Watching the director of one of the biggest films of the summer commandeer a DJ’s gear so he could perform a full set at the Highball in Austin the other night, my wife leaned over to me and said, “I don’t think he really wants to make movies. Look how happy he is right now.”
Little wonder. Once “Iron Man 2” hits theaters on May 7, Favreau’s going to be the man behind one of the biggest films of the year, so I think right now, he can afford to smile a bit. And while some people still seem shocked that Favreau has turned into an event movie filmmaker, I’d say that a close look at “Iron Man 2” and Favreau’s earlier films would reveal that he’s actually perfect for this series, and that the films wouldn’t work with someone who works in a different style from Favreau.
To explain, one should look at both “Swingers” and “Made,” movies that were well-scripted but which came to life on the set thanks to the chemistry of the performers and their willingness to play. When I recently spoke to Sean “P Diddy” Combs on the set of “Get Him To The Greek,” he credited Favreau with preparing him for the sort of environment where lightning fast improv is not just valued but essential. With “Iron Man 2,” Favreau has embraced this sort of loose and inventive on-set mood and the result is a blockbuster that’s almost entirely personality-driven.
His interests are also a major part of the film’s concussive action style. Each of the major brawls in the film plays out like a boxing match, toe-to-toe slugfests that reflect the way Favreau likes to fight. He’s been tied to boxing in a number of films, and really gave himself over to it when he played Rocky Marciano. There’s a scene in “Iron Man 2” where Happy Hogan (Favreau’s on-screen character) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) are in the ring together. Favreau’s trying to box, and Downey keeps throwing in mixed martial arts moves. That sensibility defines their approach to how they built the Iron Man fights in the film, too. Favreau loves and understands the way close-quarters combat feels, and one thing that might surprise audiences is how quickly some of the fights in the movie end. There’s an early confrontation with Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) that is just heating up when Iron Man makes a few quick moves that bring him unexpectedly close so he can throw a couple of major punches, stopping things cold. It’s an unusual rhythm to a Hollywood action movie fight, but it’s one of the things I think works well. They’re acutely observed fights, with some weight behind them.
The screening in Austin that we attended (my wife actually left town with me for the first time in several years since it was a quick overnight trip) was held at the Alamo Drafthouse, and at the start of the film, Harry Knowles rolled out to introduce the movie. He explained that they couldn’t get any talent to show up but there was a taped intro instead. Onscreen, Favreau and Downey were seated together. Favreau started to apologize for not being able to attend in person, but they were in the middle of the publicity tour and they just couldn’t work the stop into the schedule. Downey mocked Favreau for the apology, though. “Why are you sucking up to these people? Did you see how much money the first film made? We don’t need them. Stop that.” He kept poking at Favreau, making him more and more visibly uncomfortable, until finally Favreau stopped him.
“Hey, listen, you may feel that way, but I love Austin. I don’t want to miss the screening. You do what you want to, Robert. I’m going.” Favreau stood up and walked off camera and, a moment later, walked into the theater to a round of applause. He looked up at the screen and now it was his turn to start poking Downey about how he could choose to just sit there like a movie star if he wanted to, or he could do the right thing. It didn’t take much goading for Downey to stand up, walk off camera, and enter the theater as well. The two of them introduced the film, talking about how they hoped they had made something worthwhile as a “thank you” for all the fans of the first one.
At the end of the film, Favreau was still there, although Downey had to split for a morning appearance on TV in New York. Harry and Favreau conducted a relaxed Q&A. More than anything, Favreau just sounded amazed that he’d been able to pull together this gigantic production in two years. To put it in perspective, “Iron Man” came out two summers ago, and “The Dark Knight” came out two months later. Now “Iron Man 2” is out, and we’re not going to see another Nolan Batman film until this time two years from now. “Iron Man 2” is an important piece of the overall Marvel universe, and it’s telling that Marvel trusted Favreau to nail it down as they get ready to start their big push toward “The Avengers.”
At the afterparty next door at the Highball, I talked for a few minutes with Favreau about bringing on animator Genndy Tartakovsky to help design the major action sequences that take place around the Stark Expo in the film’s final act. It’s really well-staged and energetic stuff, and if you’ve seen Tartakovsky’s “Clone Wars” animation, you’ve got some idea of what to expect. Favreau is the sort of director who is comfortable enough knowing that he was the person who orchestrated this thing to give credit to others where it’s due. We only had a moment or two to talk, but it was interesting to check in with him after these two movies. Favreau’s one of those people I’ve been talking to and visiting on-set and working with (he appeared in the “Ain’t It Cool” pilot we did for Comedy Central) for so long now that it’s sort of amazing to realize how far he’s come.
The last time I wrote one of these pieces, it was about watching George Clooney at the Toronto Film Festival, and it was interesting to see a movie star in the middle of a media storm, especially one handling it with the grace and Old Hollywood charm that Clooney makes look so innate. The other side of “Having The Moment: George Clooney” is seeing how a filmmaker who came from a completely independent self-made start copes with the success of a blockbuster and the idea of creating a second film in that series. And honestly, Favreau seems to be handling it with a sense of humor and wonder, well aware how amazing it is to have gotten from “Swingers” to “Iron Man 2,” and how valuable all of his experience is in terms of making this moment work.
And, yes, Favreau spins a wicked DJ set. Any man who knows the rump-shakin’ value of the “Sanford & Son” theme is okay in my book.
“Iron Man 2” opens Friday in theaters everywhere.
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