Obscurity Can Get You Places

Bill Higgins is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

Jon Favreau seems at home in a peach-colored Naugahyde booth at the Hollywood Hills Coffee Shop. Billie Holiday sings "Night and Day" in the background. It's just down Franklin Avenue from where, until recently, the actor-writer lived in a $470-per-month apartment. He'd come here often for a nice, leisurely, 1-in-the-afternoon breakfast, as underemployed actors are supposed to do. Then go home, look for work, pick up an unemployment check, hope a residual payment would arrive. And maybe go to a bar at night.

Those nights in the Sinatra-drenched "cocktail nation" bar scene, plus a romance gone bad, form the basis of "Swingers," the film he wrote and stars in, which opens Friday. Favreau drew from his own life and the lives of fellow less-than-fully-employed actors--exaggerating a few things but keeping it real enough that he demanded the movie be cast with his friends. That he succeeded, he says, "is the real miracle of this film."

There were countless approaches to investors, meetings with production companies, even an unsuccessful pitch to a Pakistani arms dealer. ("I think he sold missile systems," Favreau recalls.)

"We did reading after reading after reading," says the New York-born Favreau, 29. "It was like we were a touring company for a year and a half. Every investor heard it. After all that, I couldn't face my friends and say, 'I drew so heavily on you, you helped me so much--I'll get you next time.' These guys [Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston, Alex Desert and Patrick Van Horn] had to play those roles."

It was a persistence that paid off. Favreau's photograph now hangs on the coffee shop's wall, not far from the 8-by-10 glossy of Carl Ballantine of "McHale's Navy" fame. By filming here, Favreau has brought honor to these Naugahyde booths, so much that the manager refuses payment when he gets up to leave.

His temperamental 1964 Comet convertible, which somehow made it to Las Vegas in the film, is parked outside. Favreau loves it but needs something more dependable. If the film is a gargantuan hit, he'd like to see the Comet "on the ceiling of a Planet Hollywood leaking oil on somebody's chicken fingers."

Hit or not, Favreau's days of underemployment appear over. He's writing a draft of Universal's "Leatherheads," about the National Football League's violent early days; he's planning to direct his script "The Marshal of Revelation," about a Hasidic gunfighter in the Old West; and he's been hired to write and direct "The Bachelor's Secret Handbook" for Touchstone.

He pulls a baseball cap with a stylish "Swingers" logo out of the glove compartment. But the hat has nothing to do with the film--it's from a restaurant on Beverly Boulevard. When Favreau and producers Victor Simpkins and Nicole LaLoggia were trying to raise money for the film, they'd hand them out to potential investors. Eventually, they bought so many the restaurant started giving them a price break.

As the Comet rumbles eastward and Dean Martin croons the opening song from the soundtrack, "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You," Favreau explains how he hooked up with director Doug Liman, who had access to about $250,000. This was just barely enough to start shooting. Favreau now estimates the film's total cost, with music, post-production expenses and deferred salaries, at just over $1 million. There were reports that Miramax Films acquired "Swingers" for $5 million. When asked, Favreau smiles and says that amount was "greatly exaggerated." (Miramax had no comment.)

He pulls up at the Derby, which specializes in the '40s swing dance scene. That's appropriate, since the location's history stretches even past that era. First it was Willard's Chicken Inn, featuring caged poultry. (Their slogan: "Chicken whose feet never touch the ground.") Then it was one of L.A.'s five Brown Derbys before becoming Michael's Los Feliz, then the Derby.

The main room is 100 feet by 35 feet, lined on one wall with six private booths hung with burgundy velvet curtains. Anchoring the center of the room is an ornate oval bar. The focal point is the bandstand where Jimmy & the Gigolos play this night. Favreau looks around and says, "The first time I walked in here I knew this is where the movie had to end. This is where he meets the girl. If you look at it like 'The Wizard of Oz,' this is the Emerald City."

As soon as Favreau arrives, he meets a friend, Martina Migenes, and they head onto the dance floor, where they do some surprisingly adept East Coast swing. He prepared for the role by coming to the Derby week after week, and his now elegant dancing is a reflection of just how long it took to pull together the film's financing.

"We tried to use this cocktail-nation like a backdrop. Like 'Saturday Night Fever' isn't a movie about disco, it's just set in that era," Favreau says. "It's not like we were doing the lambada, where it's the forbidden dance and how we master it. It's more like the backdrop."

The Derby allowed them to shoot here on a regular night with the customers as unpaid extras. They even let them do a light parody of the famous "GoodFellas" prolonged Steadicam shot in which the cast enters the club through the kitchen.

Tolerant as it might have been, the club drew the line when the production brought a rabbit and placed it on the bar for a key scene. "It's like a board of health thing," Favreau says. "You can't have a live animal in an eating establishment. After that, they threw us out."

While he's talking, one of the club's owners points out the "Swingers" poster on the wall (the premiere party would be held here a week later) and hands him a pack of matches embossed with the film's logo. Favreau holds them and gawks. He says hello to a few more regulars, then immediately wants to leave.

"If you had told me a year ago I'd walk into the Derby and there'd be a one-sheet and matches," he says outside, "I'd swear you were crazy."

He revs up the Comet and drives a few blocks east to the Dresden Room, another film location. It's a bar-restaurant-cabaret where the tattoo and nose ring generation savors the martini. Imagine the cast of "Friends" doing a time-travel episode to a lounge room at Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo.

Though Favreau says some retro bars remind him "of Civil War reenactments," here, with house regulars Marty & Elaine playing in the background, he seems at home. But all this nouveau Rat Pack ambience still can't keep his mind off the "Swingers" matchbook. It's the first thing he mentions when Vaughn, his co-star, arrives.

They have been friends since 1992, when they met on the set of "Rudy" (Favreau has lost 75 pounds since his role as a Notre Dame football player in that film).

Since "Swingers" wrapped, Vaughn has seen his career skyrocket, landing a key role in the "Jurassic Park" sequel. Favreau says that for an actor to be cast in a Spielberg film "is the American equivalent of knighthood."

Vaughn knows the coming tidal wave of publicity is going to change his life, but this book of matches with his silhouette emblazoned on the inside cover is the first concrete evidence.

It sits on the table. They stare. This must have been what it was like the first time Harrison Ford saw himself as a "Star Wars" action figure.

After a few moments, they talk about how, after several years in the business, they're mature enough to handle whatever fame might come their way.

"We might be Cinderellas," Favreau says, "but we've seen a lot of balls."

The next morning, they are to audition for the lead voices in a DreamWorks animated film, and even though they're clearly excited, they haven't spent a lot of time preparing.

"Have you looked at it yet?" Favreau asks. Vaughn makes an evasive hand gesture.

"Do you even have it?" Vaughn looks up at the ceiling.

"Well, we'll get there 15 minutes early and go over it a couple times," Favreau says, settling the matter.

So two guys who a few months ago were desperate for any work are now confident enough to wing it in front of high-powered casting executives. A fringe benefit, they say, from their "Swingers" experience.

"We've been through such an adventure getting this movie made," Favreau explains, "I trust our friendship."

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