Jon Favreau, Siskel Center Renaissance Winner

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Robert Downey Jr and Jon Favreau at the Renaissance Awards in Chicago (photo: Kyle Flubacker)

Robert Downey Jr and Jon Favreau at the Renaissance Awards in Chicago (photo: Kyle Flubacker)

The hugely talented
actor, director,
and producer
pleases everyone
while interviewing
with Robert Downey Jr.
at the Four Seasons


 

Last Saturday night, Jon Favreau told a room full of people that he achieved success in Hollywood by failing in Chicago, and everyone burst into applause.

“I want to thank Chicago for giving me that support and community to allow me to fall down and get up,” he said. “I knew in my head what was funny from being onstage here.”

It was one of many highlights during an after-dinner conversation he had with Robert Downey Jr. at the Four Seasons Hotel, where the Gene Siskel Film Center honored Favreau with the 2019 Renaissance Award.

 
THE GENE SISKEL FILM CENTER RENASSAINCE AWARD GALA
JON FAVREAU AND ROBERT DOWNEY JR IN CHICAGO

 

 
The guests of honor
Encouraged by Downey Jr.’s thoughtful and entertaining smartassery — which included walking through the crowd and making declarations like, “I’m running this sh!t” — Favreau had a lot to share.

He spent years in Chicago studying comedy before getting cast in Rudy, moving to Los Angeles, breaking through with Swingers, hitting it big with Iron Man, Chef, and Avengers, and charming a room full of admirers by merely talking to his friend.

At the end of the night, the conversation turned into a cozy chat between a pair of buddies who just happen to be the hottest filmmakers on earth.

“You need a lot of Yodas in your life,” Favreau concluded. “You need a lot of people who can teach you.”

In many ways, Favreau is still the 22-year-old from Queens inspired by the famous portraits that grace the walls inside Second City. Sincere and precocious, he will go on and on about his projects, but remain humble when talking about himself.

Downey Jr. is equally accommodating, but he brings it on with a unique and charming flamboyance. At the beginning of the conversation, he asked his friend and frequent collaborator, “What’s your earliest memory … of me?”

Favreau laughed along with the audience, then recalled meeting Downey Jr. when he was casting Iron Man.

“You were locked in, like it was your role already,” he said. “My earliest memory was just you with complete confidence looking at me, and me knowing that if I could work with this guy, I knew it could be a great movie.”

After that meeting, the creators “figured out what the movie would be, based on (Downey Jr) being in it,” he added.

In the dozen years since, Favreau and Downey Jr. and their families have grown close.

“You’ve been there for all the important times,” Favreau continued. “And to have somebody who can relate to the crazy ride we’ve both been on, that’s been great, that friendship that’s come out of it and the friends I’ve met through you and of course the whole family that we’ve met through working with this whole Marvel universe.”

Then he hit Downey Jr. back with a taste of his own medicine, “Anything else you’d like to know about you?”

And so it began.

 
Improv rules
All joking aside, Downey Jr. came well prepared to make Favreau the star. Early on, he turned down the lights and played the scene from Swingers where Favreau’s character, Mike Peters, leaves a string of increasingly desperate late-night voicemail messages to a girl he just met.

 
SWINGERS | ANSWERING MACHINE MELTDOWN

 

According to Downey Jr., it is “the single greatest neurotic monologue in the history of cinema.”

In typical fashion, Favreau placed a lot of the credit elsewhere.

“Honestly, I started off in Chicago,” he explained, “and the scene just follows improv rules.”

Then he gave a shout-out to Albert Brooks.

“If you’ve ever seen Modern Romance, that was definitely a scene that was influenced by that,” Favreau admitted. “And now I walk with (Brooks) almost every night, and he reminds me of that almost every night. A lot of influence and stealing are very close.”

 
THE GENE SISKEL FILM CENTER RENASSAINCE AWARD GALA
JON FAVREAU TALKS ABOUT ‘SWINGERS’ WITH ROBERT DOWNEY JR

 

 
Iron Man
The improv rules still apply on Favreau’s sets. They were largely responsible for the scene in Iron Man where Downey Jr., as Tony Stark, makes everyone sit down while he eats a cheeseburger during a press conference.

The set was prepared to follow the original script, which called for hundreds of extras to be standing up, according to Favreau. But at the last minute, Downey asked, “what if I make everybody sit down?”

“We were joking around about what it takes to direct a group of really smart, talented people, and the trick is, let them make the choices if they’re smarter than you, create an environment like an improv community,” Favreau told Downey Jr. “And I think a lot of it was you testing me — because it was ascent, because you come out of an independent film and you were making edgy stuff in addition to the commercial stuff and I think you were always looking with me where the bottom of the pool was.”

 
IRON MAN | TONY STARK HOLDS A PRESS CONFERENCE

 
Chef
Favreau and Downey Jr. play well together even when they don’t play together.

While filming his role as Happy Hogan for Iron Man 3 in Miami, Favreau had entire days off because, unlike the first two Iron Man movies, he was not directing the third.

Miami culture called to him. “I wanted to eat Cuban food. I wanted to hear Cuban music,” Favreau said.

Downey Jr. remembered Favreau asking him “to go out every night,” but his Iron Man 3 obligations made that nearly impossible. So he hooked Favreau up with Craig Robins, the famous South Beach developer who co-founded Design Miami.

Favreau ended up with Robins and his wife at “a place they used to go when they were dating.” As he watched them “getting along so well and dancing together,” his wheels began to turn.

“The child of the divorced relationship within in me was like, ‘that’s your fantasy,’” he remembers. “It just felt like a really powerful moment.”

Downey Jr. helped Favreau recount what happened next. “You got back and all the sudden you say you wrote this thing in two weeks,” he said, “and you think you’re going to do it and it’s small and it was about a lot more than food.”

The result was the 2014 critically acclaimed, food-centric, feel-good comedy drama, Chef.

Besides featuring a lot of food — which “looks so good on film,” according to Favreau — it showed how professional chefs often deal with the same challenges that confront filmmakers.

“They seem like a much more extreme crystalized version of what we go through in the movie business, where there’s commerce and where there’s art and then the reviewers being so much,” he explains. “One bad review is like a theater review that can knock you out.”

It spawned the Netflix series The Chef Show, hosted and produced by Favreau and Chef Roy Choi, the creator of the gourmet Korean-Mexican taco truck Kogi, who co-produced and appears as himself in the film.

 
CHEF | TRAILER

 

Besides Albert Brooks, Craig Robins, and Roy Choi, a handful of other big names got in on the conversation.

There was Bryce Dallas Howard, who Favreau hired to direct an episode of the upcoming Star Wars series that he wrote for Disney+, Mandalorian. “I was counting on the fact that she was going to be a good enough storyteller to be able to inform an actor.”

Scarlett Johansson made it into an explanation about dealing with celebrity. “Somebody said, it might have been Scarlett, ‘it’s like a puzzle to me,’ … if you can remove yourself a bit, then you can start to see patterns and solutions emerge.”

Favreau’s experience with Stan Winston, the special-effects artist who created the Iron Man armor, helped him explain the technology in his films. “I started to get fooled by the hard surface stuff, like the metal … I was like, okay, if I can’t tell the difference, then it’s ready for prime time.”

While talking about technology, Favreau remembered the conversation he had with George Lucas at the Siskel Center Gala in 2009, when Lucas won the award and Favreau did the interviewing.

His musings turned into a one-man philosophical dissertation about a filmmaker’s responsibility for teaching audiences “how to succeed in this journey of life without having to make the mistakes themselves.”

Then he stopped himself, apparently thinking that the crowd was growing bored. “These aren’t really sound bytes,” he said.

Downey Jr. responded with the assurance of a true friend. “Hey, I’m digging it, man.”

 
Send your film updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.

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