Actor and film-maker Jon Favreau dishes up a flick that is a big shift from his previous blockbusters. He chats to Dominic Corry.
Going by TimeOut's conversation with Iron Man director Jon Favreau, the horror of landing at Wellington Airport is on track to replace our beautiful landscape as The Thing Famous People Have Heard About New Zealand.
Even though he's never visited our fair shores, a crack about the capital's notoriously perilous landing strip is the first thing out of Favreau's mouth during a chat about his new film, Chef.
Favreau wrote, directed and stars in the delightful character-focused dramedy that couldn't be further away from his usual output, huge blockbusters such as Iron Man 1 and 2 and Cowboys & Aliens.
The new film represents a deliberate move away from big-budget studio films on the part of Favreau, whose dual career as and actor and film-maker began with the 1996 indie breakout hit Swingers, which he wrote and starred in.
"With big budget movies you're balancing so many things," Favreau tells TimeOut. "All the people involved; the special effects; studios who don't want to lose their money.
"I understand all that, but it's nice to work on a little one where I don't have to answer to anybody. There's a voice I have that sometimes slips through in movies like Elf or Iron Man. I was nervous that maybe I had lost that voice. And when the script [for Chef] popped into my head I felt like I was telling a story from my perspective - that of somebody who's now 47 years old; who has kids and a career; and who is trying to find a way to be creative while working under circumstances where other people are financing your dream."
In Chef, Favreau plays Carl Caspar, a former culinary wunderkind in a creative and personal rut after a blow-up with his restaurant's owner (Dustin Hoffman) and a food critic (Oliver Platt). In an attempt to rediscover his passion for food, Carl sets up a food truck with the help of his estranged young son.
It's difficult not to draw parallels between Carl's story and Favreau's own career, considering he chose to make Chef after 2011's poorly-received Cowboys & Aliens.
Does Favreau see it that way? "I don't know. I don't think I'm that guy. Just like with Swingers, it's an exaggeration - I'm not really like that person, but there's part of that guy in me and there's part of this guy in me, too.
"I'm still doing big movies. I get along good with the people who hire me. The critics are nice to me. I don't resent them. I think it's fun to read more into the film than is there. The important part is that I feel really personally connected to this one and I feel like I didn't compromise at all and I didn't have to justify everything I wanted to do. So it is like my food truck a little bit.
"You get small enough, you can cook whatever you want, and I could cook whatever I wanted on this one."
Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony and Sofia Vergara in a scene from Chef. Photo / AP
A passion for food comes through loud and clear in Chef - is that a passion Favreau has always felt?
"I love food. And you see it pop up in my movies in little ways. On a small movie it becomes about how you can make people feel excited and connected to a movie on a limited budget and schedule. When I see something in Jiro Dreams of Sushi or Eat Drink Man Woman, that's as captivating to me as a sequence in Gravity. Cooking somehow connects with people; it locks into their brains. It's extremely cinematic. It's beautiful. I don't know if it's the mirror neurons in people's brains, but you can get people to salivate and really feel like they're pining for food if you photograph it right."
Does Favreau recommend other blockbuster directors recharge their creative juices with a smaller movie like this?
"No, because everybody's different. Everybody has their version of it. Michael Bay does the Transformers movies, then he does Pain & Gain - that's what's exciting to him. I think it depends what's driving you. I've accomplished more than I ever thought I would and there's no big prize I'm lusting after.
"There are people that have seen my work and connect to it - to me that's the biggest thrill there is. And now with things like Twitter and Facebook, you really get to hear what people are thinking."
Being a successful blockbuster director also means Favreau has friends like Peter Jackson.
"That's part of what's nice about being in the club. We all get to meet each other, and the next thing you know we're on the phone and I know that he liked Iron Man and I love The Lord of the Rings and King Kong and The Hobbit." In Chef, siren Sofia Vergara (from Modern Family) plays Favreau's ex-wife, and Scarlett Johansson plays a recent flame. As our conversation ends, TimeOut asks Favreau to justify casting arguably two of the most beautiful actors in Hollywood as his current and former love interests.
"Well, you can't taste the movie. So the only way I could convince the audience that my food was really that good was to say that I cook well enough to make Scarlett Johansson attracted to me."