My dinner with Jon

Jon Favreau talks about "Dinner for Five," where Denis Leary eats with Famke Janssen, and Marilyn Manson terrorizes Daryl Hannah with stories about his amateur porn movies.

By Carina Chocano
Published April 18, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Jon Favreau is perhaps best known for writing and starring in the movie "Swingers," released in 1996. Since then, he's written, directed and acted in a number of films, including "Made" and "Love and Sex." On Monday, the Independent Film Channel premiered a new series created by Favreau called "Dinner for Five." Each week, Favreau invites four guests from the entertainment industry to have dinner with him at a Los Angeles restaurant. The meal is filmed in its entirety, then edited down to a half-hour episode. There are no topics prepared beforehand. Favreau says the idea is to make the stars feel comfortable, so that they don't feel like they're performing for an audience. Guests like Ileanna Douglas, Vince Vaughn, Cheri Oteri, Jeff Goldblum, Rod Steiger talk about what makes a good director, discuss doggie play-dates and consider the ideal suicide note. "Hopefully, it's a fly-on-the-wall experience," Favreau says. "Dinner for Five" can be seen on the Independent Film Channel Monday nights at 8 p.m. There is also a Web site. I talked with Favreau on the phone earlier this week.

How did you come up with the idea?

I just thought it would be really interesting. I thought about it years ago, and at first I wanted to put it on the Internet, to do live streaming. I thought it would be really cool for an emerging medium to have a show like this. But that didn't work out, because the minute I would talk to somebody and they would want to do it, that company would get bought by another company and I'd have to talk to somebody else. Then I did Ted Demme's show on IFC, called "Escape from Hollywood," which was a lot of fun. And I met some of the people who were producing that show and I presented my idea to them, and IFC said they'd give it a shot.

How do you go about matching to restaurants?

I don't really do a good job of that. For example, the Saddle Creek Lodge is all wild game -- with elk and boar and shit -- and I invited Sarah Silverman and I didn't know she was a vegetarian, so they had to find some vegetables in the garden for her. But more important is how you match guests with each other. I try to get people who I think would get along, because unlike, say, "Politically Incorrect," where you try to get people who are going to try to create controversy on the show, I try to get people who will get along and create a much smoother chemistry.

Will that get harder as it goes along -- to keep finding people? Or do you just know a million people?

I think it will get easier because people like the show and want to do the show. Then the trick becomes who knows each other. You go down people's résumés and talk to them and see who they would want to go on with and hang out with. Like we had Denis Leary and Famke Janssen, because I knew that Famke knew him. And we had Michael Rappaport and Saffron Burrows; they had worked together on "Deep Blue Sea." I try to find people who know each other because that's when the interesting stories come out, when two people are buddies. Ray Romano and Kevin James, Andy Dick and Marilyn Manson ...

As I understood the idea, people were going to get together to talk about mainly independent film. Was that the idea?

The idea didn't really come from independent film, and it wasn't created for the Independent Film Channel. It was an idea that I had, and then I thought it would be a good match. I mean, I come from independent film and I come from comedy. So the people that I know are primarily independent actors. About 90 percent of the people on the show are people that I knew or worked with.

So was part of the idea to provide some insight into the world of independent film?

It's not that noble an endeavor. It really was more of an experiment. As a filmmaker, it's interesting for me to see the raw footage of the whole evening and then see if I can edit it down to an entertaining half-hour through-line. Independent film doesn't need my help, and I have a real love-hate relationship with independent film. On the one hand, it gave me my start and most of my favorite movies are indies, but on the other hand there's a very snooty, exclusive sort of fraternity within the independent film community. My films tend to be a little more commercial in their sensibilities, so they aren't embraced by the community in the way that the more eccentric movies are.

I was curious about that. In the first episode, you said that you make most of your living from writing. I was wondering if you wrote for the studios, and then made an independent film whenever you wanted to make a film. Is there a split in your work life, between studio work and independent work?

There is. And I think that all the successful people do it. I mean, Mel Gibson will do personal films and then he'll do "Lethal Weapon 5." The irony is that you need the heat that comes from being associated with mainstream Hollywood to be able to get the small projects off the ground. It's a constant dance that you're doing.

What kind of studio work do you do?

Writing-wise, I'm working on a script for Imagine right now, for Universal ... I've worked on about 10 different scripts since "Swingers," or more. A lot of times they just want me to do a rewrite of an existing project, other times they want you to adapt a book, sometimes they just want you to do a little tweak. I also started directing TV pilots. I did a pilot for Judd Apatow, who did "Freaks and Geeks" and "Larry Sanders" and "Undeclared." I directed the last episode of "Undeclared," and now I just directed a pilot for him.

So do you just get to a point where you say, "OK, now I'm going to make my own movie"?

Yeah, it's a balance. But the thing is, I'm working on "Daredevil" now as an actor, and it's the biggest movie I've ever acted in. ["Daredevil," with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, is based on the classic comic book about a blind superhero.] It's really nice to be able to mix it up and move between both worlds. I also adapted a book called "The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest," about four years ago. It eventually got a director and it was completely rewritten from Page 1. And now it's a movie. I haven't seen it yet, but I know that I'm going to go into a movie theater and see a movie with my name on it that has absolutely no resemblance to what I wrote.

Is that good or bad?

Well, if it's a good movie ... No, it's good because it's nice to have your work come to the screen. But it's also frustrating as a writer because I know that my sensibilities are probably not represented in the final cut of the picture. So that makes you want to make your own movie, like "Made." But then "Made" was so hard. When you're overseeing everything -- from writing the first page of the script to seeing it through its release and the DVD ... I basically worked a year for 20 grand.

I only saw four episodes of "Dinner for Five," but some of the episodes seemed to come off more successfully than others. Is it hard to keep getting a good mix of people?

Well, it's asking a lot of people to sit through dinner for two hours, two-and-a-half hours, and go through makeup before that. And they are nervous, too. It's scary to do press, even though I assure them that I want to make them look good. I want them to feel completely comfortable with everything that hits the screen. If they say something they don't want in there, I cut it out.

Do you prepare topics beforehand?

No, no topics. I give everyone everyone else's résumé just to remind everybody what everyone has done. But there are no cards, no interviews, no pre-interviews, no research. It's the opposite of that. A lot of times on the show, I'll be like, "What was that movie you were on? What was the name of that thing? I saw it on cable." Because that's what a real dinner conversation is. I'm not here to be obsequious, and I'm not here to make people look bad, either. I'm just being one of the five guests. What's interesting, I think, is that we're creating a different dynamic in which to see people that you already know. It's the same reason that people like to see, you know, Heidi Fleiss boxing Paula Jones. They want to see people in a different atmosphere.

There's definitely an increasing interest in the behind-the-scenes lives of famous people.

People like reality. Now they don't have the patience for bad [fiction]. It's hard to get a sitcom off the ground now, because people have seen it all. People want to see "The Osbournes." So, even though the idea is completely different, it still appeals to people's curiosity. Because you're seeing famous people in a very candid way.

Have you ever done an episode where you just thought, "Oh, no"?

Yeah, the best one. The Rod Steiger one [with Sarah Silverman, Ron Livingston and Kevin Pollack], I thought "Oh, no." And that turned out to be one of my favorites. The most fun dinners are not necessarily the most fun to watch. As a matter of fact, the most fun ones tend to be the least interesting. That isn't to say that I want to try and create that. But when I'm eating, I don't know how it's going to turn out. I'm getting better at it, though. I didn't know what the hell I was doing at first. I still don't. But it's sort of like when you're directing a movie. You have half of your brain in the scene, and the other half in the editing room.

The dinner with Marilyn Manson, Andy Dick and Daryl Hannah ...

That was also fucking scary.

Marilyn Manson and Andy Dick kept taking the conversation places Daryl Hannah didn't seem to want to go ... [Throughout the dinner, Manson and Dick mostly kept to subjects like masturbation, porn and an amateur porn movie Manson had made called "Groupie."]

Yeah, but afterward, they all exchanged numbers. And when I worked with her afterward on "The Big Empty," she was like, "We have to go to [Manson's] house and see that movie!" But I was worried for her.

Are you finding yourself doing a lot of damage control?

Sometimes, if people don't get along right off the bat. In one dinner, someone said "fuck you" to somebody else, I won't say who. But they had just met each other. They were both good friends of mine, though. And by the end of the dinner they were exchanging numbers, the best of friends.

Are you a relaxed person, in general, or do you panic sometimes when it's not going well?

I'm relaxed now. I mean, believe me, I get neurotic about things. But now that I'm 35 and have a kid, nothing is as important as what I have going on at home.

Do you learn a lot about people by the way they act in restaurants, what they eat, what they don't eat, how they treat waiters?

Yeah, I mean, it defines people. There are a lot of social and cultural aspects to food, and Hollywood really inherits a lot of that, New York, too. New York was a great place to shoot, because there's such a tradition of meeting at restaurants, and to bond socially. It's a great way to free people up and see a side of them you wouldn't normally see.

Who got the most drunk?

I got pretty drunk during the first one that we shot last year with Peter Berg and Jeanne Tripplehorn. I drank a little more than I should have. And I start sweating when I drink, so it was awful because we don't cut or anything, we just shoot. So, I'm mopping my brow with my napkin, hoping I'm not too much of a mess. And of course, I'm in no position to help facilitate the conversation. Now I stick to wine.

Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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