Exclusive: An In-Depth Iron Man Talk with Jon Favreau

It’s been almost 20 months since Superhero Hype! first talked with actor/writer/director Jon Favreau about his take on Marvel Comics’ Iron Man, and there’s something cool about being Jon Favreau’s last interview of the day on a very busy junket day in New York, where he’s been talking non-stop about his fourth and biggest movie as a director.

After all, Superhero Hype! was one of the first people to talk to Favreau about the movie way back at Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2006 (which you can read here). This was before anyone had been cast and they were still developing the story, so it’s nice to be able to do bookend interviews, one before the project begins and as the whole thing comes to a conclusion. (Of course, others at SHH! have talked to Favreau since then, at Comic-Con last year and at a set visit shortly afterwards, all which you can read at Iron Man Hype!.)

It was a different setting being at the Waldorf Astoria than at the San Diego convention hall, but Favreau hasn’t changed that much, and he had a lot of insightful things to say about the film and character’s origins, the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and the direction of the movie and the future of the franchise.

(Note: We saved all the spoiler stuff until the very end and it’s clearly labeled in case you’re worried about that sort of thing.)

Superhero Hype!: I’d like to talk about the real world stuff in the movie. DC Comics’ characters have always been in their own little universe, while Marvel has been in New York and other real places. You really took that to another level with this movie by having real military, the real Afghanistan. Could you talk about that decision?

Jon Favreau: Sure. Marvel always was set in the real world, and I’m from New York and I recognize neighborhoods, and it was very specific. Peter Parker grew up in Forest Hills where I am from, and it added to some of the reality of the series to me. It seemed to make the characters more real, whereas in DC it was like Metropolis and Gotham and everything was sort of stylized a bit. They made everything real in New York, and even in Hell’s Kitchen and the crime was real. I think all through history even dating back to the early stuff when you had Captain America fighting Nazis and Hitler as a character, and then you had the Cold War, you had Crimson Dynamo fighting Iron Man and stuff like that. The comic books always reflected the fears that everybody had had as a culture, especially kids growing up in the Cold War and the nuclear age and stuff. Those fears were always very present, and superhero movies and comic books especially always found a way to comfort people to know that there was this character that was going to watch over them, this hero that was going to protect them from all the things that frightened them, whether it was crime on the streets of New York or the threat of the Soviet Union attacking us.

So now, how do you preserve that same escapist dynamic? How do you present a comic book movie that reflects that backdrop of the times enough so that you can still feel the cathartic escapism that comic books offer, but don’t make it so realistic that you feel like you are facing a reality that doesn’t allow you to relax and escape as you go to the movies? I just tried to borrow a lot of the imagery from what you see in the news, set it in Afghanistan versus Vietnam, which is where it was set originally in the sixties, so it wasn’t shying away from politics even then. He was captured by Vietcong, and that was pretty hardcore stuff to be doing aback in the sixties. I didn’t want to shy away from that. Once you get past the initial imagery of the mountains of Afghanistan and the caves and the convoys and the people, the sense that America was involved in a military conflict in the Middle East, once you sort of peel that layer back, you see that we then borrow all of the background of the comics. We really went out of our way to try to avoid make it polarizing as far as what the politics represent, but instead try to maintain an emotional reflection of the fear of our times, and then to have Iron Man step in and not be somebody who could offer a simple solution, but instead be a guy who seemed singularly suited for the challenges of our day. A guy who didn’t represent overwhelming military might, but also didn’t represent pacifism or isolationism, instead a guy who could go in as a one-man army and separate the good guys from the bad guys and attack the people who are bringing the justice to the world while preserving innocent human life and leaving a very small military footprint where we’re involved, so it’s sort of an unrealistic fantasy. It’s sort of our special forces to the Nth degree.

SHH!: Also in terms of the realism, there’s the development of the different armors in the movie. The original armor in the comics seemed like something that would be impossible for one man to build, but you did something more jury-rigged and realistic.

Favreau: We really wanted to play into that learning curve to make it plausible. I had a big sign that said, “Plausibility,” and hung that sign above my door, so that everybody who came in for a meeting would have to read that and remember that that was the tone of our film. It did have to be believable, but it wasn’t like all logic went out the window just because it was a superhero film, so when he builds the first suit, we tried to make it look like the Mark I Gray Armor, “Tales of Suspense” #39, but we also wanted it to look like it actually could have been built out of the parts of his weapons that he had available to him, so it looked like a real junkyard creation. As he got into the Mark II we wanted that to feel more like an airplane prototype, like something out of “The Aviator,” and slowly we built from the endoskeleton to the exoskeleton, all with the moving flaps. Hopefully we took baby steps and developments that you could finally believe that when Iron Man steps onto the screen, you’ve watched it being designed and birthed and believe that the technology has evolved over the course of the film to the point that you see at the end.

SHH!: You’ve just made a Howard Hughes reference, and there are correlations between him and Tony Stark, so do you think Hughes was an influence on the character when Stan Lee first created him?

Favreau: It was. He stated that. He wanted to fashion this guy after Howard Hughes who was a bachelor, a very public figure and an enigmatic figure, and a guy who was a genius who wouldn’t just design the airplanes, but test fly them as well. So you capture that sort of impetuousness and unpredictability, and there’s even a little bit of mental instability that’s implied by invoking the name of Howard Hughes, and by making Robert Downey this character that’s based on sort of a real public bachelor with flare, style, and a lot of money, and great intellectual genius, and fingers in many businesses. It creates this mythic figure, and we tried to follow that by shooting in California, and trying to capture that sense of the birth of flight and this sort of addiction to driving fast and flying higher, and man trying to overcome his own boundaries, and there was that sort of sense of Howard Hughes as well.

SHH!: Was Stark’s mansion a real house in Malibu, or was that something you built?

Favreau: No, that’s a bluff called Point Dume in Malibu that is a National Park, so people in Los Angeles will recognize it. It’s sort of like the best spot and nobody is allowed to build there, but we put a digital house there.

SHH!: One thing the actors and writers have talked about a lot is the amount of improvisation in the movie, something surprising with this kind of budget. Obviously, this is Marvel Studios’ first movie, and it’s wild to think that you’re on-set and coming up with lines on the fly. Very daring stuff, which we don’t see on big movies like this. How did you go about that, was it something organic that just happened?

Favreau: Well, these movies don’t really have scripts which are locked in a traditional sense. I mean it’s sort of the dirty secret about these superhero films is the script is unfortunately the last thing to get the proper attention. It’s part of the logistics of the process. You’re chasing a date, you’re chasing effects, your priorities are in different areas, and you have writers working to try to conform to this larger story that you are telling. As a director, you understand the story, but from a writing perspective, the script usually isn’t caught up yet to where the story has evolved to through storyboards, so you hit the set understanding what the scene is about, but how you get there is achieved in different ways. Sometimes you have a scene that you are very comfortable with, that you’ve rehearsed. Sometimes the thing you did the day before informs that, and sometimes I would go home and write a scene and bring it in. Sometimes Robert and I would scribble it down on a piece of poster board between takes if we had a different idea. Sometimes we would just give it three takes for him to try different things, or we’d have two cameras and him and Gwyneth then would improvise different versions of the scenes. Hopefully, it gives it a more naturalistic feel than most of these big movies that feel very sort of high-bound by the size of the production.

SHH!: And Marvel trusted you to do this rather than having a greenlit script that you had to stick to?

Favreau: The producer was on the set a lot, and I think they grew to trust me especially when it came to the comedy and the dialogue. They gave me a lot of latitude and leeway. I think that their main concern was that the action was fulfilling and the story made sense, so generally I would shoot it as scripted, but it would evolve as we sort of moved forward. If we did change the script, there was always a representative there to sign-off on the fact that we were preserving the main thrust of what the story was about, but there was a tremendous amount of discovery on the day, and that was nice about working on a huge independent film like this. There was no studio that I had to contend with; there was just a handful of executives on the set.

SHH!: When we talked in San Diego just a couple years ago, you didn’t have any cast at that point.

Favreau: And (we were) setting that date.

SHH!: Actually, you did have a date because I remember talking about how you were facing James Bond before they got scared and moved.

Favreau: Yeah, nobody really thought much of “Iron Man” up until recently. They were putting movies on our date. I think Bond moved because they weren’t ready; I don’t think anyone was scared of us. Now there seems to be a groundswell of interest, but at the time we were just seen as a second-rate superhero film.

SHH!: You were pretty gung-ho when we talked back then, but what ended up being the toughest part of making the movie? Was it some of the FX or anything like that?

Favreau: There wasn’t any of that. The hardest and most important challenge that I faced was getting Robert approved, and once Robert was cast, everything else was much easier relative to that because I knew I was going to have a good movie.

SHH!: That’s wild to hear because when you showed the footage in San Diego last year, as soon as Robert gave that big speech, he had everyone in the palm of his hand as Tony Stark, so I’m surprised you didn’t just shoot that and show it to the studio.

Favreau: Well, ultimately that’s what we did, because what happened was they didn’t like the idea of Robert–they were scared of him, they told me “no, I couldn’t hire him” and it felt like too big of a risk. They wanted me to go with somebody younger and somebody with less of a reputation, and I was like, “This could be like casting Johnny Depp in ‘Pirates.’ This could define the movie and bring it out of obscurity and out of this sort of ‘second-rate Spider-Man’ status that it’s in,” We had a lot of people anxious about it and against it, and the board was concerned and against, and then we put [Robert] on film and from the minute he opened his mouth everybody who saw the screen test was convinced, and everybody was behind him and we never looked back.

SHH!: Considering the fact that you just finished what’s likely to be a huge blockbuster movie, can you ever go back and do the indie stuff at all and do you feel like going back to that?

Favreau: Well, it’s fun to go back and act, I’ll tell you that. I just did “Four Christmases” with Vince and Reese Witherspoon. It depends if we get to do another one of these, or if not. If we don’t do another one, I probably would do something small really quick so that we could shoot in less than a month, or about a month and a half or something and just edit together and have that experience quickly, but I would be excited to do another “Iron Man,” and everything is dictated by the release date. You are shooting for a release date in the summer. Are you shooting for 2010? Would it be 2011? I don’t know, would it be May, you know, it depends what the plan is.

SHH!: Do you expect to get a call on Saturday, May 3rd saying, “Okay, get ready…”?

Favreau: I hope so. I would love to, because I feel like I finally know what I’m doing.

SHH!: And you already have all of the R&D (research and development) done and out of the way.

Favreau: And the cast, the hard part, you know, so we know how to do it now. Now it’s just a matter of what story we want to tell.

SHH!: The movie’s pretty awesome and I think that you’ve set a new bar for which everyone else will be aiming for now.

Favreau: Oh, awesome.

SHH!: I personally think Edgar Wright’s “Ant-Man” movie is going to be very funny. I was just re-reading some of the original comics and there’s lots of great stuff in there.

Favreau: Yeah, that will be. I talked to him, and he actually visited me in Skywalker Ranch. He was one of the first people we showed the final film to. I think he’d be brilliant. I’d love to do that, and then if we could do “The Avengers” where we could get together and figure out how to work on it.

(At this point, I made a suggestion on what they could possibly do, but we’ll all just have to wait and see if anything happens with that seed of an idea.)

Wait… are you saying that you haven’t gotten enough Iron Man talk with Favreau? Well, here’s some stuff from a roundtable interview we did earlier in the day:

SHH!: Why did you go with Obadiah Stane for this movie being that he’s not the most well-known Iron Man villain?

Favreau: No, it worked well, and we wanted a big suit and with Jeff Bridges and he was up for it, and in casting Jeff, that role really grew, and we went away from the Mandarin, because we really didn’t know what to do with him and it seemed too ambitious in the first one. Obadiah seemed like the right guy to do, and it just worked well with the suit.

SHH!: When doing this film after seeing superhero films from other studios, did you think about what you needed to add, so new fans could enjoy it as well as old fans of the comic book series?

Favreau: Yeah, if this were a big studio movie, I think the comic book fans from the studio standpoint would be completely irrelevant. Time and time again, it’s been proven that the studios care about making money, it’s their job. They want to take the source material and use it to make it as appealing as possible to the broadest possible audience, while costing the least to make, and making the most profits. That’s their job. When Marvel sets out to make a movie, their priority’s a little bit different. They’re servicing a fanbase. They’re protecting the source material. They are the keepers of this pantheon of characters that have made the corporation profitable over the last whatever it is, 40 years, and they’ve built it to this merchandising empire, and they don’t want to… I think there’s an added responsibility that they have that when they hire me, I definitely feel as a fan, there’s a responsibility to stay true to the expectations of the fans. That doesn’t always mean doing what’s in the source material, but it means considering it and making decisions not because of you arbitrarily wanting to change something, but because you think it services the material the best. There was that responsibility, but nobody knew who Iron Man was outside the core fans, and so we had to educate everybody out there as to who Iron Man is and what he can do. Although you can’t ignore the fanbase, your fanbase is not the people who are ultimately going to be dictating the success or failure of the movie commercially. You have to make a movie that’s accessible to people who don’t know anything about Iron Man, and that’s the fine line I had to walk was to sort of put enough Easter eggs in the movie for the fans, stay true in the casting and the way I present the visual FX and tell the story and choose the heroes and villains and technology. But also present it so that somebody could just plunk down their 10 bucks, sit down and go for a ride and take their mind off the election for two hours.

SHH!: What made you think of Rob to play Tony Stark, and was it a challenge selling him to the studio as Iron Man?

Favreau: Sitting across from him, the lightbulb just went off over my head, and I realized this was the guy that could bring me home. This is the #1 draft pick that’s going to take me to the Super Bowl. I got how to make the movie, how we were not going to just be a poor man’s Spider-Man if I could get this guy. The problem of course was far too interesting of a choice for the studio and there was an unequivocal resounding “no” when I presented him. There were people who were fans of his, and many people said, “Look, it’s clearly the best choice creatively. It’s just the first movie, it’s too much money. Nobody knows Iron Man, so now you’re going to be defining Iron Man by Robert because people know Robert more than they know Iron Man.” That was never the case with the Hulk and Eric Bana, it’s not the case with Spider-Man and Tobey or with Batman and Christian Bale, so I understood their misgivings. He’s ten years older than they would have liked me to hire somebody if they’re starting a franchise, too. Hopefully, if this movie works well, they’re going to make a lot of them. That’s many years, and he’s already in his 40′s, so I got it, but as we went round and round, we realized that this guy brings dimension, this is like hiring Johnny Depp to do “Pirates.” People are ready for this guy to play this role. It’s not him starring in “Elf,” it’s him as Tony Stark. That’s Tony Stark. People want Tony Stark to be Tony Stark. That’s why people make rap songs about him. He captures that bad boy attitude and makes this movie not be Batman.

When Iron Man was first invented, they were copying each other, DC and Marvel, and Batman came first, and now we have an incredibly compelling franchise and if “Dark Knight” is halfway as good as it looks online, that thing is going to be a monster. I can’t be making Batman, I gotta make my own thing, so I gotta play up the subversive attitude that Marvel had when it established itself as a reaction to DC. You had Superman who could do no wrong living in Metropolis in this fantasy land, and then you had Stan Lee brings his personality to Marvel, it was subversive. It wasn’t epic. They were living in New York, they were having trouble paying their rent, they were getting into trouble. They were running into each other in the neighborhood. They had problems, they had flaws, and it was that subversive humor that defined Marvel, not an epic big quality. We had to find the attitude and that’s why we paid through the nose for heavy metal music that you’ve never seen in another superhero movie. That’s why we open with “Back in Black.” That’s why it’s Robert Downey Jr. This had to have attitude and be rock ‘n’ roll and in your face. That’s why it’s on the West Coast and that’s why it’s Howard Hughes and the history of flight and “The Right Stuff.” I wanted to have different imagery because you change the attitude, you’re doing “Dark Knight.” That’s the brooding gothic version of the billionaire industrialist. Batman’s the guy… Bruce Wayne when he gets depressed, he listens to his music on his headphones and he locks himself up in his study. Tony Stark, when he gets depressed, he gets bombed and wraps his car around a telephone pole. It’s a different type of character, and so we really wanted to play up those differences, so it didn’t compete with the movie that I know is going to be great and thankfully, we’re a month apart. We’re not competing directly.

It gave us a lot of latitude to be patient with how we did the origin story. That’s the Faustian deal with the first movie. You gotta show the origin story, so every first movie is two movies: the origin and then what happens with the water system of Gotham City? They’re always going to have that Frankenstein feel of being two movies.

(SPOILER STUFF STARTS HERE—YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!)

SHH!: At what point did you decide to insert yourself into the movie?

Favreau: As an actor, you mean? As an actor, I’m in there because it’s probably me being selfish and wanting to be an actor in it, and know that Happy Hogan has more to do later (laughter) and I get to have a few scenes with Gwyneth later, but she doesn’t know that.

SHH!: Actually, we told her about that and she responded that she wants to make out with you.

Favreau: She does? I’m DEFINITELY doing a sequel. Even if I’m not directing, I’m there, because I’m in love with her. Those heels walking around the set, everybody on set would just get quiet, but Happy Hogan was also a tip or a nod to the audience saying, “By me putting myself in, that’s not just an extra driving the car, that’s Happy Hogan.” If you read the books, he’s going to be going to be in the sequel… we don’t have room for him here, but he’s in there. I’m considering you guys, and then the reason for the male-female thing, that’s my wheelhouse, that’s what I’m most comfortable with. I love those meet cute scenes, I love romantic comedy. You look at “Swingers”, I can write that dialogue for days, and to have Gwyneth and him, and there was a real affection between the two of them, and a lot of that was two-camera set-ups or me writing a scene the night before and bringing it in or us improvising or trying three different versions of the scene before the press conference. I love those scenes and my love… so much of my personality gets infused into this movie because of the spontaneous nature of how we shot it that if I dig it, I think it comes across.

SHH!: Can you talk about what villains we might be seeing in the second and third films?

Favreau: I think Mandarin for sure, I think War Machine for sure. I think you gotta go with War Machine, you gotta give Terrence more to do. He really had to be patient in this one, and he could have been Tony Stark, know what I mean? If we wanted to go against the grain of what was in the books. He characterizes that, and once you break him out of the role that he was relegated to in this one, I think he could go toe-to-toe with Robert, and it could be a cool buddy set-up. Then you need some big bad guys, and I think the bad guys are going to be tech-based for the most part, seeing what’s worked about this film.

(In our exclusive interview, Favreau elaborated more on the Mandarin’s role that’s hinted at in the first movie: “We have the Ten Rings which is a tip of the hat to the Mandarin, which is the greater villain that is going to emerge; the guy who is the head of the bad guys is not somebody who is representing religious zealotry, but is instead really a warlord looking to conquer an empire.)

SHH!: What didn’t make it into the final cut that we can expect in the director’s cut DVD?

Favreau: What do you want me to say? Do you want me to say Hilary Swank? Want me to say Nick Fury? Is that what you’re reaching for? What is going to be there? There’s going to be a sequence between when Robert takes off to go to fight back in Afghanistan, where there’s a whole party sequence in Dubai that we filmed that just felt like it just slowed the momentum down. There’s a cameo from Ghostface Killer that was there where him and Tony Stark knew each other. What else is there?

SHH!: So the Samuel Jackson sequence isn’t going to be in the theatrical version?

Favreau: You didn’t see the movie? I love the echo chamber of the internet, because that’s where things become reality. Let’s put it this way. I think the challenge has been first people getting to know who Iron Man was, and I think that the online fans and the fanbase did a tremendous service to me and the film by bringing it to everybody’s attention, because this is the big water cooler. And when they saw the footage at Comic-Con and saw all the online leaks, either the ones we sent out there with releases or ones that found their way through spies. People started to get Iron Man, to anticipate it, and the word started to spread, and it worked its way into the mainstream and now everybody wants to see the movie. The problem is that for two years, we’ve been in dialogue, and there weren’t a lot of surprises left, so I guess my job is still to try to figure out how to make it feel like people have been waiting for this movie and watching all the stuff online and all the minutes and minutes and hours of material that seem to be on there, to have it still be a fresh experience when they see it. My job is to still entertain the people who have been following along everything. When something doesn’t seem like a surprise and everybody expects it, it sort of makes it not fun, so I just want to try to still remember the fans that have been watching diligently and have enough there that makes it exciting for them as well.

SHH!: So you’re saying that journalists saw last Friday will be completely different when it hits theatres next week?

Favreau: You guys have been filling in the blanks for the last two years. I don’t expect it to stop now, but I never lied to any of the fans, and I just try to be ambiguous if I think that they’d prefer in the long run if I don’t answer the questions.

Iron Man will open on Thursday, May 1 at 8pm!

Source: Edward Douglas