Iron Man may have made box office history with its $98.6 million opening last weekend. But the film’s success has also solidified the directing career of Jon Favreau, the actor who first endeared himself to hipster filmgoers as the lonelyhearted buddy of the so-money Vince Vaughn in 1996’s Swingers, which Favreau also wrote.
Favreau’s directing career took off in 2003 with the Christmas comedy Elf (which also launched Will Ferrell onto the A list). Although a box office stumble with the board-game-comes-alive yarn Zathura followed, he soon found himself helming Iron Man, the maiden film for the newly independent Marvel Studios. The studio signed off on Favreau’s bold decision to cast Robert Downey Jr. — an actor who had never had a film gross $100 million in its entire run — as the rakish arms developer Tony Stark. And as we all know by now, the gamble paid off: Iron Man raked in nearly $100 million between last Friday and last Sunday, the second-best debut ever for a non-sequel.
EW.com caught up with Favreau to talk about his movie’s box office explosion, Downey’s newfound superstardom, the prospects for Iron Man 2, and other members of the Marvel universe. And be forewarned: There are spoilers ahead!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you feeling today?
JON FAVREAU: I am doing good. It’s nice when it works out this way. It doesn’t happen that often! [Laughs]
This is just the second time that a non-sequel has grossed this much on its opening weekend.
Yeah, you know it’s amazing, it’s the biggest thrill. I remember the first [time I felt like this] was when I got my Chevy commercial and I got in SAG. That was a big one back in Chicago. Then when Swingers got bought, that was a huge changing moment for me. And then Elf — when Elf took off, I felt it more, and I didn’t think I could feel this way again, but I do. I do now. And Robert and I are just very, very appreciative and humbled by the whole thing. It’s been a really wonderful, wonderful experience.
When did you first know that the box office was going to come back so huge?
Well, I think the first moment, it was sort of when Robert and I went around the world together [publicizing the movie]. We spent about three weeks traveling, and when the feedback was positive all around the world, that was the first sense that we had done well. And then when the reviews came out I felt very good, because if the film is seen as a good film regardless of how it does commercially, you’re still going to work — you’re not going to alienate your fans, you’re not going to alienate your audience out there, so that was a big sense of relief. But then the tracking came in and we were definitely in good shape. You know, ”good shape” on a movie like this has to be a whole level of success beyond what any other film I’ve worked on is judged against. It’s very scary that we could have made $60 million and been a very profitable film — and been considered a failure. That was a little bit daunting.
NEXT PAGE: There’s definitely a lot of ideas that we all have now…. This type of movie is based on serialized materials, so it lends itself very easily to [many different sequel possibilities]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was it gratifying to make a comic book movie that got good reviews?
JON FAVREAU: Yeah, I care about the reviews, I care about what people think — and not just the reviews, but what the reaction online is. For something to be profitable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best thing in the world for the director. You judge a movie by different standards — I’ve worked on comedies and now I’ve worked on superhero movies, and the reviews are almost parenthetical in both of those genres. It’s important to me what people think of it, not just how much money it makes. You want a movie that doesn’t drop off, so the number that I’m really looking forward to seeing [is next weekend’s gross, which will show] if we could hold our audience. That tells you that the movie’s good. And this is just speaking as a director, as somebody who wants to learn if I’ve done the right thing and if the people out there are appreciating what I’m doing.
Will you be involved with the sequel?
We’ve been speaking informally about it, and in concept we would all love to work together again. But I found out about the announcement last night, so it’s not something that — we would definitely love to collaborate more with the sequel. There’s no formal arrangement yet, but in theory we would all love to see it happen…. There’s definitely a lot of ideas that we all have now. This type of movie is based on serialized materials, so it lends itself very easily to [many different sequel possibilities]. There’s definitely a level of enthusiasm from myself and the cast to tell more stories.
Is Robert Downey Jr. under contract to do another movie?
Do you get the sense that he understood the level that his fame was about the reach? Before this, he hadn’t starred in a $100 million-grossing movie.
No, I don’t think he got it until he and I went around to the theaters [last weekend]. He and I went around to the theaters Thursday night and Friday night because we both love the audience reaction. So you could sit home and have numbers faxed to you all night and e-mailed to you all night — it doesn’t mean anything — but when you go into the Cinerama Dome [in Hollywood]…I went up there and intro’d the movie, and as a surprise brought Robert Downey Jr. up, and then everybody jumped to their feet. It just hit him. Then, when he was courtside for the Lakers game, and they flashed him on the big screen and people clapped or Jack [Nicholson] gave him a thumbs up — I think you kind of know at that point. And it’s exciting. It’s exciting for everybody, because he’s a guy that I think a lot of people wrote off. It’s inspiring when somebody who sort of has his work cut out for him actually accomplishes that and comes back bigger and better than he was before. I mean, that’s the American dream — and it oddly somehow relates to Tony Stark. And when art imitates life, you’re onto something. I learned that off Swingers.
NEXT PAGE: Details on how the greater Marvel universe dovetails with Iron Man (spoiler phobes might wish to steer clear)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s the surprise Nick Fury moment at the end of Iron Man — how did that come about?
JON FAVREAU: We wanted something for the fans…. Nick Fury from the Ultimates — which is a new series of books that sort of reconceives the tradition of Marvel characters — he was always depicted to resemble Samuel L. Jackson. And so I turned to [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige and said, ”You know what would blow their minds? Should we so this?” Kevin was like, ”Let’s try.” And then we actually pulled it together. It was just a little scene, just a little tip of the hat for the fans that we were paying attention to what had been established, and a way to sort of tee up the Avengers. We brought [Jackson] in on a secret day of shooting, we had a skeleton crew so that the secret wouldn’t get out — and then, like, not even a week later, it got out. Sam was trying to deny it. It became a big deal. People were sure and they knew about it and they knew it was real. I don’t know how they knew. Somehow it slipped…. It was Kevin’s idea to cut [the scene] off all preview prints. And so the fan boys who would interview me [before the movie opened] would be like, ”What happened? Did you cut it out? Is it going to be on the DVD?” I was like, ”Look, it’s only fun if it’s a surprise.” Then we slapped it right back on the print for the premiere, so the first people to see it in theaters actually got to see it for the first time. I think that was a very, very clever way to keep the dialogue going with the fans, because if you don’t have any tricks up your sleeve, they feel like they’ve already seen the whole movie before they did.
You said you were consciously teeing up the Avengers?
Yeah. I think it would be a very smart third film in the Iron Man series. It’s very difficult to keep these franchises from running out of gas after two [movies]. The high point seems to be the second one, judging by history: If you just look at the consensus in the reviews, you see that X-Men 2 and Spider-Man 2 are sort of seen by the fans as the sort of high point of both franchises, though I don’t necessarily agree with that. But to be able to fold it into an Avengers is something you just couldn’t do in another studio, and I think what Marvel is about is stuff you can’t do at a bigger studio. They gave me tremendous creative freedom; they gave me tremendous freedom in casting, at the end of the day. Even though there was concern, they ultimately backed a decision [to hire Downey to play Tony Stark] that I don’t think a studio would’ve, and now they’re benefiting from having that nimble creative team. And that’s, honestly, the most attractive aspect of working with them again.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
There’s a lot of stuff I’ve sort of been talking about, but everything’s sort of been floating — you know it’s been so much work to finish this thing. I had no idea it would be this much work. Usually on a movie you have some time to sort of prep something new or do a lot of work in post because you’re pretty much done once you lock picture; there’s no such thing as locking picture on a superhero movie, where you’re literally making picture changes into the sound mix. It’s been a real marathon and it ended in a sprint and it all paid off, so no complaints here.