JON FAVREAU TESTS HIS METTLE
In our first ‘Iron Man’ set visit interview, the director talks about moving from independent films and comedies to big-budget action
By Rickey Purdin
Posted September 1, 2007 10:10 AM
Wizard recently visited the set of the highly anticipated “Iron Man” film, which hits theaters May 2, 2008, and will be the first feature out of the gate from fledgling Marvel Studios. In a roundtable interview, director Jon Favreau (“Elf,” “Zathura”) gave up the details on everything from casting decisions to armor design. He also talked about why the Internet is so important to the hype machine and how he’s keeping his options open for sequels.
So, there was an announcement on your blog recently that said “Iron Man” was going to be PG-13.
FAVREAU: I put it out. A lot of people say that I put out announcements, but I’ll jump onto 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 as I can with pertinent information, but I don’t really make announcements like that. Like, “Here’s a big announcement, the movie is going to be PG-13.” We don’t actually know, but that’s what we’re all shooting for. So, when people were speculating, I think, when “Fantastic Four II” was given a PG and people were surprised and wondering what we were going to be I said I thought we’d be PG-13.
What’s the reason for that?
FAVREAU: Because I think that you want it to be entertaining for everyone. You want it to be appropriate for kids, but not geared towards kids and I think that PG-13 is that sort of good balance where you can have violence and you can have real life-or-death stakes, but yet it’s something that I would comfortable bringing a 13-year-old kid to. It’s tough though. With these types of movies you want it to be good for the whole audience, for everyone and if you skew it too young you sometimes disappoint adults and if you make it too dark and too violent or too much explicit language and sexuality to it, there are a lot of kids out there who want to see this thing and won’t be able to. I have a 6-year-old who’s dying to see the movie and so I don’t want anything in there that’s going to make me, as a responsible parent, uncomfortable where he’s going to be repeating something at school or something that’s going to freak him out too much.
So is that why you took the alcoholism angle to the story out of the first one?
FAVREAU: Me, honestly, I’m sort of really trying to be dictated by the story from the books and so he starts—“The Demon in the Bottle” happened in the ’80s. It started much later, and this started off in the ’60s and so what you really grasp for it seems in success, if you’re lucky enough to make more than one of these movies, is what happens to the character, how does it change so that it doesn’t just feel like a serialized hero that just fights different bad guys. How does he progress through each story. The good part of an origin story is that you have a Joseph Campbell journey that a guy goes through in becoming a hero. The problem is that you have so much story to tell that it starts to get clogged up with too much stuff and then you end up rushing through beats or villains or things. The problem with the second and third ones are that you’ve got great villains and everyone knows who the guys is, but how is he different from the beginning to the end of the movie. So, for me as a filmmaker and as a storyteller I really look for that whole progression in character as the mythology of the movie, what’s the myth that you’re telling. That’s what makes it entertaining, I think.
What will the fights be like then, how will those change when you try to make a film for a broader audience?
FAVREAU: Well, as far as what the technology you use, we really have all the options. We have ILM and after seeing the last “Pirates” movie I really feel quite comfortable that they can make it look good. Then you have a Stan Winston suit and so you have that to help make it feel real and connect things, and I think that you have to do a little bit of a shell game with the audience there too. So you show it real one shot, fake another shot and not let them know where one shot becomes real and digital so their left brain is so locked up worrying about it that they’re right brain can’t enjoy the movie.
But I mean, more of the art of the fights—are they going to be fancy?
FAVREAU: I think that you always have to look for fancy things to do. I think that you have to be innovative in the action. There were a lot of movies that I saw and enjoyed where I couldn’t follow the story and didn’t give a damn about the story, but because the action was so innovative it entertained me and I was excited by it. Honestly, with these kinds 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, with producers and studios.
You mentioned that Iron Man is a hero in a way like Batman who sort of creates himself and his own superpowers. Can you talk about what the story is about for you in terms of that?
FAVREAU: Well, the story for me is about a guy who’s got—in every movie there’s always something rotten in Denmark. You have to sort of start off with something being out of balance in the world. I think that in 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 is a supervillain doing something. There is a problem in the world that has to be fixed. Otherwise, life as we know will not exist, but then also in the character’s personal life there is that sort of thing that happens too and what’s nice about Tony Stark is that he’s a guy who’s got all the flash and glamour of Tony Stark billionaire, inventor genius and playboy. You get to play the fun of that, but then you also get to explore what that might leave to be desired and how he’s flawed and how he grows and changes through his captivity and when he comes back how does he become Iron Man. So it’s what those steps in the journey are that get us to the point where we understand who he is and what he stands for and how he’s changed.
Can you talk about what this set is and what you’ve shot already?
FAVREAU: This is 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 up in Malibu, in Point Dune and we have another set that we’re shooting on today that sort of sits above this. It’s sort of an architectural high-tech home and this is his subbasement. So, out those windows you would see the Pacific ocean. That’s a driveway up to the outside of his house. He has all of his awesome cars there, everything from a ‘32 Ford Roadster all the way through to a Tesla electric car. We have everything here lined up—a Saleen Supercar. He has great, great cars. A Shelby Cobra. Then over here is the remnants of what was a really well—everything that you could possibly need for fabrication and design. You could build anything in here and so this area was more of a living area. This is sort of where he would seclude himself. We sort of suggest that all the innovations and inventions that come out of Stark’s mind usually start alone here as opposed to somewhere else. He’s got his office at Stark Industries, but this is probably where most of his work happens at 4 in the morning.
Jeff [Bridges], who plays Obadiah Stane, said that his relationship with Stark is that of a mentor. Will you be exploring the storyline in which Stane becomes Iron Monger?
FAVREAU: Here’s the bottom line. We’re making a Marvel movie and it’s the first time that Marvel is making its own movie. So, I feel, and also as a filmmaker I want to stay true to the books, but with these movies everyone is watching. I’ve been working on this thing for a year and it’s going to be another year before it’s out and if everyone figures everything out along the way it gets to be like by the time you see the movie you feel like you’ve seen the movie already.
So we try to put enough twists and turns and things in there to keep you guys in the dark about something as we go forward, but by the same token because it’s Marvel I want to stay as true to what the broad strokes of 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, that would be good. Is it still Obadiah Stane? Yes it is. Are there certain expectations that people might have who have read the comic books for several decades based on who it is? Are they going to be waiting for another shoe to fall? I think that probably will be, and I think that we’re not going to change the universe so much that to the purist it will seem like we’ve betrayed the underlying truths of it. So if you’ve done the homework on the books it’s going to serve you well as you go into the movies because we’re doing that too.
Can you talk about the undertaking for you in terms of taking on all this action which is a little different for you?
FAVREAU: It is and we have a great second unit. There is a guy named Phil Neilson who is directing second unit probably as we speak. If you hear something blow up he’s on the other set blowing things up. We’ve been very, very lucky to have a group of people who are very good at developing and culling the action. I don’t want to sit here and pretend that I have a lot of action experience. I think that I can tell a good story. I think that cinematically I can make something compelling. We have a great director of photography, but what I’m bringing to the table is more of the humanity of the story and forcing rules on the story as well where it doesn’t feel like two completely different films. There is the possibility that it goes from “Swingers” to “Power Rangers” and people are like, “What am I watching?” So, the trick is to sort of bring up the human story to a world where it feels like it’s a comic book and it fits into the genre and then keeping the action aspect of it, I won’t say restrained, but hold it up to a certain standard of reality where there’s a broadness that you expect in a comic book movie, but it’s not like just doing whatever the hell you want because it’s a movie and everyone just wants to eat popcorn. So, I have a certain—I think that in my body of work I’ve held it to a certain standard and now in making something that has to be appealing to a much larger audience than I’ve really hit before I want to make sure that we’re giving everyone what they want and making it fun and exciting, but also making it something that I can be proud of.
Can you talk about casting Robert Downey Jr. in the lead?
FAVREAU: When we cast Robert, when he was approved and we got him to be in the movie and Marvel gave us its okay, it completely freed me because I knew that I was halfway there to having a movie that I could be proud of. I can’t think of anyone better than him. He brings a reality, a humor, a panache, a life of experience where he really feels like with what he’s bringing to the table—there is a lot of Tony Stark in him. That’s so much better than trying to teach someone to pretend that they are funny or pretend that they are smart or pretend that they’re talented or pretend that they’ve lived with fame and lived with all of the challenges and benefits of it.
Can you talk about the fans that are following your progress on this?
FAVREAU: Yeah, the fans are great.
How did they react to the picture of the armor when it was released?
FAVREAU: They’ve been great about everything, they really have. You almost want something out there that they’ll have a problem with early on so that you can get that out of the way because, look, fans for any movie are important. For this particular type of movie, that’s the nucleus of your audience and I don’t know if the Internet is something that could be seen as dictating the marketplace or not. I don’t understand how that works yet, but I know that as a filmmaker I get that the 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 minutia of the detail in certain cases because it’s a great thing. 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 out there 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 that I see is like, ‘Thank you for caring so much about it. I’ve been waiting for this movie for twenty years. I’ve been waiting for ten years since I heard that they were going to first make this. This was my particular favorite superhero and it’s nice to see that it’s getting this type of treatment and this type of cast.’ When they first hear that it’s getting made they get excited and then they hear who you’re casting and then they go, “Oh, this might actually be one of those types of superhero movies and not the other kind of superhero movie.”
In terms of comic book storytelling what lessons did you take from, not just Marvel movies, but from comic book movies in general?
FAVREAU: Well, I think that [Chris] Nolan is just really reinventing the genre yet again. I mean, I really liked the first “Batman” movie, the Tim Burton one was very exciting. 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 that they did their last movie before that, but they were able to sort of hit reset and come with that and make it fresh again was exciting to me. That said that the sky is the limit for who you could get and 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 character is because we don’t know any better or have the resources. So, as you see Peter Jackson, as you see Chris Nolan, as you see 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 love it and they’re excited by it. Then I get to play with all of the toys and build the suits and do the CG, build all of these great sets. For me that’s what it’s all about.
I think that 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 car chase or your big explosion is two people having a conversation that’s interesting. It sort of sharpens those tools and so by the time you have all of these great storyboard artists and designers and CGI wizards coming, you’re not relying on that. You’re not just hammocking between those set pieces. You’re able to actually bring in what you need. I mean, when I’m here with Gwyneth [Paltrow] and Robert, I’m working with them in the same way as if I had written the spec script and was shooting it for a million bucks. You bring that same sensibility to it and hopefully—I don’t want to lie to you like I know it—it all comes together in a way where it feels like 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.
Can you talk about the design of the suit?
FAVREAU: We have some artists that we had hired to work on it. Phil Saunders and Ryan Meinerding worked on various suits that we have. They’re people that I had met on “Zathura”—Phil. Ryan I met as I was developing “John Carter of Mars.” They’re great artists, and they have a whole department overseen by Mike Riva who is our production designer and then I really gravitated to the Adi Granov stuff. Adi had actually contacted me through MySpace because I set up a little group, or actually even before the group, just when I put my thing up he contacted me to be my friend. He said, “I thought that you might want to meet me. I’m the guy who did all the drawings that you have on your website.” I was like, “Oh, I would love to talk to you.” He was really excited to get involved. He was doing some drawings for us. We flew him out here and 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. Also, when you have practical things it tends to keep the CG a little more honest because if you have to make a direct cut from a practical suit that you love the way it looks to something virtual you now have a litmus test.
What was important to retain about the comic book suit?
FAVREAU: With the suit it was the more that we could. I didn’t want to reinvent it. It’s not like the glowing Superman fiber optic suit. I really am embracing what it is and the best thing that 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 wanted to keep the personality of it. Everyone was like, “Holy sh--, that’s so cool.” So immediately we were like, “What’s going to happen when they see the Mark III?” What happened when we showed the Mark III was, “This is great. It’s just like I saw it in my head.” That’s a very hard thing to achieve because everyone sees different things in their head. So it was just like that and everyone was like, “Oh, but that’s clearly a CG suit.” And then all of a sudden, I think that they saw the suit and a guy moving around with the suit on. They were like, “Wait, it’s not a fake. It’s a real suit with a real guy.” Of course we could do different stuff in CG than it can for real and that’s what becomes the difficulty, it’s where you do that. You don’t want to be moving around like Robocop and then he flies through the air and he looks like Spider-Man. So that’s the balancing act that we’re playing, but we have great people on it.
What’s been the most challenging scene to shoot so far?
FAVREAU: Scene to shoot? The most challenging scene to shoot, well, when we were at Edwards Air Force Base and we had all of the C-17s and the Raptors and all the stuff that Rhodes has—we made him an Air Force lieutenant colonel. We took a little bit of a leap there, but the logistics of that were very hard because there are a lot of things that you can’t point a camera at there and there’s a flight line. I mean, they’re testing state-of-the-art, experimental aircraft there. So all of the stuff we have, thinking that we have the best stuff, there are hangars there that you can’t go near. I’m sure that they have stuff in there that they’re flying around now.
Anything about this whole process so far that’s been surprising for you?
FAVREAU: I’m surprised that I’m on schedule. That’s the biggest surprise. I brag always that I’ve stayed on schedule all the time and I have on every movie that I’ve ever been on and I’m always on budget and I’m always on time, and I thought with this one there was going to be curve balls and so much out of my control, and so the fact that we’re on schedule now and things have seemed to have borne out well is great. I’m also surprised by the amount of freedom that I’ve gotten from Marvel.
Why are you surprised about that?
FAVREAU: Well, because there are certain things that Marvel is very meticulous about and there’s a definite formula to the way that the action is done and so when it comes to the scenes between people we have very, very good actors. 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. So we could sit in the trailer with the Marvel guys, with the producers and the actors, and talk about what the scene should be about based on what we’ve shot and we’ve learned and there is a flexibility in the material. So in a lot of ways there is a lot of freedom to try things in different ways and get what we know we need to get the story to work and then bring a certain humor to it sometimes or a humanity to it. So there’s a real sense of freshness and discovery in this project.
Were you ready for the challenge this movie was going to present in terms of the CGI involved and also from the vocal fan base?
FAVREAU: I was ready for the challenge. I mean, I had done “Zathura” last. My last experiences were developing “John Carter of Mars” which we did a bang-up job on, beautiful artwork and these guys, [Mark] Fergus and [Hawk] Ostby, did a great script for us and everyone loved it. They were just scared of that genre or the material or the fact that they had “Star Trek” coming out next year. Not only did they not greenlight it, but they let the rights lapse thinking that this was not a project that anyone would care to do. Then of course you’ve got Brad Bird and Pixar 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 is 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” right over there. They’re doing a huge, huge movie in a room this size. That’s the new way they’re doing it. So I think that they missed a tremendous opportunity with that, but I’m glad that it’s going to be made.
Then the last experience before that was “Zathura.” We worked really hard on that and we made a movie that was well received, but was not really supported in a way. It was the best-reviewed movie that Sony had that year, and there was never one billboard. They didn’t even print up posters and so that was very disappointing that we came in at the end of a long string of flops over there at Sony, between “Stealth” and “Zorro” and everything that they had, and by the time that we had come out there wasn’t really a game plan, I don’t think, 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 to fall through the cracks.
So, when you work with Marvel, you know that there is a fan base of core fans that are going to pay attention to what you’re doing. If you’re doing a good job those fans will be very vocal and word will spread and right now so many people try to virally create this sense of grass roots something 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 of 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 the word will get out there and people will start to pay attention to it. I think that reviewers aren’t really paid that much attention to. I care about reviews. I like reviews, but if you look at the correlation between reviews and box office, it doesn’t really correspond. I think that people are looking to the Internet and to peers and to see what the buzz and to see how the buzz is growing. “Transformers” is building a tremendous buzz now. I think regardless of the reviews it gets I know that my kid wants to see “Transformers” and I’m going to see it with my kids.
Can you talk about the commercial pressure coming off of “Zathura”? Do you feel like this one better be a hit?
FAVREAU: What’s good is that “Elf” really sort of carved a real path for me, and so, if “Zathura” had been a bad movie and not made money then I would have something to worry about. I think 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---ed up the marketing, but you made a good movie. If you can make me a good movie I’ll take care of my end of things.” I don’t know that it’s ever been a director’s job to create a marketing campaign. I mean, you do sometimes have a voice in it, but ultimately I think that they just include you enough to make you feel like part of the process so that you’ll hit up the actors to do what they need them to do. They can’t get an actor to go to Comic-Con. I can turn to Robert and say, “Comic-Con is f---ing fun and it’s going to blow your mind. Wait until you see how many people give a sh-- about this movie. Wait until you walk into that room and see it.” They’ll say, “Really?” I’ll say, “It’s going to be fun. We’ll have a blast. We’ll go out to dinner and have a good time. We’ll walk the floor. Bring your kids. I’ve done it two years in a row. My kids love it and San Diego is great—” and they’ll go. Or you say, “Hey, let’s do this one extra interview. Let’s add one extra day to the press junket. Let’s fly to the premiere here together.” If the director says that and is excited about it and buys into what’s going on I think that 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 kind of thing that you can’t buy with marketing money, but I don’t think that they really look to directors to lead the charge in ways other than participating.
So, the success of something certainly has a lot of benefits. It can keep a career going and it can 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 be creatively successful. If you can’t do either of those you’re not going to work for a long time.
Can you talk about casting Terrence Howard as Rhodes?
FAVREAU: Yeah, he’s great. Terrence was someone that they were talking to before. Avi [Arad] was talking to him even before I had been hired on. So by the time that I had come in he had brought in Terrence and it’s hard to argue with casting Terrence. I mean, he could’ve been Tony Stark if we had gone a little bit of a different way, different from the books. I think that he’s got those type of chops, and the idea that in success where you go with these movies, I think that’s where they fall short. People don’t think far enough in the future. They 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 where can we go? You can go “War Machine” with Terrence Howard. We could go a lot of different ways with this cast that we have.
Would you do four of these films?
FAVREAU: If the experience was as good as this I would do another one. It’s really hard to say at this point because I’m sure that Gore [Verbinski] and Sam [Raimi], I’m not sure that they would do four after what they’ve been through. That journey is 10 years, but I could see working on this thing. I think it’s been fun and great and hopefully it gets easier as it goes on and as you get it down.
With quality of the actors that you have and how demand in they are, how hard is it to get them back for more, or are they already locked into more?
FAVREAU: I think that if their experience is good, which it has been so far based on what everyone has told me—maybe they’ll say something different to you guys, but I know that I’ve made it fun and I’ve made it something where hopefully the quality of the work is as good as it is on any movie. So it doesn’t feel like they’re working on a movie that’s one for them, like you know, one for the man and then do one for themselves and then another for their career. Hopefully, they saw this as a big opportunity. I asked Robert what he wanted to do in his career now and he said that he wanted to make movies that were good and that people were going to see. That seems very simple, but it’s a pretty profound statement. Actors want to be in movies that are good and that they’re proud, but there is nothing more frustrating than making a great movie that is a featured title on Netflix that you go, “Oh, I really wanted to see that one.” You want to do a movie that’s going to be part of the culture. “Pirates of the Caribbean,” that’s like “The Sopranos.” Everyone knows what you’re talking about and you’ve seen it and it’s impacted lives and has created a cultural ripple. That’s something that you can’t always get with an indie. Sometimes that happens with something like “Swingers,” but usually it doesn’t.
How do you deal with the Internet presence on a movie like this?
FAVREAU: I welcome it because I’m right in there. It’s not as scary and weird and a looming presence. I go online and I look at stuff. I see what people are saying, that they’re saying, “What are you doing with this…?” and people are confused about this and there are certain things that they’re confused about that I want them to be confused about and there are things that they’re confused about that I don’t want them to be confused about. I don’t want them to be confused about whether or not we hired someone for the film because they’re reading on IMDb that something happened, or whether they think that the rating is going to be something else or whether the suit was designed this guy or that guy. So I like to clarify. It’s a game that you can play with the audience, but I think that if they know that you care and are paying attention and that there choices that you’re making because you’re making them as a choice and not because you don’t know what you’re doing, they like that.
So, to me, the buzz is great. I would’ve killed for people to care this much about the last movie I was on. What you don’t want is for something to disappear because you work so hard on this. I mean, we’re two years on this movie. I will have gone from a pregnant wife to a walking baby in the time that it takes to make this movie. That’s a mind-blower and in one bad weekend, if something happens, you have everything on one dice roll. So I love to have the interaction. I love to know that they’re out there. I love to know that after working a 14- hour day and things feel bleak and “Did I get everything that I need?” and then you go online and you see people saying, “Right on.” Even if it’s a little thing it’s a big deal. It’s not easy doing this sh--. I love it, but it’s hard.
Just look at that awesome armour. Updated for a modern look, but at the same time, it has a bit of that classic Iron Man retro armour feel.