“My little girl, my youngest one, was just starting to talk,” Jon Faveau recalled. “And they asked her, What’s mommy do? ‘Mommy’s a doctor!’ What does daddy do? And I’m watching to see if she says director. She said, ‘He watches TV and sits in the chair.’ That’s what I do on the set! I set in a very elaborate chair, and I’m watching a television. And that’s my job, I’m a really good TV watcher.” It got a big laugh at his “Tribeca Talk,” a Tribeca Film Festival event moderated by his frequent co-star and collaborator Scarlett Johansson – but there’s also some truth to the description. It’s the kind of director he tries to be, he explained: the first pair of eyes taking in a scene, a performance, a line of dialogue. “That’s my job, to be the first audience member that’s watching this.”
Favreau has had a fascinatingly all-over-the-map career, now in its third decade: a struggling actor who became an indie wunderkind via Swingers, which he wrote and starred in; a player-for-hire who’s acted for everyone from Nancy Meyers to Martin Scorsese; the man who helped kick off the modern Marvel cinematic juggernaut, via Iron Man and Iron Man 2; and now, as Disney’s go-to guy for remaking their classics. It’s an interesting twist for a guy who seemed, at first, destined to make small, personal films like Swingers and his directorial debut, Made.
But his boundless enthusiasm and love for the material, he says, is what keeps him so busy. “When you’re directing, you have to love it – especially for one of those that takes like two, three years to do,” he said. “You have to love it to the point of obsession. I have to live, breathe, sleep it, dream it. If I’m gonna do my best work, I have to be completely immersed.”
“And that’s how it was with Iron Man?” Johansson asked. “You loved that character?”
“I loved Robert as that character,” Favreau clarified. “As I looked at the character, and I thought about the idea of Robert, that’s when it all clicked – I got him as that, and what the whole thing would be. And that’s why I worked very hard to make sure he was in it. And then once he came on board, it changed the nature of it. Y’know, people didn’t know what to expect, and a lot of other, good actors came on board because there was a lot of respect for him… It felt like an independent film cast, except with these set pieces, and then there was humor and spontaneity, that came some from me and a lot from him. And we found that personality, and then also tried to deliver some really cool visual effects that were believable. And that combo, I felt passion for.”
He’s also well aware that, even more with Marvel, his current gigs involve translating sacred properties. “The Disney stuff, people know it even more. Jungle Book was one thing, and now I’m working on Lion King – Lion King people really know. They grew up with it, and it had emotional impact. And so the first thing I do, I think about it – I think memory is like compression software, you can’t remember everything, most people can’t. So you prioritize what you’re gonna remember.
“And so the first thing I do is I think about, what do I remember about Jungle Book? I remember Mogli and the snake. I remember the snake’s eyes. I remember Baloo going down the river and Mogli riding on him like a raft. I made a big list! And I said, those are the images we definitely need. And then you go back and look at it, and you realize there’s all these things you don’t remember, and you have more latitude to shift and change those things. And there are some thing you look back on that are very flawed, that you’ve forgiven in your memory.”
But, he added, the new film makes that kind of translation trickier to pull off. “Jungle Book was 50 years ago. Lion King was 20. And people grew up with it in the age of video, where they’re watching it over and over again. So I have to really examine all of those plot points. And also, the myths are very strong is that, so you’re hitting something even deeper than the movie. So what I try to do is honor what was there, and in some ways it’s almost like bringing a Broadway show back, because there are certain expectations people have. Or going to see a band you like – there’s a way that song was song on the album.” And he tends to think of popular filmmaking in those musical terms. “To me it’s like you’re doing a big DJ set for the audience. It’s about the audience having the experience they’re hoping to have, and if you can surprise them along the way, they’ll enjoy it even more. But you’ve gotta live up to what they want.”
Sometimes, however, you don’t. Favreau has had a few flops – not a lot, but a few – and Johansson asked about getting through that experience. “Are you totally shaken when you’ve spent all of somebody’s money, and then – I mean, it happens to all of us! I just had that experience! What’s the next step of that?”
“You think they’re all gonna be great,” he confessed. “I pour myself into it in a way where I’m completely flummoxed when it doesn’t live up to exactly what I hoped it will be.”
Yet he’s ultimately sanguine about those experiences. “I contend that you don’t learn from success, I think you learn from failure. I think success gives you false positives on what you know. You need a healthy amount of failure to grow properly. I think you gotta prune the roses; I don’t think I would’ve developed, if I didn’t have Zathura, if I didn’t have Cowboys and Aliens.” Even Swingers, he recalled, was not a hit when it was released theatrically; it found its audience on video, but it “felt, at the time, after all the excitement, like a bit of a failure. And when I talk about how things have gone, that’s the rhythm that people don’t really understand, they assume everything turned out well. There were wins and there were losses, there were a lot of them, and part of the path to success is being able to ride them, and not define yourself too much by one or the other.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a film festival talk in the spring of 2017 without some talk of The Current Troubles, and Johansson delivered in her wrap-up question. “You like to end with a hopeful message, but these days there’s a lot of hopelessness,” she noted. “Do you think we have a responsibility, as artists, to remind audiences that life is beautiful?”
“I think there are cycles to everything,” Favreau said. “We are in part of a cycle. And it depends where you throw the comma. Do you throw the comma at the end? Because there’s bad parts to life, but I think ultimately there’s tremendous hope.
“If we can help people get through tough times with what we do – and I know if the filmmakers out there can make me see things and contextualize things in a way that gives me a little more enthusiasm for once to come – I think that disposition is what is probably your best shot at getting through this thing in a good way. Optimism is a good thing. It’s measurably good. That’s the only disposition that leads to anything, and it’s not a result, it’s a choice, I think. For me. Because it’s easy for me to go to dark places. So how do you train yourself to see the world in the way that will bring the best outcome?”