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I AM (directing) “IRON MAN”

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
I AM (directing) “IRON MAN”
“Iron Man” opens in US cinemas May 2

In June of 2007, CBR News visited the Southern California set of “Iron Man,” the new film based on the classic Marvel Comics superhero. In what will be seen in the Jon Favreau-directed film as Tony Stark’s workshop, filled with classic cars, computers and other assorted Iron Man accoutrements, we spoke with the cast and crew of the hotly anticipated adaptation.

We bring you the third of those extensive interviews today with director/actor Jon Favreau, celebrated for his breakthrough performance in the self-penned indie hit “Swingers.” Favreau’s gone on to much acclaim as a director, helming such films as “Made,” “Zathura” and the box-office smash “Elf.”

Though visibly exhausted by his tireless work on the film, Favreau took time out from shooting to sit down with CBR News for an in-depth discussion about “Iron Man” and its story, philosophy, cast, fans, and the possibilities it presents for sequels.

What is “Iron Man” about, for you? What is your take on the character?

Favreau: In every movie, something’s rotten in Denmark. You have to sort of start off with something out of balance in the world. And I think in Marvel movies especially, you look at the personal life of the character, in the microcosm, and then you look at the macrocosm of the climate of the world, there’s a super villain doing something, there is a problem in the world that has to be fixed, otherwise life as we know it will not exist. But then also in the character’s personal life, there is that sort of thing that happens, too, and what’s nice about Tony Stark is you have all the flash and glamour of Tony Stark billionaire/inventor/genius, and playboy, and you get to play the fun of that, but then you also get to explore what that might leave to be desired. How is he flawed, how does he grow and change through his captivity, and when he comes back, how does he become Iron Man? What are those steps in that journey that gets us to that point where we understand who he is, what he stands for, and how he’s changed.

Scene from “Iron Man”

What were the most important aspects of the comics you wanted to retain in this picture? There’s the armor, obviously.

Favreau: I don’t want to reinvent Iron Man. It’s not like the glowing Superman fiber optic suit. I really am embracing what it is and the best thing I heard was when first we got the Mark I [armor] out, which we took a little bit of leeway with, because in the books it really doesn’t make sense that he would make that out of spare parts, but we wanted to keep the personality of it. And everybody was like, “Holy shit, that’s so cool.” And immediately we were like, “Oh, my God, what’s going to happen when they see the Mark III?” And what happened when we showed the Mark III was, “This is great, it’s just like I saw it in my head.” That’s a very hard thing to achieve, because everybody sees a different suit in their head.

And everybody’s like, “Oh, but that’s clearly a CG suit.” And then all of a sudden, they saw a guy moving around with the suit on, they’re like, “Wait, it’s not a fake, it’s a real suit with a real guy.” Of course it can do different stuff in CG than it can real, and that becomes the difficulty, you don’t him moving around like RoboCop, and then he flies through the air and looks like Spider-Man. So that’s the balancing act we’re playing.

What else can you tell us about the design of Iron Man’s armor?

Favreau: We have some artists that we had hired to work on it, Phil Saunders, Ryan Meinerding, who worked on various suits that we have. They’re great artists and they have a whole department overseen by Mike Riva, who’s our production designer. And then I had really gravitated to the Adi Granov stuff, and Adi had actually contacted me through MySpace. He says, “I thought you might want to meet me, I did all the drawings that you have on your website.” And I was like, “Oh, I’d love to talk to you.” And then he was really excited to get involved, we hired him to do some drawings for us. We flew him out here, he met with Phil and Ryan and Mike and the Stan Winston crew, and we all sort of collaborated together in finding a suit that could be made practically, that could be worn, so that it wasn’t always [a digital character]. And also when you have practical things, it tends to keep the CG a little more honest, because if you have to make direct cut from a practical shoot that you love how it looks to something virtual, you now have a litmus test.

Scene from “Iron Man”

What MPAA rating do you expect “Iron Man” to receive?

Favreau: When “Fantastic Four 2” was given a PG, and people were surprised by that, they were wondering what we’d be. I thought we were going to be PG -13. You want it to be entertaining for everybody; you want it to be appropriate for kids but not geared towards kids, and I think PG-13 is sort of that good balance where you can have violence, you can have real life or death stakes, but yet it’s something that I’d be comfortable bringing a 13-year-old kid to. But it’s tough. With these types of movies, you want it to be good for the whole audience, for everybody. And if you skew too young, you sometimes disappoint adults, and if you make it too dark, too violent, or too much explicit language or sexuality to it, there’s a lot of kids out there that want to see this thing. I have a 6-year-old who’s dying to see the movie. And I don’t want anything in there that’s going to make me, as a responsible parent, uncomfortable that he’s going to be repeating something at school or seeing something that’s going to freak him out too much.

Is that why you kept Tony Stark’s alcoholism out of the adaptation?

Favreau: Honestly, I’m sort of trying to really be dictated by the story of the [original] books. The demon in a bottle happened in, what was it, the ’80s? It was much later. What you really grasp for it seems in success, if you’re lucky enough to make more than one of these movies, is what happens to the character, how does it change so it doesn’t just feel like a serialized hero that just fights different bad guys. How does he progress through each story? The good part about an origin story is you have the whole Joseph Campbell journey that the guy goes through in becoming a hero. The problem is, you have so much story to tell that it starts to get clogged up with too much stuff, and then you end up rushing through beats or villains or things. The problems with the second or third ones are, you got great villains, everybody knows who the guy is, but how is he different from the beginning to the end of the movie? And for me as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, I really look for that whole progression in character. What’s the mythology of this movie? What’s the myth that you’re telling? That’s what makes it entertaining.

Scene from “Iron Man”

Let’s talk about Obadiah Stane and the casting of Jeff Bridges, who indicated that in “Iron Man,” Stane acts as a mentor to Stark, a departure from his adversarial role in the comics. Is the film’s Stane destined to become the villain Iron Monger?

Favreau: I want to stay as true to what the broad strokes of the comic books are. Is he a mentor to Tony Stark? Yeah, that’s sort of the relationship that we found between Jeff Bridges and Robert Downey, Jr. that would be good. Is it still Obadiah Stane? Yes it is. Are there certain expectations people might have who’ve read the comic books for several decades based on who it is? Are they going to be waiting for another shoe to fall? I think they probably will. And I think that we’re not going to change the universe so much that to the purists it will seem like we betrayed the underlying truths of it. So if you’ve done your homework on the books, it’s going to serve you well when you go into the movie, because we’re doing it too.

Tell us about about the casting of Terrence Howard.

Favreau: Terrence, honestly, was somebody that Avi [Arad] was talking to even before I had been hired on, so by the time I had come in, he brought in Terrence, and it’s hard to argue with casting Terrence. You know, he could have been Tony Stark if we had gone a different way, a little bit different than the books. I think he’s got those type of chops. And the idea that in success, where do you go with these movies? People don’t think far enough in the future, they have a great movie, and then they say, “How do we do it again?” And that’s the difference between a sequel and a chapter. In looking at chapters, where could we go? We could go War Machine with Terrence Howard. And we want to. We could go a lot of different ways with this cast that we have.

Robert Downey, Jr. and Jon Favreau in a scene from “Iron Man”

Are you on board for more Iron Man films?

Favreau: If the experience is as good as this for another one, I would keep going. It’s hard to say. I’m sure [“Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy director] Gore [Verbinski] and [“Spider-Man” trilogy director] Sam [Raimi], I don’t know how excited they would be to do a fourth after what they’ve been through. I mean, that journey of 10 years. But I would see working on [Iron Man], I think it’s fun and great, hopefully it gets easier as it goes on, as you get it down.

How difficult would it be to get the cast back for a sequel or sequels?

Favreau: I think if their experience is good, which is has been so far, based on what everybody’s told me — maybe they’ll say something different to you guys. But I know that I’ve made it fun, I’ve made it something where hopefully the work is as good quality as they would on any movie. So it doesn’t feel like they’re working on a movie that’s one for them, one for The Man. You know, they do one for themselves and one for their career.

I asked Robert, I said, “What do you want to do in your career now?” He said, “I want to make movies that are good, and that people are going to see.” And it seems very simple, but it’s a pretty profound statement. Actors want to be in movies that are good, that they’re proud of, but there’s nothing more frustrating than making a great movie that’s a featured title on Netflix that, you know, “Oh, I really wanted to see that one.” You want to do a movie that is going to be part of your culture, it’s going to be part of–“Pirates of the Caribbean,” you reference that, it’s like “The Sopranos,” everybody knows what you’re talking about, and you’ve impacted lives, you’ve created a cultural ripple, and that’s something that you can’t get always with an indie. Sometimes it happens, like “Swingers,” but usually it doesn’t.

Scene from “Iron Man”

In terms of storytelling, what lessons did you take from the successes and mistakes of other comic book movies?

Favreau: Well, I think [Christopher] Nolan has just really reinvented the genre yet again. I mean, I really liked the first Batman movie; the Tim Burton one was very exciting. But the caliber of cast he was able to get, the level of storytelling and acting, and the sense of fun that was maintained was completely picked over by the time they did their last movie [in that series]. But that they were able to sort of hit reset and come with [“Batman Begins”] and make it fresh again excited me, because it just sort of for me said that the sky’s the limit for who you could get. A filmmaker with that background, it’s nice that you have all these guys coming out of independent films who are finding a way.

We don’t resent big movies, it’s not like the ’70s where it’s like, “The system’s keeping us down.” We’re people who grew up loving movies. And the reason we’re doing small movies is we don’t know any better, or have the resources. And so, as you see Peter Jackson, as you see Chris Nolan, as you see Bryan Singer, finding a way to bring integrity and a sense of fun to these big movies where you feel like you’re watching a good movie, and it’s not one that a director’s doing apologetically, they’re doing it because they love it and they’re excited by it.

Scene from “Iron Man”

And then I get to play with all the toys, build the suit, do the CG, build all these great sets, for me that’s what it’s all about. And I think it’s the sort of indie background where all you have is character, that’s your car chase. Your car chase is a funny scene, your big explosion is two people having a conversation that’s interesting. It sort of sharpens those tools so that by the time you have all these great story board artists and designers and CGI wizards coming in, you’re not relying on that, you’re not just hammocking between those set pieces, you’re able to actually bring the same– I mean, when I’m here with Gwyneth [Paltrow] and Robert [Downey, Jr.], I would be working with them the same way if I had written a spec script and was shooting it for a million bucks. You bring that same sensibility to it. And hopefully, I don’t want to lie to you like I know, I hope it all comes together in a way where it feels like of one movie, but yet it’s not insulting the smart people and it’s not inappropriate for me to bring my kids to as well.

Is it tricky, balancing your passion for the characters with the action elements a Marvel story requires?

“Iron Man” poster by Adi Granov

Favreau: It is, and we’ve been very, very lucky to have a group of people that are really good at developing and culling the action. I don’t want to sit here and pretend that I have huge action experience, I think I can tell a good story, I think cinematically I can make something compelling. What I’m bringing to the table is more the humanity of the story, enforcing rules on the story as well where it doesn’t feel like two completely different films. And there is the possibility that it goes from “Swingers” to “Power Rangers” and everybody’s like, “What am I watching?” So the trick is to sort of bring up the human story to a world where it feels like it’s a comic book, it fits into the genre, and then keeping the action aspect of it, I wouldn’t say restrained, but hold it up to a certain standard of reality. You have a broadness that you expect in a comic book movie, but it’s not just like, “Do whatever the hell you want because it’s a movie and everybody just wants to eat popcorn.” I think in my body of work, I’ve held it to a certain standard. And now in making something that has to be appealing to a much larger audience than I’ve really hit before, I want to make sure that we’re giving everybody what they want, and making it fun and exciting, but also making it something that I can be proud of.

What’s been the most surprising aspect of filming “Iron Man?”

Favreau: I’m surprised I’m on schedule, that’s the biggest surprise. Because I brag that I stay on schedule always, and I have on every movie I’ve been on, and I’m always on budget, I’m always on time, and I thought, “Okay, this one, there’s going to be curve balls, and so much out of my control.” The fact that we’re on schedule now and the scenes have born out well, I’m surprised also by the amount of freedom I’ve gotten from Marvel. There are certain things that Marvel is very meticulous about, and there’s a definite formula to the way action is done. And then when it comes to the scenes between the people, we had very good actors. Marvel has been very involved, but they’re a small crew. You have Kevin Feige and you have Jeremy Latcham, who are sort of our executives on the project, and they’re here, because “The Incredible Hulk” hasn’t started yet, and so we can sit in the trailer with the Marvel guys, with the producers, and with the actors, and talk about what the scene should be based on what we’ve shot and what we’ve learned, and there’s a flexibility of material. There’s a lot of freedom to try things different ways, get what we need to get the story to work, and then bring a certain humor sometimes, or humanity to it, so there’s real sense of freshness and discovery for this project.

“Iron Man” poster by Adi Granov

What’s your experience been with Iron Man fans?

Favreau: The fans are great. They’ve been great about everything. You almost want them to have a problem with something early on to get it out of the way. Fans for any movie are important, but for this particular type of movie, that’s the nucleus of your audience. I don’t know if the internet is something that could be seen as dictating the marketplace. I don’t understand how that works yet. I know that as a filmmaker, the fans of this particular genre are very smart and know more in certain cases than the people who are working on the movie as far as how much and specific their information is, so I like to go there and just get to the minutiae of the detail in certain cases.

It’s like Wikipedia, it’s a collection of information from a lot of people that tends to bear out in a very cogent way. There are certain people that are idiots, but they don’t tend to be drawn to this material that much. They tend to give a damn, most of the stuff I see is, “Thank you for caring so much about it.” “I’ve been waiting for this movie for 20 years. I’ve been waiting for 10 years since I heard they were going to first make it.” “This was my particular favorite superhero, and it’s nice to see that it’s getting this type of treatment, and this type of cast.”

I go online, I look at stuff, and I see what people are saying. There are certain things they’re confused about that I want them to be confused about, and there are certain things they’re confused about that I don’t want them to be confused about. I don’t want them to be confused about whether or not we hired somebody to spoil the film because they read on IMDB that something happened. Or whether they think the rating’s going to be something else, or whether the suit was designed by this guy or that guy. So I like to clarify. It’s a game you could play with the audience, but I think if they know that you care and are paying attention, and there are choices that you’re making them because you’re making them as a choice and not because you don’t know what you’re doing, they like it.

So to me, buzz is great. I would have killed for people to care this much about the last movie I was on. What you don’t want is to just disappear, because you work so hard. I’ve worked two years on this movie. I mean, I’ve gone from a pregnant wife to a walking baby in the time it takes to make this movie. And one bad [opening] weekend, you’ve got everything on one dice roll. So I love to have the interaction, I love to know that they’re out there, I love to know that after working a 14 hours day, and things feel bleak, and did I get everything I need? You go online and you see people saying, “Right on,” and even if it’s a little thing, it’s a big deal, man. It’s not easy doing this shit. I love it, but it’s hard.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s TV/Film forum.

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