AUSTIN — Made for “barely double digits,” Jon Favreau approached his newest film, “Chef” much like he did “Swingers,” his 1996 cult classic. He quickly wrote the script, shopped it around and got the likes of Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr., Dustin Hoffman and Scarlett Johansson to sign on.
“It was more of a ‘hey, do you want to party?’ as opposed to ‘hey, I need a favor,’ which makes for a much more pleasant environment,” the director, writer and star said at the SXSW Film Festival. Sitting in Qui, chef Paul Qui’s flagship restaurant, Favreau spoke to Variety about what it takes to make a compelling film, why he’s not afraid of the dueling “Jungle Book” films and why Lucasfilm sound was the only option.
What about this film (‘Chef’) resonated with you?
I’m neither of those characters, to my detriment; people make assumptions that I’m more similar to the characters than I am. Ok, I’ll make him a chef and divorced. I could not have changed more things, it’s maybe an exaggerated part of me, but I’ve learned these lessons without having to make these mistakes. I’ve made the career work for my life. It does feel like I can make very gentle changes in my performance. It came out of my heart and I don’t consciously know, maybe more in it than I think. Wrote what came into my head and didn’t question it.
Despite a conservative budget, you employed Lucasfilm to do the sound, why?
I know this is not a big budget film and some people wanted to save money and go for the not so ambitious sound mix, and I said sound design was more important than the visuals. That’s the thing that’s going to make people’s mouths water and create rhythms. That bread crunching, those ingredients being added, you need to hear them. And then with the music, we alternate to create a subjective emotional experience.
Not since the 1996 film “Swingers” have you been so involved in a film, but you’re returning to the world of tent poles to direct Disney’s “The Jungle Book.”
Yep, back to more big ones. I know how to get on that merry-go-round. I have a take on it, I can collaborate with Disney and I know what they need. I know the technology, I’m all for being a set of hands like in a kitchen, to be a line cook on that one.
You’re more than a line cook. You’re helming the project.
But it’s not my money.
Where are you in terms of progress?
We’re casting. We borrow a lot from animation so we are very deep into the visual progression with the story department. There needs to be a watchable full animatic of the film. Then we start to shoot a small portion of that photographically and then we shoot the rest digitally. It’s not traditional, like we roll this month. We’re making it already, just doing in a more Pixar way than an “Iron Man” way. But I think what happens if I could do a movie like [“Chef] every year, I would be tempted to.
How concerned are you about the Warner Bros. “Jungle Book”?
I think they are far enough away from each other that there’s room for two with different tones. We are very aware of the Disney DNA in “Jungle Book.” [Rudyard] Kipling had a much darker sense. It’s a coming of age story. Our image and tone, I don’t want to give it up completely because I am doing photo real and how do you mix those two things? But I think there’s enough time between them that it will be interesting. There will be other space movies after “Gravity,” there will be other “Jungle Book” movies after this.
Open Road is distributing “Chef.” Are you at all nervous about their reputation seeing as they are also the distributor on “Midnight Rider,” the film that recently lost a member of its crew in a terrible accident?
It’s terribly unfortunate and my heart goes out to director. I can’t imagine what it must fell like to carry that weight. It is your worst nightmare as a director, you feel responsible whether or not it’s your fault. I feel for this film, the biggest mistake would be to just release as another studio movie, a PG-13 comedy with big names. It has a tone that makes people feel good, to ram-rod through and get many people into seats without understanding what it is wouldn’t serve the film. Open Road tends to more specific fare. If you look at “The Grey” or “End of Watch” there’s a branding associated with them. Those types of movies ask for a more handmade release as does mine.
Why did your character have to get (re)married in the end?
Interesting, I guess they didn’t have to. It’s the wish fulfillment of the kid. If you really watch the film, it switches from the dad’s movie to the kid’s movie. And I was a kid from a divorce and I think the ultimate wish fulfillment is that the parents get together again. It’s really more about the kid, the shots of him jumping on the shoulders and smiling.
But why was it good for the plot?
Sometimes when a relationship is not working out, it’s because somebody hits a snag in their growth. If you grow, you turn into the person they fell in love with. The other thing I know from being married, watching a father engage with the children is a very romantic thing for a wife. Sometimes you get to the other person through other people. I think [the plot] speaks to that. We could of ended it on the food truck, we could have ended it before the critic came back to be honest with you, but that’s what made me feel good.