Since his breaking through as an actor and screenwriter with 1996's Swingers, Jon Favreau has remained quite visible in front of the camera, from mainstream projects such as the summer 1998 blockbuster Deep Impact and a stint on TV's Friends to more specialized fare such as Peter Berg's underappreciated 1998 dark comic gem Very Bad Things and last summer's indie romantic comedy Love & Sex. Favreau's feature directing debut Made may be his first screenwriting credit since the Doug Liman-directed cult comedy classic, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he has not been busy with his pen and honing his other off-camera skills in the past five years. In a recent talk, Favreau shed some light on some of these lesser-known creative endeavors and how they led up to and helped the making of Made, along the way sounding off on the Internet, independent filmmaking, and the Hollywood system.
Jon Favreau: Yeah, that's kind of what happened. Remember, when I wrote Swingers, I was an actor and only an actor. I was sort of trying to get [the script for Swingers] done as a director, but the focus of making the movie wasn't to become a filmmaker. It was to make people laugh and entertain people, but more to get a break as an actor--not just to work on a movie, but the idea of showcasing yourself in a way that people will want to fit you into their projects. That didn't happen, though. It was always that I was the writer, and [co-star] Vince [Vaughn] was the actor. Granted, Vince is a much easier sell as an actor, and I'm a much easier sell as a writer, the way this town works. I'm not going to be taking any parts away from Tom Cruise; Vince might be. So a writing career kind of fell into my lap. I somehow became an approvable writer on all the lists of all the studios--which was resented by other writers. [laughs] I'm always up for a challenge, so I would go after the opportunities that presented themselves to me. So I had to play a little bit of catch-up and learn how to write in that period of time.
MD: So the first thing you wrote after Swingers was The Marshal of Revelation, a western about a Hasidic Jewish gunfighter?
JF: I actually wrote The Marshal of Revelation while we were editing, before Swingers ever came out. I wanted to have the next one ready. I actually even wrote a sequel to Swingers while we were in the editing room.
MD: Really? And that will never see the light of day, of course.
JF: No. Maybe as a script, but we're not going to shoot it. It might be interesting to see the script of it, though.
MD: So people can see what you had planned for these characters.
JF: Something to tag on to something else. I wouldn't want to sell it.
MD: I'm sure you could sell it sinceSwingers has such a cachet right now.
JF:: But those are exactly the people you don't want to exploit. [laughs] The people who would want to buy a screenplay to Swingers Part 2--I would rather just give it to them. How much money I would end up making, and how much it would cost them--it's better off to just give it away. So maybe we'll attach it to something, or I'll post it, like in PDF format on the website. Maybe I'll do that.
MD: It'll give all the fans what they've been wanting to see, just in a different way.
JF: It might be fun for them.
MD: So The Marshal of Revelation never came about because of worries about its commercial prospects?
JF: [The studio] definitely felt a limitation to the upside of what they can make commercially on it, moreso than it was a Hasidic Jewish gunfighter that it was a western. They can't pre-sell westerns in foreign. Even a film like Unforgiven, that won Academy Awards, has a very difficult time commercially. It's funny; I wrote it because when I was talking to Doug Liman on the set of Swingers, we were shooting so much at night on so much expensive film stock in low light levels, and he was like, "If you ever write another script, make it exterior day the whole movie." [laughs] So I was like, "A western--it would be cheaper to shoot." Little did I know.
JF: At first it was at Miramax, and we were getting into the logistics of what degree the creative control would be. On Swingers, we had final cut by default. The filmmakers controlled it because it was a negative pickup, and it was acquired after the fact, and it was the leverage of multiple invested parties that allowed us to maintain creative control over that. But typically, when [a studio] finances it, everybody wants a say, and Miramax is renowned for having a very strong creative voice in the filmmaking process. That wasn't necessarily something I wanted for my first directing effort. But final cut is something that's very difficult to get, so we were finding under what circumstances they would have final cut, and we started building in some language about how high it would test: if it tested over 60, they wouldn't touch the cut. It was a negotiation between [Miramax co-chief] Harvey [Weinstein] and myself.
MD: It's interesting how Miramax has this image as being a "protector of the artist," per se, and then they do something like they did on 54, which was heavily recut after bad test screenings.
JF: Harvey's always been very square and up front with me; I really have no complaints. I have him to thank for exposing the public to my movie. I would love to work with the guy again, but there are all sorts of relationships you can have with that studio. If you're a filmmaker he holds in high esteem and values the relationship with, the relationship can be great. The flip side is, now here I am with Made, a film that's getting very good notices, there's an audience for it, and I'm at Artisan. They're very limited in their ability to release a film; they release a film on a very small scale. It's a very traditional platform where they start on literally three screens and platform out. If you ever run out of gas, that's it. I've had that experience with Love & Sex at Lions Gate, where it just never brought in enough money to justify them investing anything else in it, so [the film] disappeared, only to appear on the shelves at Blockbuster weeks later. In the case of Swingers, there was an incredible amount of support [from Miramax]. They even mounted a small Oscar campaign for us. They really know how to make a filmmaker feel appreciated when it comes to the amount of money and the amount of resources they commit to the marketing and promotion of the films. So Miramax is a wonderful place to do business if you're in the right situation. Unfortunately, with my first film coming out, I probably just would not have that kind of leverage over there at that point. It was frightening to me.
MD: What are some other things you've done as a writer since then?
JF: I've worked on like a dozen things since then. On [the football film] Leatherheads, I did a rewrite on a script that [Steven] Soderbergh had done. That project had bounced around a great deal, and it had landed at Universal in turnaround and development, and I had a take on it. That's bounced back and forth so much with so many different directors and producers that I really don't know where it is now.
MD: And then you did a number of television projects that went to pilot but nowhere beyond.
JF: My real agenda on those pilots was to learn how to be a director. So when push came to shove to make certain compromises in the show to make it get picked up, I wasn't willing to do things like putting on a laugh track. They were all single camera, [shot] on film shows. A lot of them were before things like Ally McBeal, and people didn't understand single camera comedy because it hadn't been done in a while.
MD: So the TV thing was another thing you just sort of stumbled into.
JF: For TV, it really demands a lot of you, and it doesn't pay that well, believe it or not. If you're not syndicated, you're making horrible money compared to what you would be making in features. You're asked to do a great deal of writing, and everybody assumes you're making a killing. Chances are you're working so fast that you're not doing your best work. Of course, the big thing that draws people to television is a guy like Joss Whedon, getting to make his vision of Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] that he didn't get to do on the big screen because a writer in TV has all the say. A writer in film is nobody. So you get a very strong voice; you get to develop characters and storylines over the course of 22 episodes sometimes. It's very appealing in that way, and then if it ever goes into syndication, it's just crazy money that you just don't get in any other end of the business, especially as a writer. So I think the people that are brought to television have the frustration of a writer not being heard. I've always had the ability to make movies. I've been offered directing gigs since after Swingers, but it's never been the right situation. So writing has been a moneymaking proposition for me mostly, and a learning experience--a way to learn about moviemaking, about the Hollywood system. And there's always the chance that your script is going to be made into a good movie. But it's also given me the freedom not to have to pick acting roles I didn't want. Any acting roles that I've done that have not been satisfactory or any films that have been subpar are because I've guessed wrong, not because I've been offered money and had to take it for that reason.
MD: So you worked on the TV pilots mostly to hone your directing skills?
JF: The first time I stepped behind the camera on a feature, I wanted to have enough experience that I wasn't worried about doing it for the first time. I wanted to have a voice as a filmmaker already. So I was really grateful for [the TV work]. I sort of learned that from Mimi Leder. The Peacemaker and Deep Impact were her first movies, and she was being touted as this "first-time" filmmaker who had a great voice, but she had been directing ER and [other] television for years. It's a great way to fly under the radar in this day and age when your first feature is being so heavily scrutinized, and decisions about your career are made based on that feature. I knew that I needed to really prepare myself, and so it was a great experience.
MD: Was there any disappointment when the various pilots did not get picked up?
JF: I at least went into them saying, "I don't give a shit," and then I always ended up kind of hoping they would go. Then afterwards when they didn't go, I was always very happy when I saw where my career took me.
MD: And you were just grateful for the experience.
JF: Yeah. Compared to a movie, they'll give you a million or two million dollars to shoot a half an hour or an hour of film. You shoot it in a week. You shoot it with a union crew. You go through the casting and editing process, and they don't look over your shoulder. It was a great experience to work with different producers and different actors, and some of the actors that I met on the TV shows, I ended up using. The flight attendant in Made, Jennifer Bransford, was somebody whom I cast as a lead in a pilot called Smog.
MD: That was the UPN project, right? I remember one magazine called that one of the best unsold pilots for that season.
JF: I think two different places said that, which is about as good as you could ever get because if nobody sees it, and it's heard that it's the best, it's almost mythical.
MD: That then brings us to Made, or am I missing something else?
JF: The one that you're missing that matters is [the Silicon Valley story] The First $20 Million. They just shot it. I was actually writing that when I was working on one of my pilots a few years ago. I had adapted a book, and [the script] has been rewritten since then. Mick Jackson was attached [as director]. The project ended up getting made at Fox, and they shot it what they thought was pre-strike, and it's being edited now. It's very strange; it's the first time I've been involved in writing a movie that I haven't been involved with producing. I stopped by the set one day; it was a little surreal. Hopefully that will be pretty good. It's actually very cool because [the job] got me online for the first time. I said, "I have to research this; I better learn what the Internet is." And the Internet has really been such an important part of my career.
JF: With Made, now it's me being a little more proactive [running my own site], but even before then--the Shag-O-Rama site, the other Jon Favreau [fan] websites. There are a lot of Swingers sites.
MD: Then there's that one that was up before that I'm sure you saw called "Jon Favreau, Where Are You?"
JF: Yes, that's right. That was a little strange.
MD: I can imagine your reaction to that one. [laughs]
JF: Very odd. And she took a very scared picture of me, too.
MD: It seemed very appropriate that she put up a very scared picture of you.
JF: [laughs] Yeah! It was just really surreal to find that. And you don't have any idea--the Internet, when you first get on it, especially when you're a celebrity and so much attention is focused on you, you don't understand the scope of it; you think it's huge. But really it's just individuals; it's not that big a thing. It's not that out of control. You get to know the personalities on it, and it's almost like a fan club, not these faceless masses. There are really probably a few dozen people that are active and probably a few hundred people that are inactively, passively watching and doing. It's a great way to communicate especially when you have sort of a niche audience like I do, a very strong but small following. It's a great way to communicate directly with them, and we knew that dealing with the press in a traditional way on Made was a real waste of time; you have all these people chasing the [co-star Sean] "Puffy" [Combs] rumors about gun charges, and all these pop culture-y people who don't really understand what we're doing. But you have this incredibly rich and educated Internet audience that was very keyed into what we're doing, and so we put up that "Getting it Made" site to put up some photos, answer questions in case they heard any rumors, and give the real deal of what was going on so that crazy rumors didn't start spinning out of control.
MD: So how did the idea for Made the film come about?
JF: After working on The Marshal of Revelation, there was another one in there, a Paramount project called Guam Goes to the Moon. If you think Leatherheads has bounced around a lot, every hot filmmaker has been attached to Guam. When Happy, Texas was acquired, they hired [its director, Mark Illsley]; the Weitz brothers were attached--like a half-dozen people have been attached to this project. Inevitably, the studio and the filmmakers end up at loggerheads, and the movie never gets made. As a matter of fact, when I was shooting Very Bad Things, Daniel Stern was attached to direct and Bill Pullman was attached to star. That project is like the typical ridiculous Hollywood development case study. [Vince and I] had developed that for five years. Vince was starring in it; it was a green light, ready-to-go project; he brought me on to do some work on the script, and then we were unwilling to make the changes required to get the film off the ground. That one went away, and so Vince was like, "Look, you're starring in other people's movies, getting them greenlit, doing small movies. I'm doing the same thing; I'm doing these big studio movies. We just got to do something together, something we can made, something contemporary." So with that in mind, I set out to write something where I could incorporate as much as I could of our experiences since Swingers and put it on the backdrop of a movie in the mob genre, which we both know and love. I tried to incorporate the experiences we've had made Hollywood: travelling first class on a plane, staying at hotels, and meeting the types of characters who are very powerful and are trying to charm you and at the same time trying to take advantage of you. We tried to include some of that and also have fun with the genre, and with buddy, fish out of water type [of films].
JF: Very quickly. I was in Baltimore working on The Replacements, and then in the middle of writing the script I was hired by David Chase to play myself on The Sopranos. I was playing myself writing a script about the mob, which I really was doing, and that served to inspire me more. I was in New York shooting, and it gave me some ideas for locations and people to cast in it. That gave me a second wind on the project, so it was done pretty quickly.
JF: I think it will do well in spite of what we're up against. I think it will certainly get us all to the next step. The real challenge is to be able to make another movie, to be able to grow your career in every way, and have the opportunity to continue working. Inevitably, I think it's really going to find its life on video.
JF: It's really made an impact. Most of the questions I answer on the Made site are about Swingers. There were so many questions about doing a special edition [DVD], and I approached Miramax, and now we're putting together a special edition DVD with some outtakes and commentaries. I know that Vince would love to be involved; I called [co-star] Ron Livingston; I'm sure Doug [Liman] would [like to do it]. It's a great way to include everybody and have a reunion several years later. I think we've all grown to appreciate Swingers. Whatever little squabbles erupted over it, much like every band after its first hit--I think that everybody is friends now and has grown to appreciate the collaboration, and I think everybody would love to give back to Swingers and give back to the Swingers fans.
MD: Will you give back to the fans again and do another collaboration with Vince?
JF: Yeah. I don't know what yet, though. It was very difficult to figure out to do Made. You want to have something that people who like Swingers will like, but you want to stretch yourself as far as you can and be different without alienating your audience. So what's the next step from here? If we're just looking to repeat the same thing, we could go to a big studio and just give them a very safe facsimile of what we have done before. That's not on either of our agendas. So we're going to find something probably lighter in tone than Made, but just different from Made and Swingers--as different as Made was from Swingers.