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'Chef' Hits Netflix: Favreau's Indie Road Movie is Food Porn

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 29, 2015 at 5:39PM

"I shoot food like Michael Bay shoots babes in bikinis," writer-director Jon Favreau told me at SXSW, where he debuted his scruffy indie crowdpleaser "Chef" ahead of its long and successful run in theaters ($31 million domestic) via Open Road.
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'Chef'
'Chef'

Now the family comedy about food starring Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo and Dustin Hoffman is heading for Netflix.  (Here's our review and roundup.)

Favreau is a huggable bear of man who wears his insecurities on his sleeve, so it makes sense that his return to indie filmmaking, "Chef," shows the same qualities. An eight-page outline came to the writer-director in a flash. He showed it to his friends and they encouraged him to write a full script, which he then enlisted his agency CAA to help finance. Many of his "Iron Man" pals--Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson have small roles--helped him out for SAG minimum, along with ace comedic actors Hoffman, Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Oliver Platt. "Nobody got paid anything," said Favreau at the SXSW Paramount opening night premiere. "This felt like it wanted to happen. Every once in a while it clicks." 

Born in Queens, Favreau started out making his living as a funny character actor and occasional screenwriter and director — which turned out to be his forte, from family flick “Zathura" and Christmas comedy "Elf" to the "Iron Man" movies. "Cowboys & Aliens," however, was a misguided western/sci-fi hybrid that even Favreau could not pull off. 

Favreau, 47, made his mark in 1996 as the writer and co-star, with pal Vince Vaughn, of Doug Liman’s hipster hit “Swingers.” Off that, Favreau scored more acting gigs (“Deep Impact,” TV’s “Rocky Marciano”), directed TV movies (“Smog,” “Life on Parole”) and produced and hosted the IFC celebrity talk show “Table for Five.” He also wrote and directed his first indie feature, the 2001 gangster comedy “Made,” co-starring Vaughn, which landed him a gig directing New Line Cinema’s 2003 holiday comedy “Elf.” The $33 million movie was another surprise smash, grossed $173 million and launched Will Ferrell’s career as a comedy star.

“Elf” also established Favreau as a seriously gifted director. But he knew that to make the best of his move from the indie minors to the big show, he must choose wisely. For a time, acting took a back seat to directing, though Favreau did agree to co-star in Vaughn’s production “The Break-Up,” and plays a supporting role in the "Iron Man" series as Tony Stark's bodyguard.  He likes being on control, you see. And to his agency’s chagrin, Favreau turned down a tall stack of comedy scripts. 

Sticking to his beloved sci-fi fantasy universe worked out for director Favreau--except for "Cowboys & Aliens." But clearly, directing high-stakes big-budget tentpoles has taken its toll on the man. Before heading back to that universe with Warner Bros.' "The Jungle Book," based on Rudyard Kipling's wonderful Indian stories (about Mowgli the human wolf cub, Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear, and the dangerous tiger Shere Khan), he indulged himself with a feel-good low-budget comedy that mixed his food obsessions with his conflicts about parenting. 

Much like James L. Brooks' "Spanglish" or Pixar's "Ratatouille," Favreau throws his issues with critics, career insecurity, his weight, social media, and parenting into a messy road movie with his 10-year-old son. Ironically, while his Luddite chef Carl Casper gets into trouble on the internet --this movie plays like a product placement for Twitter--Favreau is an ace tweeter with 1.66 million followers.

Also helping on the film was Koreatown chef and Anthony Bourdain fave Roy Choi, who consulted on how to make authentic this world of grilled cheese and sausage sandwiches and gourmet food trucks. Choi told me that most movies make kitchens look "too pretty. You don't have bell peppers stacked in pyramids. We wanted to show real life, down and dirty, plastic deli containers."

I recommend seeing the movie on a full stomach--Favreau admitted to using "Eat Drink Man Woman" as a model for how to make audiences salivate. 

Jon Favreau's 'Chef'
Jon Favreau's 'Chef'


This article is related to: Chef, Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.