There is only one reason Jon Favreau’s new film is called Made. Not too long ago, his old friend and co-star Vince Vaughn called him up and told him, in no uncertain terms, “You gotta write something that can get made.” It was less a demand than it was a plea. Five years ago, Vaughn and Favreau had starred together in Swingers, a film soaked in martini-glass cool and decked out in zoot-suit style. Favreau wrote the movie, which made the two hot properties in a cool town. They had it made, they made good, they were made men. But somewhere between first-class airline trips and limo rides to and from four-star hotels, their baggage got a little lost.
Vaughn would go on to appear in a blockbuster in which he was so much scenery to be chewed upon (1997’s Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World) and a handful of misguided, mishandled projects, including Gus Van Sant’s Psycho redo. Favreau, too, had gone from pop-culture touchstone to killing time standing next to Gene Hackman’s double on the set of The Replacements, a movie so disposable it was filmed on Charmin. Worse, he watched as all of his other dream projects began to collapse around him: TV pilots were made and scrapped, scripts were written and dispensed with, deals were brokered and betrayed. The fairy tale had become a cautionary tale. And so Vince called Jon and said, Write something that can get made.
And he did, and it did: Made, which opens nationally this week after celebrated limited runs in Los Angeles and New York, is only a mobster movie on the surface. One could easily take its tale–about two L.A. gangster wannabes (Favreau and Vaughn) getting their first taste of the thug life during a get-the-money-and-run trip to Manhattan–at face value, but that would miss the film’s real moral. It’s less a picture about living the dream than it is about surviving the nightmare that is Hollywood. Replace crime bosses (in this case, played by Peter Falk and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs) with studio execs, crime syndicates with distributors, and Made is the quintessential second film–a parable of sudden success and its inherent, inevitable disasters.
“The bottom line is you gotta write what you know, especially me,” Favreau says. “I have to incorporate experiences from my life, especially if I’m gonna work with Vince, because I want to try and preserve that chemistry. So a lot of times I’ll play up aspects of things we’ve been through together to set a tone for scenes we’re in. It worked really effectively in Swingers, and in this one, I was able to capture a lot of moments that Vince and I had spent since we sorta became kinda made or entry-level mob guys in the mob of Hollywood.
“Like, in Made, when we’re on the airplane for the first time in first class or in the classy hotel, those were definitely inspired by moments where we first were being wined and dined as part of the Hollywood system in the wake of Swingers. And the people we came across were sorta metaphorical for the types of charming, paternal people who turn out to have sort of ulterior motives. But you can’t make the movie about Hollywood. People just aren’t interested, so you transpose it to the mob genre, which is more accessible–and a genre I love, as well.”
A decade ago, Favreau had a map he planned to follow as diligently and as deliberately as any man taking his family on a cross-country summer vacation. He would begin in his hometown of Queens, New York, and set out for Chicago; his destination was the Second City comedy troupe, which birthed the careers of Bill Murray, John Candy, Eugene Levy and so many others who shot to stardom on launching pads marked Saturday Night Live and SCTV. Favreau wasn’t asking much–maybe a shot at the Second City touring company, then a move to the main stage after paying his dues with chump change. From there, he would move back to SNL, which would give him a shot at a TV series or a bit part in a movie. Then, he figured, he’d try making his own small movies–do his “Woody Allen experience,” he likes to say, in deference to one of his role models.
But somewhere between plotting his ascension and executing his diagram, things got a bit off track–for the worse, for the better. The Second City thing stalled out early. He got on the waiting list, where burgeoning careers idle till they run out of gas. He got good TV gigs, on Seinfeld and Friends, then was hired to play D-Bob in 1993’s feel-good college-football drama Rudy. Favreau, in an instant, had skipped all of those inevitable steps to failure and fame: He was 27 years old, and though he had a working-class face and a cookie-dough body, he was an actor. He would indeed spend a few years in Second City, but he could no more get the taste of celluloid out of his mouth than if he’d eaten an entire reel of film. He’d make his stinker, stupid comedy–1994’s PCU, a dorm-room yucker without the yucks–but he got to Los Angeles taking nothing but shortcuts. Two years later, with his piece of jumpin’ jive called Swingers, the dude was money.
“After writing Swingers, I ended up where I thought I’d have to work a whole career to get to,” Favreau says, without a trace of braggadocio. “And it was like, ‘Where do you wanna go from here now?'”
But success, for some, is as fleeting as the common cold or the high school girlfriend. You go from nobody to household name to direct-to-video has-been in the time it takes to drive to LAX and catch a plane back home. After Swingers, Favreau found himself with two options: He could parlay his cult-and-then-some status into a career as an actor, as Vaughn had, or he could become a writer who took occasional acting gigs to pay the rent. He chose the latter, so his filmography isn’t terribly cluttered: He played 12th fiddle to the asteroid in Deep Impact, starred in Peter Berg’s dark bachelor-party debacle Very Bad Things, tightened up to play Rocky Marciano for cable and marked time in a few indies, among them the prescient and funny, if familiar, Love & Sex. Then came The Replacements, a film he now says “I had no business doing.” It was an excruciating experience, he says of making the Warner Bros. film, but if nothing else, it proved to him how little interest he had in working with the major studios.
“I wanted to do it because it was fun, and then the reality of it was so painful,” he says. “Dealing with the politics of being an Indian on a big studio film just wore me down. It took a lot of time out of my life.”
So, too, have all the projects Favreau has been involved in that you will never see. He has written and directed three discarded TV pilots. One, an hour-long drama-comedy Good Cop, Bad Cop, was about two police officers who, among them, have lost 11 partners in the line of duty. “No matter how much they say they’re along for the ride, when push comes to shove,” Favreau says of his experience dealing with the networks, “TV studios and TV networks are very frightened.” He has also penned a number of rejected screenplays, chief among them the script that was to be his follow-up to Swingers: The Marshal of Revelation, a Western about a gunslinger who happens to be a Hasidic Jew. Artisan, which is distributing Made, was to have financed the movie, but it backed out when it had trouble getting commitments from overseas distributors, who loathe Westerns.
He was then hired to adapt Po Bronson’s 1997 set-in-Silicon-Valley novel The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest for 20th Century Fox. Though his name remains on the film, which will be released next year, it bears little resemblance to his first draft, which was rewritten when director Mick Jackson brought in his own people. “It could have been a nicer situation,” Favreau says, “but ultimately the director comes along, he has a vision and a writer, and that’s just part of it. A golfer’s gonna bring his caddy with him.”
There are a handful of other films to which his name has been attached (with worn-out Velcro), including one he wrote for Kevin James and Ray Romano–the kings of CBS–called Bridge & Tunnel. But the one that really irritates him is Guam Goes to the Moon, about an astronaut hired by Guam for an outer-space flight. It’s “one of those projects that really is a microcosm for the industry,” Favreau says, explaining that every filmmaker standing anywhere near the Paramount lot gets asked to come in and rewrite the damned thing. His is but one of a dozen names attached to the film, along with men who’ve written the likes of The Family Man, Evolution, American Pie and Happy, Texas.
Swingers was the movie Favreau got for free–the first-timer, striking gold without ever breaking a sweat. Everything since then has come with its own cost. Imagine what it would be like to work for years and have nothing to show for it. Imagine the bitterness, the regret, the emptiness. Favreau, perhaps flush with the success of Made as it rolls across the country, insists he harbors none of those things. He says he is content with his dealings with the studios; he says he is happier than he’s ever been. So what if he’s written scripts in invisible ink and gotten paid well for his time? So what if he shot TV pilots on someone else’s dime? There are worse ways to spend five years.
“See, if I had taken what the world was ready to give me, I could be very, very wealthy right now,” Favreau says. “I could have a lot of power right now. I could have had three shows on the air, if I had made certain changes to them. But it’s human nature, especially for somebody like me, who’s overcome a lot of odds and had to fight hard to get to where I’m at, to want to push it a little further than what comes easily. The good news is I’m not living in a one-room apartment, like in Swingers, anymore.
“I have a wife, I have a kid on the way, we have two cars in the driveway–two new cars leased–and everything I could ever hope for is paid for. Everything else from now on is security and numbers in a bank book, and so I would rather take my chances and not have it come through half the time, knowing that I’m really pushing it as far as I can, as opposed to being complacent and making sequels to the films I did before and taking roles that are paying me the most. Man, I’m still sowing seeds.”