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On Movies: Favreau swings a small-scale film with big-name cast

Jon Favreau isn't that different from this Carl Casper guy he plays in Chef. Both started off hungry, working fast and cheap, improvising, innovating.

In "Chef," actor-director Jon Favreau (with Emjay Anthony, left, and Sofia Vergara) gets back to filmmaking basics. (Merrick Morton)
In "Chef," actor-director Jon Favreau (with Emjay Anthony, left, and Sofia Vergara) gets back to filmmaking basics. (Merrick Morton)Read more

Jon Favreau isn't that different from this Carl Casper guy he plays in Chef. Both started off hungry, working fast and cheap, improvising, innovating.

Favreau wrote and costarred in Swingers, the 1996 indie about a gang of struggling actor dudes in Los Angeles - at the time, he and his costars (Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston) were struggling actor dudes. They shot on the run, in friends' apartments, in clubs.

"Keep a low profile and inherit the reality of the world," Favreau says. That's how they did it.

But post-Swingers, Favreau's career rocketed. He turned to directing, steering Will Ferrell through the Yuletide hit Elf and reviving Robert Downey Jr.'s career with Iron Man and Iron Man 2. Favreau also has executive producer credits on Iron Man 3 and The Avengers.

Then - inspired by Roy Choi, the So-Cal chef famous for his Kogi BBQ Taco Truck - Favreau had the idea for Chef. No studio mega-budget. No special effects. No nine-month shooting schedule. He was going to do it "Swingers-style."

As for the titular chef Carl, Favreau's character likewise started off small, but now runs one of the busiest eateries on L.A.'s west side. When he starts a Twitter war with a food critic (Oliver Platt) who slammed his cuisine, Carl's world comes crashing down. He quits the restaurant, takes his son (Emjay Anthony) to Miami, and gets a food truck. A road movie, and some cool reggae and roots music, ensue. Chef opens in theaters Friday.

"I was a little nervous going in, wondering if I still had the chops," Favreau confessed on the phone from Los Angeles. "Because, you know, you get older, you get comfortable. In that way, the metaphor is similar - you get used to working at a very successful restaurant with a big staff and lots of resources, and you wonder can you go back and do it on your own? On a small scale?

"So, it's been a very exciting process. Not just making Chef, but seeing how it's received. . . . I feel like I'm putting something unique out there in a climate where it's hard to get small movies like this made."

Favreau called in favors. His pal Downey has a role. Scarlett Johansson plays the restaurant's maitre d'. Sofia Vergara is Carl's ex. Dustin Hoffman throws a hissy fit or two as the restaurant owner, Carl's boss.

"Well, Robert and I worked on a movie called Iron Man," Favreau said, deadpan, by way of explaining his casting coups. "And Scarlett, a movie called Iron Man 2."

Vergara, on the other hand, was "a meeting." He met her for lunch.

"I was very happy to see that she was not afraid to eat. Often times, beautiful women don't - they are not public eaters. And she was somebody who really seemed to enjoy ordering and eating food. That was a good sign, and she was really the only person I could picture for that role. I was counting on her wanting to work for not a lot of money. And she did."

John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale play Carl's kitchen compadres.

"Leguizamo I kind of knew . . . and I thought he would be amazing for this part. Bobby Cannavale I've been wanting to work with, and I wanted a definite Latino flavor to the film, because that's what the food world is - food culture is Latino culture."

As for food movies - and Chef is one, with shop-and-prep-and-chop-and-cook montages galore - Favreau did his homework. His faves?

Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman is up there. "Especially the opening sequence - we definitely referenced that as we were looking at our tight knife work."

The 2013 doc Jiro Dreams of Sushi is another. "It did a really great job of having you appreciate what each dish meant."

Another: the 2001 German rom-com about a headstrong chef, Mostly Martha.

"You have to realize," Favreau said, "that most movies about kitchens and chefs, the real chefs don't think much of. But there are a few that they really like. Ratatouille they like a lot. Tampopo. Babette's Feast. Big Night. Those are some of the winners."

Knight moves. Locke, which opened Friday at the Ritz East, stars Tom Hardy as a steady-as-he-goes construction manager driving his car from Birmingham to London, taking and making a succession of calls. It was shot in 10 days along the English motorways. The actor is talking on a Bluetooth - to castmates stationed in a hotel conference room, far away. The audience gets to watch, close-up and very personal, as a man's whole world blows apart.

"Actually, we shot it in 10 nights," said Steven Knight, who wrote and directed Locke and persuaded Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Lawless, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) to star.

"Each night we would shoot the whole thing beginning to end, and then we would attempt to do it a second time in the same night. . . . We didn't always get two complete goes, but at the end of the whole process, we had 16 versions of the film."

Knight culled the best moments - "the 2 o'clock in the morning dead-tired and brilliant moments" - and pieced them all together. Locke, then, unfolds in real time, or what seems like real time.

Because there's no action to speak of, apart from turning the steering wheel, or fumbling for a notebook on the seat, and because the story is dialogue-driven, it feels very much like theater.

"What I wanted to do was blur the lines between film and theater, and still have something cinematic," Knight said. "It's quite hypnotic, the way that [cinematographer] Haris Zambarloukos shot it.

"But I also wanted to have the strengths of a theater performance, which are that the actors calibrate their own performance, they are able to inhabit the character for the full-length of the sequence and not break it up. . . . I wanted to have the screen be the theater and then have an actor in that theater, making a film play, or a play film. To experiment with that, to see if it works."

It does.