On a recent episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, “Iron Man” and “The Jungle Book” director Jon Favreau talked about his new project “Gnomes & Goblins,” which he hopes will push the limits of VR.
You can read some of the highlights from Kara’s interview with Jon at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Jon Favreau, a filmmaker who has directed films ranging from “Elf” to “Iron Man” to “The Jungle Book.” You may also know him as an actor who starred in the hit comedy “Swingers” and had a recurring role as one of Monica Geller’s boyfriends in “Friends.” Now he’s getting into virtual reality, directing a VR film called “Gnomes and Goblins” that debuted earlier this year. Jon, welcome to Recode Decode.
Jon Favreau: Thank you.
So I just was at your office trying out “Gnomes and Goblins,” which I thought was fantastic.
And we’re going to get into that in a minute, because I thought it was one of the more successful VR efforts and much more imaginative than a lot of stuff I’ve seen, which is a lot of shoot-’em-up or you’re-falling-out-of-an-airplane kind of thing. So we’re going to talk about that in a minute, but let’s talk about your background a little bit so people have a sense. You’re an extraordinarily successful Hollywood creator, writer, actor, everything.
I do a little of everything, yeah.
Yeah. So talk a little bit about your background. You came into being known, I guess, through “Swingers,” which was …
Yeah, that was kind of the big one. I got my first break, 'cause you need a lot of little breaks that happen on a regular basis, and the first one was being cast in the film “Rudy.” It was about Notre Dame football. And that got me out of Chicago, where I was doing improv at the time. I grew up in New York, but I moved to Chicago to do improvisational comedy.
Which is the place you do it.
Yeah, it’s still the mecca of improv. And there’s always a new crop coming out of there, and there has been for decades now. So yeah, I had gotten “Rudy,” came out here, and then after I began writing because I was reading a lot of scripts and wasn’t getting any big breaks, and it sounds quick when we tell the story, but it was really a few years, you know. But that was what kind of got the attention of people in town. And that led to me making a living as a writer doing rewrites mostly. There’s a lot ... there’s a pretty good — at least at the time — a pretty robust economy for people in film development, be it executives or people who were doing rewrites and things like that, and I made a living. And eventually, you know, it wasn’t really until I had directed “Elf” that it kind of broke to the next level where I was on the list of directors as well. So that did well and that led to the opportunities, you know, slowly in an unfolded sense.
Right. And so you’ve done a lot of different movies. The ones that got the most attention are these action movies.
And talk a little bit about those because they’re highly technical. You’ve done a lot of movies with a lot of special effects and things.
Sure. Well, especially, you know, gradually I built up to it. I was pretty low-tech in the beginning.
Yeah, “Swingers” was not very …
“Swingers” was low-tech and “Elf” …
It was like a hat and something else.
[laughs] You’re right. And then “Elf” was a lot of stop motion, a lot of forced perspective. There was a lot of low-fi visual effects. A little bit of CGI for the flying reindeer. I really shied away from using too much CGI because I didn’t feel ... you know, when it worked well, it worked really well, like “Jurassic Park.” But after “Jurassic Park,” there were a lot of ones where it didn’t work as well. And I felt it was being overused. It’s very expensive, and it didn’t age well. But I gradually worked my way to the point that we did “Iron Man,” where ILM was doing some really good work with hard surfaces, and different materials are more difficult or easier to fool the audience with, so shiny metal is pretty easy to do by comparison to organic material or fur.
But subsequently, leading up to “Jungle Book,” I was very impressed with what I saw in other people’s movies. And also the methodology that went into shooting visual effects films. I took into account that visual effects was going to be part of it in planning for it. I was very impressed with “Gravity,” for example, where they had planned all the visual effects ahead of time and filmed it with the proper interactive elements. And that gave them a fighting chance to make it photo-real, and I was convinced by the environment created in that movie. And so when we took on the challenge of “Jungle Book,” we really planned it as though we were doing a visual effects element shoot.
So talk about “Jungle Book,” because a lot of it was just computers, correct? A lot of it didn’t exist.
Yeah. It was really an exercise in what’s the minimal amount of photography you can do for a film, because we knew we were going to have talking animals …
Doesn’t exist right now.
Don’t exist, no, no. They’re very difficult. And even not-talking animals isn’t the best set of circumstances to work under. Especially when you’re working with a kid. And so we had one human cast member playing Mowgli — Neel Sethi was the actor. And then we had voices. And so we really had to develop a whole pipeline through which to make this a convincing story where the goal was to make the visual effects kind of disappear so you felt like you really were in a jungle, even though we filmed all of it in downtown Los Angeles.
So talk about that. How did you do that? Because I think “Jungle Book” was a real leap for a lot of people.
It was a bit of a challenge. You had, you know, the inherent challenge of making something that’s beloved by many. And also talking animals is a challenge in and of itself, to have that not take you out of the reality, the emotional reality of the story. But there was also the challenge of designing animals and characters that could convey emotion and make you get lost in the emotion of what’s going on on screen. The technical aspects are pretty complicated, but the effect was meant to be very simple, and that was to kind of make the audience forget that they’re looking at a magic trick.
And so we started off with the front end of an animated film, which is, if you’ve ever seen the making of a Pixar film, you still have artists with pencils and story departments and several iterations and show reels, and you get to see how it plays with temp dialogue. And when the story starts to really work well, then in animation you would go into the layout phase, which is when you have people sitting at computer bays and figuring out where the camera’s going to go and how the lighting is done and how the characters are going to move around. And instead of doing that stage, we took the middle part of the process from like “Avatar,” where we used motion capture to do the layout, and it felt more like a regular set. We had our actor there and we had people standing in for the other performers and we built sets that had the proper topography. And we would then, once we captured those performances and recorded the voices, we then would set the cameras and deliver that to the editor, and together we would edit a version of the film that we use as a template for the actual photography.
Do you ever imagine a day when you — and we’re going to get into this — in VR where you don’t need the actors at all? You can create them from things.
My thing with all of these technical innovations is the more you make it about people, the better it is. So if you’re using the technology to deepen the connection you’re feeling between filmmaker and audience, actor and audience, the more you do that, the more people connect. Because I think people are not actually connecting with the technology; I think the technology is just a medium.
Yeah. So if you ever hear Lasseter talk about Pixar, so much is made of what was the new rendering hardware that’s being used and how much ... what innovations have gone into the photorealism. But he’s the first to say that to say a computer makes those films is like saying a pencil makes the old animated movies. It doesn’t work that way. You’re just offering a better set of tools. And it’s honestly the amount of artistry that goes into it. On every level.
And narrative, right? So it’s the artistry, it’s a team. You know, I worked on a film, “Chef,” before “Jungle Book.”
Wonderful little film. I saw it.
Thank you. And I really learned a lot about this style of filmmaking. I didn’t know at the time I was, but watching how chefs connect with their kitchen staff — you know, it’s a brigade system. It’s highly organized, highly trained people. Everybody’s job is very well defined, but all of them are working in concert to effectively convey the chef’s vision.
So there has to be consistency in every station to make the dish come out just the way Thomas Keller would want it. If you go to the French Laundry, you’re going to want to know that every time you go, you’re going to get his vision, whether he’s there or not. And that requires organization and skill and training, and a lot of effort goes into creating that experience for the audience or the customer in that case.
And in the case of a highly technical film like “Jungle Book,” where you have thousands of people working on it, so much of that is to convey the shared vision and to have a sense of quality control as the plates are coming out the pass.
And that wasn’t something I had really understood with the level of complexity that I saw in the culinary world.
Do you have to become a complex thinker to be a director? And even actor, too?
I don’t know. There’s so many ways to interpret what complex might mean. I think that there’s tremendous complexity in the way the business is evolving. I think there’s complexity in the technical aspects. But I think that the basic skill set that’s most required is taste for tone and storytelling. And if you have a handle on storytelling, there are a lot of really well intended, experienced, talented people around you that can help kind of smooth out the learning curve on all these new things.
Talk about how you got into VR then, because here’s something ... you know, VR is something that Silicon Valley’s moved forward rather quickly with without a lot of content. And a lot of the content seems somewhat reductive. I don’t know, like the obvious things. The Bourne ... the adventure kind of things, little shoot-’em-up …
Well, it’s the Nickelodeon phase of it. You know, it’s early days. You know, it’s Moore’s Law. Everything is evolving very quickly, but if you look on a calendar it hasn’t really been mainstream for very long, and so this is all kind of a predictable cycle, I think.
Sure. So talk about how you got into it. And then I want to talk about your creation.
I visited Valve once years ago and happened to try one of the early development kits of the Oculus because they have ... they’re into some interesting. You know, they’re a lab, they explore lots of things. And I was lucky enough to be there. It’s been long enough I can say that. Yeah, they were looking at, you know, playing around with VR. And it was very interesting because I felt a low-latency, accurately tracked experience.
It was very early days. It was many years ago. It was long before “Jungle Book,” long before “Chef.” I don’t remember how many years ago it was, but it was before the [development kit] was out, the beta was out, for consumers. So it was very early. And I thought it was kind of cool.
And then later on, Andy Jones, who was my head of animation on “Jungle Book” who had worked in VR, was bringing some of the technical staff who were working on motion capture on “Jungle Book” at lunch. They were here in Playa Vista. Wevr, which is the company he worked with, does VR down in Venice. And at lunch he was going to show them the new development kit of the Vive that Valve had actually been part of the development of. And I had asked to tag along, and I came along.
Why did you tag along? You just wanted to see it?
I was curious what had happened because I remember seeing the first ... when I tried the Oculus at first, it felt like a bit of a breakthrough. And then when I saw the home development kit, the consumer-grade one, that I think was using accelerometers for tracking, it seemed to have lost a certain snap. Like it wasn’t the same level.
And I had heard that these new innovations that both Vive and Oculus — by the way, I would group them — having had breakthroughs that created what I experienced when I went to Wevr. And they had “TheBlu,” which is the experience where you dive with the whale. That was one of the demos that I did there. And because of whatever the combination was of low latency and tracking information and I’m not sure what it adds up to, but the phenomenon of presence that you get where your brain is on a certain fundamental level completely fooled by what you’re experiencing even though you know [it’s not real].
Well, you lose it right away. You lose that sense that it’s fake right away.
You do. Like you know it is, like your prefrontal cortex is very well aware that you’re in a room with goggles on, but like the rest, like the old brain, your lizard brain, is like …
Yeah, or scared or something very primal — you know, very limbic.
So you put this on, you go over to Wevr.
I put it on, I go there and I was very overwhelmed first thing. First of all, I was impressed with the technology. Second of all, even “TheBlu,” which is meant to be a very awe-inspiring, relaxed, peaceful experience, was very overwhelming for me. It took me twice to get through it.
Uh, yeah, I think upsetting is too strong of a term, but it was a lot for me to take in. Like it took me two times.
It was too intense. Like it was too intense for me. And I think it honestly is, having now messed around and watched people go through demos. Everyone’s wired differently. Some people have tremendous tolerance for intensity in VR, and other people ... I would say with movies, too. I don’t like really scary horror with pop-outs and stuff. Or intense rides. And there are certain people who aren’t afraid. I have kids, and I can see certain kids, they just have different tastes. And they have the same basic experience growing up in childhood, they’re growing up in the same household, but yet some like scary rides and other people don’t have any tolerance for it.
So I think there’s some maybe nature-nurture thing, I’m not sure what contributes to it. But I know for me personally, I was really impressed with it, I was really taken by it, but also felt it was very ... I sometimes would feel relieved when a VR experience was over and I pulled the HMD off and I would feel like I went through something and I liked it and I liked doing it again. And especially once I’d been through it once, like with a scary ride, I’d like to do it over again.
But it disturbed you in some way.
… but it was challenging to get through it. And that night I went home and it really stuck with me. The experience really stuck with me. And just like whenever any rush of inspiration happens, I just grab some paper and wrote down a few pages of thoughts.
During the night.
… that night, of what I do with this. What I would do with this. And I told Andy that it had happened, and he had been working with Wevr on “TheBlu,” he had been working there before he worked on “Jungle Book,” and he said, “You should come over and talk to them.” It’s a very informal organization. It has financing, but it doesn’t really work for a parent company. It’s more like a lab, a studio really, like a very informal studio that’s looking to innovate in this new medium.
So you saw it, it impressed you and disturbed you at the same time.
Yes. I don’t want to overstate the disturbing. It was overwhelming, let’s put it that way. It was positive.
Overwhelmed so much that you that you started drawing that night.
Yeah, I started writing out a list of what I would do. Because what struck me about VR is, at its best, it feels like lucid dreaming.
I love that description. Lucid dreaming. So you’re in a dream state but you know it.
But you have agency and you know it. When I know I’m dreaming, I know I can do things, like I can fly. There are certain things I know I can do once I know I’m dreaming, if I could preserve the experience of maintaining that state. But it’s a bit surreal. It doesn’t feel like reality, and it’s a little hazy. But there are very strong, you know ... definitely, again, it’s a bit overwhelming, too, what you’re seeing and experiencing. You know, it’s your subconscious kind of yelling at you. Right? That’s what happens when you’re dreaming. So imagery becomes very impactful, and there is some internal rule system, but it doesn’t apply to the same rules that you deal with in waking life.
So you started drawing these gnomes. Goblins?
Drawing some goblins, yeah.
Maybe my old Dungeons and Dragons days. There’s something about fantasy.
You’re a gamer, right?
I was. I was. Definitely in high school I liked it a lot. And it’s not unlike what this ... you know, definitely that skill set has informed this because you know in that world it’s a curated experience that whoever’s running the game designs, but the impression, if it’s a good game, is that you have complete freedom to do whatever you want. It’s open world.
But even though wherever you go there’s somebody kind of looking after you and making sure that the experience is fun. A host. And by the way, being a film director isn’t that different, because you’re inviting people into a world that you’ve curated for them and hopefully they’re having a good time.
That was another interesting thing of working with chefs in preparation for that film, was that film directors and chefs and to some extent DJs, there’s definitely a personality type where they get a big kick out of other people having a good time. And I don’t know what it is, but I find that there’s a similar way of looking at things between the filmmaking world and the chef world. And if you think about it, filmmaking really comes from the tradition of magicians, and, you know, if you ever saw “Hugo,” [George] Méliès, there’s this whole sense of using this new technology to create illusions that make storytelling more impactful.
So you draw these goblins and gnomes …
Oh, sorry, I really got off the question there.
No, I like that!
I’m completely delighted. But you draw these figures and you go to Wevr and now you’re a partner there.
Well, it’s a slow process. And what happened was I went there and I pitched. And what I pitched, they liked the pitch. And the pitch was, you know, right now what’s up and available is just a free preview, which really is a vertical slice of what it is. It’s just proof of concept.
Did you call it a pink something?
Oh, pink spoon? Like at Baskin & Robbins, you get the little pink spoon for free. Yeah, we wanted to not call this a full experience because there’s a whole world and set of other characters. The gnomes. And a lot of other things we’re working on to make it a full experience where you could spend a lot of time in it. But right now, you spend — you went through it — you can spend a few minutes and be entertained.
And however many times you do it, it reacts differently, and we can talk about the particulars of it, but I went there, pitched it, and then after talking and going back and forth, they said it was something they would be comfortable developing. So at that point I liked the company that were backing me and I figured, you know, I also wanted to back it up, and they were going through a financing round.
I wouldn’t say I’m a partner, but it was something I wanted to be part of because I believed in what was going on there and I knew that they were putting a lot of money into this thing. It was going to take a lot of people.
So you’re an investor, too.
I’m an investor, yeah.
You know, it’s important to get really well-known Hollywood people involved in this as they move forward because it does create a new kind of creator in a lot of ways. Even though it’s similar, you’re talking about it being similar, it does also ... it’s a different experience.
It is, but it’s not. When you talk to investors, you’re talking to people who are bringing significant resources to something and really taking a bet on it. This is more a way of me saying, “I like what you’re doing and I appreciate you taking the time to handle this properly.” And I really think that there's some ... I like the culture here and I think this is going to be around for awhile, and this particular studio, I wanted to encourage what they’re doing because I worked in VR in other places. I’ve worked in VR as part of marketing for “Jungle Book.”
And look, it’s exciting to work on it, but the model’s completely different. The model is about how do you get content to the most eyeballs to help drive business to another medium. And so you’re really giving reflections of what you’re creating in another medium. And what I like about what they’re doing over there at Wevr is they’re partnering up with a lot of different people. And in partnering up with different creatives, they’re opening themselves up for innovation.
So there are certain experiences that are made to create an impression that’s more accessible technically because it doesn’t require the same technical parameters. But “Gnomes and Goblins” requires room scale and controllers and it’s available only on the Vive now and it will be with Oculus as they put out their hand controllers and their room scale. So they’re really limiting the audience that this is available to, but by the same token they’re testing the limits of what’s technically possible to do in the medium. That’s not something you could do when you’re doing a marketing …
No, you’re just doing, “Please come watch the ‘Jungle Book.’” You could, you certainly could decide …
We did. We did two things, but they’re not ... no, because it requires money to do it. And it doesn’t fit within marketing budgets to do something that’s targeted at a very limited audience. So you’re looking for benefactors in this, and so I like that this is following a startup pattern. So they’re deciding for themselves what the big long game is for this technology, and as a storyteller, I like that. Because I can work in other media. So this is the one ... if I’m going to work in VR it’s because I’m curious about where it’s going, not what the easiest way to do it is.
So talk a little bit about this game. I do want to talk about innovation and Hollywood and lack thereof at the same time, because the economics are changing so drastically. First talk about what you were trying to achieve here in “Gnomes and Goblins.” Because I think that you are going for a very different experience. It’s more unusual than others I’ve seen. It’s nicer, it’s not as frightening, it’s not as overwhelming. And yet it’s very delightful, like when you stick your head in the goblin holes. I don’t know what they’re called.
[laughs] The little …
That sounds awful, sounds like something Donald Trump would say.
Let’s see, the hollow logs that they live in.
The hollow logs, okay. The delightful homes. The Keebler Elves. So talk about what you’re trying to do, because we talked a little bit when I was using it about not wanting to be scared. Not wanting to be overstimulated.
I guess the short answer is, I wanted to create an experience that would make you want to stay there and you would feel disappointed when you pulled the headset off. And I really only felt that once when I was demoing other VR properties.
Which was what?
Because .... I can tell you more how I felt and maybe we can figure out together why.
I put it on, you know, you’re in a dark space, at least when I was trying the demo, and then you start painting in 3-D. And then you start learning — there’s a bit of a learning curve — you start to learn how the tools work, so now you’re getting into a little bit of a flow. And I’m a artist, I draw. And now I start to play with it and now I’m creating something. And now I’m trying to see what I can do with this thing.
And it’s very clear that nothing surprising is going to happen. Everything that’s being created there I’m creating in this void. And you start to, you know, you kind of get lost in a creative flow. And then when I pulled the headset off, I had spent more time in there than I thought I had. Which is a good sign. As a filmmaker, that’s a good thing. Like when you look up and you’re like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe the movie’s almost over.”
I have a text thing. If I don’t text at all during the movie, it’s a good movie.
Right, that’s good. You shouldn’t be texting in movies at all.
And yet I do.
In the theater you do?
Sometimes. Some movies deserve it.
See, now I’m learning about different cultures — Northern and Southern California.
We aren’t going to have any of it if it doesn’t entertain us.
In the house, it’s hard, you know, that’s a hard thing to do, to create rules.
Yeah, that’s true. Then you have to check things, that’s the other thing.
It is true, but it does change ... you know, part of the challenge now is you want to be the base content that’s being watched. You want to be the one that’s drawing. You want to be compelling enough that it’s hard, that you can’t look away.
Yeah, that’s done, Jon. It’s done. You need to move on.
I don’t know! [KS laughs]. I think ... well, we could talk about that.
All right, but get back to this game. So you were trying to create an immersive space that wasn’t frightening.
Well, that’s what I think it was. ‘Cause the other ones, I enjoyed them, but it was definitely like I felt like I’d been challenged. And when I take the thing off, I feel like I accomplished something. And I was like, “What can we do in the environment to make it feel like you look forward to being in there?” And part of it was scale. I think that’s a very important aspect of VR that I don’t know that people are taking full advantage of.
When you’re below the depths of the ocean and this blue whale goes by you, even though it’s very peaceful and nice, the scale of it still starts triggering different parts of your primal brain that says, “There’s something bigger than me that’s close to me.”
And then there was an impression in “TheBlu,” because the blue whale goes by you and the eye comes close to you, it feels like it’s looking at you, though it’s not tracking you. But it’s a very effective illusion. And the eye contact felt like it was another thing to create connection. And so what we wanted to do is create a connection that felt emotional between you and this little goblin creature. So part of it was to create an environment that was inviting.
And the eyes are excellent, I have to tell you.
Yeah. You know, I was at MIT many years ago and I remember the original people that were doing robots …
... like humanoid robots, were saying, “The eyes are always the problem.” That people can be tricked until they get to the eyes.
Well, Disney had the Hall of Presidents, so that’s kind of the tip. But in the case of VR, what’s nice is that if you think of it, if you run the pipe the other way, you’re not just using the HMD, the headset you wear, to provide tracking information. Like you wouldn’t ... by the way, it’s very similar technology that you use in motion capture. In motion capture you’re using this to track where the subject is. In VR you’re using it to track the location of the observer. But if you use it and make the person a character in it, you could then extrapolate where their eyes are, you could create eye contact. We would scale the experience based on the height of the wearer.
Yeah, you did that. Once you’re doing something.
Right, so when you first light the candle to get into the experience, we measure your height and we scale the world to your height. So if a little kid is in there — I’ve got kids, so I’m always thinking about that. Like if the goblin’s small enough to be cute and not scare me, that’s part of what makes you feel comfortable. But if a kid is a third of my height or half my height, that goblin’s going to be, you know, twice as big.
A little scary.
So we scale it down for the kids. And so inevitably there’s a sense that you’re looking at something small and cute and vulnerable who’s looking at you and very coy. And then we built a lot of state machines so that the goblin’s behavior actually changes depending on how close you get, how fast you move.
It’s like an animal, actually.
Like an animal, yeah.
For just one second though, I felt — because I watch too many Hollywood movies — I thought it was going to be like “Goonies,” where suddenly the teeth come out or something. There’s one moment where I was like, “Are they going to attack me?”
But you have to develop that trust level, and I think that’s part ... look, I learned a lot about Walt Disney through working there. And I really am fascinating by the path of his career. Because he was somebody that would really look to the old stories and brand new technology. And would combine those things in his own unique way. And you know, even Disneyland I would count as that. Disneyland is almost like a VR experience at that tech level.
Oh, there’s a lot of stuff going on there. We had Tom Staggs and also Bob Iger many times onstage and we talked about that.
It is the predecessor to this. I think he would, you know, from what I know about him, it feels like this is something that would have been compelling to Disney. And if you look at things like dark rides or Hall of Presidents or audio-animatronics, you could see that part of it is you form deep connections with the stories and these characters.
So part of it is how you select the stories that you tell. And go back to subject matter that people know. Or storylines that people know. Conflicts, themes that people are familiar with on a deep level, but then use these new technologies to help make it fresh and new and different.
But what you’re trying to do here is not violent, possibly violent, or overwhelming, adventure seeking. I think that’s a lot of what VR is right now. You’re on a boat, you’re in the air, you’re jumping off a cliff or things like that, which are all exciting, but you were going for something very different from most people.
Well, we want story. We definitely don’t want you to feel you’re in some boring open world where there’s no shape to the experience. It’s hard to tell because this is just a preview. But we want ... every world has rules. What are the rules of the world that I would want to spend time in if I’m choosing to put this on and step out, you know, escape from, an entertainment in this particular medium.
I really think we seek out connection. And so although a lot of work went into the art direction and the sounds and how tactile the world feels, and how many little hidden secret things there are to look at for your curiosity, I think at its core we were most compelled by the Turing test aspect of it. Can you really make the audience feel that they’re connecting with another creature that is connected with you?
Right. Do you know what was one of the most effective things? When the fireflies starting swirling around me. I don’t know why that was delightful to me. But that was enormously satisfying for some reason.
I don’t know why.
I don’t know ... you know, right now we’re just poking and trying …
It felt like you were in it.
It feels very immersive, and hopefully what happens is much like when you go to Disneyland, there's a certain level of intensity you’re going to experience. If you want to go on ... you know, maybe there’s a little bit of a drop in the Pirates ride. But you know, unless you’re going to Tower of Terror at California Adventure or something, you kind of know what that range is going to be. And there’s an excitement to it, but there’s also a sense of, you know, the personality of the experience you’re going to get. And I guess maybe it’s because I'm at the point of my life I’m in now, I’m turning 50 next week and I’ve got kids.
It’s not that bad.
No, I’m all for it, I like it. But you’re in the part where you’re seeing the world through your kids’ eyes, as much if not more as through your own. And you kind of have a sense of how things work. And you get a sense of the whole ride from beginning to end.
Yeah. How old are your kids?
My kids are 10, 13 and 15.
Oh, so right in the Snapchat era now.
Yeah, they’re right in the social thing. So there’s a sense that technology is just going to keep getting more and more profound. And how do you maintain a sense of human connection through all of this?
Talk a little bit about where things are going. Where storytelling is going. I want to talk about that. Because Hollywood has sort of been upset by technology a little bit. The whole thing has been sort of moved around. And there’s been different reactions to it. One is to go fully technological, the other is to pull back from it.
Upset, meaning ... changed.
Changed, the change has been upsetting. The fact that Facebook, that Amazon, that Netflix, is now controlling a lot of the discussion with making content and everything. There’s new power players in the equation, and studios feel slightly antiquated in that feeling. How do you look at it? You’ve had an enormously successful career.
I have a different perspective because I’m not a studio, I’m a content creator.
Right. Well, it’s good for you.
It is good for me in that there was ... well, technology first really threatened the film business because of piracy. And so revenues were dropping. DVDs were really bolstering the film economy and allowed studios to take risks on properties that otherwise they would not have made risks on. Because if something didn’t perform at the box office, there was a good chance if it was a quality production it would make its money on home video.
Somewhere else, yeah.
Right. Then that went away. It really fell off a cliff faster than anyone could imagine. And there wasn’t a lot of money in streaming of any kind. Electronic sell-through, subscription, SVOD, none of it was really amounting to enough money to make a difference. And then through the services that you just listed, all of a sudden the revenue began to climb again — at first level off and now climb. So it allows for content to be created that is not being generated from a place of fear from the investor standpoint.
Now you might not be able to make the same type of movies I did when I started out, but people are telling stories in other media that are very personal and very compelling. And as an audience member, it’s very nice for me to be able to have all of these different destinations and find a story that’s made just for me.
So how do you feel as someone who’s been very successful in — I don’t want to say the old system, but it was.
Yeah, the old system.
Big blockbuster movies, you direct, you act. What’s it like in that genre? Because in a lot of ways you have a lot more power. You have so many more choices of places you could go. You could go to Netflix, you could go to ... eventually Google will get into this, eventually Facebook will. How does it feel to be thinking of them as your studios going forward?
I think the potential here is really exciting because not every story and every way of telling a story is appropriate for every medium. And so if you could find the right place ... I did a show called “Dinner for Five” which felt a lot like what would be a podcast now. And IFC was a channel that was kind of starting out and they weren’t demanding a big audience and so they were very happy to have a very conversational, inside-baseball look at the movie business. If I had tried to put that show on against, you know, Letterman, it would have failed. But because I found a niche, it allowed for us to do 50 episodes of that show.
And now there’s even more of that. If you want to do something, if you want to have yourself making Play-Doh from scratch, you could do that and put it on YouTube and maybe get, you know, hundreds of thousands of people watching it. If you want to just talk about your day and you can do it in a compelling way, you could do that and you could work your way up through the ranks of ... all the way up to, I would say for me the pinnacle is being able to do a big-budget Hollywood studio film.
But it’s a very small target of what is appropriate for that medium. Whereas you could make a Hollywood film that was geared more towards Academy Awards, you know, a movie like “Ray,” for example. That budget of movie doesn’t really get green-lit as readily. You could have a lower-budget film that can get green-lit that’s geared towards more of a selective audience. Like “Chef,” for example.
It probably does very well on Netflix.
Yeah, because of Netflix and because of keeping the budget low and having it distributed by Open Road, who knew how to fit it into the multiplex system, it was able to be successful. But had we done that film for a big studio budget, it would have been seen as a failure.
So is the Hollywood pinnacle the goal? A lot of these creators, that isn’t necessarily the goal anymore, because James Corden last week, he was talking about how he doesn’t care about ratings anymore, he cares about YouTube views.
No, I don’t mean it’s the goal. For me, loving technical innovation, to have every golf club available in your bag, you have to do a film that’s going to appeal broadly to all four quadrants, as we say. To all ages, all genders and all territories. It has to travel internationally. So if you’re going to have the resources to do something on the scale of “Jungle Book,” it has to be something that has to do business everywhere. Because they have to make their money back. You understand what I’m saying? So you have to just inherently do something. And when I say the pinnacle, I mean the pinnacle of budget and technology.
I’m very compelled by doing films that don’t have all those things. And in the case of working in VR, there’s not really any proven path to monetization yet. So really, you’re getting excited but you’re working with a small, basically indie-game-size development team. We worked like a year on this thing because it was such a small group, and you’re working with budgets that are, you know, based on research and development. It’s not building towards some windfall that’s coming in the foreseeable future.
With each idea, what I’ve found for myself personally, is to have enough of a variety so that you could be inspired in every area. I’m working on a cooking thing with Roy Choi, the chef that I worked with on “Chef.” But that’s not something that would be a big-budget Hollywood movie. It’s something that will probably end up being streamed through the internet. But that’s very exciting to me.
So I think it’s having an understanding of media to help you tailor your experience so that the stories and projects you work on, you’re not frustrated by the fact that the economics of it aren’t the way they used to be. You have to be flexible and understand that things are changing and there’s a way to find satisfaction in the new world.
Do you think the larger industry understands that?
I think they do.
Understands the vast changes that are happening and how people watch. I mean, my kids watch everything on their phones.
I can’t get my 14-year-old son to go into a movie theater anymore. He’s just, “I don’t like movies. I like to watch it either on-demand, on a medium-sized screen at home, or a normal-sized screen at home, or on the phone.” All his entertainment is on the phone. It’s a real shift to watch someone behave like that.
It is, it is.
So does Hollywood get that? Obviously you’re much more fast-forward.
I think they understand what’s going on. I don’t know that they understand where the lighthouse is, what you should aim for. I think they all have different strategies. I think there’s definitely been an acknowledgement over the last decade, or close to a decade, where people really understand what’s happening and the changes that are coming. And they see it, like you’re saying, through the eyes of your kid. That’s really the most effective learning tool is to see how they actually consume content.
But I also see it, and I try to explain to them how if you wanted to see a cartoon, you had to either see it after school or on Saturday morning. To me it’s all — and maybe it’s just choosing an optimistic disposition — but I really think there’s a lot of opportunity for life to improve on a lot of levels. And not to be dismissive of all of the things we should be vigilant about as technology ... you always have this with new technology. There’s always the potential for it to undermine the quality of life.
I saw “WALL-E.” I get that.
Sure. I mean it’s not …
Exactly where it’s going.
I think there are a lot of paths to that. And I think definitely being vigilant is important in understanding. But I do think that there’s really wonderful opportunities for people who are storytellers who would have been shut out of the system previously. If you’re talented and you have the wherewithal to put something together, you can cut through and you can spread your wings and do something you’re passionate about because there’s no more barrier of entry.
So do you imagine that an Amazon is going to be as important as a Fox or a Disney?
Important meaning market-cap-wise? [laughs]
No, they are market cap already.
Well, that’s what I’m saying.
I’m talking about influence in Hollywood.
Influence in Hollywood?
Because when Netflix got started, the head of Time Warner, who I like very much, Jeff Bewkes, called it Latvia or Lithuania — they’re a Lithuanian army, or some dismissive way. And obviously Netflix has shown them, kind of thing.
Ted Sarandos is someone I’ve know for a very long time, and he’s spent a lot of his efforts in understanding both cultures. You have Northern California and the tech community, and you have Southern California and the Hollywood community. And then there are lots of subsets to both. There’s the independent film scene that was there. There’s the television world. There’s the movie world. There’s the Hollywood world. There’s the theater, people who are involved with theatrical distribution. There’s so many different facets of both.
And I know the tech community also has ... you know, there’s a lot of different models. And both are very nuanced. I know the Hollywood aspects better, but I spend a lot of time up north, especially because I had a tech element in “Chef,” and so I found myself showing the film there a lot and meeting a lot of people from those communities, and it’s very different. It’s very different. And I think that Ted taking the time to understand the needs of both, what the aspirations and the fears of both communities are, helped him. To me it’s no surprise that he was one of the first people to bridge this. And is respected by both, just anecdotally.
Yeah, they have finally come around to Netflix. Of course that was yesterday. We’re starting on other things up in Silicon Valley. We’re going to start doing new things. I want to finish up, very briefly, on your own techness. Are you really a techie? I see you’re wearing an Apple Watch.
I’m wearing an Apple Watch.
And I am not, even though I have several.
Yeah, it’s more about not hearing my phone. [laughs]
But I do like it. And I do it when I exercise. And I think there’s a lot of potential in ... especially when you get into bio med …
... there’s going to be tremendous innovation in that area.
Well, it’s going to be inside your ear or something.
Well, that’s another ... that’s “Black Mirror” stuff.
Yeah, I love “Black Mirror.” Ah, my favorite.
But I think that the idea of monitoring, being able to monitor somebody and not just go in to be monitored on a semi-regular basis and try to infer what your general health is, you’ll be able to ... I think once people see how much it will help quality of life, the extension of life, and I think that we’re going to have to come to terms with some sort of biomedical tracking.
Yeah, your friend Elon Musk wants to put neural networks in our brains so that AI doesn’t kill us. So we’re just as smart as AI. Would you like a neural network installed in your neck?
You know, talk to me in a few years. Let’s see how …
You made a whole movie about it! Essentially “Iron Man” is a neural network.
It is, and it does ... and that’s how I met Elon was through him giving advice on that.
Is that based on him?
It’s not based on him, it’s based on the comic book. But Robert Downey said when we were prepping “Iron Man,” he said, “There’s somebody we should sit down and talk with.” He had been connected with Elon, said this is a guy who can actually give us some insight into what it would really be like to be Tony Stark. He’s a rocket scientist and he’s somebody who shared a lot of the life experience that Tony Stark would. And we sat with him and picked his brain. And you’ve spoken to him — very interesting guy. And I just maintained a friendship. And at the time … remember, that was before the S had launched.
And the space, and the Mars, and the AI.
We filmed at SpaceX. “Iron Man 2” we filmed at SpaceX.
Oh you did?
Yeah, he let us film there for free. He’s been a very good friend of the Marvel family. And I just maintained a friendship with him. And so I have a lot of these conversations about exactly what you’re talking about, and I think I could follow as well as anyone. I think he’s just a very smart guy.
Yeah, I think his basic message is the human race is doomed. But that’s another conversation.
I don’t think …
A little bit. We just did an interview.
I think he’s kind of hopeful. Like I think he definitely is drawing attention to things that we should keep track of.
Yeah, especially Google owning all the AI.
I think we should be paying attention to AI, but I’m also working in a way with AI, you know, in that we’re building very simple reactive state machines that can affect behavior of something that’s synthetic and with this little enjoyable experience. So I think that there’s ... you know, it’s not going to not happen. It’s going to happen.
No, it’s just a question of who controls it.
And I’m happy that a guy like him is saying, “Hey, let’s keep an eye on this.” And hopefully I could help innovate with the entertainment side of things, and say, “Hey, let’s remember what’s important about story.” Story is about connecting us as people. Story is about passing wisdom on from one generation to the next. It’s about the humanity of this experience that we’re going through that seems very overwhelming.
And you can’t ... with your kids, you wish you could just tell them where all the blind alleys are and not to touch every stove, but they’re going to have to go through it themselves. And storytelling is a compression technology where we can take what we feel is important aspects of what life is about and we can make it entertaining enough for them to be getting some aspirin in the applesauce and enjoying the experience of being told the story because you’re entertaining them. But in fact you’re getting through to them on some subconscious level.
Yeah, I like your humanity argument. I do think we’re doomed, but I’m on the doomed thing. I think the robots are going to take us over.
Yes, I do, I’m sorry to tell you.
You talk to a lot of people so …
[laughs] I do. But I like self-driving cars. Anyway, very last question: If you could have anything invented — like you think of inventions throughout all your movies — what would you like invented? You obviously invented the jetpack for …
That’s a glorified jetpack essentially.
Boy, that’s such a good question, you want to give it a thoughtful answer, and nothing’s coming to my mind now. I guess because we were talking about biomed, I think technology associated with not just medical intervention but wellness in general. I think we could solve a lot of problems, both economic and just the hardship of what illness and not understanding ... not being in touch with what’s going on, with everybody in touch with their own bodies and what they can do to have greater quality of life. And just getting a feedback system that would offer a more accurate accounting of feedback on how your life patterns are affecting your life.
I like that answer. I always say time machine. I want a time machine.
Impossible. That one’s impossible.
It’s not impossible. Google’s making it right now.
You can go forward; you can’t go back.
We’ll see. Why don’t you do a movie about it?
I did. “Zathura” had it.
[laughs] I know.
You keep going back until you hit a reality where it’s never discovered and then you’re locked into that reality.
Oh my goodness. See, you are a nerd as it turns out! [JF laughs] Anyway, Jon, this has been fantastic and I really appreciate it.
Great talking to you.
This is Jon Favreau, the well-known Hollywood director, writer, actor, who is also a closet geek as it turns out. And he believes humanity will prevail. I do not. And we’ll see what happens.
We’ll see. Jon, thanks for coming by, it was great talking to you.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.