Today, in advance of the ‘Iron Man’ premiere in London, I had the opportunity to attend the ‘Iron Man’ press conference at Claridges hotel in Mayfair, featuring appearances by Director Jon Favreau and the film’s principal cast, Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts) and Terence Howard (James “Rhodey” Rhodes). Despite the freezing temperature of the room, which at one point caused a gentlemanly Downey Jr. to volunteer his jacket to a shivering Paltrow, the cast seemed in an irreverent mood and joked with one another throughout the event.
After being seated, the speaker began by asking how Favreau’s work on ‘Zarthura’ brought him to the attention of those in charge of ‘Iron Man’. Continuing to ask “can you perhaps tell us…” Favreau quickly interjected with “What Zarthura was?” in reference to the way the film was largely overlooked on its release.
Continuing to explain, Favreau commented:
“It’s interesting, the way that Hollywood works. ‘Zarthura’ was one of those movies that, as Mel Brooks once said – it wasn’t released, it escaped. It cost very little to make, and made even less than it cost, but it was received well critically, I’m very proud of it, it was a fine film geared towards kids and there were a lot of special effects in it. The thing that I think opened to the door for ‘Iron Man’ was the success that ‘Elf’ had back home. It was viewed as a good movie and it made a tremendous amount of money, and cost very little to make, and that opens a lot of doors for you as a director. You find your name on “The List” – every category has a list, and I was on the Director’s List.
I had known Avi Arad from working on ‘Daredevil’, I was a supporting character named Foggy Nelson, and when they formed their own studio I got a phonecall to stop by and they said that the first property that they were going to self-finance was ‘Iron Man.’ Being a comicbook fan, I of course knew about this character, he’s been around for 40 years, but most people who aren’t fans have never heard of him. I thought it was an interesting challenge and I knew that the technology of the day – and I’m not that big a fan of CGI – but the work that’s been done on hard surfaces and metal shading and lighting is very convincing right now, more so than when you work with organic heroes or figures, and I felt that the tone of the lead and tone of the film could be a lot of fun. In this landscape of dozens of superhero movies that are being made, I felt that this could be a unique opportunity.”
The speaker then turned his attention to Gwyneth Paltrow, saying: “It’s a given that guys like comicbooks and become absorbed in them, but I believe you are one of the exceptions, a young lady who grew up in the world of comicbooks?” Leading a confused Paltrow to ask “er…really?” – it was eventually decided that the production notes has perhaps been a little over zealous, and Paltrow nonetheless described her experiences with comicbooks in the past:
“My brother wasn’t a comicbook maniac, but he had a few lying around. He definitely had Spider-Man underoos, I don’t know if you have those here in the UK. They’re kind of pants and t-shirt undershirt combo, so I was very familiar with the characters in the Marvel world.”
Again, a jovial Favreau injerjected: “What, through your brother’s underwear!? Put that in the production notes!”
When the laughter died down, Paltrow continued:
“I was more of a fairytale, Charlotte Bronte kind of youth, but when I was approached with this I actually had never heard of ‘Iron Man’, so it was a real education. I ended up reading quite a number of the comics.”
When Paltrow had finished, Favreau again piped up:
“Just to point something out, and I’ll tell her in front of all you, she didn’t realise that the cameo role I play of Happy Hogan actually ends up marrying her character, and I’m not kidding, so look for a steamy love scene in ‘Iron Man 2’!”
Turning to Terrence Howard, the speaker asked: Your character has a longing look at the extra Iron Man suit and says “next time” so clearly we’re setting up here for a franchise. Are you hoping that in the next movie you get to put on the suit and do some funky action stuff?
Howard responded with “well, just to be accurate, it was ‘next time, baby!’“ drawing more amused laughs from the audience, and went on, referring obliquely to classic ‘Iron Man’ storyline “Demon in a Bottle” which ends with his character, Rhodey, assuming the mantle of Iron Man before eventually donning his own suit as War Machine:
“The beautiful thing about Marvel is that they’ve always stuck with tradition of staying true to the comics and loyal to fans, and you know, if you’ve read the comics, [Rhodes wearing an Iron Man suit] is the next phase, but there is another intermediate phase in which he would necessarily have to put his friend’s suit on for a period of time.”
Lastly addressing Downey Jr. the speaker asked: “You play a genius, and it makes me wonder how you are in this world of high technology, are you adept at all these hi-tech things that your character can turn a hand to with great ease and aplomb?”
Downey replied joking despite his considered, intense style:
“I was actually trying to get online in the suite upstairs and almost lost my mind, but I have a great love for it. I’d also like to say that unlike Jon, I was on nobody’s list to play the role of Tony Stark. But here we are.”
The questions then opened up to the floor, the first concerning the perception of the movie, asking: “Assuming the audience of this aren’t avid watchers of CNN or readers of newspapers, how conscious are you of the context in which you place a comicbook story in the real world?” directed at Favreau:
“Well, comicbooks have always been reflection of a certain aspect of the collective subconcious. I grew up during Cold War, and characters would pop up like Crimson Dynamo representing the Soviet Union, and Captain America would fight against people that represented red China and it was always done in a way where you removed it one generation, so you never felt like you were having your nose rubbed in the problems of the day, but it allowed you to have your sort of collective anxiety expressed. Then here comes this superhero to offer simple solutions to these complex problems, and I think it’s no coincidence that since September 11th, starting with ‘Spider-Man’, people have gravitated towards these simple good against evil stories, and now 5-6 years later, trying to capture some of the imagery and anxiety that I know we feel as Americans, and then have the fantasy of this guy who can come in and thoughtfully get rid of the bad guys, save the good guys, and solve all of our problems is part of the escapism that people are looking for as they go to the movies – to take their minds off their problems for a couple of hours.”
The next question, aimed at Downey Jr. came:
In this film and also ‘Charlie Bartlett’ you say “I’m a guy with problems?” – is this you ad-libbing off the script at all?
Downey Jr. responded with mock outrage, asking “What’re you getting at?! What kind of answer do you want? Just tell me!” before adding “If I was Arnold Schwarzenegger, I would just start a sentence that ended ‘Iron Man’” before discussing his experiences with the character and opportunity ‘Iron Man’ offered:
“Tony Stark offered me the chance of a lifetime and one of those was talking with Jon before I was cast. It’s rare in movies like this – the first thing you get is a release date, then you get a poster, then you get a trailer, and then you talk about a director and casting and maybe at some point, a script. Despite some of the hesitance, for reasons that I’m sure are obvious enough, in having all this dough and this big idea and putting me out in front of it, the cool thing was that Jon and I got to have a series of conversations where the process was “we thought it’d be a great idea.” He was meeting other people – some of the people whose money it was were hesitant for the same reasons that I or maybe anyone else would be, and then it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. There was a point where Jon said ‘No, I don’t think it’s gonna work out’, and I said ‘Well if you don’t mind, I’m just going to pretend I didn’t hear that.’ and I just came down to a screen test. What I’m trying to say is that this has been a journey for all of us, but I think, especially for Jon and I, having to create this character – how do you keep it true to its form, and at some point there are going to be obvious questions of art imitating life – for me I just call it the $165 million dollar catharsis.”
Addressing their obvious displeasure with the Hollywood machine, one attendee asked Downey Jr. and Favreau: “You both seem cynical about Hollywood machine, even though you’ve involved with it, so what’s it like trying to get your story out?”
Favreau was first to respond:
“I think to characterise that we have issue with Hollywood is sort of backwards – I think Hollywood has sort of had issues with what our tastes are. What’s nice is that with the contentious relationship between filmmakers and Hollywood, there seems to be little cracks of daylight, and I think one of those is the genre of the superhero movie, which might sound like an odd statement, but ever since Sam Raimi and then Brian Singer, and if you lump in Peter Jackson with that, and now Chris Nolan, Hollywood has found that by giving opportunities to do these large movies to people who start off in small, thoughtful independent films or comedies or genre films, it’s easier to find a storyteller who takes pride in their work and teach them to make a big movie than to take an action director and teach them how to tell a story.
Remember Marvel isn’t a studio, we were answering to two or three people who were on the set and part of the collaboration. They had their own money from Wall Street, so we had tremendous freedom. The explosions had to be great, there had to be enough great action set pieces, we had to fulfil certain dynamic obligations to help make the film marketable so that it made its money back, but Marvel has seen which of bad movies and good movies that have good action make the money, so they gave us permission to make this movie as complex and as good as we wanted to. As this cast came together around Robert – Terrence we had talked to even before I came on board – but as everyone came together we saw we could really try to elevate this and make it something that stood out and at least played differently to what the expectations might be. I have very little complaint on this one. I feel like I’ve had more freedom on this film than any other I’ve worked on.”
Favreau then passed the floor to Downey Jr. who continued to elaborate on the experience of making ‘Iron Man’:
“Yeah, it was a ball! This is kind of my soundbite, I tended to come to the set in the morning, I’d ball up the script and throw it against the wall and Jon would say “good morning” and I’d say “what do you want to do?” or Gwyneth would say “we have to shoot before lunch today, you’re crazy!” and we’d run where we thought the scene should go by you, and you’d have some comments, or kibosh it, or me and Terrence, and Jon would try to find a way to transcend the usual “I represent the military but I’ve got to go another way on that!” stuff that you see. We tried to make scenes like we’d want to see them because I’m used to being pretty disappointed when I actually pay money to see the movies that promised I was going to be entertaining.”
Moving to the topic of video games, one jokester asked: “Robert, for the first time you’re voicing a character in the video game – was that a different experience to making a movie, and also have you played the game and if so, what was it like playing with yourself?”
Downey Jr. retorted “It only takes a minute!” to delayed laughs as both cast and audience slowly got the joke.
Continuing, he answered:
“I’m not really good at the videogame thing. Voicing it was kind of fun. Even that, at Sega, they were like “did he just ball up his script and throw it against a wall?””
Struggling to elaborate, he passed the question to Howard, addressing him as “Rhodey” which Howard replying:
“It was pretty much the same. You walk in and they show you these stick figures walking across the screen and they say ‘Give them life!’ and give you fifteen different options of what you could say, and you give them 20 ways you could say it just so that you don’t look like a bad actor. You do it excited and relaxed, and complex, and all these different things, and all the while I was wondering… “How much did Robert get paid for this?” and “Am I getting paid for this?” That’s what you’re thinking about.”
Downey Jr. interrupted: “For the record, Terrence got paid more than I did for this movie” amidst protestation from Howard, leading Downey Jr. to point at the audience, commanding us to “Look it up!”
A rambling questioner from the floor seemed to address the matter of whether a superhero movie is necessarily a valid role for a serious actor, suggesting to Downey Jr that “Your career has been very complex – you can’t really say there’s been a certain kind of Robert Downey movie, now suddenly you put on a tin suit and you’re ‘Iron Man’. Are you happy that, at least for some part of career, you’ll be known as ’Iron Man’ and a superhero, because people tend to forget how complex an actor you are.”
Downey Jr. replied “Well first, I notice a slight tone of condescension in your voice! You call it a ‘tin suit’! But that said, I kinda like you and I think we’d get on well if we hung out.” Before addressing the question more seriously:
“I was looking at the merchandise for ‘Iron Man’ and amongst all this cool stuff, the nerf things, there was this little flip book for kids, I think it said ages four plus and at the end, it says “Iron Man defeated the evil Iron Monger. Obidiah Stane would never hurt anyone again.” and I got really choked up about that. I thought this is an opportunity to get back to a system that I remember really impacted me greatly when I was a kid and to some degree even nowadays.”
Unprompted, Howard then took the floor to describe one specific instance of how he remembered working on the film:
“If you guys really want to know what the shooting of this film was like, there was one day in particular that I sat there and I learned as an actor how to be balls-out, completely daring, completely transparent and as a director, to be completely open and sensitive to an actor and his sensibilities. I remember we set up a scene for a press conference, like this, with 200 reporters. They set the lighting for about 2 hours for Tony to come in, stand, and make his speech, well Robert came in there for the blocking, and he said “You know what Jon, I want to sit down,” and he said “okay, we can make that adjustment”, and Robert said, “and I want everyone else to sit down too”, and Jon looked at Robert for a moment, and then there was this glint in his eye, and he looked over at me, and he said “okay, let’s figure out how to make it work.” I thought for sure they were going to bring the producers down and have a long talk with Robert, but they readjusted the entire thing, and about an hour and a half later, we worked on some of the dialogue, and we came in there, and what would’ve been a normal average press conference scene turned into what Tony Stark would’ve created. Turned into a collaborative effort. That was every day on the set, it was about truth and completely abandoning the mendacity and hypocrisy of filmmaking and that’s what made this a great film, the questions being asked about accountability that the entire world is now facing. That’s what made this a great experience. Even though nobody asked.”
With the speaker announcing that time was almost up, the final questioner asked. Downey Jr. how he found the physical preparation for the role. Before he could answer, he was distracted by Gwyneth Paltrow who was stifling laughter at something Favreau had just whispered in her ear, asking “What’re you guys laughing about?!”
Favreau then leant over to Paltrow’s microphone and offering the explanation that it was “Her shoes. Check online, her shoes are the star of the movie. Her shoes are making more headlines than any of these conversations.” Prompting amused laughs, before yielding focus back to Downey Jr:
“I trained for a while, because I thought, well, if you’re 22 or 32, you train for 6 weeks and you look good for 6 months. I trained for 6 weeks and I figure I looked good for about 6 seconds. Interestingly enough, Gwyneth showed up to work one day and Jon had her running away from a green screen or something and she was like “I think my knee hurts a little bit” and Jon was like [dismissively] “Yeah, anyway…” because, you know, that’s your typical actress royalty issue – “I don’t think I can really do anything today” and as it turns out, she had quite a devastating injury on her knee and immediately went into surgery the next day! If there’s any time when it seems like she’s just standing as opposed to doing something she might normally do, that’s why!”
Downey Jr. then invited any specific questions for Paltrow, but the speaker interrupted, and apologised that with that last answer the press conference was out of time, shortly over 20 minutes after it began. The cast thanked the audience and left the room – presumably for somewhere slightly warmer.