An indie actor-writer who has successfully shifted to directing big studio films, Jon Favreau is simultaneously all Hollywood, and not Hollywood at all––a pretty amazing feat, all things considered. (For evidence, check out the repeats of IFC's Dinner For Five, a round-table talk show he hosts; it reveals him to be one of the most down-to-earth showbiz insiders around.) He began his career as a lowly improv student at Chicago's famed ImprovOlympic, but he first caught Hollywood's attention with Swingers, a wry little movie Favreau wrote about Hollywood poseurs (played by Favreau and then-unknown Vince Vaughn) looking for fame and girls. Within a few years, Favreau was acting in bigger movies, and soon he got the chance to direct one of his own, the wannabe-gangster comedy Made, which led to bigger directing opportunities like Elf, Zathura, and (possibly) the upcoming science-fiction adventure John Carter Of Mars. On the eve of a snowbound Swingers anniversary reunion at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, Favreau spoke to The A.V. Club about comedy, indie films, and his brand-new MySpace page.
The A.V. Club: You're on MySpace.
Jon Favreau: Yeah. I do have a MySpace. It's more the for-fans-of type, you know? I'll answer some questions sometimes. It's sort of a good way to clear shit up. On IMDb chats, they have the craziest shit, and there is nothing you can do about it.
AVC: So how many friends do you have?
JF: I've only been on for a week, and I have almost 200 people who have found me. It's very viral.
AVC: Do you get a lot of people asking if it's really you, or pretending to be you?
JF: Not that I've found, but I know Vince has people pretending to be him.
AVC: So, you studied with Del Close at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago, right?
JF: I actually taught under him for a little while, too. That was my beginning. I was over at Second City, too, but they didn't really want me. I washed dishes.
AVC: Are you serious?
JF: Yeah. And I took the training center and all that stuff, but I did not, in fact, perform on the main stage. That was sort of the dream.
AVC: Did you try stand-up?
JF: I didn't really do stand-up. I would improvise stand-up, but I'm not really good at telling a joke and making it sound like I didn't say it before. I'm not good at making it interesting for everybody to hear again and again. I just hosted the Writer's Guild Awards, which was kind of cool. But just going up there and doing a tight 15, that's not my style. I envy it, and any time I've done stand-up-type things, it's the biggest rush.
AVC: So why did you leave Chicago?
JF: I was 22, and had worked on Wall Street for a year, and quit my job. I bought a motorcycle and sort of had this fantasy that I'd go cross-country like Easy Rider. I went from New York to L.A., and on the way back I stopped in Chicago and saw a friend of mine who was into improv. And I figured it might be fun to give it a shot. So I moved out there and started doing improv at ImprovOlympic and worked at Second City, and that led to me getting in SAG by doing a commercial. It was a very good, healthy, creative environment. You could put up a show that people would actually come to see, not just friends of people who were in the show. After about four years, I got cast in the movie Rudy, and it was a huge break to be a star in a big Hollywood movie. I met Vince on the set, and moved out to L.A., and that period of my life is sort of what inspired Swingers.
AVC: So how would you classify Swingers? Is it a comedy, or…
JF: I hope so. I think it is. It's funny, right? I think it makes more sense as a comedy than an indie, but I guess it's both. It's indie because we made it outside the system, but the sensibility isn't "indie." Anything now is "indie" if it isn't cookie-cutter. If Swingers was made 30 years ago, it wouldn't be called an indie. The system is so exclusionary now: You have to appeal to a certain age-group and have a certain marquee value. It costs so much money to open a movie, and to advertise that, they really want to take high percentage shots with "studio films." So a lot of these studios have what they call "indie divisions," which is just a way to not pay anybody very much to do more compelling material. But the sense of humor in Swingers isn't different from Wedding Crashers or 40-Year-Old Virgin. I think it's just the timing––if that movie were made today, it would be a mainstream film.
AVC: You really don't think there's a difference between the sense of humor of Wedding Crashers and Swingers?
JF: I think Wedding Crashers is a little bit crasser. Swingers is a more sincere film, whereas Wedding Crashers is a bit more irreverent. Part of what people want to see is guys just chasing girls and leading hedonistic existences until they have a bit of a spiritual awakening. In Swingers, the guys were not womanizers, they were good friends who wanted to meet women. But at its core, it was about a guy who really wants to meet somebody. I think 40-Year-Old Virgin is much more similar to Swingers. And Sideways. But those were all movies that made money. Swingers was a movie that, although it made a big splash, at the time I think it made like $4 million. Every movie that I've worked on, with the exception of Elf, has only found its audience through home video or DVD. Swingers didn't really take on its status until many years after it came out. Rudy made only $20 million at the box office, but everyone seems to have seen it. And even Zathura made less than $30 million at the box office, but it's performing very well on home video. I think ultimately because of DVD and cable and all that stuff, those good movies will eventually emerge. The good movies tend to stick around. The exception to that was Elf. Everything worked out well timing-wise, and everybody has seen that movie. Which is really good for me, because there is nothing like a hit to give you creative freedom. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you getting pressure to do Elf 2?
JF: I know Will [Ferrell] was attached to an Elf 2. I had never been involved with it; I just never understood what Elf 2 would be. I think what is nice about Elf, and why it doesn't play as one long sketch, is that the character actually grows up during the course of the film. It's not just a character that you can keep checking in on and keep doing sketches about. It's a story. I'm pretty proud of how we told it. But it made a lot of dough, so I can't imagine they won't try something with it. That's just the way things work. For me, there is no appeal in that type of project.
AVC: Would you rather all your movies did well at the box office?
JF: Of course. Everybody loves a hit. There is nothing as fun as making a cultural splash with a movie. Sometimes the splash happens, like with Swingers, where it sort of slowly ripples out, yet everybody could quote it. Or it could be something like Elf, where you just make a big splash right off the bat when the movie comes out. That is certainly an easier one to wrap your head around. I did a guest thing on My Name Is Earl, and there is something about being involved in a TV show that's in the midst of its popularity that frees up the creative process. And it's a very fun exchange. Because even when a movie is a hit, you have to remember that it happens a year after you made that movie. You're never really experiencing it while you are in the process of making it. It's always in your rearview mirror, whether it's 10 years later, like how we're celebrating Swingers now, or it's six months after you make it, like Elf. When I was on the set of My Name Is Earl, those people were beginning to enjoy their success, and it helped inspire the product as they were making it.
AVC: Don't you think that the opposite can be true, too, like with Arrested Development? If they think they don't have a chance, they can say "Oh, fuck it. We're getting cancelled. We're going to do whatever we want."
JF: I think that anything that leads to creativity and good work is good. The Ben Stiller Show was a great example of that. Unfortunately, we are not painters and authors, where we can do something in isolation. We require a lot of money to create what we create. It's almost like being an architect: You can't be an architect and build whatever buildings you want to. So there is a certain nexus of art and commerce that making movies and TV shows is all about. Unfortunately, TV is a very expensive medium, and it requires many more people to watch it and appreciate it than your average movie does to be a hit. Elf made $170 million, right? So that means that, at $10 a ticket, 17 million people saw that movie over its entire run. And that was a huge, huge, huge hit. In television, you need that many people seeing your show in one night to be a hit.
AVC: Did you ever get an offer to make Swingers into a TV show?
JF: There was interest, but I didn't want to make Swingers: The TV Show. I didn't want to have the same characters; I didn't want to have the same actors. I didn't want it to feel like a TV version of the movie. But I did do a show called Hollywood Tales, which was set in Hollywood at the time in the '90s when we were making it. It was a single-camera comedy. It was very far ahead of its time, because before Dawson's Creek, there were no hit single-camera shows. Now everything is single-camera. For me, it was an opportunity to just cut my teeth as a director. The next year, I did a cop show. All of them I wrote and directed, but none of them went to air. And by the time I directed Made, I was pretty experienced behind the camera.
AVC: Your next movie is John Carter Of Mars.
JF: Yeah, hopefully. I'm working on the script. We've been doing some artwork for it. It's been cursed over the years. They've been trying to make it since it was proposed to be an animated feature back even before Snow White. It's been around a long time, with at least a dozen directors attached at one time or another. It's quite an undertaking technically, and it takes a large commitment from a studio to make it. It could be a very successful franchise. But it's also a big risk. Hopefully in the next month or two, we'll know what's going on with it.
AVC: That has to be a nerve-wracking proposition, if only because the books have so many diehard fans.
JF: I think the nerve-wracking part is not knowing if the movie's going to happen. Thankfully, I have a background as an actor, and you learn how to live in that world of not knowing what's going to happen next. I have a family now, which makes it a lot easier. I have kids. I certainly have enough elements grounding my life. But to not know whether you are going to be directing this huge science-fiction movie, or doing a different type of job… I have no idea what's coming around the bend.
AVC: Do you consider yourself a director who acts, or an actor who directs?
JF: I'm a director that acts now, since Elf. I certainly get a lot more offers to direct movies, and it's nice to be on that list of directors that gets every script sent to me first. As an actor, it's different because I can work, but I don't necessarily have that kind of a career. I get to do the fun stuff, not really worrying about taking a gig because it's going to pay the mortgage. Also, as you get older, you get a little less patient with the occupation of acting. You want to make sure that it's something good, and something that you can be proud of. When you start off, you're just happy to get a job—now you want to get a good job. But it's certainly the most fun; when it's fun and exciting and you're working with people you like, it's certainly the most fun of any job that I have. You get to live in all these cities and stay in hotels and get per diem and meet people and go out and hit the nightspots in every town. It's a great career if you're hungry for life and new experience.
AVC: How about The Break Up? With Vince and Jennifer Aniston and the paparazzi, it must have been a pretty crazy set.
JF: It was fun, because it was the first set I was on where Vince was the main creative force. It was something that came out of his head, and I got to be in his world, and that was a tremendous amount of fun. It was also great not to have the responsibility of steering the barge. The weight was on his shoulders. So I got to come in and be the hero and improvise some scenes and be the comic relief in his story, as opposed to him ripping it up on my story. And it was going back to Chicago. To go there and eat all the food that I missed eating, and go to Wrigley Field, and then on top of that being famous there, and being with probably the most famous guy from Chicago that there is right now was very, very fun. The only bummer of it at all was that Jen was so much in the spotlight at the time about her marriage, so she tended to stay in. We got her to come out a couple times, but she tended to want to keep a low profile. She had a whole other level of fame that made it difficult to go out and have a good time. I'm not that famous, and Vince is a guy who has got more of a… Chicago is his hometown, so he goes out there, and it's a much more fun experience. He wasn't being descended upon by the paparazzi as much as he was being celebrated by fans. It's like when we're in Vegas: We get inundated, but the energy is good. There's a difference between fans who like you and want to communicate that with you and who are appropriate and know when and how to approach you. It's much different from people working for tabloids stalking you. I think when the public reads about celebrities reacting to being famous, I think they're reacting to being stalked more than being appreciated. People don't make that differentiation enough. But there is nobody I know that doesn't love being appreciated by the public.
AVC: Have you been to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival before?
JF: No, never have. I don't tend to go to festivals unless I have a reason to, because it always feels like someone else's party. When they offered this to us, everyone was busy, but I was adamant that this was the one. This is a great place to be recognized, because there are a million film festivals every year, but there aren't many dedicated purely to comedy. I think it's very appropriate that we be there, because although Swingers was an independent film, we weren't accepted into Sundance, and we weren't embraced by the independent community. We didn't win any Spirit awards. We were embraced by the mainstream. We were the independent film that the mainstream heard about. When I go to film festivals, it's not like I can just pop into any movie theater and just love what I'm seeing. There is just as much mediocrity, if not more, in indies than there is in the mainstream. I like making people laugh. Even when I'm doing something that is action-oriented, I like to bring a humanity and a humor to things. My sensibilities relate a lot more to what's going on at the Aspen Comedy Festival than it would at any given independent film festival.
AVC: It's fun. A lot of performers get together and hang out.
JF: Parties? I hear at Sundance, they're giving away computers and wardrobes and shit.
AVC: Um, that won't happen. Well, maybe to you it will. I got a metal flask last year. It was in the shape of a cell phone.
JF: So you can sneak it in? Now that's cool.