This past November we brought you the premier trailer for the science-fiction/Western hybrid Cowboys & Aliens, along with a preview of our edit bay visit with director Jon Favreau. With that piece, we were able to provide some insight into the structure of the story, as well as the filmmakers’ philosophy and approach to the project. Today we elaborate on the details of our visit, the tone of the footage we were privileged enough to see, and Favreau’s vision for this genre-blending alien invasion film.
Cowboys & Aliens (which is roughly based on the Platinum Studios graphic novel of the same name) tells the tale of the mysterious and rugged outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) – a man who awakens beneath a blazing sun stripped of his memory, and in possession of a foreign device which is, by all appearances, permanently attached to his wrist.
Lonergan finds his way to the town of Absolution (after a brutal demonstration of his will and point-of-view on captivity). Once there, he makes the acquaintance of an equally enigmatic woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde), and the unhappy discovery that he is a wanted man pursued by Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) and by a dangerous and powerful local rancher, Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford).
Before either the rancher or the lawman can lay claim on Lonergan, or Ella can reveal her shrouded purpose, or Lonergan is able to regain his bearings and sense of himself, an extraterrestrial force will transform foes into allies, and blur the lines between the law abiding and lawless. The enemy from above that swoops in to dramatically alter and unite the destinies of these characters is completely unfathomable to them, and archetypically familiar to us, the audience. The creatures from outer space have invaded, and thus begins the true mash-up that is Cowboys & Aliens.
A Modern Mash-Up For A Contemporary Audience:
As we explained in our previous article, Cowboys & Aliens provided Jon Favreau with an opportunity to engage with the Western, a genre he loves, and is inspired by as a director, while remaining mindful of the realities of modern trends and moviegoer proclivities.
In fact, the director felt that there was little to no chance that he would be able to get a large-scale traditional Western financed without the added alien-invasion element to tempt audiences into theaters. Favreau distilled the studios perspective down by saying, “I could have come to them with a movie called ‘and aliens’ and they would have greenlit that, and I could have come to them with a movie called ‘Cowboys’, no matter who was in it, and they wouldn’t.” The director was conscious that, “as troublesome as Westerns have been in the marketplace, alien invasion movies have been universally well-received.”
Some may site the recent impressive critical and box office success of True Grit ($244 million in worldwide theatrical sales) as a shift in that paradigm. The True Grit phenomena had not taken place at the time of our interview with Favreau, so it is impossible to report on his take on that film and its wide appeal. It should be noted, however, that True Grit follows an unusual trajectory for a Western, and often feels like a quintessential Coen Brothers deliciously dark and brooding comedy, that happens to take place within the rough framework of an Oater. Additionally, it is as yet to be determined if the success of the film speaks to a fundamental change, or represents an anomaly.
In general terms, we are in the midst of a moment in our shared cinematic history that is dominated by comic-book movies, reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels and re-quels of previously established franchises, as well as sci-fi and fantasy films featuring iconic characters, large set pieces, and high-octane action sequences. There was a time, however, when Westerns acted as the studio staple and the standard fair to satisfy audience appetites. As Favreau explains:
That was the commercial genre at the time, studios would be like ‘half of our slates have to be Westerns just so we make our money, then we can do the awards films, or the cool dramas, or the novel adaptations.’ Well that was taken over by cop films, and then that was taken over by sci-fi and big action. While still maintaining, by the way, the gunfighter paradigm in the “Lethal Weapon’s” in the “Die Hard’s” in the “Star Wars” movies. Now to be able to take those characters, and even the actors that played them (like Harrison Ford) and put them right squarely back into this, and then to be able to explore all the richness that you are allowed to explore, because you’re really dealing with big themes in a Western…We’re not going for anything lofty here, but I just want it to be something that has more impact than just popcorn.
The inherent twist in Cowboys & Aliens allows the creators to hearken back to the time when the Western reigned supreme, and explore the “operatic expanse” inherent in the genre while infusing it with the larger vision of the universe, and forward-thinking that appeals to a contemporary audience. As Favreau explained:
For me as a filmmaker, selfishly, it allows me to really embrace that genre…That’s what’s fun about this deconstruction, this mash-up, is that you really look at the structure of a Western and do you look at how John Ford did it? What were the big set pieces of that day? It wasn’t “Independence Day,” it was different. (You account for that) in where you put the camera and the way you use the CGI. We didn’t want to go steam-punk on it, either, which is the other way to go, and cutesy up the sci-fi. You want the sci-fi to stand on it’s own, too.
The given circumstances for the main character in the story offers an organic entryway into the language of the Cowboy movie for those who may be unfamiliar, which makes the film more manageable for a modern translation. As Favreau says, “I think also because Daniel Craig is someone who is completely wiped of memory, your’e coming to it through the eyes of a neophyte, of someone who has no context, so it allows us to introduce the audience to things subjectively through that character.” In other words, the viewer does not need to be familiar with the vernacular of the Western, because the “rules of the game” will necessarily need to be revealed to the main character — who has no sense of place and time himself.
During our visit we were able to view the first act of the film (totaling roughly forty minutes of footage), which constitutes the introduction to, and establishment of, the main characters and relationships in the story, and does indeed beautifully maintain the tone and tenor of a classic Western, while laying the ground work of a well-crafted sci-fi story. The trailer that Universal unveiled in November accurately represents the feel of that first act, and as the director promised at the time “as they get deeper, and as future trailers come out, and as effects get done, we’ll reveal more of it.” The “it” he was referring to was more of the infusion of the science-fiction portion, and in fact, the Cowboys & Aliens Super Bowl spot did present an expanded vision of the alien invasion/action aspect of the film.