Entertainment

03.09.14

Jon Favreau On the Food Porn-y ‘Chef,’ ‘The Jungle Book,’ and Why He Left the ‘Iron Man’ Franchise

The blockbuster filmmaker behind ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Iron Man 2,’ and ‘Cowboys & Aliens,’ opens up about his food-centric passion project, ‘Chef,’ at SXSW.

Jon Favreau did the unthinkable. Just over three years ago, the director of the first two Iron Man films, which grossed a collective $1.2 billion worldwide, decided to walk away from the Marvel cash cow. He’d just wrapped production on his latest mega-entertainment, Cowboys & Aliens, and sought a change of pace.

As an avid consumer of cooking shows, even serving as a guest judge on Season 11 of Top Chef, the 47-year-old filmmaker was intrigued by the concept of the modern-day “chef-as-rock star.” So, in ten days, he cranked out a script about a once-renowned chef who’s fired from his lackluster restaurant and forced to start from scratch, selling Cubano sandwiches out of a food truck. He hadn’t felt a creative rush like that since he penned Swingers.

The result is Chef. Written and directed by Favreau, the film centers on Carl Casper (Favreau), a chef who, after burning his bridges in Los Angeles, heads down to Miami with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and son and enters into the food truck biz. The film also stars his Iron Man pals Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, as well as Dustin Hoffman, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Oliver Platt. L.A. chef Roy Choi, who's credited for inventing the food truck craze with his gourmet Korean taco truck, Kogi, served as a consultant on the film.

The Daily Beast sat down with Favreau at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, where the film made its world premiere, to discuss food porn, his live-action film adaptation of The Jungle Book, and much more.

You directed the first two Iron Man movies, but not the third. Are we going to see you get back in the superhero saddle?

I really don’t know. By the time I was done with the second one, it was four years back-to-back, and it wasn’t user-friendly then. Marvel Studios was just forming, and there was a shift in administration because Avi [Arad] was leaving and Kevin [Feige] was taking over. There was no studio per se other than the funds, and we were creating the infrastructure. That took a lot of work, and there was no tone to the films or style of casting prior to Iron Man, so a lot of the little decisions that were made early on were really exciting. And in the years since, the people who we put in there—even Agent Coulson—have spin-off shows, and other superheroes were hatched in the Iron Man universe. So it all came out of that. On the one hand, it was incredibly fulfilling, and on the other, it feels like it’s already been set up and my work is done, and now it needs to continue to build off of that.

Joss [Whedon] has been really good at taking the next step because he understands superhero logic more than I do—how Thor would interact, how Captain America would interact. I don’t understand the comic book logic that well, but I think it’s a fun genre and there are still great characters to be explored. But it’s sort of like doing a Christmas movie after Elf. I feel like I took a whack at it, it worked out, so I feel like I won that bet and want to move on to different things. With Jungle Book, to me, there’s unbroken ground there. I find that a lot of the big movies I’m being asked to do now are sequels—continuations of other franchises that have already been established—and to me, I’m better off as the Marine who gets in their first. I’m better at coming up with the idea for a McDonald’s than managing a McDonald’s.

As far as Chef goes, have you always been a foodie?

I’m not that adventurous. I like food, but I don’t necessarily have the most discerning taste. When I first met Roy Choi, he said I had the palate of a nine-year-old. I was more interested in the personalities of chefs. They’re like rock stars, and there’s a blue-collar aspect to it, too, that’s different from what I do. Nobody feels bad for people in the movie business because they’re seen as living such a rarefied life anyway, but chefs work their way up through hard work, generally don’t get paid what they deserve, and are very root-able characters and I get them. I’ve worked in kitchens and bartended, and I delivered pizzas for a while for this neighborhood pizza joint, Frank’s Pizza Express, in Queens. I’m from an Italian family and a Jewish family, so food is very much a part of both cultures, but it wasn’t until Chef where I thought, “Instead of reading about cooking and watching it on TV, why don’t I learn?”

The pornification of food is pretty interesting. Now, you have all these “food porn” images being posted to Instagram and on blogs since it’s so aesthetically pleasing.

There’s a lot of food porn in Chef as well, and I wanted it to have that. It’s amazing to me that film could make someone’s mouth water so much and desire something so much. It’s like looking at sensual content and how people get so excited over looking at people in various states of undress. When people look at food, it’s like you have these mirror neurons that make your mouth water when you see someone cooking, or see the final product. It’s very cinematic, too. My kid saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi and he’s a very squeamish eater, but after seeing that he was ready to have an omakase meal.

"Having seen Robert Downey Jr. go from someone who was a punch line from a late night monologue to the biggest movie star in the world, it just goes to show you that at the end of the day, the talent rises to the top."

Your chef is stuck in a creative rut, churning out lackluster food in a lackluster—albeit popular—restaurant. Have you ever fallen into a similar creative rut where you needed to be reinvigorated?

I’m a little more political than the character I play and know how to navigate those situations in a healthier way, but that’s not fun to show. I had worked on the Iron Man movies, then Cowboys & Aliens, and then two pilots, and commercials. With commercials and pilots, you really don’t have a lot of say. You’re like a surrogate mother who hands over the baby. With features, you have more autonomy as a director, and there was a desire to shift my priorities to something where I don’t have as much resources and I’m not getting paid as well, but I have complete freedom. That really came from having written this script that I really wanted to do. You get signals for what you do next, and wherever that voice is coming from, you’ve got to chase it.

What were the signals for your next film, The Jungle Book?

You get little moments of inspiration for sequences, scenes, and the way to do things, but you’re really relying on your other artists and technical collaborators to form it together. I would hate to have to do that kind of movie alone. It’s going to be live-action but with a lot of animation, since animation goes into what’s live-action now, and a lot of the same people who used to work on animated films are doing CGI. So, you have a live-action kid, and animals that are photo-real and a jungle that’s photo-real, but we’re not going to be using real animals, we’re going to be using computer graphics. We cast Idris Elba as the voice of Shere Khan. We haven’t cast Mowgli yet and we’re going to wait because the actual shoot is happening close to the end of the road, and I want to build everything out beforehand—storyboarding, animatics. We’re actually watching the movie in drawings. Pixar and Disney Animation have experienced so much success because they really vet the story through this process, and I wanted to borrow some of their technique. Once we like the story, then we break it down into individual shots and layout, then we shoot the boy and render it all out.

The action in Chef is set into motion because of a bad review that causes your character to fly off the handle. Was this your way of sticking it to your critics?

I think I’ve been treated very fairly by the critics, but there’s an underlying frustration with the blogosphere. If you ever go down that rabbit hole and start to read too many comments about you, it does make you very defensive. The trick is you don’t read the shit. Early on, when the Internet was kinda new and everyone had a comments section or talkback section—like the early days of Ain’t It Cool News and IMDB—there was a whole culture surrounding the comments. You wanted to connect with your fans so you just rolled up your sleeves and went in there, and then you’d start reading the stuff and there’s such a scattergun of different things that it’s only fun if you’re reading about something you don’t care about because it’s so ridiculous. But if you take it personally, it could be very painful.

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These are precarious times we live in for public figures. If you have one viral fuck up, like Michael Richards or something, you’re toast.

But everyone gets another shot. Having seen Robert Downey Jr. go from someone who was a punch line from a late night monologue to the biggest movie star in the world, it just goes to show you that at the end of the day, the talent rises to the top and, if you work hard enough and show that your heart’s in the right place, the public forgives.

Did you base Downey Jr.’s character in Chef on anyone in particular? The guy is a supreme douche who doesn't allow shoes to be worn in his office, sleeps with his receptionist, and wears Ed Hardy.

[Laughs] No. Robert had ideas about the clothing he wanted to wear, and the little jewel-encrusted cow’s skull necklace and shit. He came up with something great.

There’s a scene where your food truck crew—you, your line cook, and your onscreen son—apply cornstarch to their balls as a remedy for sweatiness. Where’d you learn that trick?

I got Leguizamo to read Kitchen Confidential, which I’d read years ago, and in there, Bourdain says they’d put cornstarch on their balls in the kitchen, and Leguizamo said we should do that at some point in the movie. So I worked it in there on the last day just to try out. I don’t really know if it serves any story purpose, and it was in danger of being cut out several times, but I love it.

Does the cornstarch remedy work?

Oh, yeah. It does. As a matter of fact, baby powder used to be talc, but now it’s made of cornstarch. So every time you put baby powder on your balls, you’re putting cornstarch on there. And you can lick your fingers when you’re done, too, because it’s harmless.