FRAMING IT: Jon Favreau is enjoying the success of his latest film, ?Iron… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For the…)
Jon Favreau sounded tired on the phone Sunday morning. It had been a long weekend, but a great weekend. And a profitable one: The director of "Iron Man" was hearing that his film would crack the $100-million mark in its opening weekend, a staggering success for a movie that, as Favreau put it, nobody really cared about or was thinking about when it was announced two years ago.
Favreau and the film's star, Robert Downey Jr., were all over town Thursday and Friday, dropping in at theaters to gauge the crowd reaction and, in some spots, give the fans a bit of a thrill.
"We went to one midnight show and I introduced the movie, then I brought Robert out and the crowd gave him a standing ovation," Favreau said. "You could feel that this movie was really bringing energy to the theater."
"Iron Man" is Favreau's fourth film as a director and, he said with a chuckle, there's now a very good chance that his fifth movie will have the armor-plated hero returning for a victory lap.
"I don't take anything for granted, though," he said, his voice croaky from the string of late nights. "Not after 'Zathura.' " "Zathura" was his previous film, and although the 2005 project had a core of genre fans who adored it, the movie with the hard-to-say title did not connect with a wide audience. It was cruel shock for Favreau, who had a hit with his first big film, the endearing 2003 Will Ferrell holiday movie, "Elf."
The odyssey that brought Favreau to a bit of box-office history ("Iron Man" is the second-biggest non-sequel opening weekend ever, trailing only fellow Marvel Comics property "Spider-Man" in 2002) is an interesting one, with some unexpected paths -- including stints in improv comedy, a somewhat accidental career in writing and even a quick pass through Wall Street.
Favreau grew up in Queens, New York. In the middle of an unfinished run at Queens College, he found himself working at Bear Stearns -- briefly. After he set aside his pursuit of a degree, he wound up in Chicago, working on a comedy career.
His entry point in Hollywood was acting, and his first role of significance was in "Rudy," the 1993 film about Notre Dame football, where he played a rotund tutor. On the set, he met Vince Vaughn, and the pair became close friends and collaborators, as well as Peter Billingsley (famous to several generations as the child star of "A Christmas Story"), whom he works with often and who serves as executive producer of "Iron Man."
Favreau and Vaughn both broke through as the stars of the 1996 Doug Liman film "Swingers" (Favreau also wrote the screenplay), which became part of the lexicon with its loutish but (somewhat) lovable characters channeling the Rat Pack with modern rodent behavior.
Favreau's acting resume includes a memorable recurring role on "Friends" as well as appearances in "Something's Gotta Give," "Wimbledon," "Deep Impact" and "Daredevil." He was the title character in the 1999 made-for-TV movie "Rocky Marciano," a role that had the actor in muscle mode, although through the years his weight has fluctuated, varying from slim to swollen. But with "Swingers" and "Elf," it's his off-camera work that has gotten Favreau noticed.
Sitting in his office on Olympic Boulevard a few weeks ago, Favreau looked trim if a bit tired -- making "Iron Man" has been a relentless task, requiring not just long hours on the set but also trips across the country to work the comic-book conventions. Hollywood once scoffed at comic-book fans; now, it seeks them out with the eager handshake and grass-roots flirtation usually reserved for Iowa voters.
Favreau loves the notion of making a smart, fun comic-book movie, and it suits his crowd-pleasing sensibility.
"I think you try to overachieve in an area where people don't expect it," the 41-year-old said. "There are other filmmakers who take the most ambitious subject matter that they could -- that's not where my head is right now. What I like to do is find something where the story makes sense and works with a formula that is tried and true. And then the goal is find how much you can bend it but still deliver on what's expected."
The reviews for "Iron Man" have been strong, with critics calling it a savvy and fun popcorn adventure, and Favreau has been getting a good chunk of the credit. In the New York Times, for instance, reviewer A.O. Scott wrote, "Mr. Favreau, somewhat in the manner of those sly studio-era craftsmen who kept their artistry close to the vest so the bosses wouldn't confiscate it, wears the genre paradigm as a light cloak rather than a suit of iron."
According to Favreau, the great challenge of making a hero movie is getting to work right away on the massive special-effects scenes. Then you sharpen the script that fills the quieter moments in between. Fail to make the story work, and the film is hollow; fail to make the big scenes as spectacular as possible, and the fans won't show up.