On Friday night, Scarlett Johansson morphed from one of our biggest female action stars to interlocutor for the first of the Tribeca Talks: Directors Series. Having made “Iron Man 2,” “Chef,” and “The Jungle Book” together, Favreau and Johansson enjoyed easy comradery, and the Queens-born filmmaker was eager to entertain the room.
Johansson, checking hand-written notes on her old-school legal pad — Favreau admired her penmanship — coaxed out some excellent rules for making good movies, both indie and studio.
1. Directing is like being a good parent.
When Favreau’s son described what his father does, he said: “He sits in a chair and watches television.” That’s true on set, said Favreau, who looks intently at each take on a video monitor, and helps his actors, who shoot out of continuity, keep track of where they are in the script. He compared being a director to being a parent. “I love my kids, but each one is wired different,” he said. “It’s like coaching an amazing team of athletes, like the ’26 Yankees. You want to get the best out of everybody and win.”
2. Improvising and good screen acting are two different things.
Like many actors in Hollywood, Favreau started out doing improv in Chicago. There he learned his chops, like a musician. “It’s more like a team sport,” he said, with rules that you break at your detriment. “You don’t ask questions, and don’t say, ‘No.’ They’ll shut a scene down. Learning improv, I learned about storytelling, writing, editing, directing, and acting. Everybody did everything. It was a very open and creative process. That was very freeing, didn’t feel precious. We did sketch shows every week. It was nice to have that freedom, and I wasn’t judging myself early on and I got better as I went along.”
On film you can cut, he said, but “they have to learn different skill sets.” Good stage improvisors have to learn to bring authenticity to a film performance, he said, adding that even untrained actors can be good if they’re “smart and talented and the camera likes them. If somebody’s smart, they can understand a scene, do something that makes sense. It’s difficult to help somebody read a script and take it apart. They have to understand how people really behave. They have to be clever, sharp, and quick and have an understanding of human nature, and have a bright spark.”
3. Failure teaches more than success.
You ride the wins as well as the losses, said Favreau. When Johansson brought up the failure of “Cowboys & Aliens,” he said, “It happens to all of us.” Johansson agreed: “I just had this experience [on “Ghost in the Shell”].” Favreau said he was so immersed in making the movie that he wasn’t prepared for the negative reaction. “You’re going full speed down a railroad track for such a long time that when you hit a wall, it’s disconcerting and overwhelming. Success can be just as jarring,” he added. “It’s hyper-real to be involved in so much reaction and be exposed. It’s so public.”
After his bomb, Favreau made the scruffy low-budget family comedy “Chef,” which was an indie success ($46.8 million worldwide).
“You don’t learn from success,” he said. “It’s a fake positive. You learn from failure. You need a healthy amount to grow properly. I don’t think I would have developed as much if I didn’t have ‘Zathura,’ ‘Cowboys & Aliens,’ and ‘Rudy.'”
4. When you’re in trouble, channel another director.
You imitate and emulate at the beginning, said Favreau, like a musician, “until you can improvise yourself and come up with your own style.” When he doesn’t know what to do with a shot on set, Favreau tries to recall what one of his favorite directors would do.
5. Only make a movie you are obsessed with.
Favreau agrees to direct films that will take two or three years of his life only when he feels compelled by the material. “I live, breathe, sleep, and dream it,” he said. “I have to be immersed.” He did “Iron Man” after he saw Robert Downey as Tony Stark (“It clicked.”) and “Transformers” proved that hard-surface CG was advanced enough to make Iron Man believable. And when Downey “came on board, a lot of other good actors came on board.”
6. Before adapting a classic, list the iconic scenes that must be included.
On “Iron Man,” “The Jungle Book,” and “The Lion King,” Favreau made lists of the most memorable scenes and moments that any fan of these beloved works would need to see in the final film. Then, he went back to the material and figured out what needed updating, what could change, and what could be left out. On “Iron Man,” Tony Stark’s personality traits were key, but Vietnam in the comic could be replaced with Afghanistan. On Disney’s animated “The Jungle Book,” Favreau remembered Mowgli interacting with the snake Kaa (voiced in his version by Johansson) and the bear Baloo, with Mowgli sitting on him as they rafted down the river.
On “The Lion King,” which is 20 years old, many moviegoers grew up with it in the age of video, said Favreau. “I had to really examine plot points and myths “that are hitting something deeper than me,” he said. The director wants to be able to achieve what big bands do on tour when they know how to light up the room, or what Prince did at the Super Bowl halftime — “deliver a hit song the way you remember it, only better.”
7. When writing, put away your screens and grab a notebook.
On his original screenplays, Favreau believes in filling an old-fashioned black-and-white Composition Book — the kind with pages you can’t pull out — with scribbled notes and ideas before he’s ready to outline and write a screenplay. “Good, bad, I don’t judge or edit,” he said. “I put it down before it goes away. I have a lot of unfinished scripts. Then I go back and refine it. I never tell anyone. Or get paid.”