studios make their money, the commercial aspects are a big consideration of the way you choose your stories and the way you tell them.
Moving on to Chef. I've been having some debate with friends on whether it's better to watch it on an empty stomach or a full stomach. What do you recommend?
JF: I think you ought to have a little something. Don't go in too hungry, but it's good to have reservations at a restaurant or know a place you're gonna go. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it has to be well-made food.
I went in starving. I was the first person in the screening queue to not get a taco. You could hear these orgasmic sounds from people when you were cutting the beef brisket. That's a very cool reaction.
JF: That brisket has turned into quite a set-piece.
It's almost like a sex scene.
JF: That was sort of the idea! I relied on inspiration from Tampopo, the Japanese noodle Western, for that scene.
My last question is an important one: how do you make that grilled cheese sandwich?
JF: From the film? I studied under a chef named Roy Choi. I had written that [Carl] was cooking a grilled cheese sandwich for his son, and I wanted every cooking scene to be transformative, just to show how important cooking was to this guy and how completely obsessed and fixated he was. Food translates very well to film, especially if you film it right.
But the process is about picking the right ingredients and being attentive and taking it right to the edge of burning but not quite burning and getting the whole thing to fuse together so that the bread and the butter and the crispness of the bread and the crunch of the bread compliments the gooeyness of the cheese. And getting the proper mix of cheeses together.
I am so hungry right now.
JF: And serving it at exactly the right time, that's a big part of it, whether you're going to a Sushi restaurant or getting a grilled cheese sandwich served to you. A few minutes later, it's a totally different sandwich. You want to eat it just when you can bear not to have it burn your mouth.
Jon Favreau, thank you. I'm off to buy some cheese.
This interview was originally published on Virgin Movies
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