Jon Favreau on Path From 'Swingers' ('I Went From Outsider to Insider') to 'Jungle Book' ('A Film You Could Only Make Now')

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Jon Favreau (left) with Robert Rodriguez on El Rey Network’s ‘The Director’s Chair,’ airing Sept. 25 (Photo: El Rey Network)

Jon Favreau is arguably the most bankable mainstream Hollywood filmmaker working today, given the combined $1 billion-plus at the global box office for his two Iron Man movies and the eye-popping $965 million global take for this past April’s The Jungle Book. This Sunday, the 49-year-old actor-director discusses his diverse filmography on El Rey Network’s The Director’s Chair, an auteur-centric interview show hosted by Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Spy Kids), one of the few places on TV now where fans can get in-depth conversations about the artistic, and logistical, craft of moviemaking from those immersed in it. In advance of that appearance, Favreau spoke with us about balancing big studio projects with a smaller character-driven drama like 2014’s Chef; his fascination with new filmmaking technology; the 20th anniversary of his breakthrough in Swingers; and the thrill of being a fly-on-the-wall on a Martin Scorsese set.

You’re on this Sunday’s episode of The Director’s Chair. Do you enjoying talking about the nitty-gritty process of moviemaking?
I’ve known Robert for a long time, and I like his show. I’ve seen other filmmakers on it, and he asked me to do it. So it was more like talking to a friend as opposed to doing an in-depth interview. He’s very well prepared, but it was kind of an easy conversation to be had, and I think the more it’s conversational, the more, as an audience member, I like to watch things like this. It was a lot of fun.

Did it make you miss Dinner for Five [Favreau’s 2001-05 IFC Network roundtable talk show], which was another venue where artists could chat about anything, including moviemaking?
It was definitely a reminder of that, because that show was also very conversational. I think it stood out a little bit whenever it was we were doing it, 10-15 years ago. Now, audiences are being catered to in a more specific way, with things like podcasting, and having lots of channels and online outlets. You can find whatever tone, and whatever people, you want. I think that’s what’s fun about this particular show, The Director’s Chair. I know that, if I’m going to see a director that I like sitting down with Robert, I’m going to get more of an inside-baseball feel of a director talking to another director. I think that’s unique.

Your last two movies — The Jungle Book and Chef — are wildly different in terms of scope, subject matter, tone…
[Laughs] Fair to say.

Jon Favreau’s ‘Chef’: Watch the trailer:

Is it important for you, artistically, to continue doing both types of projects?
I think you have to do what’s interesting. You have to be completely engaged as a director. You have to live with it, sometimes for 2-3 years, as was the case with The Jungle Book. You have to find something that you’re willing to eat, breathe, and sleep for that whole time. And variety is, for me, a way to keep it all fresh and interesting. So it’s not a tactical decision as much as it is one of knowing that I’m going to give my best if I’m completely engaged with the subject and project.

Related: Secrets of Disney’s 2016 ‘Jungle Book’: From Bleeding-Edge FX to Bill Murray’s Brisket

Was the technological challenge of The Jungle Book, which involved a tremendous amount of digital artistry, a big part of its appeal to you?
I think so. It’s always fun to see what the state-of-the-art has to offer as far as technology when it comes to filmmaking. It was really fun to get involved and use those tools, especially having come off of Chef, which was a tiny film in comparison, and a film that you could have made 20 years ago. The Jungle Book was a film that you could only make now. It was really interesting working with the best people in the business, and learning what was possible, and it kind of opened me up to what other types of stories could be told using similar technologies.

I imagine directing something that requires so many digital effects is almost like its own unique, new skill. Was it something that took a lot of time to get a handle on?
Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. Each medium has its own approach that you have to take to get the best outcome. A movie like Chef, you’re kind of in there, and you’re directing and acting and participating. With something like Jungle Book, you’re more like an executive chef where you’re overseeing a lot of other people who are good at what they do. But you have to create a consistent vision and a consistent product over a thousand shots, and so each of them has to fit together like a puzzle piece into a big mosaic. You’re really overseeing a lot of people, and there’s a lot of the management aspect of directing required there. Whereas on a smaller film, you can just go in there and do much of it yourself.

They’re both equally interesting to me. They’re just different muscles, and they both come down to the shared characteristic of storytelling. That’s the underlying skill in all of these areas. You’re just using a different set of tools to tell that story. I’ve even done some work in virtual reality, and a lot of what I learned on Jungle Book was able to inform that process. So it just gives you a much wider breadth of media that you can use as a storyteller.

Can you speak a bit about that virtual-reality work?
In the last couple of weeks, we put out a preview of a project called Gnomes and Goblins, which puts you in an enchanted forest, and you’re befriending a little goblin, and it’s done in virtual reality. We’re exploring not only the animation of it, but the A.I. [artificial intelligence] of it as well. There are lot of ways to tell a story beyond just the traditional linear storytelling, and we’re starting to explore what those possibilities might be. But the actual technical pipeline is very similar to motion-capture, which was something that we used to a great extent with the design of Jungle Book, and I worked with many of the same people as well.

Related: Jon Favreau Breaks Down Disney’s Live-Action ‘The Jungle Book’ Teaser: From the Digital Toolbox to the ‘Bare Necessities’

It’s an evolving technical landscape right now in the way stories are told, and what’s nice is to take little steps into areas you haven’t been before, and then you realize that there are possibilities beyond those horizons. It’s really fun for someone as curious as I am about the technical side of things. There’s so much ground being broken in so many areas, and people are just beginning to scratch the surface of the stories you can tell using all these tools.

When you started out, did you ever envision being this immersed in, or fascinated by, the technological side of filmmaking?
As a fan, I loved reading Starlog magazine, and seeing behind-the-scenes of how films were made. I loved looking at stop-motion and miniatures and visual-effects films. I always found it really captivating. I loved looking at [Ray] Harryhausen’s work and the original King Kong. I remember seeing that in the theater as a little kid in a re-release. I’d always been really intrigued by it. I don’t think it was ever with the thought that I’d actually make the stuff; I was just really curious about it, and thought it was really cool.

As I got older, the visual effects films were always more expensive, so I found my way into filmmaking through the independent film scene, and through comedy, which I also was a big fan of. Later on, I felt like there was a period where the visual effects films were more geared toward the effects and less toward the stories, and I wasn’t convinced out of the gate that CGI should have been used to the extent that it was. I found it sometimes distracting. I loved Jurassic Park, I thought that was great use of it. But I felt that there were a lot of films in the following decade that didn’t use those same tools as effectively. It was a bit more hit-or-miss. Now, I’m finding that other filmmakers are using it more skillfully as they understand these tools better, and they become integrated well into the storytelling. I think Ex Machina was a really good example of the visual effects reinforcing the emotional story as opposed to distracting from it.

Your big breakthrough came with 1996’s Swingers, which is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. What was the biggest thing, personally, that came out of that film?
I think it opened doors for me, in that people connected with the movie and so they saw me as somebody who was part of the Hollywood community. I went from being outsider to insider. And I was able to make a living after that, doing writing assignments. It just got my foot in the door. There were a couple of gigs that resulted from it. But really, it just bought me the next round.

‘Swingers’: Watch the scene where Mike (Jon Favreau) meets Lorraine (Heather Graham):

It was exciting, but you always have to clear new hurdles. I’ve been very fortunate that my breaks have come consistently, but over the course of a long period of time. It wasn’t really until Elf that I was established as a filmmaker, even though Swingers had happened many years prior. While I was able to make a living and be part of the Hollywood community, it wasn’t until Elf did well that I was seen as a viable person to hire as a filmmaker.

Then, years later, Iron Man came along. So I’ve had enough good fortune that I’ve been able to make a living over the course of an entire career, and to be very selective about the types of projects that I’ve worked on, so that I’ve only worked on things that I’ve been very excited about. That’s something I’m appreciative about.

Zathura seemed like the first film where you really embraced special effects as a big tool…
If you look closely at Elf, you’ll actually realize that it has a lot of visual effects too. Especially low-tech effects: the forced-perspective, the stop-motion animation, and there was also some CGI, with the reindeer, later in the film. I was able to play in that sandbox a bit. And then Zathura was a bit of a step up from that. With Zathura, I was using other, mostly low-tech visual effects as well: motion-control, miniatures for the spaceships in the house. You know, there was a lot of really cool stuff I got to experiment with. And although that film didn’t do well at the box office, it was very well-received, and in a roundabout way, it opened the door for me being hired to direct Iron Man. I think they looked at Zathura and saw that I was comfortable with the more technical aspects of storytelling.

Do you have anything to do with Dwayne Johnson’s upcoming sequel to Jumanji (which was written by Zathura author Chris Van Allsburg)?
Oh no. No, I’m an audience member [laughs]. It will be very interesting to see what can be done now with that premise, with the new tools that are available. Because the original Jumanji was very groundbreaking at the time, and there are a lot of things that still hold up well in it. It’ll be interesting to see how they build on that, with much more sophisticated tools. Because animals are always tricky to do convincingly, and I think technology has now caught up with the challenge. I certainly have learned a lot through working on Jungle Book in that regard.

After Iron Man 2, you sort of left the Marvel fold to explore other projects. Was that a tough decision to make at the time?
Well, as far as directing goes, I had done two back-to-back, and that required a tremendous amount of concentration on one subject. Fortunately, I didn’t lose connection with it; I just wasn’t directing there. I still was executive-producing Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3, and I appeared in Iron Man 3. So I maintained the relationship as part of the family. And now, in Spider-Man: Homecoming, coming back and reuniting with the characters as an actor — it’s a lot of fun. It allows me to maintain the relationship with the MCU, but also to do other things that are interesting that are outside of that genre and that set of characters.

Is it easier to return as just an actor, without the pressure of having to shoulder the burden of the gargantuan production?
Yeah. It’s fun to come back as an actor. Especially when the filmmakers are taking care of you, and taking care of the characters and the story. If you’re in good hands, it’s great to come in and play in somebody else’s world. That’s how I started, as an actor. I really enjoy being on other people’s sets, especially if I have cool things to do. It’s all the fun and much less of the responsibility.

I imagine that, as an established director, you also get a rare chance to see how other filmmakers work, and to learn from them first-hand.
Oh yeah. I remember Rob Reiner and I were both actors on The Wolf of Wall Street, and Martin Scorsese was directing. And [Reiner] and I were totally geeking out on everything. We were paying attention to what lenses he was using, what shots he was doing — you know, it’s like being an invisible observer. Because being a director, you really don’t get to learn from other directors that often. So when you’re an actor, it’s this wonderful opportunity to observe and to ask questions. Even subconsciously, you’re imprinting on what you’re seeing. That’s how I learned to direct in the first place, by being on other people’s sets as an actor. That’s why, by the time I actually stepped up to be a director, I had been on so many sets that I was quite comfortable. It was a de facto apprenticeship.

The role that I played in The Wolf of Wall Street wasn’t a big starring role, but it was an opportunity to be on the set with some great actors and, of course, a master director. That was really fun, and I like it. Especially if it’s for short runs, where you can just go there, immerse yourself, and go home, and then the next thing you know you’re at the premiere. It’s fun.

Watch Jon Favreau’s conversation with Martin Scorsese on ‘Dinner for Five’:

The Jungle Book is your third PG-rated family film (after Elf and Zathura), and all three seem to be concerned with seeing the world through a child’s eyes as a big, extraordinary, fantastical place. Is that perspective something you’re instinctively drawn to, or perhaps something you’ve become more interested in since becoming a father?
As I get older, I definitely get more aware of how my stuff is going to play to all audiences, because I have kids, and I see how they react to stuff. And also, I think, you begin to become a lot more compelled by the emotional aspects of the storytelling. If you tell a story that’s emotionally sound, it could be received by lots of different audiences, and lots of different ages. And if you’re doing subject matter that’s geared toward kids as well as adults, it’s just prudent to not make it something that, as a dad, I’d be uncomfortable if my kid saw.

You really get a sense of that in your gut as you get older, and as you become a parent. But we change over the course of our careers. We’re different people than we were 10, 20, 30 years ago, and so the stories we tell are different too, because you’re intrigued by other aspects of life, and there are different lessons that you wrestle with in life at different points of maturity. I’m about to turn 50, and the stuff that intrigues me about Jungle Book is the emotion, the connection, the sense of family, the sense of exile, the hero’s journey. I tend to gravitate to the old myths, the old Joseph Campbell-type mono-myth stories. And those stories tend to be told best in the most general terms. If you do, you can appeal to audiences not just of different ages and genders, but from different places.

But then, Chef was rated R [laughs]. That was a couple of years before, and in that, there’s a lot of foul language. I felt that that was true to that particular world. Restaurant kitchens are not PG places. So I think there’s room for all types of stories.