It's All About Reality
Interview with Jon Favreau
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 13 July 2001

When you hear the name Jon Favreau, you'll probably remember that he's the guy who wrote and starred in Swingers (directed by Doug Liman), the movie that, back in 1996 (was it that long ago already?), made "You're so money" a commonplace and his friend and co-star Vince Vaughan something of a movie star. If the above sounds familiar, you probably also know that Favreau and Vaughan met back in 1992, when they were both knocking around Hollywood, and were both cast in David Anspaugh's Rudy (1993), then appeared as a hanger-on in Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (where he developed an abiding respect for co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a college student in PCU (both 1994), an astronaut in Mimi Leder's Deep Impact and hapless accessory to murder in Peter Berg's Very Bad Things (both 1998), and Rocky Marciano in a respectable TV biopic (1999). Then, in 2000, Favreau stretched out still more: he starred opposite Famke Janssen in Valerie Breiman's indie romantic comedy, Love & Sex, and a psycho football player in the silly Keanu Reeves vehicle, The Replacements.

If you're a hardcore Favreau fan, you also know his background, for instance, he was born in 1966, in Queens, New York. Before heading to La-la-land, he worked for a Wall Street investment banking firm, spent some time in Chicago doing improv comedy and theater, and was a cartoonist for, um, money. While writing scripts to pay rent, family man Favreau is also working the development deal he earned from Swingers' success, out of which he's determined to make unusual, intelligent movies. Made is one of those. He wrote the film, his directorial debut, for himself (as Bobby) and Vaughan (as Ricky), to revisit their Swingers energy.

Cynthia Fuchs: The Made soundtrack is so varied, from Hawaiian music and Monster Magnet to De La Soul and Black Eyed Peas: how did you make your choices?

Jon Favreau: On this film and with Swingers, I give a lot of thought to the music as I'm writing it. In Made, the music has to do with the nightlife, what New York is really about. I wanted to keep it like a party. And it is an eclectic mix, which gave a lot of problems commercially. The complexity of the piece works against you, for the soundtrack.

CF: I imagine someone wanted a categorizable CD.

JF: [Laughs] Well, we did not deliver that. We didn't with Swingers either, which had Dean Martin and country-western, funk, and swing. This new film has that, too: you have hard rock and rap and Dean Martin, again.

CF: I'm guessing from your history that you prefer to work with people you know.

JF: That's right. Most of the people I cast for this film are people I feel comfortable with. I knew Famke [Janssen] from Love & Sex, Faison [Love] from The Replacements, a couple of people from The Sopranos [on which Favreau guest-starred as himself], and Jennifer Esposito and Sam Rockwell. The only people who I got through the more traditional means were Puffy, Peter Falk, and Mak [Makenzie Vega], the little girl.

CF: Speaking of whom, she gave a very un-movie-kid-like performance.

JF: That was because we did a lot of improv, where we'd just roll the camera. She wasn't very comfortable with that at first, but her mom was a very good coach. And a lot of the moments that show Mak in the best light, as a human child, are when she's just talking about her pets or other things. Me and Vince would improvise, or I'd just have a conversation with her with the camera rolling and we'd capture the moment, without those pre-rehearsed movements that a lot of kid actors use. She's a great actor, but I like having a little more reality.

CF: What is appealing to you about improvisation as an approach to making films?

JF: We have a script, but sometimes people make choices or say things on their own, and I encourage that. I shoot a lot of film. Tonally, sometimes things can be too much if you improvise; there's a lot more cursing than I would have liked. But I encourage improvisation and everybody felt very comfortable with that.

CF: Had you had that experience with other directors you worked with?

JF: Not really. But we sort of knew from Swingers what it would be like with me and Vince. And everybody's saying the lines, it's not like a Mike Leigh movie, we're not improvising the plot. But it's more like Spike Lee -- more Lee than Leigh -- bringing a certain authenticity to it, by paraphrasing. I'm a pretty good writer, I make a living at that. But I still don't think my writing is better than something someone would really say. If the little girl talks the way she talks, it's going to be a lot better than her learning how to talk the way you think she should. It's all about reality. It's about tricking the audience into buying into thinking what they're watching is not a movie.

CF: I know that you didn't want to do a sequel to Swingers. What did you want to do with this film?

JF: We definitely wanted to do a follow-up that would satisfy people who liked Swingers, but not make them feel like they're paying to see the same movie with us a little bit older and fatter and more pathetic, still trying to pick up women in Hollywood [laughs]. But I wanted to build on the chemistry between Vince and me, so I found aspects of both of our real personas, to exaggerate for comedy. I put us in a much more higher-stakes, more story-driven situation, and turned the screws on the characters. I also wanted to build into the movie a set of circumstances that drew upon our real life experiences since Swingers. You know, now we get to ride in limos and stay in nice hotel rooms. I wanted to capture that in this film, and the mob genre really lent itself to that.

CF: Mob films let you focus on the guy-guy relationship.

JF: And we turn into this "gay" couple at the end [laughs]. Ricky and Bobby begin under this veneer of mild racism and homophobia, but that comes out of their circumstances, but as they get further away from that world, they leave that behind: they're still cursing, but they look like a young couple trying to make the best of it. We came up with that last scene as we looked at the movie cut together, and Vince and I actually kicked in part of our paychecks to finance it, because I think the movie would have been understood without it. Just like in Swingers: while we were shooting the movie, I wrote that last scene where -- remember? -- Vince tries to pick up another girl and gets smoked, and he says that she's coming on to him, and my character just doesn't want to hear it anymore. That scene's important, because if you don't have it, the film can look like a recipe book for getting laid. But it's a movie about something else, that the real way to get what you want is to become comfortable with who you are, and accept it warts and all. It's a Shrek type of thing! [laughs] That's when Mike [Favreau's character in Swingers] gets what he wants. And [Made] is not about learning how to wear the right suit and carry a gun and handle yourself when the shit goes down. That's not what makes things good at home. Because you're going to get home and find a woman you don't really know, doing things you don't want to see her doing, because you were never really honest with yourself. Made is about opening your heart to people who deserve your love, and not trying to turn other people into something that they're not, not trying to save people who don't want to be saved. If you go down that dark path, you're not going to end up doing any good.

CF: As Jessica, the woman who "doesn't want to be saved," Famke gives a brave performance.

JF: She is brave, and that's why I wanted her for the film. I like to write roles for people I know, roles they'd like to play, roles they haven't had the chance to play. That's how I pick roles. Jessica is an adorable, seedy, lower-class character.

CF: How were you thinking about setting Ricky and Bobby's "journey" in New York?

JF: It is this archetypal, Joseph Campbell-type journey, and you want to take your characters from the ordinary world in which they dwell, and they have to correct some type of problem by going into this extraordinary other world. Whether that's Oz in The Wizard of Oz, or the nightlife in Swingers, that's your second act. In Made, New York is this wondrous place where they're uncomfortable. It's a key aspect of traditional storytelling. It cost us a lot of money to actually shoot in New York; they wanted us to shoot in Toronto, with a couple of exteriors in New York. But we needed to be there. I wanted you to feel like they were in a whole different world.

CF: The boxing is an effective way to set up Bobby and Ricky's particular kind of intimacy.

JF: I think the boxing is a great way to "show, don't' tell." It's the first rule of writing. To have two people beating the piss out of each other and then cutting to one driving the other one home, really says a lot about their relationship. After that opening, you always know that there's the possibility of violence between them. And it's fun also to saddle us with the burden of wearing these scars throughout the movie, as we're trying to gain credibility. Everybody assumes we're these rough characters, but really, every bruise on our faces comes from the other person, which is sort of embarrassing.

CF: You said that you cast Puffy... or Sean, or what did you call him?

JF: I used to call him Sean on the set. But I guess you can also call him Puffy. Or now, you just call him P [laughs]. But he's really great about all this sh*t. There's nobody I know who can get headlines like that guy! He totally works it and he's able to have fun with it. He wants to make people laugh.

CF: Given that you knew so many of the people you cast, what made you go with Puffy, someone you didn't know?

JF: He approached me after reading the script. I was surprised, but I thought, this could really work, because even if he just comes off like himself, there's an intrinsic humor built into our making all these faux pas in front of this guy, about whom the perception is that he's this really dangerous character. Especially at the time, with the gun charges being brought up against him, so to the vast American movie-going audience, it's like having John Gotti in the movie. He was willing to have fun with it, which I thought was really cool. And I thought it was cool that he wanted to do an independent film, in a small, supporting role. He worked his ass off. I was really happy with him.

CF: And you chose Chris Doyle as your cinematographer: what was your thinking behind that?

JF: Although this is my first time directing, it's really my second filmmaking experience. And between Chris and I, it was a real division of labor. He ran the camera and set up the scenes, and I worked with the actors. I knew that I wanted a really strong right-hand, and I'd seen all the Wong Kar-wai stuff he'd done, where he had to shoot on a budget, on practical locations, with available light, and I knew we'd be doing that a lot. I knew that a guy who could bring beauty to the piece, through his framing and energy, was going to go a lot further for us than a DP who would bring mood through setting lights and preparation. And he's a fantastic character as well as a talented cameraman. So, we would be a really good marriage -- he'd add that grit and realism that people had come to expect from the way Swingers was shot.

CF: So when you're writing -- I know that you were once a cartoonist -- do you think in terms of visual set-ups?

JF: A little bit. I'm usually writing more about mood, for the actors, and for people who are reading it as a story unfolding, not so much so they'll see my vision as a director. I find that, no matter who you're dealing with -- a music composer, an actor, or a cameraman -- you're better off expressing the mood of what you're trying to say, and they usually have a lot more facility within their discipline. Instead of giving a line reading to an actor, I'll usually tell them where the character is coming from, what they're dealing with. Telling them what line to hit tends to limit people and people feel more empowered when you give them that freedom. Then, if you don't like the choices they're making, you can adjust them, but together. Chris Doyle's stuff was a lot more sophisticated than the stuff I would come up with.

CF: He seems like he's pretty fast on his feet.

JF: Literally! He's a powerful, slim, sinewy guy. He's like an ant. He carries this Ariflex camera on his shoulder, and what must be a 1000 foot mag [film magazine]. Since Vince and I are both much taller than he is, [Chris] built these shoes that look like Spice Girls platforms. He had two different sizes -- Vince-size and like a foot shorter, Jon-size. So he'd run around in these huge Frankenstein boots with this big camera on his shoulders, and he never fell once!

CF: Were there specific ideas that helped you directing, that came from directors you've worked with?

JF: Yes. David Anspaugh, who was my first director, on Rudy, was all about empowering the actor, making you feel comfortable and appreciated, allowing you to keep your dignity, and treating you like a man. Being treated like a grown-up makes you proud to be involved in a film. Directing isn't getting somebody to do something. You're not cultivating a performance out of someone, peeling the onion. That's all bullsh*t. The best you can do is do a lot of preparation, empower people and allow them to be the best they can be: you stay out of their way and allay their fears. It's like a conductor of a symphony: waving that baton isn't getting people to play any better, it's just helping to coordinate everything. It's all in the preparation, the discussion, the planning, the synchronization. And then you sort of stand in front of the instruments, wave your arms, and look like you're running the show.

CF: You sound like you're sure of yourself on this directing thing.

JF: I don't feel like I'm necessarily great at what I do. I feel like I have a certain understanding of the way it works, and have a long way to go. I'm not in the league of great directors, by any stretch of the imagination. There's a certain understanding of filmmaking that people like Scorsese, Woody Allen, even Tarantino have, or Chris Nolan, who did Memento. They're all more sophisticated directors than I am, but I'm coming to it from where I come from, which is the people, the words and the acting. And I try to get the best people I can to help edit and shoot, so I can communicate the story I want to tell, and little by little I pick up what they do, and become a richer director. In Hollywood, it's amazing how many people are running around doing things just because nobody's telling them they can't. It's not like we're designing computer components or medical equipment, where there's a necessary level of understanding. It's all about ideas. And the person who is the most self-assured is probably going to go the furthest, and it's not necessarily because they have the best ideas [laughs].

CF: So you're angling to keep one foot just outside of Hollywood?

JF: Yes. I step in, but I get disappointed fast. There's nothing I would love to do more than a big-budget, big-studio movie that everybody will see and that has an impact on that level. But that's also self-limiting, because when you have to make it so broadly appealing, you deal with "committee creativity." And you get into this whole Ayn Rand watershed, where you're not able to aspire in any one direction with too much intensity, because it starts to scare people. So you're forced to make very safe material. I mean, I was in a couple of big studio movies, in supporting parts. But it's not time-efficient. Though, when I was working on The Replacements, I wrote Made! It came out of the frustration of being stuck in a hotel room in Baltimore for three months with nothing to do [laughs]. So, good things come out of every situation.

CF: Your writing doesn't seem to condescend to viewers.

JF: I think you owe them a certain amount of smarts. The ultimate storyteller is Shakespeare, who was able to get the "groundlings" to laugh at his bawdy humor and storylines, but could still be studied by scholars to this day, for the complexity of his language, meter, and symbolism. That's the real guy. I don't want to be an art-house movie guy, where people who go to film school can discuss your work, but people who haven't studied cinema can't appreciate it. By the same token, I don't want to be the guy who's making this commercial pap that people lap up, but that disappears the minute you leave the theater. I want to walk that fine line, and I want to do something good, I want to do "good" with it. I want people to learn something that will help them in their lives, and maybe give them a little bit of hope, ultimately. I think Swingers really accomplished that. Hopefully, Made will touch people and make them think in a responsible way, as opposed to so many films, where the irresponsible is rewarded. Maybe I'm coming off too large, but it is something I aspire to.

CF: Does it complicate that goal, being a writer, director, and actor?

JF: When you're acting in something that you're directing, you're burdening both of your roles. But being an actor who becomes a director definitely benefits you.

CF: I'm thinking also of someone like Spike Lee, or even Woody Allen, whom studios expect to show up in their movies as a way to sell them.

JF: I think Spike puts himself in it enough, but not too much. But he's also a film school guy, from NYU, and he knows to stay in the background as an actor, because he has a lot to say with the camera. I'm more of a ham. Though, I'd still like to direct a movie where I'm not in it and see if I could learn more. But they don't want me in the top slot. If I had Matt Damon playing Bobby, I would have had a lot more money to make the film [laughs]. If anything, they're scared that I'm going to want to star in everything!

CF: You've chosen to play a wide variety of roles.

JF: It's great, I love that. But it also slows you down as an actor, because they don't know how to label you. When I went into The Replacements, they were like, "You can do comedy?" And that's sort of what I started out doing. So you're constantly educating people as to who you are. Look at Jennifer Jason Leigh, such a fantastic actor, and yet, because she has systematically pushed her career in every different direction, everybody agrees that she's wonderful but no one can envision her as a "thing." Whereas, Tom Hanks has branded himself. He can operate outside of that, but people know what they're getting. People want the tried and true. I'm guilty of that too, when I cast. For me and Vince, I tried to change it up as much as a I could, but I didn't want to disappoint the people who are fans of Swingers.

CF: Who are those people?

JF: Actually, from the internet, I have a pretty good idea [laughs]. They're maybe a little younger than me, in their twenties, or from late teens to us aging gen-xers. They're computer-literate, have built web pages for me and for Vince, are smart, and like to laugh, but are also very emotional. People who like Swingers are keying into the heart of the movie as much as the humor. They're people who have a positive outlook on life and aren't nihilistic nay-sayers. They have goals in their lives and like watching characters who are going after what they want. We have a webpage for Made,, that we put up while we were shooting the movie. We put that up because we weren't letting press on the set. We couldn't; it was too distracting, given the amount of time we had to shoot. So, we put up photos and reports and when people heard rumors, they'd post it on the bulletin board and I could answer it. And all that turned into filling people in on where the movie would preview, and linking to online reviews, which people are usually scared of. I welcome them. A lot of Hollywood people only know the internet as a place that puts up their face on someone else's body, or sells their autographs on E-bay [laughs]. I have that going on too. But I think online is a way for people with common interests to get in contact with each other. The fact that there's a PCU fan-page out there -- for this movie that was dumped by the studio -- indicates that there's a cult following out there. And that's great. For Made, we previewed at the Alamo Draft House in Austin, so Harry Knowles [] could see the film. With a film this small, we need the internet, the grassroots support. It's like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: if every boy scout sends in a nickel, we can get this movie out there!

Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' review.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.