Get some indirect creative advice from Jon Favreau, who went from being a decent actor to one of the most successful filmmakers in the world.
In 1985, an 18-year-old Jon Favreau snuck onto the New York City set of Turk 182 by pretending to be a crew member. He just wanted to take in the “magic” and see how movies are made. Three decades later, he’s one of the biggest moviemakers in the world, responsible for such diverse classics as Swingers (as its writer), Elf and Iron Man, and his latest directorial effort, Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book, is set to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.
Favreau took an interesting path to get here. He started as an actor, quickly segued into writing, then directing, then producing. He has done indies and tentpoles, kicked off what’s now the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also delivered his share of flops. Along the way, he has managed to stay true to himself and what he wants in his career, and he’s also remained fairly open and down to earth when it comes to working with every side of the business. Even the side that pays for the goods.
Below are six tips we’ve pulled from various interviews that best represent how he’s become such an accomplished multihyphenate and what he does to maintain that success.
Play Dungeons & Dragons
Favreau is one of the self-proclaimed nerd filmmakers. He grew up on comic books and role-playing games, and while the former helped him with certain gigs it’s the latter that prepared him more for the actual work. He’s mentioned his history with Dungeons & Dragons in many interviews, but he really went deep on how that background has helped him as a filmmaker on a 2015 episode of The Tim Ferris Show. Below is a transcribed and edited excerpt from the interview, which you can hear in full here.
It encouraged a set of skills that is not that unlike filmmaking. You’re telling a story. And especially if you’re a Dungeon Master, you’re telling the story in a way where the people who are participating, who’ve signed on, are experiencing it in a very subjective way. There appears to be a level of spontaneity or free will — and there is, built into it — but you’re creating a context and a world and an experience that’s very specifically curated. You’re guaranteeing a sort of experience regardless of what they do within it. Watching movies, the illusion is that you’re subjectively experiencing the film as an individual and you are kind of making those decisions in a de facto way through the character that you’re following the film through. If a character in a film ever makes a decision that an audience doesn’t feel that they agree with, it changes the experience, it becomes like a horror movie — “don’t go in that room!” It becomes a very different type of experience.
Elsewhere, Favreau recognizes that it was Dungeons & Dragons for him, but there are similar things out there, especially now, that can do the same trick. Here’s what he told The Sydney Morning Herald this month about his D&D past and what he did next that was sort of the subsequent step on the bridge toward making movies:
“The skills you come up with through role playing — now kids are doing it more online with computer games — you’re opening your mind up to new worlds,” he says. “Back when I used to play, you just had dice and a pencil and paper and your imagination so you were building worlds and building characters.
“Then I did improvisation in Chicago which was related in a way where you were creating stuff with your imagination and really storytelling comes down to that same skill set.”
Give Audiences a Mix of Familiar and Unfamiliar
Favreau has made some personal (though not necessarily autobiographical) movies, but he’s becoming better known for his work on projects with built-in audiences. There are his two Iron Man installments, the lesser-known-comic adaptation Cowboys & Aliens, the children’s book adaptation Zathura and now the Jungle Book remake. And these sorts of movies can be tricky in the way they have to be faithful but also not just rehashes in a new medium. Here’s another quote from The Sydney Morning Herald:
The balancing act – and other filmmakers of my generation are dealing with similar issues because they’re sometimes rebooting, remaking, making sequels to established franchises – is you have to understand, and you have to be sensitive to, what the expectations might be and do something both expected and unexpected at the same time.
He also spoke on the matter to ABC News at the new movie’s premiere, more specifically addressing The Jungle Book and remakes:
“I think there’s always…some trepidation,” he explains, “because you don’t want to…disappoint people who have grown up watching the original film. And so you want to honor the original — but…if you just remake the original, there are no surprises. And I think people, you’re asking people to go to the movie theater and buy a ticket, you gotta give ’em what they want, but you gotta surprise ’em with something new, too.”