Set Visit: Interview with Iron Man director Jon Favreau

"The whiny guy from SWINGERS is gonna direct IRON MAN?" That was the stunned reaction from many in the fanboy community -- myself included -- when actor-turned-director Jon Favreau was first handed the keys to the hallowed Marvel franchise way back in July of 2006. I mean, ZATHURA was all right and all, but putting one of comicdom's most interesting and complex characters in the hands of a relative genre neophyte seemed like a major misstep for the first self-financed project from Marvel's fledgling Marvel Enterprises.

Cut to almost two years later and my oh my, how things have changed. After setting last year's Comic-Con crowd ablaze with his propulsive, Sabbath-blasting teaser trailer, he's steadily stoked the fire with every fan-pleasing image, clip and story detail that's been subsequently released. Now even his most questionable creative choices -- scandal-prone Robert Downey Jr. in the title role? -- all seem like home runs. Even more promising is the fact that there have been zero reports of on-set turmoil, hasty re-writes or improper meddling from studio execs (unlike with, say, Edward Norton's HULK re-boot). All signs indicate that IRON MAN is poised to step into the space left vacant by the dormant SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN franchises.

At last June's IRON MAN set visit in Play Vista,California, Favreau surprised attendees when he emerged sporting a newly svelte figure. Check out what he had to say about IRON MAN.

Jon Favreau

I noticed there was an announcement on your blog that IRON MAN is going to be PG-13.

I put it up. A lot of times I make announcements. I'll jump on the IRON MAN movie group and if I see people talking about something or they have a question or they’re speculating, I’ll clarify as best I can with pertinent information. But I don’t really make announcements like that, like, "Here’s the big announcement: The movie’s going to be PG-13.” You don’t know but that’s what we’re all shooting for, so when people are speculating - like when FANTASTIC FOUR 2 was given a PG and people were surprised by that, they were wondering what we’d be. I said I thought we would be PG-13.

What was the reason for that?

I think you want it to be entertaining for everybody, you want it to be appropriate for kids but not geared towards kids, and I think PG-13 is that good balance where you can have violence, you can have real life or death stakes, but yet it’s something I’d be comfortable bringing a younger than 13-year old kid to. But it’s tough - these type of movies, you want it to be good for the whole audience, for everybody, and if you skew too young you will disappoint adults and if you make it too dark and too violent or [feature] too much explicit language or sexuality, there’s a lot of kids out there who want to see it. I don’t want anything in there that’s going to make me as a responsible parent uncomfortable repeating something at school or seeing something that’s going to freak him out too much.

Is that why you maybe decided not to explore Tony Stark’s alcoholism in the first film?

I’m trying to be dictated by the story of the books and “Demon in a Bottle” happened, what was it, in the ‘80s? It was much later, so what you really grasp for if you’re lucky enough to make more than one of these is what happens to the character, how does [he] change so it doesn’t feel like a serialized hero that goes through fighting different types of bad guys. How does he progress through each story? The good thing about an origin story is that you have a whole Joseph Campbell journey that the guy goes through in becoming a hero. The problem is you have so much story to tell that it starts to get clogged up with too much stuff and you end up rushing through beats or villains or things. The problems with the second or third ones are you’ve got great villains, but how is he different from the beginning to the end of the movie. For me as a filmmaker and a storyteller I really look for that progression of character as what’s the mythology of this movie, what’s the myth of this movie, and that’s what makes it entertaining.

What are the fights going to be like, and how does the suit change the way the fights might be shot?

Well, as far as the technology that you use, it’s pretty - we have all the options. We have ILM, and after seeing the last Pirates movie I feel quite comfortable they will make it look good. And then you have the Stan Winston suit that you have to help it feel real and connect things. I think you’ve got to do a little bit of a shell game with the audience, show them real one shot, fake another shot and not let them know where one shot becomes real and digital until their left brain is so locked up worrying about it that their right brain can enjoy the movie. I think you always have to look for fancy things to do. I think you have to be innovative in the action, because there’s a lot movies I saw and enjoyed where I couldn’t follow the story and didn’t give a damn about the story but the action was so innovative it entertained me and I was excited by it. Honestly with these types of films you’re working on the action long before you’re working on the dialogue, you’re working with storyboard artists, with writers, with actors, producers, [and] studios.

What is this story about for you and what’s interesting about the character?

The story for me is about a guy who - every movie, something’s rotten in Denmark . You’ve got to start off with something’s out of balance in the world. In the case of Marvel movies especially, you look at the personal life of the character in the microcosm, and then you sort of look at the macrocosm of the climate of the world - there’s a super villain doing something, there is a problem in the world that has to be fixed, otherwise life as we know it will not exist. But then also in the character’s private life, there is a thing that happens too, and what’s nice about Tony Stark is he’s a guy that you sort of have all of the flash and glamour of Tony Stark the billionaire inventor genius and playboy and then you get to play the fun of that but then you also get to explore what that might lead to be desired. How is he flawed? How does he grow and change through his captivity, and when he comes back how does he become Iron Man? What are the steps in that journey that gets us to the point where we understand who he is and what he stands for and how he’s changed.

Where are we today?

This is the beginnings of his workshop, and the beginnings of what will be the Hall of Armor. This is below his house. We built a house that sits on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific in Malibu, and we have another set that we’re shooting in today that’s what sits above this. It’s sort an architectural high-tech home and this is his sub-basement, so out those windows you would see the Pacific ocean. That’s a driveway up and out of his house; he has just all of these awesome cars, everything from a ’32 Ford Roadster all the way through a Tesla electric car. We have everything here lined up, and then over here there’s the remnants of everything you could possibly need for fabrication and design. You could build anything in here, and then this is more of a living area, and so this is sort of where he would seclude himself and we sort of suggest that all of the inventions and innovations that come out of Stark’s mind usually start alone here as opposed to his office at Stark Industries. This is probably where most of his work happens, at four in the morning.

Do we see Iron Monger? In interviews Jeff Bridges has suggested his relationship to Stark is as a mentor.

Here’s the bottom line: we’re making a Marvel movie and it’s the first time Marvel is making its own movie, and so I feel - and also as a filmmaker, I want to stay true to the books, but with these movies everybody’s watching. I’ve been working on this a year, it’s going to be another year before it’s out, and if everybody figures everything out along the way it gets to be by the time you see the movie, you feel like you saw the movie already. So we feel like we put enough twists and turns in there to have something that you guys don’t know. But, by the same token because it’s Marvel I want to stay as true to what the broad strokes of what the comic books are. Is he a mentor to Tony Stark? Yeah, that’s sort of the relationship that we found between Jeff Bridges and Robert Downey Jr. that would be good. Is it still Obediah Stane? Yes it is. Are there certain expectations people might have who have read the comic books for several decades based on who it is? Are they going to be waiting for the other shoe to fall? I think they probably will, and I think that we’re not going to change the universe so much that to the purists it will seem like we betrayed the underlying truths of it. So if you’ve done your homework on the books it’s going to serve you well when you go into the movies because we’re doing it too.

Talk about what kind of an undertaking all of that action is for you as director?

We have a great second unit. There’s a guy named Phil Nielsen who’s directing second unit as we speak; if you hear something blow up, he’s probably on the other set blowing things up. We’ve been very lucky to have a group of people that are very good at developing and culling the action, and I don’t want to sit here and pretend that I have huge action experience. I think I can tell a good story, I think cinematically I can make something compelling, [but] Matthew Libatique is a great director of photography, but what I’m bringing to the table is more of the humanity of the story, enforcing rules on the story where it doesn’t feel like two completely different films. There is the possibility of that - it goes from Swingers to Power Rangers and people are like “what am I watching?” sop the trick is to bring out the human story to a world where it feels like a comic book and it fits into the genre, and then keeping the action aspect of it, I wouldn’t say restrained but hold it up to a certain standard of reality that you have a broadness that you expect in a comic book movie but it’s not just do whatever the hell you want because it’s a movie and everybody just wants to eat popcorn. I think in my body of work I have held it to a certain standard and now in making something that has to be appealing to a larger audience than I have hit before, I want to make sure that we’re giving everybody what they want and I’m making it fun and exciting but also making it something that I can be proud of.

What does Robert Downey Jr. bring to the role?

When we cast Robert and he was approved, it completely freed me because I knew that I was halfway there to having a movie I could be completely proud of. I can’t think of anybody better than him. He brings a reality, a humor, a panache, a life of experience where he really feels like what he’s bring to the table, there’s a lot of Tony Stark in him and that’s so much better than trying to teach somebody to pretend that they are funny or smart or talented or they lived with fame and lived with all of the challenges and benefits of it.

You look a lot different than the last time we saw you, Jon. Has this job been that stressful?

Let’s put it this way - I wanted to lose some weight for a role. And for life (laughs). I just turned 40 and I just had a baby less than a year ago and I did the math and I’m like I better take care of myself because I want to be around.

How has your experience been with the fans?

The fans are great. They’ve been great about everything, and it’s almost like you want something to be a little - you want them to have a problem with something that’s going on to get it out of the way because fans for any movie is important. For this particular types of movie, that’s the nucleus of your audience, and I don’t know if the internet is something that can be seen as dictating the marketplace - I don’t know how that works yet - but I know that as a filmmaker I get that fans of this particular genre are very smart and know more in certain cases than the people that are working on the movie, as far as how much and specific their information is. So I like to go there and just get to the minutiae of the detail in some cases because it’s like Wikipedia - it’s a collection of information from a lot of people that tends to bear out in a very cogent way. There are certain people that are idiots, but they don’t tend to be drawn to this material that much. They tend to give a damn, and most of the stuff I see is, “thank you for caring so much about it. I’ve been waiting for this movie for 20 years. I’ve been waiting for ten years since I first heard they were going to make this movie. This was my particular favorite superhero and it’s nice to see it’s getting this type of treatment and this type of cast.” When they first hear it’s getting made, they get excited, and then when they hear who you’re casting, they say, oh, this might actually be one of those types of superhero movies, not the other kind of superhero movie.

What lessons if any have you taken from other comic book adaptations?

I think [Christopher] Nolan has just really reinvented the genre yet again. I really liked the first BATMAN movie, the Tim Burton one was very exciting, but the caliber of cast that he was able to get, the level of storytelling and acting and the sense of fun that was maintained with a character that I thought was completely picked-over by the time they did their last movie before that, that they were able to sort of hit reset and come with that and make it fresh again excited me because it said that the sky is the limit for who you could get and with a filmmaker with that background. It’s nice that you have all of these guys coming out of independent films who don’t resent big movies - it’s not like the ‘70s where the system is keeping us down; we’re people who grew up loving movies and the reason we’re doing small movies is because we don’t know any better or have the resources. So as you see Peter Jackson, Chris Nolan, Bryan Singer finding a way to bring integrity and a sense of fun to these big movies where you feel like you’re watching a good movie and it’s not one that a director is doing apologetically, they’re doing it because they’re excited about it and they love it, and then I get to play with all of the toys, build the suits, CG, build all of these great sets. For me that’s what it’s all about and I think it’s the sort of indie background where all you have is character - that’s your car chase. Your car chase is a funny scene, your big explosion is two people having a conversation that’s interesting. It sort of sharpens those tools so that by the time you have all these great storyboard artists and designers and CGI wizards coming in, you’re not relying on that, just hammocking between those set pieces. When I’m here with Gwyneth and Robert, I would be working with them in the same way as if I’d written a spec script and shooting it for a million bucks - you bring that same sensibility and hopefully it all comes together in a way all of one movie and yet it’s not insulting to smart people and it’s not inappropriate for me to bring my kids to as well.

Have you received any advice from other actor-directors about doing this?

More from like Kevin Feige, who’s been around for all of the X-Men movies and now he’s president of production here. He’s really good at [saying] this is what happens now and “I’ve been to the set of SPIDER-MAN 3 visiting Sam Raimi and just seeing certain things go so slow just because they have to, and certain things go really fast, but not being freaked out when you have 400 people sitting around waiting for one guy to hang a light. Coming from independent films, knowing how to pace it and do it because being on budget and on time, you figure out how to do it. But this movie, I don’t think I’ve ever been on sets like this. I mean, I had a small part in BATMAN FOREVER and I saw the Batcave and all that stuff and it was really cool, but DAREDEVIL wasn’t on this scale. Nothing I’ve been on has been on this scale, so just to walk around, I turned to Peter Billingsley and said, “what set is that?” I don’t even know what’s going on, and it feels like the first time I’m seeing it sometimes.

Talk about the design of the suit.

We had some artists that we hired to work on it - Phil Saunders, Ryan Meinerding worked on various suits that we have. They’re people I met as I was developing John Carter of Mars, they’re great artists and they have a whole department overseen by Mike Riva, and then I really gravitated to the Adi Granov stuff and Adi actually contacted me through MySpace because I’d set up a group. He contacted me to be my friend and says, “I thought you might want to meet me. I’m the guy who designed all of the drawings that you have on your website.” He was really excited to get involved, we hired him to do some drawings for us, we flew him out here, he met with Phil and Ryan and Mike and the Stan Winston crew and we all sort of collaborated together in finding a suit that could be made practically to be worn so that it wasn’t always a cartoon and also when you have practical things it tends to make the CG a little more honest because if you have to make a direct cut from a practical suit that you love how it looks to something virtual, you now have a litmus test.

What was it important to retain about the comic book suit?

The suit? The more you could. I didn’t want to reinvent it. It’s not like a glowing Superman fiber-optic suit. I really am embracing what it is, and the best thing I heard was first we got the Mark I out, which we took a little bit of leeway with because in the books it really doesn’t make sense that he would make that out of spare parts but yet we keep the personality of it and we were like “holy sh*t that’s so cool.” Immediately we were like, oh my God, what’s going to happen when they see the Mark III (laughs), and what happened when we showed the Mark III was this is great, it’s just like I saw it in my head, and that’s a hard thing to achieve because everybody sees different sh*t in their head. But they were like, “oh, that’s clearly a CG suit,” and then they saw the guy moving around with the suit and people were like, “wait, it’s a real suit with a real guy.” And of course it could do different stuff in CG than it can real, but that’s the difficulty - where you don’t want him moving around like Robocop and then when he flies through the air he looks like Spider-Man. So that’s the balancing act we’re playing.

What was the most challenging scene to shoot so far?

We were at Edwards Air Force Base and we got the great C-17 and the Raptors and all the stuff. [Jim Rhodes,] we made him an Air Force lieutenant colonel, took a bit of a leap there, but the logistics of that were very hard because there’s a lot of things you can’t point a camera at there and there’s a flight line. They’re testing state-of-the-art experimental aircraft there, and I think we got the best stuff. I mean, there were hangars there that were like you can’t go near, and I’m sure have stuff that they’re flying around now.

What has been the most surprising part of this filmmaking process for you?

I’m surprised I’m on schedule (laughs). That’s the biggest surprise. Because I brag that I stay on schedule always and I have on every movie I’ve been on, I’m always on budget and always on time, and I thought, okay, on this one there’s going to be curve balls and so much out of my control so the fact that we’re on schedule now and the scenes have born out well. I’m also surprised at the freedom I’ve gotten from Marvel, because there are certain things that Marvel is very meticulous about, and there’s a definite formula to the way action is done. And then when it comes to the scenes between the people, we have very good actors and Marvel has been very involved, but they’re a small crew - you have Kevin Feige and you have Jeremy Latcham who are sort of our executives on the project, and they are here because Hulk hasn’t started yet so we could sit in the trailer with the Marvel guys and with the actors and talk about what the scene should be based on what we’ve shot and what we’ve learned and there’s a flexibility in material. So in a lot of ways there’s a lot of freedom to try things different way, to try and get the story to work and then bring a certain humor or a humanity to it. So there’s a real sense of freshness and discovery on this project.

Was there any concern personally or professionally knowing that this is Marvel’s first film?

I was ready for the challenge. I mean, I had done ZATHURA last - my last experiences were developing JOHN CARTER OF MARS and we did a bang-up job, beautiful artwork, these guys did a great script for us and everybody loved it and they were just scared of that genre or the material or the fact that they had STAR TREK coming out next year. They just said, not only did we not greenlight it, they let the rights lapse thinking that this was not a project anybody would care to do. Then of course you have Brad Bird and Pixar and Lasseter thankfully picking it up, and that thing is going to be huge. If they’re as true to the source material as we were when we were developing it, they’re going to have a phenomenal movie. Between STAR WARS and 300, this was like the type of story that you need to find to use the technology that you have available today. Right across the road they’re doing AVATAR, they’re doing a huge, huge movie in a room this size. That’s the new way of doing it, so I think they missed a tremendous opportunity with that but I’m glad that it’s going to be made.

The last experience before that was ZATHURA, where we really worked hard, we made a movie that was well-received but was not really supported in a way where [it could succeed]. It was the best-reviewed movie Sony had that year and there wasn’t even one billboard up - they didn’t even print up posters. So it was very disappointing that we can at the very end of a long string of flops over there at Sony between STEALTH and ZORRO and everything that they had. By the time that we had come out, there wasn’t really a game plan to release the film. Fortunately now it’s out on video and people are seeing it and liking it, but I didn’t want that to happen again. I didn’t want it to fall through the cracks, so when you work with Marvel you know there is a fan base of core fans that are going to pay attention to what you’re doing, and if you’re doing a good job those fans will be very vocal and word will spread. Right now people try to virally create this sense of grassroots thing on the internet and they try to force it, and you can’t force it. It has to come organically and when you do a movie like this you get to play with all the big toys and you have a fan base that is going to be very vocal positive or negative. I mean, if you have CATWOMAN they will put the pillow over the head of the movie and make sure that it never sees the light of day, but if you have a DARK KNIGHT or if you have any of the myriad of quality movies that come out, word will get out and people will start to pay attention. I think reviewers aren’t really paid that much attention - I care about reviews, I like reviews - but if you look at the correlation between reviews and box office it doesn’t really correspond and I think people are looking to the internet and to peers to hear what the buzz is and see how the buzz is growing.

Was there commercial pressure coming off of ZATHURA that your next movie needs to be a hit?

What’s good is ELF sort of carved a real path for me, so if ZATHURA had been a bad movie and not made money then I would have something to worry about, but that’s why you always have to make a good movie. Because even if the movie doesn’t perform, there are people lining up to work with you saying “they f*cked up the marketing, but you made a good movie. If you could make me a good movie, I’ll take care of my end of things.” I don’t know that’s ever been a director’s job, to create a marketing campaign; I mean they do and you have a voice in it, but ultimately I think they just include you enough to make you feel like part of the process so you’ll hit up the actors to do [what they need]. They can’t get an actor to go to Comic-Con, but I’ll turn to Robert and say “Comic-Con is fun, it’s going to blow your mind, wait until you see how many people give a sh*t about this movie.” And they’ll go, or to say, hey, let’s do this one extra interview, let’s add another day to the press junket, let’s fly to the premiere here together, if the director’s excited about it and buys into what’s going on, I think the actors are more likely to do it. I’m more likely to go out and do press for the movie, and that’s the type of thing you can’t buy with marketing money. But I don’t think they really look to directors to lead the charge in ways other than to participate, so success has a lot of benefits, it could keep a career going, it could make someone very rich even if the quality isn’t very good if they’re successful. So success is always good, but if it doesn’t end up being commercially successful, it better end up bring creatively successful. If you can’t do either of those you’re not going to work for long.

What about Terrence Howard? What made him right for the film?

He’s great. Terrence is someone that they were talking to even before I had been hired on, so by the time I came in [Avi Arad] brought in Terrence and it’s hard to argue with casting Terrence. I mean, he could have been Tony Stark if we had gone a different way - I think he’s got those type of chops, and the idea that in success, where do you go with these movies? I think that’s where they fall short. People don’t think far enough in the future to have a great movie and then they say “how do we do it again?” That’s the difference between a sequel and a chapter. So in looking at chapters, you could go War Machine with Terrence Howard, and we want to. We could go a lot of different ways with this cast that we have.

Do you want to do three films?

If the experience is as good as this, for another one I would do, keep going. It’s hard to say. Gore [Verbinski] and Sam [Raimi], I don’t know how excited they would be to do [a fourth film] after what they went through, that journey of ten years, but I would see working on this thing. I think it’s fun and great, and hopefully it gets easier as you get it down.

How hard is it to get people back or are they already locked into sequels?

I think if their experience is good, which it has been so far, based on what everybody is telling me - maybe they will say something different to you guys, but I know that I’ve made it fun, I’ve made it something where hopefully the work is as good of quality as they would do on any movie. So it doesn’t feel like they’re working on a movie that’s one for the man - you know, they do one for themselves and one for their career. Hopefully they saw this as a big movie. I asked Robert what do you want to do in your career now? He says, I want to make movies that are good and that people want to see, and it seems very simple but it’s a pretty profound statement. Actors want to be in movies that are good, that they are proud of, but there’s nothing more frustrating than making a great movie that is a featured title on Netflix, oh, I really wanted to see that one. You want to do a movie that’s going to be part of your culture; PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN , if you reference it everybody knows, and it’s like "The Sopranos." Everybody knows what you’re talking about, and you’ve impacted lives, you’ve created a cultural ripple, and that’s something you can’t always get with an indie. Sometimes it happens like with SWINGERS but sometimes it doesn’t.

The buzz is only going to continue to build. How do you respond to that reaction to these comic book titles?

I welcome it because I’m right in there. It’s not a scary, weird looming presence. I go online, I look at stuff, and I see what people are saying - hell yeah or what are you doing about this or people who are confused about this. There are certain things people are confused about that I want them to be confused about and there are certain things I don’t want them to be confused about. I don’t want them to be confused about whether or not we hired somebody to score the film because they’re reading something on IMDB that something happened, or whether they think the rating is going to be something else, or whether the suit was designed by this guy or that guy. So I like to clarify, and then there are things that it’s a game you can play with the audience, but I think if they know that you care and are paying attention and there are choices you’re making because you’re making them as a choice and not because you don’t know what you’re doing, they like it. So to me, buzz is great. I would have killed for people to care this much about the last movie I was on. What you don’t want is to just disappear. We’ve worked so hard - we’ve worked two years on this movie. I’m going to have gone from a pregnant wife to a walking baby in the time that it makes to make this movie, and it’s a mindblower (laughs). You’ve got everything on one bad dice roll, so I love to have the interaction, I love to know that they’re out there, I love to know that after a 14-hour day and things feel bleak and did I get everything I need you go online and people are saying right on. Even if it’s a little thing, it’s a big deal, man - it’s not easy doing this sh*t. It’s hard but I love it.

Me too. Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



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