The 2014 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference and Festival started today, with Jon Favreau’s indie feature Chef leading the way. Favreau wrote, directed and stars in the movie, which revolves around a divorced Los Angeles chef who – upon losing his job at a prestigious restaurant – sets out to recover his creative mojo (and, in turn, repair his fractured personal life), by starting up his own food truck and traveling across North America, in search of fresh inspiration.
Judging by the first clip from the film (see above), Chef is a return to the kind of fast-talking, improvisatory verbal comedy that’s geared more towards adults – which Favreau made his name with on Swingers and partially carried over to the first Iron Man movie (before he had a harder time infusing his own artistic flavor into the broth of Iron Man 2) – than the softer-edged (read: blander) material in his last studio offering, Cowboys & Aliens.
Favreau confirmed as much during an interview with THR, ahead of Chef‘s premiere at the 2014 SXSW. He also spoke in detail (and with passion) about the artistic nature of cooking, how the world of chefs is, in more ways than one, “incredibly cinematic,” and how his latest project was a refreshing change of pace, after having churned out three big-budgeted genre tentpoles in rapid succession (recall, Favreau released Iron Man 1 & 2 and Cowboys & Aliens within the span of four years).
THR‘s interviewer commented on how the general public’s perception of chefs have changed significantly – “from ‘guy in a tall puffy hat to ‘down n’ dirty rock star’” – in recent years (thanks to popular reality TV programs like Top Chef), which was an observation that Favreau seemed to agree with:
The world of chefs is fun because these are characters who are right now being focused on by the public. They never signed on to be a front man and some are more elegant about it than others but they always seem to be coming from a very sincere place. [The movie] captures the conundrum of their creative process: people trying to find their voice, a way to fit within the system and yet express their individuality.
Swap “Chef” for “Filmmaker,” and Favreau’s comments would be the perfect summation of what life is like for moviemakers nowadays, thanks to the rise of the Internet and social media having allowed for direct interactions between everyday moviegoers and the people who work behind the camera in Hollywood. Indeed, it’s a different ball game now; building a lucrative franchise isn’t enough, filmmakers have to be more savvy in public than ever, in order to please their studio bosses and fanbase alike, while still operating as artists. (See how directors like Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Bryan Singer (X-Men: Days of Future Past), and Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) have kept fans of their work up-to-speed, with tools like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube video updates.)
That Favreau was getting the break from that rat race that he needed with Chef – that was obvious from when the project was first announced. He didn’t deny that there are distinct autobiographical elements and meta-qualities to his new project either, during his interview with THR:
Being a dad and also being somebody with a career, it was fun to make a story about somebody in this stage of life. Most movies you get to make, especially the big ones, you’re dealing with a much younger audience and usually escapism. I wanted to make something about the lessons of life and about reality, not something that takes you out of it. Also it’s about a broken home — [my character] is divorced and my parents were divorced. I think I was tapping into some of that, too.
Favreau will next direct a live-action version of The Jungle Book for Disney, which he has indicated will be more of a family-friendly (read: closer to a live-action cartoon) spin on the iconic Rudyard Kipling adventure story. However, it sounds as though he might be more enthusiastic about taking on the challenge of retaining his creative voice – while calling the shots – on an expensive blockbuster for the Mouse House, being revitalized by having just made a more emotionally-complex work in Chef:
It had the same challenges that Swingers had. It will be an R; we say “f–k” more than once — but it’s something that I’m comfortable with my kids seeing. Not every beat is being sold for laughs. The beats are about character and emotion — I never have to push anything further than I want to. When you’re going for a big studio comedy, the joke tally better be pretty high and you better have some big comedy set pieces. That was one of the issues when I was trying to get Swingers made for the first time, which is that there weren’t any broad comedy set pieces. It’s more comedy that comes out of being emotionally attached to the characters.
The cast of Chef includes Favreau’s Iron Man 2 stars Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr., in addition to John Leguizamo (Ride Along), Bobby Cannavale (Blue Jasmine), Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), Dustin Hoffman (Kung Fu Panda 2), and Amy Sedaris (Alpha House).
Chef opens in U.S. theaters on May 9th, 2014.