In a summer overly larded with sequels, adaptations, and reboots, a common rallying cry among fatigued fans has been: “Who is this movie for, exactly?” Whether it’s The Angry Birds Movie, which arrived at least five years after peak avian fury, a prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman that bit a box-office poison apple, or Alice Through the Looking Glass, which the less said the better, too many movies were made with a hypothetical audience of thoughtless, IP-recognizing zombies in mind. When it comes to director Jon Favreau’s oeuvre, however, it’s obvious who his films are for: literally everybody.
Who would have thought the guy directly responsible for leagues of impressionable bros calling everything “money” in the mid-’90s would go on to become one of the most crowd-pleasing directors in Hollywood? Here are some other things Favreau is partly responsible for: launching Vince Vaughn’s career, revealing the breadth of Will Ferrell’s appeal, kicking in the door of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making a humbled Robert Downey Jr. beloved again, and finally, demonstrating that adaptations aren’t the enemy in 2016, as long as they’re well crafted. With this past spring’s live-action Jungle Book, a huge international smash, the director has proven increasingly capable of making films that are tough to dislike. The Jungle Book joins modern Christmas classic Elf, superhero standard-bearer Iron Man, and full-hearted Chef in a catalog that’s beginning to rival Pixar in user-friendliness. (It also recalls Pixar in more tangible metrics like box office and Rotten Tomatoes love.) With this latest success, Favreau has become incontestably a four-quadrant filmmaker, whose work is ravenously gobbled up by men and women, young and old, too idiosyncratic to be close to pandering.
As The Jungle Book swings on to Blu-Ray and iTunes this week, Co.Create talked to director Jon Favreau about relating to flawed heroes, the elusive control of tone, and making movies for everyone while remaining true to yourself.
“I know a flawed character in the beginning of a story is the way to go, just for the mono-myth, the hero’s journey,” Favreau says. “You want somebody who needs growth, and the more difficult the world is starting off the more exciting and significant the arc of the character is. If I look at my lead characters, I’m pretty tough on them. Their life isn’t easy. Buddy the Elf, as positive as he is, he’s not having a good time. Certainly Mike in Swingers is not having a good time. Everybody. The first shot of Made is Bobby getting punched right in the face in a slow-motion closeup. There is something about throwing some heavy-duty obstacles at a character to contextualize them. I know there are other styles where the lead is awesome right off the bat. Everybody loves watching James Bond, but he can kinda do no wrong. I kind of relate more to the characters that have a rough road. And then you don’t need them to have such a magnificent climax just to feel like they’ve really beat all the odds. The scale of that kind of character story is what I connect most with as an audience member and that therefore as a filmmaker as well.”
“Before I was a dad, kids were just a strange other species,” Favreau says. “But then through your own kids, you get used to meeting other kids, and certain kids you enjoy being around more and you get a kick out of. From your kids’ circle of friends, there’s just ones that make you laugh and they are kind of hardwired a certain way—you can tell that they’re gonna grow up to be really funny people or really smart people. With my kids, from what they were from the moment they could talk to who they are now, there is a direct line. They kind of come out the way they are. It’s quite remarkable.”
“In some of my movies, the kids were supporting players, but with Jungle Book, the whole movie was gonna be resting on a kid’s shoulders. So I got a sense of [the film’s young star] Neel [Sethi] from the first time I saw him on tape, even before we met, that he had a certain quality that reminded me of the ’67 film. He was sharp and he was confident and he had a lot of the qualities that reminded me of the cartoon version of Mowgli that I grew up with and really connected with. More importantly, I knew by then to trust my gut in understanding kids more and also understanding what it takes for raw materials for an actor regardless of age, from being an actor and from directing as much as I have and from being a film fan that I’ve gotten a good handle on it.”
“It’s not a happy ending if you get the tone wrong. And honestly, as a director, that’s your main responsibility is to get the tone right,” says Favreau. “Like on Jungle Book, I want to reach beyond people who are just curious about how are you going to remake this cartoon into a live-action film. And so you grow the story out while maintaining the same basic themes and the same basic characters and even some of the same moments and images. And that becomes a bit of a puzzle that I really took quite seriously. For instance, we talked a lot about whether to include songs, and ultimately it just seemed like the right thing to do here. You were in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. I didn’t think we wanted to include all of it, because tonally it would have undermined everything else we were trying to do. But we felt that it would be missed, though. So we kind of landed on the old western formula of just a little bit of music doesn’t make it a musical.”
“As a director, you have to have a vision that’s gonna carry you through for over a year, sometimes two or three. You have to have a lighthouse you’re aiming for,” Favreau says. “That’s part of your gig and that’s how you lead a group of people who all need to be pulling in the same direction. With Elf, I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of dough, and I wasn’t very trusting of CGI back then. And I felt that if it was a dude who grew up inside of a Christmas special and then he went to New York, then I got the whole thing. And once that was the vision, then everything else had to service that, and so I had to research how to do the visual effects that were low-tech, like forced perspective and stop motion. And I really wanted the North Pole scenes to feel like you were cracking this movie out of a time capsule, and he really lives an authentic version of it. And what was fun was that the people who were the same age as me connected with that. The look didn’t bother the kids, but for the parents, they definitely felt how it related to the story. And so it became a fun game, between me and the audience, of how much I could reference those old specials. And then for each film since, I kind of try to find an inroad that allows me to connect a vision to it. And usually it requires some technical research to help bring that across.”
“You have to have a willingness to leave some jokes on the table if they somehow undermine the story or the emotional through-line of the piece,” Favreau says. “I’m always lobbying for ‘hey, let’s make us care a little bit more about the character, and maybe the laugh here is gonna hurt that.’ What’s nice is that most of my films are not judged for humor. When I was in Iron Man, I never got one note about comedy. When [head of Marvel Studios] Kevin Feige first saw it play in front of an audience, he looked at me, surprised. He’s like, ‘This is a funny movie, people are laughing.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is.’ But they were never concerned with the comedy–they were more concerned with the action and the suit and the storyboards.”
“So I learned early that if you work on a film that’s not a comedy, they’ll give you a lot more freedom and you can actually make it funnier. And when you work on a comedy, they’ll give you a lot of room to mess with the action and the effects, like with Elf. So with Elf, every joke was negotiated over in the editing room, and the script, and on the set, by everybody who had hired me. But nobody cared about the storyboards or about the action or the visual effects or any of that. And when I did Iron Man, it was the opposite. I like it better when people aren’t giving me notes on comedy because it’s harder to justify. I’d rather negotiate on the action stuff, which honestly isn’t my favorite part of action movies anyway. I like when the action comes out of character and out of situation and emotion and story.”