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THE ARTS | MOVIES

He's grounded in nostalgia

Jon Favreau, director of 'Zathura,' would rather use props than an 'artistic interpretation.'

November 10, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

"ZATHURA: A Space Adventure" has an old-fashioned sensibility -- and for good reason.

Director Jon Favreau, who wrote and starred in the 1996 indie hit "Swingers," is an old-fashioned guy whose tastes run on the nostalgic side. He grooves to the tunes of Sinatra. He is obsessed with hot rods, especially his own 1932 Ford, which he proudly shows off in his Santa Monica garage. And, he strives to make movies that harken back to the days before computer-generated images.

"I'm very resistant to CGI," said the burly 39-year-old.

The sci-fi fantasy "Zathura," which opens Friday, is based on the popular book by Chris Van Allsberg ("Jumanji," "The Polar Express"). It stars Josh Hutcherson and Jonah Bobo as squabbling young brothers from a broken home who find an old board game called Zathura in the basement of their father's (Tim Robbins) house. The mysterious game sends them -- and the house -- hurtling through deepest, darkest outer space, where they encounter an angry robot, hungry aliens named Zorgons and four-eyed sheep.

Dax Shepard plays a stranded astronaut the two boys rescue while playing the game; Kristen Stewart is the boys' teenage sister who is clueless to what's happening. In the end, the brothers are forced to overcome their differences to finish the game to safely return home.

Though there was money in the "Zathura" budget to create a computer-generated image of a house being catapulted through space, Favreau opted to have a miniature made.

"When you look at the house, there is something subconscious about it. You are looking at something real. It is not an 'artistic interpretation' of a house," he said.

Of course, he didn't entirely ignore state-of-the-art special effects. "We used the best technology to composite and put the lighting together, and we have CG backgrounds," he said, which combined make it appear as if the miniature house is indeed rocketing its way through space.

Favreau called on veteran special effects wizard Stan Winston to create the killer robot -- sort of a maniacal cousin to Robby the Robot in "Forbidden Planet" -- as well as the meat-eating Zorgon space creatures the boys must battle.

Using real props, he said, "forces you to shoot them in a way where you use a lot of darkness. You don't show everything. What starts to happen is the film takes a nostalgic feel because you are forced not to show as much as you would were it CGI. The audiences' imaginations are used a lot more.... That is the style of storytelling Spielberg mastered with 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' and 'ET.' "

FAVREAU'S good friend Peter Billingsley (Ralphie from "A Christmas Story') is co-producer on "Zathura," and credits the director with having "a clear-cut vision from Day 1. I know the term 'vision' is overused, but, really, he had a vision for these things before he ever started. When he read the script, he quickly saw a world. And the world that he pitched [to the studio] and talked about two years ago is now on the screen."

The film's young actors said Favreau never dismissed them as just kids. "He totally treated us with respect," Hutcherson, 13, said. "He treated us like adult actors. It really helped because it felt like he really cared about how the performance turned out. It makes a kid feel really good."

Favreau was involved in the creation of the Zathura game that launches the movie's events -- a board game made of tin, which doles out an instruction card with every turn of the key.

"In the book, it was just rolling dice on the board game," he said. "This is the ultimate thing you could find in your dad's closest."

He sat through dozens of meetings to discuss just the right amount of aging for each card and insisted that a Monopoly-like font be used on the cards.

Needless to say, a board game based on the one in the film is coming out for the holidays. "I just saw a commercial on TV for the game, and it looked like it could have been a commercial for when I was a kid," Favreau said.

He also oversaw the video game based on the film.

"When they make a video game to a family movie, not a lot of care is put into it. I got involved in the script and wanted to tell a story that is consistent with the film."

NEXT up, Favreau is developing Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" at Paramount. He also has an animated movie in the works at Sony and is producing a pilot for Fox. But there's a common thread in all these projects: They keep Favreau close to home so that he can watch "SpongeBob SquarePants" with his toddlers, Max and Maddie.

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