‘Iron Man’s’ action figure
Jon Favreau sounded tired on the phone Sunday morning. It had been a long weekend, but a great weekend. And a profitable one: The director of “Iron Man” was hearing that his film would crack the $100-million mark in its opening weekend, a staggering success for a movie that, as Favreau put it, nobody really cared about or was thinking about when it was announced two years ago.
Favreau and the film’s star, Robert Downey Jr., were all over town Thursday and Friday, dropping in at theaters to gauge the crowd reaction and, in some spots, give the fans a bit of a thrill.
“We went to one midnight show and I introduced the movie, then I brought Robert out and the crowd gave him a standing ovation,” Favreau said. “You could feel that this movie was really bringing energy to the theater.”
“Iron Man” is Favreau’s fourth film as a director and, he said with a chuckle, there’s now a very good chance that his fifth movie will have the armor-plated hero returning for a victory lap.
“I don’t take anything for granted, though,” he said, his voice croaky from the string of late nights. “Not after ‘Zathura.’ ” “Zathura” was his previous film, and although the 2005 project had a core of genre fans who adored it, the movie with the hard-to-say title did not connect with a wide audience. It was cruel shock for Favreau, who had a hit with his first big film, the endearing 2003 Will Ferrell holiday movie, “Elf.”
The odyssey that brought Favreau to a bit of box-office history (“Iron Man” is the second-biggest non-sequel opening weekend ever, trailing only fellow Marvel Comics property “Spider-Man” in 2002) is an interesting one, with some unexpected paths -- including stints in improv comedy, a somewhat accidental career in writing and even a quick pass through Wall Street.
Favreau grew up in Queens, New York. In the middle of an unfinished run at Queens College, he found himself working at Bear Stearns -- briefly. After he set aside his pursuit of a degree, he wound up in Chicago, working on a comedy career.
His entry point in Hollywood was acting, and his first role of significance was in “Rudy,” the 1993 film about Notre Dame football, where he played a rotund tutor. On the set, he met Vince Vaughn, and the pair became close friends and collaborators, as well as Peter Billingsley (famous to several generations as the child star of “A Christmas Story”), whom he works with often and who serves as executive producer of “Iron Man.”
Favreau and Vaughn both broke through as the stars of the 1996 Doug Liman film “Swingers” (Favreau also wrote the screenplay), which became part of the lexicon with its loutish but (somewhat) lovable characters channeling the Rat Pack with modern rodent behavior.
Favreau’s acting resume includes a memorable recurring role on “Friends” as well as appearances in “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Wimbledon,” “Deep Impact” and “Daredevil.” He was the title character in the 1999 made-for-TV movie “Rocky Marciano,” a role that had the actor in muscle mode, although through the years his weight has fluctuated, varying from slim to swollen. But with “Swingers” and “Elf,” it’s his off-camera work that has gotten Favreau noticed.
Sitting in his office on Olympic Boulevard a few weeks ago, Favreau looked trim if a bit tired -- making “Iron Man” has been a relentless task, requiring not just long hours on the set but also trips across the country to work the comic-book conventions. Hollywood once scoffed at comic-book fans; now, it seeks them out with the eager handshake and grass-roots flirtation usually reserved for Iowa voters.
Favreau loves the notion of making a smart, fun comic-book movie, and it suits his crowd-pleasing sensibility.
“I think you try to overachieve in an area where people don’t expect it,” the 41-year-old said. “There are other filmmakers who take the most ambitious subject matter that they could -- that’s not where my head is right now. What I like to do is find something where the story makes sense and works with a formula that is tried and true. And then the goal is find how much you can bend it but still deliver on what’s expected.”
The reviews for “Iron Man” have been strong, with critics calling it a savvy and fun popcorn adventure, and Favreau has been getting a good chunk of the credit. In the New York Times, for instance, reviewer A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Favreau, somewhat in the manner of those sly studio-era craftsmen who kept their artistry close to the vest so the bosses wouldn’t confiscate it, wears the genre paradigm as a light cloak rather than a suit of iron.”
According to Favreau, the great challenge of making a hero movie is getting to work right away on the massive special-effects scenes. Then you sharpen the script that fills the quieter moments in between. Fail to make the story work, and the film is hollow; fail to make the big scenes as spectacular as possible, and the fans won’t show up.
“You have to get the set pieces ready because it takes over a year to get the action stuff on the screen,” he said. “You can’t wait until the script is perfect. The film won’t get done. In a sense, the script connects the dots. . . . It explains why a lot of action-orientated films don’t always make the most sense. Some dots never get connected.”
Some filmmakers get their start making shaky home movies, others catch the bug in a high school drama class or maybe through an art institute where they put paint to canvas. Favreau has more of an eight-sided education.
“It was Dungeons & Dragons, but I wouldn’t have owned up so quickly a few years ago,” Favreau said sheepishly.
“It’s rough. It’s one of the few groups that even comic-book fans look down on. But it gave me a really strong background in imagination, storytelling, understanding how to create tone and a sense of balance. You’re creating this modular, mythic environment where people can play in it.”
Maybe there should be a new Hollywood respect for eight- and 10-sided dice and a talent for troll tales: Robin Williams, Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel have all professed their passion (past or present) for the role-playing game.
For Favreau, it was the fantasy element that pulled him in, but it was the sense of story that he carried with him.
“It allowed me to not tamp down my imagination; I think there’s a tendency to turn that part of you off,” he said.
“Every kid has imagination, but at a certain age, that spigot gets turned off. I set it aside in high school. I really couldn’t do it now,” Favreau said, shaking his head. “There’s something in my heart -- there was such a stigma to it.
“When I was young, it was exciting, but as I got older it felt like it was keeping me from progressing. You’re social in your small circle, but it’s asocial to the wider world.”
Favreau read comics, but he connected more with J.R.R. Tolkien, especially with Bilbo Baggins, the homebody-turned-hero of “The Hobbit.”
“It’s about a guy who just wanted to sit by a fire at home and live a very comfortable life, but then he was drawn out into the world onto an adventure,” he said. “I always related to that character. That’s sort of how I feel now. Going around the world to promote this picture, it’s exciting, but it also feels like I just want to sit at home with my family and have a nice boring life.”
Favreau’s directorial film debut was “Made,” a small, offbeat 2001 mob picture that also saw him writing and acting opposite pal Vaughn.
He followed that up with “Elf,” which bottled up the daft charm of Ferrell and became not only a hit, but also that rare family movie that respects the intelligence of the audience and manages to be artfully sentimental.
Some critics saw the same in “Zathura,” but the film didn’t click with audiences. “Zathura” was another mix of fantasy and reality, with its story of kids who, through a magical board game, zoomed off into space on an adventure but still had to contend with harsh sibling rivalry, the pain of parental divorce and the anxieties of adolescence.
You can imagine that Favreau found it easy to tap into the fitful fears of a youngster playing a game; the son of two educators, he lost his mother to leukemia when he was in middle school. The role-playing games of the years that followed may seem corny to some, but he’s certain it prepared him for the fan-boy cinema that is so dominant today.
“Making a film is, as Orson Welles said it, like getting to play with the big train set,” Favreau said.
“Right now is an interesting time because technology is what you’re using to tell stories. Really, George Lucas was the guy who made that leap from taking the primal elements of storytelling, the sort of mythic Joseph Campbell storytelling and Jungian archetypal deconstruction of storytelling, and using modern technology to amplify that and present it to a new generation. But I contend it’s not the technology that draws people to it, it’s the story. It’s touching something in us that’s much older and deeper.”
On his desk, Favreau had a copy of a genre magazine with a cover story about him; the headline called him the next genre-film kingpin, which clearly pleased him. “That,” he said, “would be nice.”
Favreau pointed to the recent film work of Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, Peter Jackson and Gore Verbinksi as compelling evidence that great directors can create great films in the framework of superhero and fantasy worlds.
“If you can make it be smart, people respond,” he said. “If you can’t be smart, at least be clever about it. Infusing a movie with cleverness keeps the audience engaged in a special way.
“I think the ‘Pirates’ movies found a way to be clever, and I think Johnny Depp’s casting exemplifies what I’m talking about. You get a smart actor who makes clever choices and a clever filmmaker making smart choices, and then you add visual effects with ingenuity, and audiences will reward you for that.”