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.

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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.

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The Western had a good year in 2010.

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.

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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.

Favreau on the cast and tone of the film…

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A Film For All Ages

With Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau wanted to create a film that not only seamlessly blends two genres, but that also reaches across age demographics and appeals to both a youth and adult audience. He came to the project after it had been through years of development and had passed through several thematic iterations, some campy, some comedic. His introduction was via the script that Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Fringe, Star Trek) had written, and that is what sold him on the material. He did not want to return to the comic-book genre as he felt he had accomplished everything he could with Iron Man in terms of his “flavor of a super-hero movie,” but likens the appeal of Cowboys & Aliens to that of Iron Man in that it is a big summer movie with a tone and character that he could connect with and personalize. Both scripts were more thematically mature than the standard popcorn fair.

The Cowboys & Aliens script felt, according to Favreau, “a little bit more mature and epic, and a little more cinematic, and a little more classic while still delivering on those things that make people  of all ages come to the movies. What I enjoyed with “Iron Man” and what I want to (hopefully) keep enjoying, is that you’ve got the kids going to see it because they’re excited by it, but then the grown ups also feel that they’re not intellectually offended by the film, they like it, and people you would never think would go to a movie like this, will go.”

What Favreau did with Iron Man is in fact emblematic of the more successful super-hero films of the past decade. The ability to take hyper-real characters and circumstances and ground them with a sense of emotional truth and humanity, while utilizing said hyper-reality to express over-arching, universal themes is the modern formula for (most) comic-book movie success stories.

Casting The Actors

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A widely appealing and yet mature action film begins with a widely appealing and yet mature hero, or heroes, and as Favreau himself explains “my job is mostly done with the casting process – certainly with some of my recent successes.” As we touched upon in our earlier piece about the film, when Harrison Ford is cast in a high-concept genre film, such as this one, the casting choice itself in many ways becomes self-reflexive. In other words, the actor carries a wealth of history and iconic associations into the role. As the director acknowledges, “you can comment on it, or go against it,” but always the understanding is present that the casting choice itself becomes a tool in the storytelling.

Ford himself is apparently (and remarkably) unaware of his own place in our cultural lexicon. “He’s been taken out of the culture,” Favreau relays, “he’s been Harrison Ford for the past thirty years, so he has no perspective on his body of work.” The director had to explain to the actor that “you are for my generation what John Wayne was for your generation.” And just as John Wayne carried all of his previous films and characters into each of his new films and characters — so does Harrison Ford.

Given the breadth and scope of Ford’s career, the director found it “amazing how much enthusiasm he brought every day, and how hard he worked, and how many stunts he wanted to do. He really cares deeply that the movie is something he is going to be proud of. It was so much fun to present him, as a fan, in the way that I like him,” Favreau shared with us.“To have that sort of gruff yet warm quality. He’s not trying to be likable in this movie…and to have him cast in a character that is appropriate to his age, and you see him with Daniel, their chemistry at the beginning – it is sort of like having two Silverbacks fighting for dominance.”

Both Craig and Ford act as classic anti-heroes in this film. “On the one hand he is like this Jason Borne leading man type where he is a lethal terminator character,” the director says of Craig’s character, “and on the other hand, there is a lot of humanity to him, and vulnerability.” The duality present within the characters is in perfect alignment with a Western aesthetic where “often there’s a morality tale on some level and a focus on characters that starts out kind of selfish, and then there is a selfless turn”

As to why we tend to love the bad-boys in these films, Favreau uses Ford’s most beloved characters as a reference point.

You think of Harrison as a Cowboy because of Indiana Jones and Han Solo. Look at Han Solo paper he shoots the guy in the bar, and he’s gouging them for money, and in “Indiana Jones” he was not going out of his way in the first film to be liked by any stretch. He’s going for his, and he’s vindictive, but yet he’s such a human guy you tend to relate to and like him. Why didn’t I like Luke Skywalker the most? He’s a sweetie pie. But there’s something about those characters that are the rouges with the heart of gold that you feel more of a progression with their character. They’ve earned it.

Olivia Wilde becomes the non-ingenue, ingenue in the film – a woman with secrets and vital information, rather than a naive foil. As to her mysterious nature, this reporter theorizes that Ella is, in fact, an alien. When that was suggested to the director, he smiled allusively, and said “write it up!” We wonder if we are not being somewhat setup with that…

Why westerns & sci-fi mesh well…

Cowboys & Aliens: A Match Made In Heaven

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As seemingly incongruous as sci-fi and cowboys appear to be on the surface, Favreau feels that these worlds, in many ways, make an ideal match. As far as the characters and relationships are concerned, there is a notable parallel between the Cowboys & Indians stories of the past – in which a culture of greater technological force enters the realm of an established culture that has less advanced technological capabilities – and the alien-invasion films we now flock to see. Though in this case, as in most modern alien invasion stories, the populace in the weakened technological position are the heroes of the tale. As to how the characters in this film will surmount this unknown and seemingly unconquerable enemy, Favreau says:

That’s the trick. And the trick is to do it in a way that’s plausible, so that you believe each chess move. Face yourself with such insurmountable odds that people are like ‘oh, there’s no way,’ place the bar that high and then cross over it it. So we create the rules and then we find ways to solve the puzzle, and that’s the fun part about what we’re doing now. It’s really earning our intelligent audience, making sure they’re on board, not just people who want to watch stuff blow up….If you want to watch stuff blow up – there’s plenty of that – we got it. It get’s bigger every step of the way.

The director sees an additional connection between the two genres in that, “A lot of alien movies and Westerns are death metaphors, “Cocoon” coming to terms with moving on to the next world.“The Seven Samurai” (“The Magnificent Seven”) drifting through this purgatory of a town, setting things right and moving on, a little microcosm of life. You know, what are you going to do in this life? What do you stand for? What markers are you leaving here?” Though he takes the time to explore these ideas, Favreau does emphasizes that Cowboys & Aliens is a smart popcorn film, rather than a studied intellectual exercise saying, “For us, as filmmakers, we have to think on that level and then hopefully we just make an entertaining movie that people will go see.”

He references the character work, pacing and subtlety of the science-fiction films of the ’80s as a template for the alien aspect of the film (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and even Jaws with a look at the shark as an alien, in particular) and takes a less-is-more approach to the development of the psychological horror. As to the Cowboy portion of the equation, the director sources many of the classic Westerns (with some emphasis on the films of John Ford) for the tone and scope of the story, so that it becomes about, “Finding common ground and the intersection of the two genres; and if you do it right, it honors both, and it becomes interesting and clever and a reinvention of two things that people understand the conventions of – instead of just a retread, a remake, a reboot or a sequel of a film you’ve seen before.

Cowboys & Aliens comes to theaters July 29th, 2011.

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