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'Iron Man's' action figure

Director Jon Favreau is something of a hero as his film tops $100 million in its opening weekend.

May 05, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

"You have to get the set pieces ready because it takes over a year to get the action stuff on the screen," he said. "You can't wait until the script is perfect. The film won't get done. In a sense, the script connects the dots. . . . It explains why a lot of action-orientated films don't always make the most sense. Some dots never get connected."

D&D background

Some filmmakers get their start making shaky home movies, others catch the bug in a high school drama class or maybe through an art institute where they put paint to canvas. Favreau has more of an eight-sided education.

"It was Dungeons & Dragons, but I wouldn't have owned up so quickly a few years ago," Favreau said sheepishly.

"It's rough. It's one of the few groups that even comic-book fans look down on. But it gave me a really strong background in imagination, storytelling, understanding how to create tone and a sense of balance. You're creating this modular, mythic environment where people can play in it."

Maybe there should be a new Hollywood respect for eight- and 10-sided dice and a talent for troll tales: Robin Williams, Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel have all professed their passion (past or present) for the role-playing game.

For Favreau, it was the fantasy element that pulled him in, but it was the sense of story that he carried with him.

"It allowed me to not tamp down my imagination; I think there's a tendency to turn that part of you off," he said.

"Every kid has imagination, but at a certain age, that spigot gets turned off. I set it aside in high school. I really couldn't do it now," Favreau said, shaking his head. "There's something in my heart -- there was such a stigma to it.

"When I was young, it was exciting, but as I got older it felt like it was keeping me from progressing. You're social in your small circle, but it's asocial to the wider world."

Favreau read comics, but he connected more with J.R.R. Tolkien, especially with Bilbo Baggins, the homebody-turned-hero of "The Hobbit."

"It's about a guy who just wanted to sit by a fire at home and live a very comfortable life, but then he was drawn out into the world onto an adventure," he said. "I always related to that character. That's sort of how I feel now. Going around the world to promote this picture, it's exciting, but it also feels like I just want to sit at home with my family and have a nice boring life."

Favreau's directorial film debut was "Made," a small, offbeat 2001 mob picture that also saw him writing and acting opposite pal Vaughn.

He followed that up with "Elf," which bottled up the daft charm of Ferrell and became not only a hit, but also that rare family movie that respects the intelligence of the audience and manages to be artfully sentimental.

Some critics saw the same in "Zathura," but the film didn't click with audiences. "Zathura" was another mix of fantasy and reality, with its story of kids who, through a magical board game, zoomed off into space on an adventure but still had to contend with harsh sibling rivalry, the pain of parental divorce and the anxieties of adolescence.

You can imagine that Favreau found it easy to tap into the fitful fears of a youngster playing a game; the son of two educators, he lost his mother to leukemia when he was in middle school. The role-playing games of the years that followed may seem corny to some, but he's certain it prepared him for the fan-boy cinema that is so dominant today.

"Making a film is, as Orson Welles said it, like getting to play with the big train set," Favreau said.

"Right now is an interesting time because technology is what you're using to tell stories. Really, George Lucas was the guy who made that leap from taking the primal elements of storytelling, the sort of mythic Joseph Campbell storytelling and Jungian archetypal deconstruction of storytelling, and using modern technology to amplify that and present it to a new generation. But I contend it's not the technology that draws people to it, it's the story. It's touching something in us that's much older and deeper."

On his desk, Favreau had a copy of a genre magazine with a cover story about him; the headline called him the next genre-film kingpin, which clearly pleased him. "That," he said, "would be nice."

Favreau pointed to the recent film work of Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, Peter Jackson and Gore Verbinksi as compelling evidence that great directors can create great films in the framework of superhero and fantasy worlds.

"If you can make it be smart, people respond," he said. "If you can't be smart, at least be clever about it. Infusing a movie with cleverness keeps the audience engaged in a special way.

"I think the 'Pirates' movies found a way to be clever, and I think Johnny Depp's casting exemplifies what I'm talking about. You get a smart actor who makes clever choices and a clever filmmaker making smart choices, and then you add visual effects with ingenuity, and audiences will reward you for that."

--

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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