Jon Favreau is taller than I expected, which means that Vince Vaughn must be really tall indeed.
Favreau was at the San Diego Comic Con to talk about his new film, Zathura, which is sort of kind of maybe a little bit a follow up to Jumanji. The premise is the same, with mystical game boards, but this one takes place in space. And there’s no hyper-annoying Robin Williams present.
It’s never been a secret that the boys at CHUD.com love them some Favreau – he’s one of the most down to Earth guys in the business, something he lets us all in on in his excellent IFC TV show, Dinner for Five (for serious, buy the DVD set here. If you love movies and the people who make them you won’t be disappointed). I was pretty excited to score a one on one with him, thanks to the quick actions of the great publicity folks from Columbia Pictures – but I was even more psyched when, after being introduced to him, he said to me:
Favreau: What’s my CHUD rating now?
Q: You are favored.
Favreau: But isn’t it usually like a degree of anticipation?
Q: Oh, on the Fetal Film Report!
Favreau: Yeah, isn’t it usually a fetus?
Q: That’s how far along the development is. You’re far along because you’re wrapped.
Favreau: We’re wrapped and we’re done.
Q: I think you’re a 3 out of 5 in terms of anticipation.
Favreau: I’ve never bumped above a 2 on that thing.
Q: Really? Not even for Elf?
Favreau: That’s my career. Once it comes out people like it. I guess it’s better to have low expectations. But I have a 3 now.
Q: Yeah, a 3. That’s pretty good. And maybe this will be the interview that brings it to a 4. [click here to see just how high it went!]
Favreau: Maybe I can turn a 3 into a 4? Does that translate into a lot of business?
Q: I really don’t know. But I’m going to say that yes, it does.
Favreau: Or illegal downloads probably, with your readership.
Q: Before Elf people assumed that would be a kid’s movie, but when it came out it had a broader appeal than that. Is Zathura a kid’s movie or will it cross over like Elf?
Favreau: This is the same. I make movies for me. First of all, I have two kids now, so I am very aware of – you create what you’re exposed to, in essence. I’m seeing more kid films, more family films than anything else, so I really appreciate when Pixar puts a lot of emphasis on story. I might have seen Citizen Kane a half dozen times in my life. I’ve seen Finding Nemo 80 times. There’s the term Parent Punisher. It’s very appreciated when you put out some product that’s good.
The other thing is that it gives you a tremendous amount of freedom with a studio movie when you gear it to that audience because the bar is so low. As long as you hit a movie that hits a certain time and gets a certain rating and has a certain level of quality, they’re going to get their money back, especially if you keep the budget relatively low. What you do beyond that is up to you. I learned that with Elf.
This film gave me an opportunity to play with all these toys I never got a chance to play with before. I wanted to make a movie that was like the movies I grew up with. You watch the Spielberg stuff – when you watch ET, that was a kid’s movie but everybody liked it because there was a certain emotional core to the film and to the storytelling. Nothing that was done on the special effects side betrayed the core emotional side of the film. That’s what we set out to do with this. I’m really, really pleased with the way it came out. Not to mention that you get to play with all the toys you get to play with on a film like this.
Q: I had you did a lot of practical effects work on this.
Favreau: Yeah, because the other stuff for me, for my age – because kid’s aren’t as discerning when it comes to that type of stuff, but for me as an adult when I see a film with too much CG in it, except for when it’s all CG, like a Pixar film, which I think is a great medium, but when they mix and match the CG with real life it feels like a video game. I don’t feel like I’m really experiencing the film. For some reason I prefer miniatures, I prefer stop motion. I think CG’s a great tool for helping to polish practical effects, but there’s nothing like having something real moving randomly through a space, light hitting it in a real way –
Q: And people reacting to it.
Favreau: People on the set reacting to the thing in real space. You can use CG to augment and to composite things very effectively, but I think CG should be treated almost like magic where you show something real and you do a little sleight of hand and you show something real again. The minute you put something on the screen and say this is CG, stare at this thing, this is the center of your attention, you’re putting a lot of onus on the effect. So we built set on a big shaker so that when the set’s shaking, the whole set’s shaking. When there’s gravity we have the thing built up on a huge gimbel of hydraulics so the whole house is tilted to 30 degrees. So when stuff’s falling off the shelves there’s a real seven year old kid in there. We have some wire removal on him, but you have a bunch of crap flying off the shelves, whizzing past him and you can’t get a kid to act like that looking at a green screen.
Q: What is it like working with such young actors?
Favreau: I’ve been very lucky throughout my career of having very good casting, whether it’s a small independent film like Swingers all the way up through now. The cast is going to give it’s thing it’s emotional core and I’ve been very lucky to work with kids who are very good and very professional. But the thing has to work either way, so I sort of planned the film as if I wasn’t going to have great performers because kids usually aren’t great performers. In this particular case these kids were just phenomenal, so the cast really serves it and elevates it.
Q: So if this does really well does that open the door for you to do your Hasidic gunfighter film?
Favreau: You know, the thing is that we probably could do it now. The thing is that we could probably do The Marshall Of Revelation. Vince and I are actually – I’m doing a small part in The Break Up, the film he’s producing and starring with Jennifer Aniston in Chicago. I’ve filmed about half the scenes and I’ll be going back to do the rest. But it is definitely doable. The question is, do you want to stop the merry-go-round and get off – for me as a director – a year, year and a half and do something that you’re doing for free and that is going to be very scrutinized and not make a lot of money.
Q: That came from a weird place, right? The project began with a joke?
Favreau: Originally Vince had a TV holding deal with, I think Warner Bros. I said I had a great pitch for the thing, Rabbi and the Kid, it was sort of a funny concept. In the midst of Swingers coming out I decided to sit down and write the thing, because so many people who had passed on Swingers were like, “We’re so sorry we passed on it, you were so right, so whatever you come to us with next, we’ll do,” so I was like, here it is, a Hasidic gunfighter period piece. Everything was wrong with it. I can’t think of many films that were centered around a Hasidic character – The Chosen, Stranger Among Us, maybe The Frisco Kid. I don’t know that it’s a genre – look it up on Box Office Mojo, I don’t know if it’s a genre that drives ticket sales in and of itself. Not like the comic book genre.
But yeah, it was a thing, and the script turned out to be something I poured a lot into. You take a concept like that and you have to treat it extremely seriously. Thematically, it was very – Westerns allow you to speak on moral in much starker terms than any other genre. It’s a stylized genre in and of itself. You can see it in El Topo, but even mainstream ones like The Unforgiven, there are thematic elements you can’t address in any other genre. It turned into a very heartfelt piece that has a wonderful message and significance. For that reason, because of the absurdity of it and because of the significance of it, it becomes something you don’t want to do just to do it. It becomes something you have to do a good job with. We flirt with it from time to time, but again, now you have to make hay while the sun’s shining. Everybody is sending me every script now because of the success of Elf, and that goes away. It’s wonderful to be able to do these projects with all of the studio support and do something lots of people will see. And to be able to decide to do things the way I want to do them and not do everything CG, to do motion control miniatures, like in Star Wars.
To me the original Star Wars, although it might be technologically superior to the new Star Wars films, looks more real. I don’t know if it’s my age or –
Q: It’s like the Ray Harryhausen stuff. His stop motion work looks better than most of the CGI in The Mummy films.
Favreau: It might be fake, it might not look real and my kids might laugh at it, but to me I’m emotionally engaged with it. So we budgeted and at first it was all CG but I said I wanted it to be miniatures. So we used miniatures, motion control rigs, we pre-vizzed it all, we used every technology offered now to do it, but when you see those space ships going through space in the new trailer, there’s something really impressive about it to people our age.
It takes more trouble to do, and it’s more expensive, and you can’t change your mind later. What’s good is that you can use CG later to put background in but the foreground is a real ship, moving on a track with real light, and it has all the weird idiosyncrasies of a Tie Fighter, which is associated with that technology to me.
I’m like a kid in a candy store. And those people are still around. This is the last moment when you can still do things in that way because those artisans are still around. They’re learning how to use a mouse and a joystick and a tablet and software now, they’re transitioning, but there are still people around who know how to do the stop motion.
Q: And they’re not passing that on.
Favreau: They’re not. Because there’s no market for it. But you can get the best people – I worked with the Chiodo Brothers on Elf doing the stop motion stuff. To me that’s the stuff that makes me see a movie and sit forward in my seat. You can do anything you want with CG and if you hit me with raw CG it just looks like animated production art. But look, I remember when CDs first came out and it didn’t sound so good because it didn’t have the scratchiness of a record.
Q: There was no “warmth.”
Favreau: Right, there was no warmth. But you take somebody who grew up on CDs… The same thing’s going to happen with film. The fact that we add film grain – we add film grain to clear digital pictures, that’s an artifact of expectations. The next generation won’t be dealing with that. But again I have to make movies for me – for us. It’s nice if kids like it, but if it doesn’t work for us, I wasted two years of my life. That’s why I’m here, to be honest with you. The press associated with the movie going out to the mainstream public is going to show explosions, it’s going to talk about the kids. But there’s a layer of work that goes into it, of detail, that will never go out to the mainstream press. But websites like yours, a convention like this – this is where people who give a shit are.
It’s a good mix. Everybody’s trying to figure out how to mix digital with practical. You have motion capture, where real people are digitized. Or you have the opposite, Sin City, where you have real people against digital backgrounds. I hear Kong is doing that too – Peter Jackson is on the cutting edge where motion capture that helps speak to the performance of the digital character. Gollum is the most successful CG character I’ve seen. Everybody is trying to figure out how to mix it. For me I’m using practical effects, practical people, practical environments and I’m using the CG to sand down the rough edges in some cases create safety – augment explosions, put actors in the place of stunt people. Things like that, but everybody’s trying to figure out how to sew these two things together because if you just go all CG you lose everybody.
Q: So this film is an experiment in that.
Favreau: This is my way of saying what I think. There are some sequences that are all CG because there’s no other way to do it. There are some that are all practical because there’s no need for CG.
In Elf the whole beginning was forced perspective. I wouldn’t even allow edges to be blurred. That was an exercise for me. Does the studio give a shit? Is my DP looking at me after lighting one shot for half a day and saying if we just do a little blending in post we could get three more shots today. But even if we make a mistake it’ll look true to the Darby O’Gill of it all. That’s what Peter Jackson did in his own way.
Q: You used to usher at the RKO Keith in Queens.
Favreau: That’s right! How did you know that?
Q: I think you mentioned it on Dinner for Five. That used to be the theater we went to when I was a kid.
Favreau: Oh God what a theater that was. I saw Return of the Jedi 50 times there. Flashdance was there. I remember Spinal Tap – nobody was in the theater. I didn’t even think it was funny at the time but now I love it. It used to be an old vaudeville house so it had catacombs underneath it and people living in dressing rooms in the back. It was a cool theater. There was a big sky painted on the ceiling.
That was my film school. To hang out with the projectionist, there were hundreds of stairs to get to the top. There was the guy with that bright, bright light burning. It was like Cinema Paradiso. It was a wonderful experience because you can’t help but absorb it. I was one of the few ushers that watched movie over and over. You absorb something. By washing dishes at Second City and watching people perform, watching Chris Farley improvise every night, Mike Meyers. By observing you’re learning. Because I never went to film school, I was just a fan. Look at Tarantino just working at a video store.
Q: When is the next season of Dinner for Five?
Favreau: I don’t know. I just found out yesterday that we got nominated for an Emmy and that’s so huge for our show.
You never know – we don’t get ratings, we don’t sell commercials. It’s IFC. You never know.
Q: How did the DVD do?
Favreau: OK. But we’re not mainstream. We’re not for people who need things explained to them. Our thing with that is, don’t jump the shark. Let’s quit if we’re going to jump the shark. But the fact that we got this draws attention to us and allows us to have guests we couldn’t have had.
Q: It’s just a blast, getting to see those people in that environment.
Favreau: I love it. I’m glad we have the show and I’m glad people are watching.