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6 Filmmaking Tips from Jon Favreau

Get some indirect creative advice from Jon Favreau, who went from being a decent actor to one of the most successful filmmakers in the world.
Jon Favreau
By  · Published on April 13th, 2016

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one compiles the filmmaking advice of Jon Favreau.

In 1985, an 18-year-old Jon Favreau snuck onto the New York City set of Turk 182 by pretending to be a crew member. He just wanted to take in the “magic” and see how movies are made. Three decades later, he’s one of the biggest moviemakers in the world, responsible for such diverse classics as Swingers (as its writer), Elf and Iron Man, and his latest directorial effort, Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book, is set to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.

Favreau took an interesting path to get here. He started as an actor, quickly segued into writing, then directing, then producing. He has done indies and tentpoles, kicked off what’s now the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also delivered his share of flops. Along the way, he has managed to stay true to himself and what he wants in his career, and he’s also remained fairly open and down to earth when it comes to working with every side of the business. Even the side that pays for the goods.

Below are six tips we’ve pulled from various interviews that best represent how he’s become such an accomplished multihyphenate and what he does to maintain that success.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Jon Favreau

1. Play Dungeons & Dragons

Favreau is one of the self-proclaimed nerd filmmakers. He grew up on comic books and role-playing games, and while the former helped him with certain gigs it’s the latter that prepared him more for the actual work. He’s mentioned his history with Dungeons & Dragons in many interviews, but he really went deep on how that background has helped him as a filmmaker on a 2015 episode of The Tim Ferris Show. Below is a transcribed and edited excerpt from the interview, which you can hear in full here.

It encouraged a set of skills that is not that unlike filmmaking. You’re telling a story. And especially if you’re a Dungeon Master, you’re telling the story in a way where the people who are participating, who’ve signed on, are experiencing it in a very subjective way. There appears to be a level of spontaneity or free will — and there is, built into it — but you’re creating a context and a world and an experience that’s very specifically curated. You’re guaranteeing a sort of experience regardless of what they do within it. Watching movies, the illusion is that you’re subjectively experiencing the film as an individual and you are kind of making those decisions in a de facto way through the character that you’re following the film through. If a character in a film ever makes a decision that an audience doesn’t feel that they agree with, it changes the experience, it becomes like a horror movie — “don’t go in that room!” It becomes a very different type of experience.

Elsewhere, Favreau recognizes that it was Dungeons & Dragons for him, but there are similar things out there, especially now, that can do the same trick. Here’s what he told The Sydney Morning Herald this month about his D&D past and what he did next that was sort of the subsequent step on the bridge toward making movies:

“The skills you come up with through role playing — now kids are doing it more online with computer games — you’re opening your mind up to new worlds,” he says. “Back when I used to play, you just had dice and a pencil and paper and your imagination so you were building worlds and building characters.

“Then I did improvisation in Chicago which was related in a way where you were creating stuff with your imagination and really storytelling comes down to that same skill set.”

2. Give Audiences a Mix of Familiar and Unfamiliar

Favreau has made some personal (though not necessarily autobiographical) movies, but he’s becoming better known for his work on projects with built-in audiences. There are his two Iron Man installments, the lesser-known-comic adaptation Cowboys & Aliens, the children’s book adaptation Zathura and now the Jungle Book remake. And these sorts of movies can be tricky in the way they have to be faithful but also not just rehashes in a new medium. Here’s another quote from The Sydney Morning Herald:

The balancing act – and other filmmakers of my generation are dealing with similar issues because they’re sometimes rebooting, remaking, making sequels to established franchises – is you have to understand, and you have to be sensitive to, what the expectations might be and do something both expected and unexpected at the same time.

He also spoke on the matter to ABC News at the new movie’s premiere, more specifically addressing The Jungle Book and remakes:

“I think there’s always…some trepidation,” he explains, “because you don’t want to…disappoint people who have grown up watching the original film. And so you want to honor the original — but…if you just remake the original, there are no surprises. And I think people, you’re asking people to go to the movie theater and buy a ticket, you gotta give ’em what they want, but you gotta surprise ’em with something new, too.”

3. Tell a Story First, Jokes Second

He comes from a comedy background, as is noted in his improv experience, and he considers the first movie he scripted, Swingers, to be a comedy first, an indie film second. But Favreau isn’t a joke-teller so much as a storyteller, and he thinks it’s important when making comedies to have all the humor come from a place of story. “The laughter doesn’t last if there is no story,” he stated on The Tim Ferris Show. “Story is king. You think it’s about the laughs, but, really, it’s about investing in the story and being drawn in.”

Here’s an anecdote from a 2009 DGA profile about the making of Elf that addresses how he always puts story first:

“The executive said, ‘We need a set piece like the one in Big where Robert Loggia and Tom Hanks play Chopsticks on the big piano at FAO Schwarz with their feet.’ So I had to sit down and figure out what was it about that set piece that these people wanted. It wasn’t a piano. It wasn’t necessarily the toy store. But it was very memorable,” says Favreau, who concluded that what the powers-that-be felt was missing was a bonding moment. “It’s the thing that makes you feel something and tingle when you see it.” His solution was to have Buddy the Elf win over his younger half-brother—who is embarrassed by his gushing, cartoonishly dressed older sibling—by making and hurling a million snowballs when they’re ambushed by a group of older boys in Central Park. “It’s a great set piece, but not because it was so well-conceived visually. It just served the story function. People will remember things as funnier, scarier, more satisfying if you tie it to story. If you don’t, you’re making parallel movies that don’t meet.”

4. Work With the Proper People

The header might sound obvious, but it’s not always easy to be in complete control of whom you work with in Hollywood, above or below your own position on a project. Favreau has been fortunate enough to start out with a certain group that he continues to work with, including actor Vince Vaughn and actor-turned-producer Peter Billingsley.

But that’s a common tip. For Favreau working with the proper people is also about knowing what to look for and how to work with them that comes from the experience of being there. “I get people whose instincts are going to be right, whose sensibilities are good, and I let them go,” he says in the DGA profile.

Considering Favreau gave the world Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man when Marvel tasked him with finding a cheap non-star, Favreau’s casting expertise should be respected completely. Here’s more on the “actor’s director” approach as he put it in a 2014 Vulture interview:

If you cast the movie properly, you can give them a lot of freedom. There’s a tendency in Hollywood to cast for political reasons because they figure you can get whatever performance you need to get out of those people by directing them toward it. I’m more of the mind that you should fight like hell to cast the people that you want to cast. And then you can be completely trusting and laissez-faire in your directing style if you have the proper cast. I’m more there to help them do their job in a support capacity as opposed to trying to cull a performance out of somebody. I don’t think I would be a good actor’s director if I had to inherit a cast that I didn’t believe in.

And yes, it goes the other way, with the selection of producers. In the video below, Favreau talks about what he looks for in a boss and why Ron Howard is a favorite:

5. Read the Comments

Most filmmakers, especially those working on fan-based projects, are saner if they avoid reviews, comments and really the Internet in general. But Favreau has always maintained a healthy relationship with the fans by staying a genuine member of that community. He’s clearly a very social person based on his old Dinner With Five roundtable-style show and remains inquisitive, as seen in interviews he’s conducted with people like Harrison Ford and Martin Scorsese. The audience is just another set of people he can get along with.

Evidence of Favreau’s interest in fan feedback goes back at least as far as when he was in pre-production on Iron Man.“The questions are coming on the Internet,” he told MTV News in 2006. “I’ve got a MySpace group set up just to discuss the movie, so I welcome the input.”

Two years later, just before the release of the superhero movie, he kept the enthusiasm up in an interview with Moviehole (which now only exists in a copy here):

“I’m one of them, one of the community. They know that”, the director of the multi-million dollar superhero film says. “I read everything. It’s a great way to listen in at the big water cooler, and see what people are thinking. It’s been a tremendous asset in my career, and it’s been very helpful in bringing Iron Man to the big screen”.

Favreau says it’s not that it’s crucial to have the Internet on your side, as long as you’re responsive to what’s going on on the Internet.

“You have to take into consideration what the popular opinion is. I get a lot of feedback from the people I work with, and work for, but I also keep my ear to the ground on the Internet”.

Surprisingly, he hasn’t changed his tune regarding fans and online reactions. He did a Reddit AMA last week (not his first one, either) for the promotion of The Jungle Book and not only was the chat-forum event in and of itself part of this whole idea but he also directly stated that he still thinks feedback on the Internet is beneficial to filmmakers. Here’s his advice to young filmmakers starting out:

It’s a great time to be a filmmaker who is just starting out. Back when I was starting, even a low budget film required hundreds of thousands of dollars to do properly. Now it could be done for virtually nothing. I encourage you to make movies and keep making them. Start by writing and then pull together friends with similar interests and film and edit them yourself, even if it’s on your phone. Thanks to the internet, anyone can self-distribute. Getting reactions from an audience is the best way to refine your craft. The internet gives you an opportunity to share your vision with others and to get reactions and see how popular your work turns out to be.

6. Embrace New Technology Only When It’s Good Enough

Favreau welcomes new technology, but mostly when it can be turned into a funny plot device (i.e. the answering machine in Swingers and social media in Chef, he’s acknowledged). Otherwise, he’s been slow to fully accept computer effects. He aimed to do as much of the effects in ElfZathura, and Iron Man practically and told Rotten Tomatoes in 2008, “As you might know, I’m not a fan of CGI per se, so I was very demanding that we make the effects as photo-real as possible.”

Two years later, he addressed his decision with Elf, which employs mostly old-fashioned in-camera effects and Rankin/Bass-inspired stop-motion animation, in the DGA profile: “I was very much not a fan of CGI. I felt it went wrong as often as it went right.” There, he also admitted to warming up to CGI beginning with Iron Man:

“Tech-wise, if you have a good supervisor and a good house, hard surfaces like a car or a robot can be [rendered] to the point that you cannot tell them apart, side by side, from the real thing.” Because of this he realized how fortunate he was to choose Marvel’s man-in-a-metal-suit franchise as opposed to the one involving a meek doctor who is exposed to gamma rays and morphs into an enormous green monster. “Biological creatures are doable,” says Favreau. “But it’s a lot harder to make the Hulk look real than Iron Man. I don’t ever want to go past the point where it doesn’t look real. When you lose the reality of it, you lose the emotional connection and that’s when you end up feeling like you’re watching a video game.”

Well, now he’s got a movie that’s mostly computer-generated (and PETA thanks him for that). At the start of production on The Jungle Book, he took part in an AMPAS event with doctors and scientists on audience manipulation through movie magic. In his participation, which included a presentation of a scene from Iron Man 2, Favreau showed an investment in working with only CG effects that look real to audiences. Via Wired:

“We’re constantly calculating where we think the audience’s eye is going to be, and how to attract it to that area and prioritize within a shot what you can fake,” Favreau said. “The best visual effects tool is the brains of the audience,” he said. “They will stitch things together so they make sense.”

For The Jungle Book, he also put an importance on communicating with his effects team, to the point that he made them watch Beverly Hills Chihuahua as an exhibit of how not to do talking animals. And he defended CGI in his recent Reddit AMA, leading into a further address of his casting proper actors tip:

Even though computers are used in the process, CGI movies are truly handmade. Artists take the data, regardless of whether it’s motion capture or keyframe animation, and they slowly refine the performances until life is breathed into them. CG animation is every bit as much of an artist’s endeavor as was the old fashioned cell animation. The tools have just been more refined.

The key to directing these high tech, animation heavy projects is to hire excellent performers to drive the acting choices of the characters and then to oversee the artists and animators who are, in turn, performers in their own right. If all of these elements are effectively coordinated, the entire process is invisible and the audience is left with a viewing experience that feels like they are watching something organic and emotional.

USA Today has a video in which Favreau talks about how the CGI in The Jungle Book is the most advanced yet.

Favreau also shot The Jungle Book in 3D, which he’s never feared but also never fully embraced. He wanted Iron Man 2 to be 3D but the time wasn’t right, and he fought to shoot Cowboys & Aliens on film, as all Westerns should be, even the sci-fi kind. But back in 2010 he foreshadowed that it would only be a matter of time. He said in a reader-based Q&A for Time: “I love 3D. I think that when it’s applied properly, it’s a tremendous resource. As we cruise past the gimmick phase and start to embrace it as something that’s just like adding color or better sound, it’s going to make the experience more immersive.”

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Jon Favreau is an actor’s director and a director’s producer, and his experience in all facets of filmmaking has helped him in working on a collaborative art. But he hasn’t done everything. He hasn’t been an effects artist, which means he’s had to make even more of an effort to learn how to communicate with that side of a production in order to fully create movies as good as he wants them to be. At the end of the day, he’s a storyteller who is a fan of stories and he understands what audiences need and want, whether it’s a feeling of involvement, a familiar product that’s also full of surprises or a director they can trust with their cherished IPs.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.