I AM (still directing) "IRON MAN": Jon Favreau

With “Iron Man” arriving in theatres this week, the writers, actors, and director responsible for Marvel’s latest big-screen adventure met with members of the press Sunday afternoon for a series of roundtable interviews in which CBR took part. Director Jon Favreau, most famous as the writer/star of “Swingers” and director of “Elf,” spoke about the process of adapting comics to film, why Robert Downey, Jr. is his number one draft pick, and how the character Favreau plays in a cameo got the nickname “Happy” Hogan.

Favreau said working with Marvel Studios gave him a greater ability to remain true to the Iron Man comics, though he stressed the movie was still something new, with its own innovations and take on the character. “The fans of the comic books, from a studio’s standpoint, if this were a big studio, would be completely irrelevant,” he explained. “I mean, 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 as broad as possible audience while costing the least to make and making the largest possible profits.

“When Marvel sets out to make a movie, their priorities are a little bit different. They’re servicing a fan base. They’re protecting the source material. They are the keepers of this pantheon of characters that have made the corporation profitable over the last 40 years. They’ve built it into this merchandising empire, and I think there’s an added responsibility that they have. And when they hire me, I definitely feel, as a fan, a responsibility to stay true to the expectations of the fans. That doesn’t mean always doing exactly what’s in the source material, but it means considering it and making decisions not because you arbitrarily want to change something but because you think it services the material the best.

“So there was that responsibility, but nobody knew who Iron Man was outside the core fans. We had to educate everybody out there as to who Iron Man is and what he could do. Although you can’t ignore the fan base, your fan base 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. To sort of put Easter eggs in the movie for the fans, stay true in the casting and the way I present the visual effects, and tell the story, and choose the heroes and villains, and the technology, but also present it so that somebody could just plunk down their ten bucks, sit down, and go for a ride and take their mind off the election for two hours.”

The casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man required Favreau to overcome several hurdles. The director described the idea to bring Downey on as Tony Stark as revelation. “This is the number one draft pick that’s going to take me to the Super Bowl,” he said. “The problem, of course, was that [Downey] 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?’ 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 [Maguire] or with Batman and Christian Bale. I understood their misgivings. He’s ten years older than they would have liked for 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 forties. So I got it.

“But as we went round and round, we realized that this guy brings dimension, and this is like hiring Johnny Depp to do 'Pirates of the Caribbean.’ People are ready for this guy to play this role. It’s not him starring in 'Elf.’ It’s Tony Stark, man! That’s Tony Stark! People want Tony Stark to be Tony Stark, and that’s why people make rap songs about him. He captures that sort of bad boy attitude and makes this movie not be Batman.”

Favreau went on to explain that in his view, Iron Man was Marvel’s answer to Batman, an ordinary human who uses his extraordinary mind to essentially give himself superpowers. He wanted to be careful, then, to guard against his film’s release being seen as a simply a response to the successful “Batman Begins.” “Now we have an incredibly compelling, successful franchise [for Batman], and if 'Dark Knight’ is half as good as it looks online, that thing’s going to be a monster,” Favreau said. “I can’t be making Batman, I’ve got to be make my own thing. So I’ve got to 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 bringing 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 in 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.

“So we had to find the attitude. And that’s why we paid through the nose for heavy metal music that you’d never see in another super hero 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 and roll and in your face. You change the attitude, you’re doing 'Dark Knight.’ That’s the brooding, gothic version of the billionaire industrialist. 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 a movie that I know is going to be great. And thankfully, we’re a month apart.”

In addition to directing, Favreau appears briefly in “Iron Man” as Happy Hogan, though he hasn’t exactly given himself a prominent role -- the character appears as Stark’s limo driver and is identified by name only in passing. “As an actor, the reason I’m in there probably is me being selfish and me wanting to be an actor in it, and know that Happy Hogan has more to do later,” Favreau said. “Happy Hogan was also a nod to the audience, saying, by me putting myself in, that’s not just an extra driving the car. That’s Happy Hogan. So if you read the books, he’s going to be in the sequel -- we don’t have room for him here, but he’s in there, I’m considering you guys.”

Favreau also joked that the character, who fans know eventually weds Pepper Potts, has some additional benefits. “I get to have a few scenes with Gwyneth later. She doesn’t know that,” he laughed. “Even if I’m not directing, I’m there, because I’m in love with her, I just fell in love with -- those heels walking around the set, everybody on the set would get quiet.”

On the subject of the romantic undercurrent between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, Favreau said their interactions are the type of scenes he loves. “That’s my wheelhouse, that’s what I’m most comfortable with,” he said. “I love those cute scenes, I love romantic comedy. You look at 'Swingers,’ I could write that dialogue for days. 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 and me writing a scene the night before and bringing it in, or us improvising three different versions of the last scene before the press conference. So I love those scenes, and 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.”

Asked who might be the villain in potential “Iron Man” sequels, Favreau seemed confident in his choices. “I think Mandarin for sure, War Machine for sure. I think you’ve got to go with War Machine, you’ve got to give Terence [Howard] more to do. He really had to be patient in this one,” he said. “And he could have been Tony Stark. 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 he relegated to in this one, I think he could go toe-to-toe with Robert and it could really be a cool buddy set up. And then you need some cool 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 response to a question about deleted scenes that might appear on the eventual DVD, Favreau mentioned a piece he really liked but didn’t work with the film as a whole. “There’s a sequence between when Robert takes off to fight in Afghanistan, where there’s a whole party sequence in Dubai that we had filmed, that just felt like it slowed the momentum down. There’s a cameo from Ghostface Killah that was there, where him and Tony Stark knew each other.”

Following somewhat on the theme of secrets behind the film, Favreau fielded a question about the rumored appearance in “Iron Man” of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. “I love the echo chamber of the internet, because that’s where things become reality,” he said. “Let’s put it this way: I think that the challenge has been, first, people getting to know who Iron Man was, and I think that the online fans and the fan base 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 International in San Diego], and saw all the online leaks -- either ones that we sent out there with releases or ones that found their way through spies -- people started to get 'Iron Man,’ to anticipate it, and word started to spread. It’s worked its way into mainstream and now everybody wants to see the movie.

“The problem is, for two years we’ve been in dialogue and there weren’t a lot of surprises left. My job is to still entertain the people who have been following along, and when something doesn’t seem like a surprise, and when 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.”

But, the director insists, he hasn’t given false information. “You guys have been filling in the blanks for the last two years, I don’t expect it to stop now. But I’ve never lied to any of the fans; I just try to be ambiguous. I think that they would, in the long run, like it better if I don’t answer the question.”

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