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.
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 theyre speculating, Ill clarify as best I can with pertinent information. But I dont really make announcements like that, like, "Heres the big announcement: The movies going to be PG-13. You dont know but thats what were 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 wed 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 its something Id be comfortable bringing a younger than 13-year old kid to. But its 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, theres a lot of kids out there who want to see it. I dont want anything in there thats going to make me as a responsible parent uncomfortable repeating something at school or seeing something thats going to freak him out too much.
Is that why you maybe decided not to explore Tony Starks alcoholism in the first film?
Im 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 youre lucky enough to make more than one of these is what happens to the character, how does [he] change so it doesnt 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 youve 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 whats the mythology of this movie, whats the myth of this movie, and thats 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, its 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 youve 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 theres a lot movies I saw and enjoyed where I couldnt follow the story and didnt 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 youre working on the action long before youre working on the dialogue, youre working with storyboard artists, with writers, with actors, producers, [and] studios.
What is this story about for you and whats interesting about the character?
The story for me is about a guy who - every movie, somethings rotten in Denmark . Youve got to start off with somethings 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 - theres 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 characters private life, there is a thing that happens too, and whats nice about Tony Stark is hes 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 hes 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 were shooting in today thats what sits above this. Its sort an architectural high-tech home and this is his sub-basement, so out those windows you would see the Pacific ocean. Thats 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 theres 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 Starks 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.
Heres the bottom line: were making a Marvel movie and its 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 everybodys watching. Ive been working on this a year, its going to be another year before its 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 dont know. But, by the same token because its 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, thats 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 were 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 youve done your homework on the books its going to serve you well when you go into the movies because were 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. Theres a guy named Phil Nielsen whos directing second unit as we speak; if you hear something blow up, hes probably on the other set blowing things up. Weve been very lucky to have a group of people that are very good at developing and culling the action, and I dont 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 Im bringing to the table is more of the humanity of the story, enforcing rules on the story where it doesnt 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 wouldnt 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 its not just do whatever the hell you want because its 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 were giving everybody what they want and Im 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 cant think of anybody better than him. He brings a reality, a humor, a panache, a life of experience where he really feels like what hes bring to the table, theres a lot of Tony Stark in him and thats 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?
Lets 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 Im 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. Theyve been great about everything, and its almost like you want something to be a little - you want them to have a problem with something thats going on to get it out of the way because fans for any movie is important. For this particular types of movie, thats the nucleus of your audience, and I dont know if the internet is something that can be seen as dictating the marketplace - I dont 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 its like Wikipedia - its 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 dont 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. Ive been waiting for this movie for 20 years. Ive been waiting for ten years since I first heard they were going to make this movie. This was my particular favorite superhero and its nice to see its getting this type of treatment and this type of cast. When they first hear its getting made, they get excited, and then when they hear who youre 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. Its nice that you have all of these guys coming out of independent films who dont resent big movies - its not like the 70s where the system is keeping us down; were people who grew up loving movies and the reason were doing small movies is because we dont 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 youre watching a good movie and its not one that a director is doing apologetically, theyre doing it because theyre 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 thats what its all about and I think its the sort of indie background where all you have is character - thats your car chase. Your car chase is a funny scene, your big explosion is two people having a conversation thats 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, youre not relying on that, just hammocking between those set pieces. When Im here with Gwyneth and Robert, I would be working with them in the same way as if Id 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 its not insulting to smart people and its 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, whos been around for all of the X-Men movies and now hes president of production here. Hes really good at [saying] this is what happens now and Ive 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 dont think Ive 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 wasnt on this scale. Nothing Ive been on has been on this scale, so just to walk around, I turned to Peter Billingsley and said, what set is that? I dont even know whats going on, and it feels like the first time Im 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. Theyre people I met as I was developing John Carter of Mars, theyre 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 Id set up a group. He contacted me to be my friend and says, I thought you might want to meet me. Im 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 wasnt 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 didnt want to reinvent it. Its 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 doesnt 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 thats so cool. Immediately we were like, oh my God, whats going to happen when they see the Mark III (laughs), and what happened when we showed the Mark III was this is great, its just like I saw it in my head, and thats a hard thing to achieve because everybody sees different sh*t in their head. But they were like, oh, thats clearly a CG suit, and then they saw the guy moving around with the suit and people were like, wait, its a real suit with a real guy. And of course it could do different stuff in CG than it can real, but thats the difficulty - where you dont want him moving around like Robocop and then when he flies through the air he looks like Spider-Man. So thats the balancing act were 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 theres a lot of things you cant point a camera at there and theres a flight line. Theyre 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 cant go near, and Im sure have stuff that theyre flying around now.
What has been the most surprising part of this filmmaking process for you?
Im surprised Im on schedule (laughs). Thats the biggest surprise. Because I brag that I stay on schedule always and I have on every movie Ive been on, Im always on budget and always on time, and I thought, okay, on this one theres going to be curve balls and so much out of my control so the fact that were on schedule now and the scenes have born out well. Im also surprised at the freedom Ive gotten from Marvel, because there are certain things that Marvel is very meticulous about, and theres 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 theyre 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 hasnt 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 weve shot and what weve learned and theres a flexibility in material. So in a lot of ways theres 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 theres a real sense of freshness and discovery on this project.
Was there any concern personally or professionally knowing that this is Marvels 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 theyre as true to the source material as we were when we were developing it, theyre 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 theyre doing AVATAR, theyre doing a huge, huge movie in a room this size. Thats the new way of doing it, so I think they missed a tremendous opportunity with that but Im glad that its 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 wasnt even one billboard up - they didnt 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 wasnt really a game plan to release the film. Fortunately now its out on video and people are seeing it and liking it, but I didnt want that to happen again. I didnt 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 youre doing, and if youre 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 cant 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 arent 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 doesnt 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?
Whats 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 thats why you always have to make a good movie. Because even if the movie doesnt 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, Ill take care of my end of things. I dont know thats ever been a directors 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 youll hit up the actors to do [what they need]. They cant get an actor to go to Comic-Con, but Ill turn to Robert and say Comic-Con is fun, its going to blow your mind, wait until you see how many people give a sh*t about this movie. And theyll go, or to say, hey, lets do this one extra interview, lets add another day to the press junket, lets fly to the premiere here together, if the directors excited about it and buys into whats going on, I think the actors are more likely to do it. Im more likely to go out and do press for the movie, and thats the type of thing you cant buy with marketing money. But I dont 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 isnt very good if theyre successful. So success is always good, but if it doesnt end up being commercially successful, it better end up bring creatively successful. If you cant do either of those youre not going to work for long.
What about Terrence Howard? What made him right for the film?
Hes 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 its hard to argue with casting Terrence. I mean, he could have been Tony Stark if we had gone a different way - I think hes got those type of chops, and the idea that in success, where do you go with these movies? I think thats where they fall short. People dont think far enough in the future to have a great movie and then they say how do we do it again? Thats 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. Its hard to say. Gore [Verbinski] and Sam [Raimi], I dont 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 its 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 Ive made it fun, Ive made it something where hopefully the work is as good of quality as they would do on any movie. So it doesnt feel like theyre working on a movie thats 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 its a pretty profound statement. Actors want to be in movies that are good, that they are proud of, but theres 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 thats going to be part of your culture; PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN , if you reference it everybody knows, and its like "The Sopranos." Everybody knows what youre talking about, and youve impacted lives, youve created a cultural ripple, and thats something you cant always get with an indie. Sometimes it happens like with SWINGERS but sometimes it doesnt.
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 Im right in there. Its
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 dont
want them to be confused about. I dont want them to be confused about whether
or not we hired somebody to score the film because theyre 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 its 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 youre making because youre making them as a choice
and not because you dont know what youre 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 dont want is to just disappear. Weve worked so
hard - weve worked two years on this movie. Im going to have gone from a
pregnant wife to a walking baby in the time that it makes to make this movie,
and its a mindblower (laughs). Youve got everything on one bad dice roll,
so I love to have the interaction, I love to know that theyre 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 its a
little thing, its a big deal, man - its not easy doing this sh*t. Its
hard but I love it.
Me too. Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at email@example.com.
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