Lessons from SXSW: "A Conversation with Jon Favreau"

SXSW Synopsis:

"In over a decade, Jon Favreau has established himself as a prolific writer, director, producer, and actor with his eclectic body of work. Jon Favreau began his career as a writer with Swingers, in which he starred, and made his feature film directorial debut with Made, which he wrote and produced. His credits include Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens, Elf, and Zathura. Favreau also served as the creator, producer and host of the Emmy-nominated IFC series Dinner for Five. He brings to SXSW, Chef, which he wrote and directed. The film follows a man who loses his chef job and starts up a food truck to reclaim his artistic promise. The film opens in May."

Notes:

It is impossible for me to explain how important and meaningful Jon Favreau is to me.

Getting to meet him and listen to him talk about film-making, and getting be one of the first people to see his film, "Chef", was unequivocally the highlight of my experience at South by Southwest this year.

As conversations tend to be, this one wasn't "organized" in a way that I could compile into neat little bullet points. However, Favreau was extremely quotable, so what follows will simply be a series of statements that he made during the course of the conversation which I found to be particularly interesting, insightful, and meaningful.

On quitting a banking job to become a writer & film-maker:

"You've gotta be passionate about what you're doing, because if you're not, you're only going to be using some smaller percent of your ability."
- Jon Favreau

"I thought the idea of working 50 weeks for 2 weeks off was scary to me... You only live in that 2 weeks."
- Jon Favreau

On directing:

"I just enjoy naturalism in general."
- Jon Favreau

"As a director... Tone is the one thing nobody can do for you."
- Jon Favreau

One lesson he did get more explicit about as a director was working coverage into a scene using a two-camera set-up for more natural takes. This was a technique he learned from Francis Ford Coppola, who reportedly always went back and got coverage and reverses of improvised bits.

Smart.

On acting and actors:

"You strip the cast away from any of the films I've done and they're not the same movies anymore."
- Jon Favreau

"There's a moment where experience and confidence comes together [and when it does, that's an actor I want to work with]."
- Jon Favreau

On storytelling:

"As long as you know [story] is the top priority, you'll make it your main concern."
- Jon Favreau

"When you write something good, it's like you're the first person who gets to read it. Like it didn't come out of you."
- Jon Favreau

"I didn't learn to be a director, an actor, a producer -- it was all one thing! Learning to be a storyteller."
- Jon Favreau

On modern distractions:

"It's not free if you could be earning 100s of thousands of dollars doing a rewrite and you're off defending your elixir pods."
- Jon Favreau

On Hollywood and the future of the film industry:

"I would argue that cinema is happening now on the small screen as much or more than the big screen... Technology is the only game in town, and you have to bet on it."
- Jon Favreau

On what makes a great film:

"It's amazing that some of the movies that do the best [at the box office] aren't as culturally relevant, year to year."
- Jon Favreau

He also told a few stories... At one point, he was talking about an experience on Iron Man where they'd wrapped production for the day, and he was sitting with Kevin Feige pretty much ready to go home when Jeff Bridges was making cocktails for everyone. As tired as they were, that experience was worth sticking around for, and remains a great memory. Favreau passed along Jeff Bridges' advice in that moment:

"This [taking the moment to enjoy life] is what it's all about, man... The movie is just the skin of the snake."
- Jeff Bridges (paraphrase via Jon Favreau)

Favreau also talked a lot about studio notes, and curiously, he said that when he directed Elf, he got copious notes from the studio about the comedy and the jokes, but not a single note about the fabulous practical effects work in the movie like the forced perspective shots, the North Pole village stuff, or anything like that... And then when he was directing Iron Man, he was inundated with notes on the action and the effects work, but didn't get a single not on the jokes or the comedy written into the dialogue. 

He concluded:

"You're almost better off going with the opposite of the genre you want for the least interference."
- Jon Favreau

And finally... On life:

"You will get wet on this ride."
- Jon Favreau

All in, I couldn't possibly have kept notes on every single bit of the conversation, but as I said, Favreau has been one of my cinematic heroes for a long time... Almost 20 years. There was no way to explain that to him at the time, but in some ways, much of my life and career started with "Swingers".

I was 13 or 14 when it came out, and perhaps 15 when I first saw it.

Swingers framed and informed my understanding of relationships, it informed my understanding of friendship. While I always placed myself into Favreau's character, "Mikey", my brother was always Vince Vaughn's "Trent", and probably still is.

The movie also inspired my brother and me to learn how to swing dance - which became one of the more significant and defining past-times in my life for several years, and remains a major part of my brother's life to this day. 

In some ways, the film contributed directly to us forming our own 7-piece swing & jump blues band, "Boss Tweed", when we were in High School. That band was a pivotal step on my road to becoming a performing jazz musician, and ultimately to studying music composition - which became my field of expertise and training through college and graduate school.

What's more - and Danny probably doesn't remember this - one of the first conversations I ever had with Daniel Glass, drummer for Royal Crown Revue (and more recently, the Brian Setzer Orchestra), was about RCR playing at The Derby and the disappointment they experienced by not being allowed (via their label) to perform on-camera in that movie. 

I don't know if this is entirely true as I didn't talk to Jon Favreau about this, but I believe that Royal Crown Revue - which I recognize as the greatest of the swing revival bands in the mid to late 1990s - was the inspiration for the dance sequence at the end of that movie.

Royal Crown Revue had an enormous influence on my musical tastes and in a strange twist of fate, I'm now very proud to call Daniel a good friend. It's not often that you get to become friends with one of your musical heroes, and Jon Favreau's work even had a role to play in that.

And then... After "Swingers" Favreau just continued making amazing films. Made, Elf, Zathura... Iron Man...

Good lord. Iron Man. 

Favreau's body of work has always just made me happy. I connect with it in a way I just don't connect with most other film-makers, including the so-called "greats". I don't know if he'll ever read any of this post, but he has my gratitude and admiration for everything he's done. I am a fan.

And as I discovered last week, Jon Favreau is very much like his films... He is witty, sharp, thoughtful, and entirely humble and unpretentious. In short, he's what I would aspire to be.

What an honor.

Sean Malone

Washington, DC