Film festival concludes with Jon Favreau's 'Chef'

Jon Favreau was right — it's an exceptionally bad idea to watch "Chef" on an empty stomach.

Slow-cooked cured meats, golden-brown grilled cheese sandwiches, sugar-sprinkled beignets and undeniably delicious-looking Cuban sandwiches drew murmurs of appreciation from all who watched his latest project Thursday.

But the "Wolf of Wall Street," "Elf" and "Swingers" actor doesn't consider himself a foodie. Although he enjoys eating, he won't necessarily hunt down restaurants in different cities or work his free time to be able to taste different types of preparations. To him, the appeal lies in the knife- and skillet-wielding men and women in the kitchen.

"I wanted to do something about the culinary world," Favreau remarked. "I love watching movies about cooking, 'Top Chef,' reading Anthony Bourdain's books — it's all just fascinating to me. And also, in movies, cooking and food, if it's shot well, it's so beautiful, so I knew I wanted to do something about a chef. They're kind of like modern-day rock stars, and I love all their personalities and what they struggle with creatively and their presence on social media. They seem like figures of the times."

Known for producing "The Avengers," "Cowboys and Aliens" and the "Iron Man" triquel, Favreau has had a taste of action, fantasy and superheroes. He did things differently in "Chef," relishing the opportunity to spotlight real issues like unemployment, fatherhood and the elusive balance between career and parenting.

The 15th annual Newport Beach Film Festival, which matched last year's attendance of more than 54,000 patrons, concluded with the West Coast premiere of "Chef" at the Regency Lido Theatre.

"This was the best way to celebrate our 15th anniversary," said Gregg Schwenk, the festival's co-founder and chief executive officer. "We had a record number of sell-outs, very enthusiastic crowds and filmmakers flying from all over the world to Newport Beach — all of whom had a great time and great screenings. So we're really happy and very excited and looking forward to our 16th year. "


Delving into kitchen culture

The 115-minute closing-night movie was directed and written by Favreau, who also played its lead, chef Carl Casper. His flair for edgy concoctions costs him a job as a restaurant's chef de cuisine since he is unable to stick to the prescribed menu.

"El Jefe" also embarks on a Twitter war with a food critic and blogger and then freaks out on him in person, which is captured on video and ends up going viral. After getting hold of a food truck in Miami, he takes a road trip back to Los Angeles, which helps him not only reconnect with his son and ex-wife but also rediscover a passion for his craft.

When asked if he did all the cooking on screen, Favreau replied: "There's a little bit of movie magic — I am the man that made 'Iron Man,' after all, so there are a few tricks here and there, but I really did put in the time, and I'm pretty handy around the kitchen. You can see in the film that I can handle myself at least enough to satisfy people who really work in the service industry."

The comedy, which earned applause, raucous laughter and the audience award for a feature film, was followed by a gala at Via Lido Plaza. Due for wide release on May 9, "Chef" also features John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sofía Vergara, Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt.

Favreau wrote the script in January 2013 and shooting took place in August. In the interim, he reached out to actors who he thought would do justice to the characters. Through research and conversations with real cooks, he discovered that while culinary schools boast a French aesthetic, kitchens, especially in California, take on a Latino flavor — to the point that Roy Choi, creator of the gourmet Korean taco truck, Kogi, and the chef who trained Favreau, spoke Spanish almost exclusively.

"All the way back to 'Kitchen Confidential,' Anthony Bourdain and other chefs have reinforced that kitchen culture is really Latino, so I wanted to have a cast that was authentic to what kitchen life is really like," Favreau noted. "That led me to wanting my character to listen to Latino music to find his inspiration and to work on Cuban cuisine so it brings a lot of life and energy to the film. I wanted the cast to reflect that, so I reached out to people who seemed right for the roles I wrote."

Before the screening, Favreau addressed guests and gave a special nod to 10-year-old Emjay, who couldn't be seen until he stood up on his chair. The Redondo Beach resident said his favorite aspect of being in the movie — he plays Favreau's son — was being able to sample items like brisket, alligator meat and beignets.

"Being an actor is really awesome," said the dimpled, curly-haired boy, who is usually accompanied to the set by his mother and grandmother. "You get to meet a lot of girls. You get to go around the world, and all the different parts you get to play — like a psycho — are really fun."


A walk through Manhattan

The festival, which started April 24, showcased national, regional and international premieres, placing faces — and stories — from Australia, Brazil, South Korea and the United Kingdom on display. Meanwhile, actors including AnnaLynne McCord, Melanie Lynskey, Jason Ritter and Jane Seymour were spotted at events.

Jeremy Sisto, who played an irresponsible tennis player in "Break Point," didn't let the small fact that he was in India during its April 25 screening stop him from making an appearance. He used an iPhone and FaceTime to connect with colleagues David Walton and Joshua Rush at Regency South Coast Village — without a shirt, no less.

Joshua, 12, among this year's younger attendees, credited his skills as a "ham" for his career choice. Although eager to see the audience's reaction to the film, he said, "I've watched 'Break Point' tons of times. Still, he added, "It never gets old because it's really, really fun."

His character, Barry, wears outrageous clothes. In one scene, Sisto peers at him disdainfully and asks where he bought his outfit.

Joshua's response — his favorite bit of dialogue — is "The Kenneth Cole outlet!"

Walton quipped that a lot of laughter and bonding took place when the cameras weren't rolling.

"Our trailers were so small and they were connected, and we had to constantly change out of our tennis gear and into new tennis gear, which involves getting naked," Walton recounted. "And Jeremy liked to leave the door open, so I feel like I got to know him really well really quickly."

Although "Break Point" marked the first time its cast members worked with each other, "Growing Up and Other Lies" was an entirely different scenario. The director-screenwriter duo of Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky were 6 when they met aboard a cruise ship on which their parents performed. Their friendship is now going on three decades.

The premise for their second movie together came during a trip to Manhattan when they decided to play hooky and walk the entire length of the city. In the finished product, Adam Brody, Wyatt Cenac, Josh Lawson and Jacobs portray four longtime friends who traipse from 225th Street to Battery Park — roughly 16 miles — in a single day.

When asked about the appeal of "Growing Up and Other Lies," which required them to cover 57 locations in 19 days, Grodsky immediately remarked, joking, "Everything that doesn't involve Danny."


The faces of Twitter

Star-studded films weren't the only works that took center stage this year, though. Viewers also poured in for smaller-budget creations like Steve Anderson's "The Last Lonely Place."

Actress Jeananne Goossen remembered shooting a scene on skid row in Los Angeles in two hours with one camera and a motel manager banging on the door of the room into which the production crew had crowded. She called the experience "wild." She believes that film festivals are the only places where viewers get a glimpse of the kind of independent, guerrilla filmmaking that's sweeping the nation.

For Erin Faulk, the biggest takeaway from the recent festivities was the sense of community. The Los Angeles-based director traversed 11,000 miles to meet 140 people with whom she had connected on Twitter. The idea behind "Follow Friday the Film," she said, was to prove that friendships, although virtual, can be authentic.

"It's amazing to be at a festival and have so many people walk up and say, 'Hey, I heard about your film. Tell me more about it,'" she said. "I've also been tweeting about other films. It's great to feel this support, instead of competition, which is unexpected."

Favreau had suggested a similar sentiment. Before the theater lights dimmed Thursday, he remarked that there's something magical about a group of people connecting and sharing laughter over a common experience.

"There's a culture of people who love cinema here," he said. "Any time you have people who are passionate and supportive, it's very fun to share your movie with them and see how they react."

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