I recently attended the New York Film Critics Series screening of Jon Favreau’s Chef. With this film, Jon goes back to his indie roots, after working on several big budget studio films, including Elf, Cowboys and Aliens, The Avengers, and the Iron Man films.
Jon wrote, directed and starred in this film about Carl Casper, a chef who lacks creative control over his work because he has to answer to the restaurant owner, played by Dustin Hoffman. Carl’s passion for his craft finds him relieved of his position as head chef. Carl is left trying to figure out how to follow his passion and be a father at the same time. With his ex-wife’s help, played by Sofia Vergara in a character much different from what you see in Modern Family, Carl, his son Percy (Emjay Anthony), and Martin (John Leguizamo), a friend from his old restaurant, start a food truck. Chef chronicles Carl and his crew’s journey from Miami back to Los Angeles aboard the food truck.
You can definitely see some parallels between Jon’s film work, the need to fulfill certain expectations of the studios and critics, and Carl Casper’s desire for creative control. I’m sure this was no coincidence.
As part of the NY Film Critics Series, we were treated to a talk with writer/director/star Jon Favreau after the screening. Jon talks everything from his relationship with food, working on smaller films, working with actors like Robert Downey, Jr., and how much of his films are ad-libbed. He even went a bit into his own personal life.
I have posted some of the highlights of the discussion here. (Full audio is available at the end of this post.)
In my training, I learned a lot about how a chef looks at the world. Not just what to eat, but how to share a meal, and prepare a meal with a person. Food represents my fondest memories with my departed grandparents.
There’s something about if you shoot food the right way, you can get the audience’s mouth to water. It’s the science of visual communication that is so interesting to me. There is something really hypnotic about watching food to me. It’s really interesting.
Advantages of making an indie film
A lot of it was having the freedom to do things that I would have a difficult time doing with a studio film. One of them was the language. To use the “F word” more than once, which is a cardinal sin in movie making because it changes you from PG-13 to an R, which is very difficult.
[Chef] is a soft R. I talked to chefs. Kitchens are not PG-13 places. But I’m very comfortable with my kids seeing this. I mean, it’s not like they hear the F word once like, “What was that?” and they don’t repeat it. Then the second time, like, “Oh. F@%$. F@%$. F@%$. F%@$.”
But, this is how people speak, and I think it’s a responsible film.
Improvisation. And working with Robert Downey, Jr.
There was a lot of improv. But, again, the people who I work with here are really actors, first. I would write the script, I would run multiple cameras, it makes things difficult [for the production crew], but it allows me a lot of flexibility because you’re filming both people at the same time. That way, if you change what you say, it will match.
We would get it as scripted, but I would always allow people to paraphrase, especially John Leguizamo or Sofia Vergara, especially if they were speaking Spanish. I was like, “Don’t worry about what I wrote. That’s the plot point I want to get across. But use your own words.” So, that would happen, and that creates an actualism that I really like. I think if you’re doing a film of this size, you want to have natural performances.
With a guy like Downey, Downey’s a guy who rewrites. I remember from the Iron Man movies, every scene, he said, “It’s not that I hate the script. I hate paper.” Any time anything was written on paper, he felt that it was compromise and he could do better. So we would constantly be rewriting the scene. In this particular case, I knew very well how he likes to work. I wrote the scene, I knew what had to happen. I knew how Sofia and I were arguing afterwards. So I knew how it had to begin and end.
Yes, it’s improvised, the actual language, but the writing was something he had planned ahead of time. We just kept playing back and forth with it. Reordering stuff and doing different versions of the scene. But the plot points were all exactly the same. But the things you might rattle off or mention about the other person, that would change from time to time. And that’s about as loose as it got with Robert.
Acting in a film that you wrote and are directing
Part of it is comfortable for me, because it’s how I started. This is the first time that I gave myself permission to have some acting moments. If you watch me in other people’s movies, I tend to have more fun when I don’t have to worry about anything but acting. And if you look at Iron Man 1 and 2, I’m kinda not doing too much. In 3, when I’m not directing, I’m having a lot of fun. It’s not a coincidence. You can put all your energy into the performance. And acting, by trade, is a selfish line of work. You have to make the moment about you. You have to make an active choice. You have to grab your moment.
Being a writer and being a director is very selfless. You’re there to pull a story out. You’re there to have the “thousand yard stare” and be there to support the actors and support the story. It’s almost very hard to switch gears. When you have to play a role in a movie you’re directing, the last thing you want to do is go off to the makeup trailer and get your hair done and try to memorize lines and then put yourself in that vulnerable position of having to make acting choices.
Because of Swingers, because of Made, and my early days, it was almost easier because you don’t have to direct the lead. A lot of time goes into negotiating the character or the motivation, what makes that character tick. Especially if you’re an actor’s director, where I want these choices to be organic and I want them to come to the conclusions on their own, as opposed to them just being puppets.
The one thing you wanted to get right about portraying the food business
If I had to identify one thing, it’s the OCD quality that chefs have. They’re very specific in how they want things to be. They’re very controlling. The whole idea of mise en plase. “Everything in its place.” When you set up your station, the way you cut the vegetables perfectly uniformly. There’s a precision that is part of the mantra of the chef’s world. In a greater sense, I wanted to get it right for the chefs. I wanted chefs and people in the food world to give me the nod.
I had a very good experience with Iron Man. The first thing we set out to do was Marvel Studios was making its own movies. We made a decision to do it differently than other studios had. Other studios used the source material as inspiration and then they moved on and addressed to what they thought the general audience would be most accepting of. Often times, they would lose or keep the core audience because they were just so happy they were seeing their heroes on the screen, but they were a little embarrassed by the changes made. I set out to say, “Let me get the fans first. Let me put little easter eggs in. Let me put little inside jokes that nobody’s gonna know…” We got the fans to get into it, and then, out from that core group grew the general audience.
I think you’re always better, even back to the days of Swingers, I made sure we shot the clubs at the clubs where those bands would play. We really went to all the places that I had wanted to depict. So it was very accurate portrayal of what Hollywood was at that time. And that specificity, I think, leads counter-intuitively to the universal quality of it.
So with this, I wanted to get really specific in everything in the chef’s world. Every kitchen I would work in to train, I would talk to the cooks. I would say, “What’s the most important thing to get right?” A lot of them would say burns. Every chef has burns on their forearms from pots. That little detail is what a chef is going to look for. You know how a cop can tell who else is a cop? Every trade has that. Things I would never think about. All these little details are fascinating.
I like to think I’m like what [Carl] ends up like at the end. I learned early on that you put your time in with your kids. I learned early on that you stay excited about your work. And that if you could be engaged, good things will come. I’ve never taken a job or a situation on for any reason other than me being excited about it. I found that the more excited I am about things, the better work I do, the better my work ethic. And I wanted to do as my dad, who is a teacher, he loved his job. It’s a little thing, but when you see your dad loving their job, it makes you expect that.
I find that you can tell your kids a lot of things, and they’ll listen to some of them. But if you live a certain way, they’ll emulate that. Hopefully. If you do your job. Just be around them and put work into balancing your life. At my house, there’s a lot of cooking happening because I was training. and they loved training with me. To my 7-year-old, that’s arts and crafts. They love it.
I have to say, getting older has been a really enjoyable experience for me. I hear it gets harder later, but I have to say, each year has been nicer than the last. I’m really glad that I have 3 kids and a wife and my career balances out well with what I do at home. I think that my work reflects that.
Working for Martin Scorsese
I just got done working with Martin Scorsese on Wolf of Wall Street. That had been a dream for me. Everything I talk about, naturalism, needle drops versus score, those are all tricks out of his playbook. I got a chance to work for the guy. After hearing countless stories about him, from anybody who ever worked for him, I was just thrilled. I was fascinated to see what his process was.
He happened to hire myself, Spike Jonze, and Rob Reiner to be in the movie as actors, and we’re all directors. Rob and I had been actors before, but Spike hadn’t. It was really interesting to me to see. We spent some time talking to each other and the conclusion we came to was directors are the best actors in the world for a director to deal with. I don’t have to impose a point of view to the scene. If I want to direct, I could be directing. If I’m here, I want to be an actor and I want to watch how you’re doing your thing. Especially with a guy like Scorsese.
I think, in general, a director understands how important it is and what the best way is to serve the story and the director best. I loved turning everything off other than wanting to make my part of the scene as best as possible.
It was a great opportunity to sit with the writer, director, and star of an enjoyable film and get his insight on the whole process. Make sure that among the summer blockbusters, you don’t miss Chef when it hits theaters next month.
As promised, here is the audio of the discussion. (Warning: Some NSFW language)