The future of filmmaking is unfolding in a drab office park near a Whole Foods in Playa Vista. It's where Jon Favreau assembled this summer's $1.5 billion-grossing The Lion King using a gaming engine and a warehouse of cutting-edge artists and technicians, and it's where the actor-writer-director-producer is sketching out season two of The Mandalorian, a Star Wars TV series set to debut Nov. 12 on the new Disney+ streaming service (and to be teased with a trailer at the D23 conference Aug. 23). Favreau, 52, invited Hollywood Reporter editorial director Matthew Belloni to a conference room lined with pictures of Tatooine's finest to talk about his crazy summer (in addition to Lion King, he co-starred in the $1 billion-grossing Spider-Man: Far From Home and dropped The Chef Show on Netflix) and to unveil his new endeavor, Golem Creations, named for the man-made creature from folklore that represents an artistic creation brought to life by magic. It's a logical next step for a multihyphenate who, since writing and starring in Swingers in 1996, has carved out a unique (and lucrative) niche combining his passions for storytelling and technology, launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the tech-heavy Iron Man and developing immersive video walls to use with live actors on Mandalorian.
A married father of three teens (wife Joya is a physician), Favreau lives on L.A.'s Westside and says he's still interested in acting, but he's plenty busy making an Apple docuseries featuring photo-realistic dinosaurs, the VR experience Gnomes + Goblins as well as a stop-motion animation special for Netflix called Alien Xmas. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Let's start with is the focus of the new venture. What's Golem Creations?
Favreau: My fascination is with where technology and storytelling overlap. Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Walt Disney, Jim Cameron. It comes from the tradition of stage magic. When you have a tech breakthrough like Star Wars, like Avatar, like Jurassic Park, people's minds go into a fugue state where they just accept this illusion as reality. What's also enjoyable about it for me is that you're not being tricked by it, you're complicit in that you are agreeing to suspend your disbelief if the spectacle is sufficiently enjoyable. That's why Star Wars is so enduring and why we're surrounded [here] by artwork for Star Wars, why that's a world I want to play in because it's tech and myth coming together in a perfect way.
So what are your next steps?
A lot of it is focusing on the opportunities that new production technologies have to offer, and then also what technology offers in the form of platforms, distribution. It could be anything from The Mandalorian, where we're using game engine technology, virtual camera work and virtual production that we developed on Lion King, applying those learnings to designing a project where you could use virtual sets and virtual set extensions using real-time rendering, which is something that people talk about but we're the first people to actually apply it to a production. Getting that thing on its feet, from an idea through the screaming toddler phase into a place where you can actually have a responsible production that delivers quality is a very interesting part of the learning curve, so that's something that I'm fascinated with.
There will be people who hear "digital production" on The Mandalorian and think "Great, we saw digital production on the Star Wars prequels and it didn't look very good." How is this different?
Well, I would argue that the prequels are — and [George] Lucas in general is — the bedrock that all of this is built on. He is the first person that had digital photography, he was the first person to do completely CG characters. The whole notion of not having even a print [version of the film], of having everything be 0's and 1's, was all George. Not to mention EditDroid, which turned into Avid, Pixar was spawned out of their laboratories at LucasFilm, so he is arguably the center of the Big Bang for everything that I'm doing. It's building on the shoulders of what he was able to innovate.
So the answer is this is 20 years later than the prequels?
This is 20 years later, and also there's been a democratization of the skill set too. It's no longer a few vendors innovating in ivory towers, that information has been expanded and disseminated and democratized so that effects that would cost you millions of dollars, you can do it on a PC now, with consumer-facing filmmaking tools. When George came to our set and visited The Mandalorian, he said, "Oh, we did this," and what he meant was, “We had green screen and we were building small sets and expanding upon it.” Now, we have video walls, NVIDIA video cards that allow a refresh rate that allows you to do in-camera effects, we're in there taking advantage of the cutting-edge stuff.
You showed me some of the video wall work, and my first thought was, "Why the hell does J.J. Abrams go to Jordan?"
Every film is a puzzle, and there's a freedom that you have as a storyteller if you go to the real environment; it affects you and the human element. When you see Lawrence of Arabia, how much of that is informed by really being there and not shooting it in Calabasas — I think you get a different movie. The way I work and the stories I'm telling are geared specifically toward what this technology has to offer, so I could not make Episode IX using these tools. If you notice, there's a certain look that the Mandalorean lead character has, there's a size that the spaceship is, there's a scale that lines up with the original trilogy. I'm trying to evoke the aesthetics of not just the original trilogy but the first film. Not just the first film but the first act of the first film. What was it like on Tatooine? What was going on in that cantina? That has fascinated me since I was a child, and I love the idea of the darker, freakier side of Star Wars, the Mad Max aspect of Star Wars.
People might assume that Disney asked you to figure out what Star Wars looks like on TV, but the opposite is true: You came to them, right?
I wrote four of the episodes before I even had a deal, because I wanted to do this but only if they wanted to do the version that I wanted to do.
And by that you mean using the technology that you've been developing and doing it on the scale that you're comfortable with?
I had been thinking about Star Wars since Disney acquired Star Wars. When I was working on Lion King, it was a full-time job for a few of the years, but there was a lot of time when I just had to be available for three very focused hours a day. The TV model allowed me to be an executive producer [on Mandalorian], which allowed me to, on my own time, write everything. It's a lot like being a chef. You write the menu, you staff up with people who are great at what they do, you oversee and help guide the people who are actually cooking the food, working the line, and then at the end, you plate.
So that's why you didn't direct the episodes?
That's why it worked well for Disney. Plus, Disney+ is emerging and there's an opportunity to tell a story that's bigger than television, but you don't have the same expectations that a big holiday release has, which to me isn't that type of Star Wars that comes out of me. The type of Star Wars that I'm inspired to tell is a smaller thing with new characters.
But Bob Iger says Disney+ is the future of the company. So there is some pressure on this anchor show.
That's why he's good at what he does. But this feels to me like when we made Iron Man. It didn't feel like the future of Marvel was resting on it, [even though] the future of Marvel was resting on it because if we failed they would have lost their characters that were collateral.
How do you think the current entertainment ecosystem is positioned in a competitive landscape that includes Facebook, Fortnite and all the others battling for attention?
We have to be very keyed into what people really want. My company is called Golem Creations because the Golem could be used to protect the village or you could lose control and it rampages. Technology is that way. You have to make sure that you know why and how you are engaging technology. Are you using it just to grow or are you using it to engage people in a way that is pleasing to them? Are you giving them agency over how it’s being used? Are you being transparent about how they're engaging with the technology? I think these are the questions of our age.
The digital footage that you just showed me is so realistic, if I were an actor that would scare the crap out of me. You’re an actor …
I am. Either you have an animator making choices or you have an actor making choices, but it is a human being; it is not a computer. Lion King is the most handmade film I've ever done. There are thousands of hours of human attention being dedicated to every shot of that film.
But the stars, Beyoncé and Donald Glover, met each other at the premiere.
Right. But Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen were in my editing room and on that stage for dozens of hours working on every scene with me. It allows people to engage. It allows Donald Glover to work with Beyoncé in a way where Donald Glover is in London working on Solo and Beyoncé is having twins. They would have not been able to participate in this film had it not been for this technology. However, if you wanted to take this and push people out of the equation, technology can always be used to do that. So when does technology end up enriching the human experience and when does it end up isolating us or replacing us? That's why I want to be in the middle of this conversation.
Do you think a movie like your 2014 hit Chef would debut in theaters today?
No, I wouldn't have done it that way.
But the independent film world launched your career.
It did change things for me. Getting a check for a few hundred thousand dollars on the backend of the sale of Swingers changed my life in a way that money no longer represented something. Once you relieve people of that debt and preoccupation, it allows you to engage creatively on such a more meaningful level.
Do you think companies like Disney are getting too big and too powerful?
Compared to who, Amazon?
Compared to where it was 10, 15 years ago. There's leverage and a balance of power that impacts creative people.
I know that I have the ability to work with Disney and I have a great time in that partnership. But also there are new people who are financing things. I couldn't make a documentary with Apple 10 years ago. I couldn't do a cooking show as director and on-camera talent for Netflix. Even talking to [an outlet] like Quibi about doing short-form stop motion, working with Netflix on a stop-motion Christmas special. I've been trying to work with these guys the Chiodo brothers, who did the stop-motion on Elf, it took over 15 years, only because the business model changed. Yes, it's the consolidation — certainly of IP — with Disney, but Disney is finding themselves in a position where they have to be competitive with companies that are playing by a different set of rules in the financial space because they're tech companies and growth companies.
What in your observation is the view of Hollywood from the Silicon Valley community?
I think they look at Hollywood as having a tremendous amount of potential because we have developed slowly. It's like a slow-growth forest. There's a relationship that the audience has with it and there's wonderful branding because we associate these great memories and great movies with filmmakers, studios and stories. But I think the technology companies are always looking for ways to build a better mousetrap. It's almost like the intercontinental railroad coming from each coast and meeting in the middle. You have people like Bob Iger and [Disney direct-to-consumer and international chair] Kevin Mayer, who are studying the tech space and trying to pivot a very large company into a direction where it's competitive, relevant and flourishing in this new environment. At the same time, you have companies like Amazon and Apple moving toward what Hollywood's doing. Ted Sarandos and Netflix are interesting because I knew him for a very long time — I think I was involved with the first original production. I think we did an episode of [2000s chat show] Dinner for Five on DVD. It was the first thing they financed. He always had one foot in each community. I think both are wary of each other. As we all come together, that's why there's a lot of uncertainty, because we're establishing a new culture that incorporates aspects of both.
Do you think Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are in premium content for the long haul or is this a fad?
Telling people stories that they love is the best way and the most organic way to engage with an audience and have an attention transaction. If Amazon does a wonderful job building Lord of the Rings, and they make a commitment and build a story in a way that delights their audience, there will be a very genuine transaction where people will willfully rush home, sit, watch it when it first posts, and then chat about it online.
And buy more products on Amazon.
That's the way that Amazon monetizes. By the way, it's a very sincere, upfront way to monetize.
But premium content is really hard. Do you think these companies know that?
They're learning that. Because there's no guarantee. If there were a formula, the studios would get it right every time.
Explain how the Apple dinosaur documentary Prehistoric Planet will work.
We've been collaborating with BBC and the people that brought us Planet Earth, working to show documentaries that you would be able to film if you were able to travel in time, but present it as though you were seeing it alongside anything that would be filmed today. Technology is really at the point where you can fool people into believing that they're looking at something that was photographed even though it's generated by computers.
Will Disney submit Lion King in live action or animation for awards consideration?
Technically, it qualifies for both, but I don't think the technical aspect is what's interesting here. What's interesting is how people are interpreting what they're looking at. We've hit a level of photorealism. You're a journalist, you're more qualified to say what it is or what it should be.
The animals sing and dance. I think it’s clearly an animated film.
My perspective as a filmmaker is that I love that this conversation's even happening because it means people care.
Is there a character or project that could lure you back to direct for Marvel?
I'm talking to them because I'm very close friends with all of them. It’s been a really interesting experience being involved with Lion King and being involved with Endgame. Because with Lion King we were taking this technology that is only available now and applying it to one of the great myths. At the same time, we see Tony Stark, who starts off as a very flawed character — using technology, by the way, from the first Iron Man to the 23rd film with Thanos. Developing a character over 23 films, supported by Robert Downey's performance, Gwyneth Paltrow's relationship to him and performance, from the first moment you see them onscreen to the last moment you see them together, you develop such an emotional connection to that character. Going from selfishness to selflessness — the perfect model myth — and that paying off over how many hours of film? I feel like I've seen that video game solved perfectly. So to jump back into the big screen right now, by being involved with both of those projects, I went through that journey.
But are you going to continue to appear as an actor?
Oh sure, I love doing that. And I learn because I get to be on other peoples' sets. When I get to see the Russo brothers direct, it's great. When I get to be on Jon Watts' set for Spider-Man, I had more fun in his last Spider-Man than in any movie role I can remember.
You and Downey have been in it since the beginning. Have you talked to him about his post-Marvel life? What is he thinking?
I don't know what he's thinking, but he better direct. Otherwise, I'm not going to be his friend anymore. He's the star of the biggest movie of all time. He did it. So now, you better do stuff you love. Because if you can't do what you love, how are you going to inspire everybody else out there who's climbing that ladder? He has a lot of passion. He's an artist: He understands visual art, he understands music. I think he would be a hell of a director. I hope I get to have a part if he ever decides to direct because I want to show him what it felt like when I was directing him. I want to give him the other side of that equation.
Tell us something about Elon Musk that we don't know.
I met him when I was making Iron Man. He's in Iron Man 2. He let us shoot at SpaceX for free, long before any rockets launched, so [Iron Man 2 villain] Justin Hammer's worksite is SpaceX. He understands how much impact he has on the path to the future. He understands storytelling, whether it's in how he makes presentations or what he gravitates toward. When he wants to explain things, it's often by referencing something that has appeared in fiction. Whether you're making movies or whether you're selling an idea of the future, the best way to demonstrate it for the most people to understand it is through a good fable, a good story. That's why Steve Jobs was a great storyteller. He told you the story of the iPhone, he didn't just give you the iPhone. Remember, the iPhone never had an instruction manual. The flip phone would have never existed had it not been for Star Trek. The engineer who developed that saw it in Star Trek and said, "How can I build this?" After Iron Man, I went down to SpaceX, and if you remember when Robert Downey is designing the Iron Man suit, he sticks his arm into a hologram and moves it around. [Musk] had his people build that 3D printing system based on manipulating holograms because he saw that in the movie.
You're now a food celebrity, so people must approach you to open restaurants all the time.
I will open a restaurant.
Why don't you already have a restaurant?
Because I have to talk Roy Choi into it and he's too pragmatic. But you will see a restaurant at some point from me. Restaurants are great, but even when they're hugely successful, what do the chefs end up doing? They go into either merchandising or they become TV personalities. That's how you monetize being a great chef. You don't make the French Laundry twice as big; that's not how you scale. I draw inspiration from that. I want [my production company to be] an eight-seat ramen bar where I'm there behind the counter. I don't scale well.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.