SXSW: Jon Favreau Talks CHEF and Its Place In His ‘Put-Upon Trilogy’
By Brian Walton on March 26, 2014
Chef, Jon Favreau’s celebrated return to indie-features after 13 years away, is everything a Jon Favreau fan could hope for, a return to the director’s relatable charm and ease of conversation. Swingers was a lauded achievement in the independent filmmaking world, but when we left Mikey, he was just starting to blossom at the hope of new things. Chef comes full circle: Favreau’s Carl Casper is a well respected chef in West LA whose passion for what he does is thriving, but his life has lost its balance as he tries in vain to fit a square peg in a round hole.
The film is a very personal story for the director. If you’ve been following his career, you know that Favreau has had his own share of difficulties with studios, producers, and people who want to have a say in his vision. While still telling a story that allows him to discuss issues of creative freedom, the director says that the movie isn’t an analysis of a specific event in his life, “I realized ahead of time I don’t really always know why I’m doing what I’m doing or that I’m doing it. And you’re reading things into it that I can’t say don’t fit with it. But it’s not like when I did it I set out to do that. I wanted to do something that’s more just about the general creative process. It actually applies more to the food business than the movie business. The movie business isn’t as interesting.”
The director is quick to shut down the idea that Dustin Hoffman’s restaurant owner is representative of a studio that he’s worked with. “No. I’m doing Jungle Book with Disney. It’s not like I hung up my guns and said, ‘I’m only doing small movies.’ That’s not the desire. And not to spoil the movie for people, but it’s not like at the end of the movie that working outside the system is the reward. The reward is learning how to manage, balance your creativity and your desires to be innovative with what your customers want to eat. The problem is, if you go too far in either direction, you wind up with films that are obscure, that aren’t geared toward the audience, they’re geared toward the filmmaker. Then if you go too far the other way, you lose your soul because you’re just putting out — mass producing content that they don’t have any soulful connection to. There’s a way to do both.”
The analogies from the film help Jon convey his point: “There are chefs that cook food that they want to cook, but that people also want to eat. And that’s the balancing act, and I think that chefs are the most clearly defined because of the human scale. Where’s that line? I feel like with Jungle Book, that’s got something very personal within it, even though it’s a huge cast with a big budget. With this movie, it’s very freeing to just make something that’s interesting and exactly the film that’s in my head space at my age.”
One aspect of the film Favreau’s audience will appreciate is getting reacquainted with Jon as an actor. As in Swingers and Made, the writer-director is putting a version of himself on the screen for audiences to either relate with or repulse. He explains, “It’s a little scary, because you’re putting yourself up there and the minute you put yourself up there you’re a product that they can judge in a different way. They can comment on your weight, your age, your talent, how much hair you have. You’re putting yourself up for scrutiny in a way you don’t behind the camera. When I was doing Swingers I was getting close to turning 30. Now I’m getting close to turning 50, it’s a different time in your life. I don’t seek out the advancement of my acting career, it’s just really a way to tell the story as 1-to-1 to what was in my head as I could and get the tone just right. That’s the tricky part of it. It plays differently than my older movies, because people have been able to live with my older movies and they understand my tone. For a film like this, the scariest thing is that people don’t have a reaction to it. That people say, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ I would rather people really react strongly to it. You know, for me, that’s a movie that spoke to me. In cinema right now, everything has to work for everybody. They would rather have everyone kinda like it around the world and have every age group as opposed to people having their own reactions to stuff. People try to make the best movie they can, but with the budgets being what they are, it’s a global market, so you can’t be too specific to your own culture and this one, I liked making the movie extremely specific from time to time. This was extremely specific with the food culture.”
The movie takes an interesting snapshot of life in the post-millenial era. Social media, regional culture, and general attitudes about the state of American culture come together to provide a picture that could almost be labeled neo-Americana. In decades to come, if someone wants to sit down and watch a film to get a taste (pun intended) of what was happening in the mid-2010s, Chef will be what they reach for. Favreau isn’t denying those are his hopes for the film, but he’s a realist with his expectations of the film’s reception. “We’ll see if that bears out to be the truth,” he said. “Time will tell. The movies I’m most proud of are the ones that stick around the most and those aren’t always the ones that perform out of the box the best. Swingers bombed in theaters and it hung in there, and I’d never trade that for the hits that I’ve had. They hold up like Elf and Iron Man, but usually the smaller ones eventually get drowned out by what else is out there. But if enough people see it and it sticks around in our culture, that would be extremely rewarding. I think it does, because I gave myself freedom and didn’t plan what it was about and more what happens. It led me to use the internet and twitter in a way that felt effortless.”
It’s the director’s integration and reliance on Twitter in the film that has many abuzz. The film integrates the social media platform in a natural, fun way that doesn’t feel forced or gimmicky. The director’s unique hook of having the tweets flutter off into the ether is frankly adorable. “That’s bringing a different toolbox than I had last time around. What was available to me because visual effects are just more available and less expensive then they were. And also the ability to design things and fashion things. A lot of that work went into Iron Man. When you design a whole HUD system for Iron Man and you have an understanding of how to incorporate graphics into a film in a way where it was meant to be charming but not distracting, communicative but not, it doesn’t need to be social networking or put graphics on to support social networking. Most times it’s there to be eye candy; To me, it was, ‘What’s the simplest way to communicate what that feels like when you’re doing it?’ A few people do it [right], like House of Cards did a nice job. It’s a very simple version of it that just shows dialogue. And everything they show and everything we show is to be read, not to just be a dynamic distraction which often times computers and played out graphics are for.”
In our interview with John Leguizamo about the film we praised the actor for giving voice to the Latino community that Favreau made sure to layer into the film. A truly multi-cultural experience, Chef doesn’t pander to the totality of its audience. The director also did the ballsy thing of not including subtitles for his Spanish language dialogue, of which there is a noticeable amount. It both serves the story in making Faveau’s character relatable in not knowing what’s being said and serves an underserved audience by shining a light on the hardworking crews in the kitchens.
Favreau freely admits he wouldn’t have gotten away with no subtitles on a bigger movie. “I was able to do, on this film, all of the things you’re not allowed to do. Movies where there’s a lot involved, that’s one of those things, that would be the first note I would get from the studio. Not everybody understands everything that’s being said. There are certain jokes that fly by the English speakers, but I feel like, especially because it’s about food and food culture, the kitchen culture in Los Angeles is predominantly Latino and you’ve gotta learn. When I was training, I was learning there are some people who speak very little English, I was the outsider. That is the food culture and if you read, you know Anthony Bourdain talks about it. You can’t beat a line cook from Oaxaca. That’s just where you get – that’s where the tradition is handed down you know by the immigrant Latino community doing the most consistent best work of being kitchen staff and chefs just need them and respect them and that had to inform the soundtrack, it had to inform the casting, it had to inform the way the dialogue was written, and my guy was an outsider to that world and eventually being exposed to it, doubling down on that. By hooking that cuisine it opens his life up and he reconnects with the soulfulness. The music and the food really compliment one another.”
Speaking of the music, the film’s soundtrack is as eclectic as the main character’s palate. The inclusion of some amazing Cuban soul and salsa livens things up. There is one particular scene that stands out: One of the most pivotal scenes in the film, a scene that encapsulates familial relationships, fresh starts, and old friends all comes together because of one joyous cover of a very famous song, a song Favreau wasn’t sure they could secure – the Hot 8 Brass Band cover of “Sexual Healing.” “Isn’t that great? It was great. Again it was one of those where we were on the set, it wasn’t on the schedule. It wasn’t an important song, but I had an image of what might happen. And I said please, let’s just film it. Let’s fit it in and we filmed it. And I worked it out in the editing room and its such a high point that we had to make sure we found the money for it.”
Jon’s ability to hold back a scene is just as important as Michael Bay’s ability to blow something up. Favreau knows that a quiet, thoughtful moment can be just as meaningful in context to a bombastic fight. He lets his scenes play out on their own merits, and that’s something the multi-hyphenate says he wouldn’t have been able to do on a studio picture. “That’s part of making it small. Because it’s not – you’d get notes like, ‘hang a lantern on this moment. Let’s reinforce this, not everyone is getting this. We have to make this more clear.’ The minute you make something more clear, the people who got it before now feel pandered to. Every decision on this, which is going to be like a soft-R because I drop the F-bomb, that is a huge no-no for studio films. You’re throwing out half your income right there. That’s what statistics say, but you can’t make a movie about a kitchen where people don’t curse. I’m very comfortable with my [language]. This is something you could watch on YouTube. There’s nothing in here that’s less appropriate than what my kids watch on YouTube, but because of the rating system that’s how it works. It’s true. This movie would have been changed to a PG-13 movie if it were a studio film, and I would have had to compromise a few little things that would have undermined the integrity so all of the thing you’re talking about are things I had the luxury of doing, and that’s where it does fit into having that freedom to make a case for. And that’s why this movie is like a little food truck rather than from a big studio.”
Jon Favreau’s Chef puts a fitting cap on the director’s “Put-Upon Trilogy.” Our parting thought from Favreau speaks not just to the endearing characters he’s created, but a little introspection on one of our finest story tellers: “My guy’s come of age. He’s a little more sure of himself now.”