If someone said in 2001, “I bet this Jon Favreau guy — the star, writer, and director of Made — is going to help turn Marvel into one of the most successful film studios ever,” you probably would’ve written them off as insane. When you think about it, though, Favreau exhibited a voice for character, story and comedy in Made and Swingers that was well-suited for the Marvel universe. His sensibility made Iron Man a hit, impacting the tone and spirit of the Marvel films that followed.
After his one-two punch at Marvel and a crack at a high-concept western, Favreau has returned to his roots with Chef, a film about a creatively unsatisfied cook, Carl Casper (Favreau), who also has to reconnect with his son. Some say the film is really about a filmmaker frustrated by the system, but, first and foremost, it deals with the important choices in life a creative has to make. “I knew I wanted to talk about the balance of career and family,” Favreau tells us. “By the time you hit my age, those little decisions you’ve made really affect your life and you think, ‘How did I end up here?’ A lot of people are confused by where they land. Often when you put all your effort into your career, it’s not as satisfying, because you don’t have that base and foundation.”
What is success without people to share it with? It’s an age old theme, but it’s something that Favreau hopes resonates.
Not everyone can relate to someone creatively frustrated by their high paying job, but balancing a personal and professional life is certainly universal.
Once Favreau finally got started on the script for Chef, the story flowed right out of him in a span of two weeks. “I had an experience like that on Swingers,” he recalls. “I had been thinking about it for a long time and the ideas that popped in my head. When something comes out that quickly it means it’s something you should be pursuing, because it doesn’t happen that often.” Although the script came together fast, that doesn’t mean Chef was an easy endeavor. With the exception of all the food porn, there’s no major spectacle to potentially fall back on. Definitely no third act fight scene between a genius billionaire and a mad man using reprogrammed flying suits.
“For a movie like this, where there’s no action set pieces, everything is about rhythm, performance, comedy, and character. It takes a lot of fine tuning.”
Essentially, Chef isn’t the kind of movie where someone can throw a bunch of money around to fix a problem. That’s a common belief about studio pictures, but Favreau makes that sound like a misconception. “On the big movies, you always have slightly less than you think you need to make a film. Now, you get a ton of money to make it, but what you’re trying to put on the screen is much more ambitious as well,” he says.
How many filmmakers say they were given all the money they needed? Not many. Sometimes fewer resources make for a more creative result, sometimes it leads to compromises. Either way it’s a challenge, but that’s just the nature of filmmaking . “You’re always right at the edge of worrying about things falling apart. It’s not like you’re ever comfortable and sitting back, letting things just happen at a natural pace.”
One thing is for certain, in Favreau’s case: he has to “leave it all on the field, no matter what size the field is.”
What keeps him engaged is testing his range as a filmmaker. Connections can be made between all of Favreau’s films, but taken at face value, they’re fiercely different stories. “I think variety has been a key to keeping me at the top of my form,” Favreau believes. “As a director, you have to be completely obsessive about what you’re doing. You have to really breathe and drink it while you’re doing it, and that can be over the course of a few years. By the time you’re done with each individual film, I think you’re ready for something different.” Favreau did spend four years on the Iron Man franchise, but the experience solidified Favreau’s desire to change things up.
After handing over Tony Stark to Shane Black, Favreau made a wildly different film, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens. That sci-fi western was a major gamble that didn’t pay off. There was always an inherent issue in selling that movie: the title doesn’t match the film’s seriousness. It gives the expectation of something goofy and ironic even has Favreau opens it with a John Ford sensibility.
If Favreau could go back in time, he still wouldn’t make that tongue-in-cheek version. “It was a wonderful experience,” Favreau says. “I worked with some great people, I learned a tremendous amount, and I’m very proud of it. Maybe there could have been another version of the film done by someone else that could have hit the sweet spot, but the idea of shooting on film, anamorphic, and really exploring the Western tropes and mashing it up with an alien invasion movie seemed ambitious and cool.”
Chef not only tackles the creative process, but the harsh criticisms that come with the territory, which, after the response to Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau is grindingly familiar with. In the film Oliver Platt plays an unrelenting food critic who isn’t afraid of lacing personal insults into his opinions. While people online can get carried away with their digs and personal jabs, that’s not the kind of response that gets under Favreau’s skin. “If it’s individuals who take issue with me, that doesn’t really bother me,” says Favreau. “What bothers me more is when people don’t react strongly. With Cowboys & Aliens I felt there was a general sense of enjoyment, but not anyone too passionately excited about what I had done. That felt sad, because I poured a lot into that. They just didn’t want my flavor of ice cream, and that’s understandable.”
At the end of the day — a creative success or not — Favreau made the ice cream he wanted to make.
Here’s where the joy of smaller-scale filmmaking comes into play. When you’re directing a movie that costs over $100m, more than a few people have a say in what kind of ice cream is being produced. Most major releases are Vanilla flavored, but sometimes we need Rocky Road or, if we’re really desperate, Mint Chocolate Chip. Sadly, we’re mostly stuck with Vanilla. A filmmaker may think their ice cream sundae is perfect as is, but Favreau considers it naive to think your ice cream will go untouched at a studio. “You’re constantly making adjustments, collaborating, and occasionally compromising,” the filmmaker shares, discussing the level of collaboration on a tentpole film. “Hopefully, you win the proper battles.”
There’s still plenty of advantages when making a big studio film. Who doesn’t want more toys to play with? Favreau does, but he wants those toys put to good use.
“On a studio film, you have a lot of support and a lot of really talented people helping you see your vision through, but you’re also dealing with the people financing the movie, who tend not to want to take too many risks,” he says. “You’re always challenging to see how far you can push it, while still maintaining a security of the minds of the people who’ve hired you.”
Chef has empathy for the people signing the checks, not only the artists. When Carl Casper wants to experiment, Favreau and Casper’s boss, played by Dustin Hoffman, point out his desire to experiment comes at a cost. “I kind of believe what Dustin Hoffman says in the film: he’s paying for it, Carl is taken care of, and he should play his greatest hits,” Favreau says. “The problem is, when you’re creative you want permission to try new things. When you’re changing the menu at an established restaurant that’s working, then you’re messing with a lot of people’s livelihood, and the movie business is that way, too.”
On a smaller movie like Chef, nobody’s livelihood is at risk, which is why we’re only hearing Favreau’s voice in the film. Favreau refers to this as his “solo album,” for good reason.
And like Carl Casper, it’s also Favreau’s past successes that have afforded him the chance to make a project like this. Favreau is well-aware how lucky he is to be in this position, and he wishes others had the same opportunity. “The opportunities to do films that are based in reality, and not based on escapism, is not the stronger bet to the people putting the money up,” he says. “The financial model for smaller and naturalistic comedies, where they’re only R-rated because of language, is more difficult now.”
That’s sad to Favreau for many reasons, but most of all because of what we’re missing out on as moviegoers and film fans. “I hope the days of being able to go to the theater and sharing a reaction with an audience [for these dramas] aren’t behind us, but it’s starting to go away. You’re getting great content on television, cable, and Netflix, but those are still experiences you’re having as an individual. There’s something about sharing the experience which is special, and it seems sharing an experience is being reserved for very hard comedies or big action franchises.”
Of course VOD is a great way to reach people who don’t have an arthouse theater around the block. Does it really match discovering a film in a theater full of people, though? We still have those experiences, but as the years go by, they’re happening less and less. If Chef wasn’t put together by a name like Favreau’s, it’s doubtful it would have even been made in the first place. Favreau says he can’t fight history and what people are and aren’t interested in making. But, if given the chance, he’ll keep making films like Chef, as well as high-profile releases like The Jungle Book.
His next project is a movie meant for everyone to enjoy, and there will undoubtedly be a lot of cooks in the kitchen for it, but sometimes it’s nice simply to make ice cream for yourself.