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An audience with the “Iron Man 2″ crowd

So, a couple of weeks back, a volcano went off in Iceland. That meant that planes in Europe couldn’t fly for several days, which meant that suddenly a London press junket was canceled and rescheduled in Los Angeles, which meant that, one recent Thursday night, I wound up seeing “Iron Man 2” at the AMC Theater in Century City instead of “A Star is Born” at Grauman’s Chinese for the TCM Classic Film Festival. (The world is getting much smaller…)

Moreover, thanks to the volcano, the next morning, instead of my Crunchy Raisin Bran and 1% milk, I was instead being buttered up by with French toast and applewood-smoked bacon buffet at the Four Seasons, a free Iron Man action figure, and a theoretical chance to ask a question of the all-star cast of “Iron Man 2″ — i.e., Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle,and soon to be super-villain of the year Mickey Rourke — not to mention director/co-star Jon Favreau, writer Justin Thoreaux, and producer Kevin Feige.

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Of course, considering the 150 or so people in the room, I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get to ask any questions, but it was a pretty entertaining event. Robert Downey may have famously given up a number of vices, but being a perpetual class clown does not seem to be one of them, and it wasn’t like he was the only interesting person in the room.

The first question, about whether Favreau or he felt any pressure in terms of living up to the success of the first “Iron Man,” set the tone. Favreau admitted he had never been involved with a sequel before, unless you count his “under five” bit part as “Assistant” in Joel Schumacher’s notorious “Batman Forever.” It certainly is a change from small independent films like Favreau’s career-making acting and writing debut, “Swingers,” which he compared to throwing a party and hoping people would come.

“…[On 'Iron Man 2'] we knew that people were going to show up,” Favreau said. “We just wanted to make sure that everyone who showed up had a good time and that this was going to be as fun or more fun than the last party. So it’s a different kind of pressure.”

Downey then felt the need to start listing sequels others on the panel had been involved in, real and fictional. “Scarlet Johansson was in ‘Home Alone 3.’ Don Cheadle, 11, 12 and 13.”

That led to a question that was geeky in a way that anyone whose ever been a superhero comics fan will recognize, and which wound up being answered by producer Kevin Feige. It was about the “time-line” of the film. It turns out that, if viewers pay close attention, they can figure out that “Iron Man 2″ actually takes place before 2008′s “The Incredible Hulk.” (Having seen both movies, I have no freakin’ clue how you’d deduce that.)

The Incredible Hulk

The next question was about something pretty much all of us online geeks have already noticed about the movie. It’s the absence in the release version of “Iron Man 2″ of a brief moment in the trailer involving Pepper Potts/Gwyneth Paltrow assisting Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey) as he gets ready to fly down into an adoring stadium crowd as part of the massively glitzy intro for his Stark Expo.

“We had two different versions of it, ‘ said Jon Favreau. “But, because of the pacing and the way we [wanted] to reveal Tony Stark, it felt really good to flow into the drop down and reveal him for the first time on the stage. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, this doesn’t make any sense, but oftentimes in the editing room we figure out what combinations of…”

“Gwen is just finding out this scene was cut, Jon. You might be a little more tactful,” interrupted Downey, generating a laugh.

Speaking of Gwyneth Paltrow, the next question was for the two women on the panel, Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson. How would the movie’s two decidedly powerful women handle having to “save the world” in contrast to the male characters? Who would be better at it?

“If Scarlet and I were doing it, the body count would be different,” said Paltrow. “Less bloody.”

“More organized,” added Johansson.

Then a journo dared to go a bit off-topic and asked Downey about whether he would be taking a rumored gig as the title role in the long, long delayed film of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat.

“Yeah. In anything that’s going on, just imagine it’s been offered to me,” said Downey.

“Precious 2,” offered Don Cheadle, the new James “Rhodey” Rhodes and eventual War Machine of this sequel.

Mickey Rourke in Another writer asked Mickey Rourke how much fun he had in his “electrifying performance” as the vengeance driven, Russian-accented super-villain, Whiplash, aka Ivan Vanko.

“I had a lot of fun,” Rourke answered, keeping it simple. Asked to elaborate, he continued. “It was great. I worked with some great people. This one here [Jon Favreau] is really easy to work with. He makes it fun. It was nice. I just came off working on a film where there was no budget; I didn’t have a chair. The first day, I asked for cappuccino and they said ‘what kind would you like.’”

Then a reporter asked Downey if, growing up, he ever dressed up as a superhero for Halloween.

“Growing up, no, but in my mid-thirties in Palm Springs right before an arrest, yes.”

Then there was a question asking if the rather large amount of improvisation employed on the original “Iron Man” continued on “Iron Man 2.” How much of what was seen in the film was part of the original screenplay?

Justin Thoreaux answered. “It’s a heavily improvisational set. Everyone gets to sort of chime in. My job as the writer is really just to stay on the dance shoes of Robert and Jon and Gwyneth and everybody and just sort of try and rewrite things on the fly.”

“The story is very well fleshed out,” added Jon Favreau.”What has to happen in each scene, we understand. We leave a lot of room within those scenes. We try and do multiple cameras, sometimes, or stay up and rewrite. Justin was doing multiple passes, sometimes double-digit passes, on scenes because we learn things from each scene that we shoot. We try and shoot pretty much in order.”

” What’s nice about having the actors you see up here is they’re all very sure of their characters emotionally,” Favreau continued. “They’re used to being in films where you don’t have the safety net of all the high-technology and the explosions. So, if they have an issue with something we’re asking the character to do for the story, we discuss it and we figure out a way it can work for them as a performer.”

Don Cheadle in The next question that came up was for Don Cheadle, who is stepping in for Terrence Howard as James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who becomes War Machine, a sort of co-Iron Man. What was it like replacing the respected actor, who left the franchise for reasons that remain vague and somewhat contentious. What was it like wearing the suit?

“I don’t know why the War Machine suit is actually made of metal and his [Downey's] is made of light, fiberglass material. It’s an initiation. But I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to work in a film like this.”

“Terrence is a friend; I’ve known him for a long time,” Cheadle continued, referring to their work together in the Oscar-winning “Crash,” which Cheadle produced. “It was good to also kind of see him and put anything to bed that people might think there was a problem. There wasn’t. We’re cool,” he said, moving on to mention the childlike fun of playing with “the best toys” and pretending to be a superhero.

“The reason Don’s suit was heavier is that it’s almost impossible to get that mirror-like look of polished metal look with CGI,” said Downey. “I would not wish that on an enemy.”

Robert Downey Jr. in

Then there was some discussion of the casting of Mickey Rourke as Whiplash, a more flamboyant character in the original comics which, according to Favreau, the “Iron Man 2″ team decided to turn into something a bit grittier for the Russian baddie, somewhat inspired by the tattooed gangster character portrayed by Viggo Mortenson in “Eastern Promises.” Moreover, with Rourke’s success in”The Wrestler” and, before that, as Marv in “Sin City,” there was a growing acknowledgment that, for the second time in his life, Rourke was a major star. “Between the fanboys and the independent film community, he was back with a vengeance, and it was, like, ‘My God, there’s a lot of people, we’re not going to have a tremendous amount of screen time, who’s going to be able to be there and be able to make an impression where you feel like this guy is in trouble?’ So Mickey brought a lot of intensity to both of those roles.”

Also, apparently Downey was involved in recruiting Rourke while they were both touring the award-show circuit — Rourke for “The Wrestler” and Downey for his ethnicity-bending turn in “Tropic Thunder.” “I really worked you like a rib, didn’t I?” Downey admitted to Rourke. “It was embarrassing. I was literally begging you in public.”

Another question about how Downey felt working with new cast members segued into a discussion of writer Justin Thoreaux’s contribution and how he worked through a “horrible” neck problem. “These guys had a really good rapport from ‘Tropic Thunder’ and he understood his voice and how to weave in and out of Robert’s creative process very effectively. And to jump on board a franchise, it was probably the sharpest learning curve for Justin than all of us and he really did a fantastic job,” said Jon Favreau.

Samuel L. Jackson in Then came a question about the film’s numerous characters and plot threads, including Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury starting to pull together a superhero “boy band” called the Avengers, not to mention the introduction of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, aka Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff, as well as multiple villains — or as Favreau terms it, “villianitis.”

“We really tried to keep the narrative flows going so as to not make it too convoluted,” Favreau said. “I lose track of that stuff. Especially in sequels as the franchises get more complex, I can’t always remember what happened in the last movie. Not for nothing, I like to watch the stuff blow up, but I’m not going to do homework before I go see a sequel….”

That segued into praise for Sam Rockwell, who steals several scenes as Tony Stark’s unctuous business adversary, Justin Hammer, and a discussion about the parrots used in the film as pets for Mickey Rourke’s character. A suggestion made by Rourke to help humanize his bad-guy to some degree. One of the birds apparently belongs to the pet-loving actor.

“Marvel likes to cut costs,” Favreau said.

“You guys cut costs so much, you guys ate the second bird,” added Don Cheadle.

After some frivolity involving Gwyneth Paltrow’s definition of heroism somehow being related to the Goop newsletter, the conversation turned to the “Moonlighting”-esque romance between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts and the “highly anticipated” kiss that finally occurs between Downey and Paltrow’s character in the new film. How did the actors feel about it?

“I couldn’t get her off me. It was embarrassing,” Downey offered.

“It was great because both my husband and his wife were right there,” Paltrow offered, more believably.

Downey could not let the matter slide. “Yeah. She said to me that I didn’t know what I was doing, like it didn’t feel good and I was like, ‘You know what, first of all, we’re all friends so what would be creepy was if I was coming off all sexy to you.’ And, by the way, I’ve done that in movies and it creeps them out. So what am I going to creep you out for?…Despite what she said on set, she still thinks about it.”

Jon Favreau, director of The next writer lucky enough to be acknowleded got two questions off. He asked Downey about working with his wife, Susan Downey, as one of the films executive producers. Jon Favreau was, in turn, asked about the fact that his portrayal of Happy Hogan was far more prominent in the sequel and even involved some rather humorous and deftly handled action moments. Downey, apparently afraid of too much tidiness, suggested he and Favreau swap questions.

Favreau praised Susan Downey’s organizational skills and experience. “It’s just like one of those shows where they’re going to organize all of their closets for you and make you throw out the clothes that you don’t need anymore. But it takes somebody to go, ‘You’re never going to wear that again! You’re never going to fit in that…’”

“On a certain level they might’ve thought she was going to come in and tame me or put me in check — but I was completely out of my mind, power hungry,” Downey interupted. Then, turning his sites on Favreau, the teasing began.”He was boxing everyday in pre-production. and made it into the ring for the scene where he gets his ass handed to him by Scarlett. That was originally a longer scene and maybe he was just too emasculated to actually let it be in the movie but, I think, [Scarlett] laid the boots to him quite severely. ”

And so it went, as Downey could not be stopped. “Then about midway he’s struggling with the Medifast, but occasionally binging on pizza and then saying, ‘This is crazy. I have to get back in the gym.’”

“Can I have my question back?” asked Favreau.

Sam Rockwell in And so it went, until a high-flying journalist seemed to think he’d get the scoop of the century. He started out by praising the film, the better to soften the blow he apparently hoped to land. There had already been some brief joking around about Sam Rockwell’s character not being on the movie’s poster. The “Iron Man” team had therefore “sidestepped” the question of Rockwell earlier, which Favreau joked made him feel like Alan Greenspan. Going for the kill, the reporter asked: was Rockwell’s lack of a major presence on promotional materials and being “noticeably absent” this morning evidence of some kind of falling out on set? (Note the noticeably present picture of Rockwell above from Marvel’s publicity materials.)

Downey sarcastically obliged the aggressive journo. “Yes. You hit the mother load.”

Favreau responded predictably that, in fact, there had not been a falling out and Rockwell was busy on the opposite coast doing a play. He further praised his acting and called Rockwell, a “fun, funny guy” and “inspiring and inspired.” He particularly cited Rockwell’s work as a “gender unspecific concierge” in Favreau’s 2001 feature directing debut, “Made.” Prompted by the passive-aggressive questioner, he also admitted that Rockwell had actually been considered for the role of Tony Stark, even before Downey.

“That’s enough. You’re embarrassing yourself,” Downey said, presumably joking with Favreau.

But Favreau would not stop praising Rockwell’s ability or gameness “Justin Hammer wishes that he was Tony Stark and he really embraced that aspect of the character. I think it’s really fun for that and he has a ball with it.”

Scarlett Johansson in The would be Helen Thomas of entertainment  journalism tried for one last, more positive, scoop. He commented that Scarlet Johansson was “fantastic” as the Black Widow. Was there likely to be a Black Widow spin-off movie?

Again, what was Favreau supposed to say?

“I would love to see that. Hell, yes,” said Favreau.

When prompted by Scarlett Johansson, who obviously has an interest in the matter, producer Kevin Feige said, “Definitely possible.” At last, the movie scoop of the century.

That was followed by a much less aggressive question about DVD extras. The short version is that there’ll be many and they’ll be largely for the very geeky. “We did overkill on this one,” Favreau admitted.

Then came a question for Johansson and Paltrow on the fact that the Black Widow and Pepper Potts are not quite your usual stock comic book movie females. “I think it’s a very smart decision actually to have women who are capable and intelligent because it appeals to women,” said Paltrow. “So it’s not only a film for fifteen year old boys. It’s a film that can relate to a lot of people on a lot of levels and a lot of my girlfriends like it because of the romance. Scarlett in the trailer — it’s appealing, like, ‘Who is she?’ It doesn’t look gratuitous.”

“It’s oddly kind of old fashioned actually in the best sense of the word,” said Johansson, who got her start in some very high quality indie hits. “These characters are like those fabulous femme fatales of the golden age of Hollywood, Bette Davis more than Jane Mansfield, which I think is so much more dynamic to watch.”

Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey, Jr. in Then came a relatively serious question about the physical and mental challenges of the role for Downey and Paltrow. After both of them briefly hesitated about who would answer first, Downey stepped in after Paltrow said he should go first. “Yeah, they probably want to hear me first,” he agreed.

Continuing. “Physically, I feel like Don and Scarlett and Mickey actually had a heavier load this time as far as just armature…”

“He made them do it all in CGI, like, ‘Get it in CGI. I’m walking off,’” said Paltrow.

That was followed by a rather serious discussion from Downey in which he contemplated the emotional journey of Tony Stark’s character vis-à-vis Whiplash, Rhodey/War Machine, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, and Pepper. Just as he reached a sort of intellectual crescendo, the giant poster for “Iron Man 2″ behind him fell down, leaving an empty frame behind the speakers’ table.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Sam Rockwell!” said Downey, leaving his chair for a vain attempt to rehang the poster. After that, things just got kind of silly.

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