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Those who come to Jon Favreau‘s film Chef in search of food porn will not leave disappointed — the only grumbling at the crowd-pleasing comedy’s South by Southwest premiere came from the audience’s stomachs. But they might also be surprised that another of Favreau’s passions — Twitter — gets nearly as much screen time as shots of oozy grilled cheeses and caramelized pork bellies do.
An early and savvy adopter of the social media platform (which, appropriately enough, was introduced at the 2007 SXSW Interactive), the director’s account currently boasts 1.66 million followers, a fanboy army he’s whipped into a frenzy ahead of each Iron Man movie debut. So as Favreau wrote the story of Carl Casper — a Los Angeles chef and semi-deadbeat dad whose feud with a food critic (Oliver Platt) leads him to quit a stable restaurant job in order to sell Cubano sandwiches from a food truck — he found himself returning again and again to those 140-character exchanges. Bytes about bites.
“I didn’t think social media would be part of it, but kind of like how in Swingers the answering machine became part of the language, just because that was our lives, this is what our lives are now,” Favreau, 47, said during a question-and-answer session following the premiere. He was referring to a scene in the 1996 comedy in which his character leaves a series of increasingly cringe-worthy messages on the answering machine of a woman he meets in a bar.
Today, the equivalent of that kind of social faux pas is the dreaded Twitter meltdown. So when Carl loses his cool over a scathing review that “goes viral” (shades of the New York Times‘ review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant), he trash-talks the critic on Twitter, leading to a very public confrontation, which too goes viral. But where Twitter can destroy careers it can also re-launch them, and so, with the help of his social-media-savvy son, Carl soon harnesses the power of Twitter to turn his pressed sandwiches into a nationwide phenomenon.
Q&A: Jon Favreau Says ‘Chef’ Marks Return to ‘Swingers’-Style Filmmaking
To make all this thumb-typing a little more visually stimulating, Favreau devised a visual cue for each time a character tweets. “I got some effects chops from my day job,” he said, referring to his work on CGI-heavy blockbusters. “So I was able to do some fun things with it graphically to encapsulate what it really feels like.” The solution: An animated Twitter field pops up above a character as they consider a tweet, kind of like a thought bubble. When they decide to send it, the company’s bird logo flies off the screen, accompanied by a birdlike whistling sound — a literal tweet.
As word of the sandwich truck spreads and long lines begin to form, Twitter thought bubbles cluster everywhere, little bird logos flying off in all directions; not since Disney’s Song of the South have flesh-and-blood actors been forced to share the screen with this many animated critters. There’s also a scene in which Carl’s son teaches him what Vine is — the Twitter-owned micro-video platform. Facebook, by comparison, appears only briefly in a few shots of the food truck’s home page.
Contrary to how it might look, however, Twitter paid nothing to appear in the film. Favreau told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s afterparty — where guests snacked on, what else, Cubano sandwiches and listened to Gary Clark Jr. perform (the bluesman has a cameo in one Austin-set scene) — that the company requested only that some tweaks be made to the look of the animated logo before signing off on use of its product. Similar approval was offered by Apple, whose devices are used throughout the film.
“We were approached for a lot of product placement,” says Favreau. “We turned them all down except one.” The product? King’s Hawaiian Sweet Rolls, which gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention during a dialogue exchange.
For Favreau, it’s just about telling a story that feels like it’s set in 2014. “It’s amazing to me how audiences now think in social media terms and they get jokes a lot faster than I thought that they would,” he told the crowd earlier. “It really was just a storytelling tool that made it feel of today, which I’m particularly pleased with.”
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