It's been almost 20 years since Jon Favreau's breakthrough movie. Writing Swingers, he thought it might get him some acting work; he never imagined the career he would have behind the camera. Now, after tackling a few blockbusters and helping set the Marvel cinematic universe on its current trajectory, Favreau has gone back to his roots, writing, directing, and starring in the indie comedy Chef. In it, Favreau plays a brilliant chef who fights to balance his creative freedom with his family life and the need for professional compromise. The movie, which opens limited on May 9 and expands nationally through May and June, will be screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, which kicks off today. We spoke with Favreau about how much of himself is in this character, trying to maintain a singular vision in the big-studio system, and having other characters calling him fat.
Did you do your own cooking stunts? What type of training did you have to do it?
Roy Choi [chef and owner of the Kogi food truck and other restaurants in L.A.] was a guy who came on, at first as just a consultant, but really he ended up being a co-producer on it and the guy who oversaw my training and oversaw the menus. He was there on the set every day we did any cooking. He really put me through the paces. I started off by just shadowing him in his kitchens. Then he sent me off to a really intensive, week-long training at a culinary school. I was there from six in the morning on, one-on-one, getting a concentrated version of what a chef would have gone through. So a very traditional French training with knife skills and mother sauces and all cooking techniques. I had a basic overview. Then I started doing prep for his kitchens and then I started working on the line as part of his kitchen crew.
This movie has a lot of lush, food-porny shots of food. After a while did it start to get a little gross to shoot food that closely?
No, it wasn’t gross at all. Normally you have a food stylist that just tries to make it look good. But Roy is a chef. So when we were preparing food for the movie it all tasted and smelled delicious. We would eat the stuff after we filmed. We really made an effort not to waste. Even when we broke down the pig, all those pig parts went home with different crew members.
To tell a story with food is something I had been curious about doing. I really like movies where they do it well like Jiro Dreams of Sushi or Big Night and especially Eat Drink Man Woman. I felt like on a small, independent film, you really get a lot of bang for not a big budget, because food can really make you feel a lot.
Chef has a lot of very big stars in smaller roles. There’s a quote that says a star saves you ten minutes of movie because the audience already trusts them and can imagine them having an inner life. However, how do you balance that with the fact that a movie star can also take someone out of the movie because you think of them as Dustin Hoffman or Scarlett Johansson and not necessarily as a guy who owns a restaurant or a women who manages one?
I think because there are so many people that you’re familiar with, it’s not like it’s a bunch of unknowns and on the screen pops Robert [Downey Jr.]. Even John Leguizamo, most people really have a solid sense of who he is from his body of work. I’m probably one of the least recognizable people in the movie, and I’m still pretty recognizable. As long as it’s balanced out, it doesn’t feel overloaded in one area. Also, even though Robert and Scarlett are big movie stars now, these people have also popped up in smaller films over the course of their career. So I don’t sense that it’s distracting, but of course I could be wrong. They certainly class up the joint.
How do you feel about that perception of being an actor’s director?
I’m very flattered and proud if that’s the case. I know I certainly come at it from the angle of an actor. I don’t ask actors to do anything that I wouldn’t be comfortable doing. And it’s understanding an actor's need to have room to do what he or she does well.
If you cast the movie properly, you can give them a lot of freedom. There’s a tendency in Hollywood to cast for political reasons because they figure you can get whatever performance you need to get out of those people by directing them toward it. I’m more of the mind that you should fight like hell to cast the people that you want to cast. And then you can be completely trusting and laissez-faire in your directing style if you have the proper cast. I’m more there to help them do their job in a support capacity as opposed to trying to cull a performance out of somebody. I don’t think I would be a good actor’s director if I had to inherit a cast that I didn’t believe in.
I’ve heard you talk about Swingers and how you didn’t really realize that you were writing about your own experience and that only became apparent in retrospect. I’ve also read interviews where you talk about Chef and say that it’s not based on your experiences. But as it is a movie that you wrote, directed, and starred in, do you see where people would think that it is?
I think every film is personal to some extent. And definitely I am really curious about the creative process and the balancing of family and work. But the character is very different from me, because he’s somebody with a failed relationship with his ex-wife and failed relationships with his children and he doesn’t know how to balance [those things] with his work. I put a lot of effort into balancing those aspects of my life. I will say that I understand that people will see things that I don’t, and I don’t necessarily have the best seat in the house for it, because when you write, you’re not really thinking about those things, you’re just writing what’s exciting to you. One writer said, "I don’t know what my book is about until I read the reviews of it." That’s kind of how you feel as a filmmaker: You don’t really know what it’s about until you hear what other people think.
Why did you feel that this was the right time to make this movie both creatively and professionally?
Because it hit me. The last time a script hit me, where I could sit down and write every day, all day until it all came out was 20 years ago: Swingers. I know enough now to get out of the way of that. And if I’m lucky enough to be inspired to do something, it’s not something that you can make happen, so when it does happen, you have to respect it.
And it turns out that it was the right thing for me. It was the best experience I can ever remember having of making a movie. It just felt really good to see that I can still do that. I didn’t know. I haven’t done that in a long time. To be able to act and make a movie where I got to have the final say in how I shot it, where I shot it, who's in it, what the script is, what the edit is, and not to be part of a committee, but to be a lone voice on a much smaller canvas, was potentially scary. I could've found out that I lost my voice and was just good for studio movies. So it was really good to go back to my roots. I feel reinvigorated and excited to be working on Jungle Book now. After doing a really little one like this, to go back to something that’s huge and extremely collaborative — it’s a nice change of pace.
You sound excited about making Jungle Book. Why do you still want to make blockbuster movies or big-studio movies? What makes you go back?
I can’t write a script every year that comes from that place. When it happens I’ll do it again. I hope. For right now, I’m really having a lot of fun. I love working with visual effects. Right now, at this moment in history, you can’t do an effects-heavy small movie. To be honest with you, as we come up to the release date in the summer — I’ve been the windshield, and I’ve been the bug — when you do the big movies, it’s nice to know that people give you room to release your film, and you don’t have to claw your way to the screens. When you work on a little one, you can disappear in a blink of an eye and that’s sad. It doesn’t keep me from doing it, but when you’re doing a big movie that a big studio put a lot of money behind, has a good brand — and it comes out well, you sleep a little easier at night than you do with a little independent film.
I’m trying to put this in a way that doesn’t seem gauche. But I think all artists battle with the idea of what they do artistically and what they do for money.How much onus do you put on making money?
I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to make decisions purely out of what I wanted to do and what I thought would be creatively best and what had the best shot at being a good movie. That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to be making a good movie, but, at least, if you’re going in thinking you can be doing something good, your odds are better than if you’re coming into a situation where you’re compromised. I’ve always earned enough money to live the life that I want to live and after a certain amount it doesn’t improve your life more, as long as you have enough that you have a place to live that you like and you can go on vacation once in a while and you don’t have the anxiety of the money. Once you remove that anxiety, it doesn’t feel any better when you get more. And I've seen with people that I know, at a certain point having much more can even make life harder. I’ve hit a point where my big luxury is getting to work on the things I want to work on. That’s my hobby. It's being able to do a movie like Chef,where you don’t get paid, where you get paid scale, but you get to do exactly the movie you want to do. To me, that’s worth more to me than whatever money I would have gotten paid.
The old auteur theory talks about how movies are ultimately defined by the visions of the director. When you’re making blockbusters, especially within an operation like Marvel's, is there room for a clear vision?
I think the bigger the movie is, the harder it is to maintain the idea of an auteur. You’re servicing something beyond just your own vision. Whenever there’s a lot of money on the line, it is your responsibility to make sure that you’re doing your best to have people not lose their money and to actually win by betting on it. You’re balancing things other than your own personal tastes. That’s partly what we’re hired to do, and I’ve always been very comfortable with that arrangement.
Nowadays, there’s no excuse. If you want more creative control, just go smaller. Back at the time we made Swingers, it cost six figures to make a movie. Now you could make a movie now for hundreds or thousands. They’ll be small, they’ll be digital, you’ll be editing it on your laptop, but you can make a movie.
The sad part is that there’s no middle ground anymore. There are big movies and then there are small movies and then those mid-range movies — where you could be an auteur — the business model doesn’t seem to support those any longer. But what’s replacing it now is all the great work that’s happening on television and in other media. So I don’t think that it’s gone, I think there’s great work's being done, I just think the nature of what plays in the movie theater has changed a lot.
In turn, do you see a distinguishable personality that runs through all your films?
I think so. It kind of relates back to your other question. When you’re making it you don’t think about it, but when you look back on it, I could notice certain things. There’s a style of comedy. I like a naturalism to my dialogue and my comedy. I would rather have a few jokes sail by that might be more subtle than have every single joke hit hard. I would rather the comedy come out of character, as opposed to feeling forced. Even if you’re giving some laughs up for it. I always like to maintain a level of stakes where what’s going on in the movie really matters to the characters. And there’s a vulnerability.
I think ultimately, I have a hopeful message. I like happy endings in movies. I think life has a happy ending. When it’s all said and done, it’s all something worthwhile and I want my movies to reflect that. There are enough things to be sad about. When you pop in a movie, let the message be one that’s one of hope. Even though sad things and things that make you cringe happen in my work, ultimately if you look at it there’s a silver lining.
When you see what the Marvel universe has become, since Iron Man 2, how much do you see it as a point of pride, for setting the tone and paving the way for this giant thing, and how much regret do you have for not being more involved?
The first thing it feels like is weird because, at the time of Iron Man, it was a new studio. There was a tremendous amount of doubt swirling around whether Marvel Studios would have worked at all outside of the established superheroes that already were successful. So it could not have been a smaller, more independent-feeling environment when we began. Everything was about keeping it within a certain budget parameter. If we went too expensive, the movie could have been taken over by the bond company, and if the movie wasn’t successful, Marvel could have lost all of their intellectual properties that they were using as collateral. It was very precarious at first. Now, [there's a] 180-degree difference. I think Marvel is the highest grossing franchise in history, if you add up everything. It really all started with Iron Man and a few tonal decisions that we made and some casting decisions that we made. That grew into Iron Man 2. Then, fortunately, other filmmakers came in like Joss [Whedon] who helped flesh out the world. So I’d say the bottom line is it feels very weird to see how big this little thing can become.
What’s nice is I’ve gotten to stay involved, whether it's acting in Iron Man 3 or being an executive producer on the Iron Man and Avenger films, so I still feel very much part of the family. But I also feel like I get to do different things like working on Jungle Book, still in the Disney family. Then I get to go off and make little movies like Chef. I really think that I found the right balance, and I certainly have been very grateful for the opportunity that the Marvel stuff has presented me with. But also it was very hard work doing those two movies back-to-back. My hat’s off to the filmmakers who work on those because it’s two years of nonstop concentration.
I've heard you talk about Lena Dunham and Louis C.K. and being inspired by how they are writer-director-stars. Beyond doing each separately, what is it about the combination of doing all three of those roles at once that is special?
I would lump in Larry David, too. It's a very honest expression — regardless of whether Larry David or Lena Dunham or Louis C.K. are playing accurate depictions of themselves — because I think people assume they’re watching a documentary. But I know Louis pretty well, and I know Larry, and they’re quite different from those characters. I don’t know Lena, really. But by all accounts they’re using their life and image as a springboard into these crazy stories. And that takes a tremendous amount of fearlessness. So the first thing I’m impressed by is the courage that they have and then by the work ethic. It keeps your creative edge very sharp to be that engaged and have that much on the line. In the cases of all of them, they’re really getting to play jazz, and it’s fun to watch. You get a sense that all of them are playing without a net.
Along those lines, what is like to write a fat joke for someone else to say to you on screen?
I think it goes hand in hand with what those other guys are doing. You can’t be self-conscious. You got to lay it on the line for the laughs. You got to get at the truth. The fact of the matter is, man, I’m a 47-year-old dad who likes to eat. And that’s who I am now in my life. And that’s different. That’s different from the 27-year-old guy who’s out in Hollywood trying to get a girl’s phone number. I want to be just as honest with my situation as I was then. For me right now, it’s all about passion, inspiration, and family. Those are the things you wrestle with at my age. It’s much different than what you wrestled with when you’re younger, and trying to figure out how many days to wait before you call a girl you met at the Dresden. And so the more you dive into it, the more the audience connects to you and the more they sit forward and pay attention. You’re fighting for that hour and a half or so of the audience’s life to pay attention to what you’re doing. You're competing with so much content out there, you’ve got to do something special and you’ve got to do something honest.