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Jon Favreau Is the Future

Jon Favreau Is the Future

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It’s an early weekend morning and Jon Favreau is talking excitedly about dinosaurs. 

“We’re living in a golden age of dinosaurs!” he declares, which would probably come as a surprise, given the lack of living dinosaurs. But Favreau, true to his curious spirit, is talking about scientific discovery. “There are new discoveries made on a monthly basis,” he explains. “And each one of those discoveries cascades down throughout our understanding of what the  ancient world was like and how life developed on this planet.”

He’s right. As the producer of Apple TV’s Prehistoric Planet, Favreau has thrown himself into paleontology. The show, which operates like a hypothetical documentary about the prehistoric world mapping the latest archeological research onto a hybrid of real world footage and the cutting edge CGI Favreau has long since mastered, is the most scientifically accurate look at what it might have been like to live among actual dinosaurs. The Jurassic movies may be fun, but their dinosaurs are mostly in service to the plot. Favreau’s dinosaurs behave as much like the actual creatures as experts can guess they would.

“We were actually trying to fool the audience into believing that they had a privileged view into the past, to be able to be a fly on the wall as these creatures just behaved in a naturalistic way,” Favreau explains. “The technology seems to disappear. And that’s the goal, right?” 

For Favreau, over the last 15 years or so, that has very much been the goal: to advance filmmaking technology to such a place where you barely notice it. Whether scouring distant galaxies in The Mandalorian or bringing the hand drawn animation of The Lion King to zoo-like realism, Favreau has pioneered the demolition of the line between imagination and entertainment. He’s the champion of anyone who’s ever wondered what it’d be like if animals could actually sing and dance or if Marvel Comics’ classic superheroes walked among us. His designs have been so successful that the rest of the film industry seems obsessed with catching up with Favreau’s own filmmaking sensibilities. But as soon as Hollywood copies the blueprint, he’s off chasing a new horizon. In short, if you want to know where moviemaking is going to be five years from now, look no further than whatever Favreau is doing today. 

A Common Language

If you swung by Chicago’s burgeoning comedy scene in the late ‘80s, you might have caught a glimpse of a young, curly-headed Queens native with a genial grin and a sheepish, disarming demeanor. He was gifted, as many in the Second City and ImprovOlympic circuit were. He was funny. You might have guessed that he would break out into some actual film roles in the coming years, if luck broke his way. You probably wouldn’t have guessed that he would reshape the film industry at large. Nobody would have predicted that of Favreau until it happened. 

He started out getting acting jobs, first on movies like Rudy, PCU and an episode of Seinfeld. The Vince Vaughn breakout Swingers marked his screenwriting debut, which led to Made and several other well-loved but low-flying gigs. In 2003, he was given the chance to rewrite a dark comedy script about the holidays. Favreau lightened the tone and wooed Will Ferrell for his first post-Saturday Night Live gig. The result was Elf, which immediately elevated Favreau to an entirely new level of critical and commercial acclaim. 

Elf may not be the movie most associated with Favreau anymore, but anyone who wanted to see what direction his career would go could find all the clues there: Finding a fresh spin on a well-loved character; giving confident actors wide berth to explore their comedic gifts; and developing innovative technology for special effects that actually feel special. 

But there’s another ingredient to Favreau’s filmmaking you don’t hear as much: His experience as a father.

“It’s so hard as a dad. It’s so rare,” he says.”I so appreciate when different generations within the family all want to sit and watch the same thing. My kids are getting older. Some are off to  college. For us to all want to gather around and watch the same screen at the same time is something I grew up with and took for granted.”

In the popular parlance, “family movie” usually just means “kid’s movie,” but Favreau doesn’t think it has to be that way. To him, movies can genuinely be for families — every member — and making them that way is as radical as anything else he’s ever put on screen.

“It’s funny to talk about TV nostalgically,” he says. “At the time, it felt like it was a disruptor. But thinking back to everybody sitting around, watching the same thing and enjoying it, I’m so appreciative for that. And when we put these images on the screen, it seems to cross generations. It seems to travel around the world. There’s a common language here.”

The Portal 

Favreau’s images did travel the world, and helped spread a new kind of common language — a cinematic mythology that became as universal as movies get. In 2008, he directed Iron Man — then a Marvel Comics b-lister being played by an actor considered to be well-past his prime. Expectations were modest, to say the least. But Favreau brought something to the story few could have anticipated. The CGI was special (going back now, it holds up far better than many of the later MCU entries) and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is a feast, but Favreau had the good sense to make the story about a human instead of a superhero. By foregrounding Tony Stark’s redemption and giving real space to his friendships, this Iron Man felt like a character even non-comic book fans could root for. 

You know what came next, of course, and Favreau’s never been too far from the action, whether offscreen as an executive producer or on it as Happy Hogan. But his Iron Man success also showcased the skills he would take to The Jungle Book, The Lion King and his Star Wars entries. He loves to push the bounds of what’s technologically possible. But he never wants it to go so far that he loses what makes the story tick.

“Between Star Wars and Marvel, you know, so much of my life is in fantasy and created worlds. Those are exciting and fun, and I love that,” he says. “But as a storyteller, I go to the mythological aspects of it. We’re opening up a portal.”

Futuristic Planet

Following his dealing with intergalactic beasties and super powered shenanigans, Favreau seems to be relishing his new Prehistoric Planet job — something a little more grounded in reality, even though it deals with creatures that explode the imagination. 

But the Favreau energy is here, if you know where to look. Even here, you see a new spin on popular characters. The dinosaurs Favreau conjures in this series are a far cry from the scaly green lizards of the past, as new research indicates that these creatures were more colorful than depicted in childhood toys and picture books. 

“I guess I grew up thinking dinosaurs lived in jungles and ate ferns, and that was really it,” Favreau chuckles. “I was still grounded in the old, original interpretation of it that slowly evolves. There are many scientists who believe that the dinosaurs, based on their eye size, how sensitive they would’ve been to color and their closest relatives in our modern world, that they may have  been just as colorful in their plumages as birds are today.”

Colorful, feathery dinosaurs might be a shift in the popular imagination, but if anyone can reframe how people think about a fantastic world, it’s Favreau. And he sees this new project as another chapter in a very, very long story that will outlive us all — but only if we continue to tell it. 

“Our only context for science at the time was the Bible and the leviathan,” he says, citing a passage from the Book of Job many scholars interpret to be about either a dinosaur or a close relative thereof. “And then slowly, as people were fascinated more and more with these fossils, that led to innovations  in science. Because the story and the fascination was what helped motivate it. So if this becomes the door that brings people in, it opens up the next generation to becoming curious about science and I think that that’s a very valuable thing to bestow upon the next generation. The next generation could surpass us. But they have to be drawn to it, and you have to show them how exciting it is and how fun it is and how alive it is.

“And I think it really feels like a continuation of that into another world.”

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