Actor-filmmaker Jon Favreau

The filmmaker behind the Iron Man franchise and Chef reflects on his mix of studio blockbusters and indie movies.

After establishing himself as an accomplished actor-writer, Jon Favreau successfully transitioned to working behind the camera. He first earned acting notice in Swingers, which he also wrote. In 2001, he made his film directorial debut with Made and, after directing the hit, Elf, catapulted onto the directors A-list. He directed and/or co-exec-produced Iron Man and the two sequels and also served as a co-exec producer on The Avengers. The Queens, NY native dropped out of college and traveled, landing in Chicago, where he honed his craft with an improv troupe. Favreau's latest effort is the indie comedy, Chef, in which he not only stars, but also wrote, directed and co-produced.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Filmmaker Jon Favreau has seen his “Iron Man” superhero movies become – that way, Jon. There you go. He’s seen the “Iron Man” franchise become a billion-dollar enterprise.

In his latest film, “Chef,” he takes on the much less dangerous but no less competitive world of food trucks, a delicious phenomenon that can arguably be traced to Los Angeles.

This movie, which won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival, is something of a passion project for him. We’ll talk about that. He’s the writer, he’s the co-producer, he’s director and star of the film. You couldn’t find nobody else to do none of that?

Jon Favreau: No, I didn’t have any money. (Laughter)

Tavis: Let’s take a look at a scene from “Chef” with Sofia Vergara and John Leguizamo.

[Clip]

Tavis: This is obviously a passion project. Why’d you want to do this one?

Favreau: Oh, boy, I don’t know. It kind of, it’s the first time a script hit me that I wrote since “Swingers,” which I did not long before I spoke to you last. I wrote it all in a matter of weeks, and I love the food world and I love talking about fatherhood, the creative process, balancing career with family.

It just came out real easy, and I decided to try to do it. Luckily I have some friends that helped me do it for not so much money, and we shot for a month and it was the best experience I’ve ever had.

Tavis: You’ve got some good friends.

Favreau: I do.

Tavis: (Laughter) Robert Downey, Jr.

Favreau: Yeah.

Tavis: Leguizamo -

Favreau: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman.

Favreau: Yes, that’s right.

Tavis: You got a lot of good friends.

Favreau: Yes, it’s good.

Tavis: Helps to have friends in this town.

Favreau: It does, it does.

Tavis: Have you always been a foodie?

Favreau: I don’t know, I’m not adventurous enough to be a foodie. I’ve always loved food. (Laughter) I’ve always loved food. But I’ve become, through my training, I trained for many months for this film and spent a lot of time with Roy Choi, who’s a friend of yours.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, love Roy Choi, yeah.

Favreau: He just opened my eyes. I met a lot of other people, like Wolfgang Puck, another friend.

Tavis: Yeah.

Favreau: He put me through the paces. I was cooking in one of his, a kitchen with him once and he called me out and made me cook an omelette in front of David Chang and Roy Choi and the whole kitchen crew.

So they put me through the hazing, and now I’m pretty solid on the line and I really enjoy that world.

Tavis: Aside from – I’m fascinated by this, because Roy is a genius in his own right, and Wolfgang Puck is Wolfgang Puck.

Favreau: Sure.

Tavis: Aside from the food stuff that you learn, what do you learn hanging out with guys who are chefs who control that kind of environment?

Favreau: Well it makes me a better director, because I see that they take seriously the role as leader and teacher. Because when you work in a kitchen, there’s not a lot of money in it, and you’re there to learn from the chef.

So there’s a whole apprenticeship, apprentice-master dynamic. But then you’re also communicating the culture of the kitchen, and you need that relationship because your food is only expressed through the hands of your kitchen staff.

So now after seeing what Roy does, he goes into the kitchen, shakes everybody’s hands, he knows who everybody is. The beginning of the shift, he checks in with everyone.

It’s like directors don’t do that that much. I don’t do it. I try to do it now, because those are your people, they’re making your dreams come true.

Tavis: What do you make of this notion that we hear from the great chefs, at least I’ve heard this a thousand times in one way, shape, or form, that it’s about the love they put into the food.

Favreau: It depends who you talk to, but the top, the high-end chefs really believe that there’s something going on beyond just the mechanics. I remember when I was actually with Roy going, the first time I met him I followed him around for like six hours through all of his kitchens.

I walked in and he says, “You see that guy on the line? I don’t like how he’s standing.” He says you could taste it in the food because the guy was slouching. I thought he was just trying to make a point or use metaphor, but he meant it. He thinks that you could really taste the energy.

Tavis: Something metaphysical about it, yeah.

Favreau: Yeah, and if you know Roy, he’s kind of very, he goes there. I’ll tell you, it is a way to create mindfulness and attentiveness and focus on what you’re doing. I think it goes beyond cooking.

Anything, if you’re completely focused and not multitasking, it changes the way the food tastes.

Tavis: All right, that’s the serious stuff. Now to the film. (Laughter) Because it is a comedy, and I don’t want people to think – so I’ll let you tell the story. Tell the story that you’ve written here.

Favreau: Well this guy, chef Carl Casper, was “Food & Wine” best new chef like 10 years ago, started off in Miami, a lot of passion, a lot of ego, a lot of press, and now 10 years later he’s working in Brentwood in a restaurant called Galois (sp), doing the same food he’s been doing for the last 10 years.

He’s working for Dustin Hoffman, who’s his boss. One day a food critic comes in. Instead of stretching himself and trying something new, he cooks the same old dishes as he’s been requested to do by his boss, and Oliver Platt, who plays the critic, rips him a new one.

The guy gets his 10-year-old son to sign him up for Twitter, and thinking he’s sending a private message, ends up starting a big Twitter war with the critic. (Laughter) That ends up with him blowing up.

It goes on YouTube; he loses his job, and now has to start from scratch just with his line cook, John Leguizamo, and his 10-year-old son from a divorce, played by M.J. Anthony.

They go to Miami, they get a food truck from Robert Downey Jr., and that’s when the adventure really begins.

Tavis: Yeah. So this is more than just a, it’s a comedy, but it’s more than just a movie about food, and the jokes are there, clearly. But to my eye as I see it, it’s also a movie about relationships.

Favreau: Well that’s really, when you say why did I do it, I work on the big ones and the big ones are fun.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Favreau: But the big ones are about escape and the big ones are about spectacle, and the big ones have to travel around the world and be a ride. To make a movie specific about our culture and about real life and real life problems and real life humor based on our culture, that’s not something the studios are greenlighting anymore.

So I had to pull back to my independent roots and do something with limited resources. But what it is is it’s a throwback to my independent comedies, where it could be about – “Swingers” is about dating, it’s about Hollywood.

This is about Venice, about the chef world, about being a dad, about losing track of your family, of your kid, and finding the humor in it, and letting there be some heart and letting there be some soul to the film.

Just like in the cooking that my character reconnects with, I feel like I’m kind of doing that with this movie as well.

Tavis: When you’ve done the big stuff, which we’ll talk about here in a second, when you’ve done the big stuff and done it so brilliantly, so remarkably well -

Favreau: Thank you.

Tavis: – and huge box offices you have done worldwide, what’s the joy in the beautiful struggle of trying to bring an independent film to life. Does that make sense?

Favreau: Sure. Well you want to see if you still got the chops. To be honest with you, after seeing, like, Lena Dunham killing it on “Girls” and Louie C.K. and even Larry David, like, I used to do that kind of thing.

Can I still do that, or do I need a big support staff around me? Can I actually go – that was the nice thing about Wolfgang, because he leads the kitchen, but when he grabs a frying pan, he can do it himself.

You want to know you could still do it, and could I still write a script and can I still say something simply without all the bells and whistles and all the things that elevate the film.

They’re a bit of a safety net, so it was really great to do an acoustic album after having all of that high production value. That was a big thrill for me. Honestly, the only thing that bums me out about it is that because you’re so strapped, people are working for less money than they should be getting, that they would get on the bigger movies.

But we got to shoot in Los Angeles, which was very hard to do. We had to really take a haircut to be able to do that. We didn’t get a rebate. Those aren’t widely available yet. But we found a way to make do, and everybody contributed to that.

I like the big ones, don’t get me wrong. I love the technology, I love all the tools and storytelling you can have, and I love having the world as your audience. But selfishly, for me to be able to say something that I believe in, that’s personal and very specific, and that I don’t have to satisfy a whole committee of people or explain why something I think is funny or why I want to cast somebody or why I want to cut a scene a certain way, that’s incredibly freeing. I hope to do it more.

Tavis: One of the things that I celebrate in, not to be – I don’t want to proselytize here, but there’s a Bible verse that says that he that hath friends must show himself friendly.

If you got friends, you got to be friendly to have them. What’s fascinating for me, what I celebrate, rather, is that when you call on this all-star list of people, they all show up. That’s got to make you feel good.

Favreau: It did.

Tavis: That they said yes, I’ll do it for you.

Favreau: It did, it really did.

Tavis: You got Academy Award winners in this thing.

Favreau: We do. (Laughter) We do, and certainly everybody would deserve one, because they’re all super talented. But what’s nice is – but remember, all these people, they all come from indies too, and that was the way we put together the “Iron Man” cast.

That was not put together as the biggest movie stars of the moment. It’s like money ball, those were undervalued, talented, journeyman actors who had all worked for scale – Scarlett, Robert, Gwyneth, Jeff Bridges, everybody, Terrence Howard.

Everybody had established themselves in that world, and so when I pulled that cast together it was not an obvious movie star cast. But through the success of the franchise and the Marvel thing, they’ve all elevated and gone up and gone on to other things and other franchises.

But it’s hard to remember whenever it was, back in ’07/’08, this was a cast of, it was not an obvious group of actors. So when I turned to Robert or to Scarlett or certainly John Leguizamo or even Dustin Hoffman and say, “Hey, look, we’re going to do a little one.

“It’s going to be a month. I’ll make sure you have fun. We’ll rehearse a little bit, I’ll make sure you don’t have to work that many hours, that many days, and you can have a good time and end up with a movie you’re proud of.” I know that that’s a pitch I would respond to.

Tavis: And eat some great food.

Favreau: And eat a lot of good food by a good chef. (Laughter)

Tavis: That would have got me there. (Laughter)

Favreau: Yes.

Tavis: This is going to sound really gratuitous, and probably because it is – hi, Garry Shandling.

Favreau: Yes. (Laughter) Garry – let me tell – can I say something to Garry Shandling?

Tavis: Sure, I love Garry. I’ve got – you said “Iron Man,” so I, I love Garry Shandling, yeah.

Favreau: “Iron Man 2,” Garry Shandling plays a senator. It was his appearance on your show that we used and gave us the idea to have him play the senator, because he was so well-spoken here. A bit of a different take on his persona, because he’s a smart guy.

Tavis: He’s a really bright guy, yeah.

Favreau: You bring, I think on this show it brings out really the best of him, a great side of him. So we used the footage of this show to show the Marvel people to say, “This is who we want to play that part.”

Tavis: Oh, cool.

Favreau: So without Garry even knowing, this was his audition that got him the role.

Tavis: Garry, that was gratuitous; this ain’t. You owe me. (Laughter)

Favreau: It’s two movies now.

Tavis: Yeah.

Favreau: Count two (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Favreau: It’s turning into a franchise. (Unintelligible) franchise.

Tavis: You really owe me. And I still love Garry Shandling, and I love you too, Jon.

Favreau: Thank you, man.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

Favreau: Thanks, man.

Tavis: Congrats on “Chef.”

Favreau: Always a pleasure coming in here.

Tavis: Congrats. Always good to have you here. The movie, “Chef,” written, directed, produced, starring, all Jon Favreau. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Scott h

    please forward to Jon , we were moved by this
    film Chef in so many ways …..passion, pride, heartwarming
    family connection, subject matter treated with
    truth ……….such a well crafted recipe for a perfect
    film. Excellent casting and locations and
    great use of present day society and social
    media ! A please to watch your character
    come alive! Scott

  • Anna Steiner

    Just got home from seeing Chef. The audience I shared the movie experience with did not want to leave the theatre, even after all the credits had rolled. That should tell you something. A movie for grownups! What a splendid idea! Gratefully yours, Anna Banana! Age 80 wonderful years!

Last modified: May 23, 2014 at 1:29 pm