Towards the end of August, we were invited (along with a group of other online journalists) by Universal Pictures to the set of Cowboys & Aliens. Production was finishing up shooting in New Mexico at the time – before moving to Universal Studios in LA to work on some interior stage shots.
Most of us had only seen the 10 minutes of unfinished footage presented by director Jon Favreau at San Diego Comic-Con a few weeks earlier, footage that Favreau pushed the cast, crew, Industrial Light & Magic and the studio to work extra days on just so they could test it with the hardcore audience of Comic-Con attendees.
What we saw was a total crowd-pleaser and everyone bought into the authenticity of the Western that Favreau and crew were attempting to convey. It’s not a slapstick, tongue-in-cheek comedy poking fun at the extreme idea of aliens fighting cowboys. The film stays true to what both genres represent and that’s how it’s able to work.
This is by far the biggest call out I want to emphasize from my set visit. The title of the movie earned a few laughs as the Cowboys & Aliens trailer premiered alongside Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows Part 1 the weekend before last. But that’s okay because up until the logo popped up at the conclusion of the teaser, everyone in those theater seats were completely sold on seeing Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in a straight Western, reacting to the situation presented. Note that there was not a single shot of what the alien creatures look like in that trailer. This trailer and the Comic-Con footage work the same way in that respect and this is what Jon Favreau is going for (as you’ll find out from reading through my set visit reports this week). You’ll find out more on where he draws his inspiration and what types of alien movies work and don’t work, which are more interesting and captivating, etc. and how he balances that into Cowboys & Aliens.
Throughout this week we’ll put up posts on our talks with Favreau, Bob Orci and more, as well as several interesting discussion pieces from what we learned about the production of the film. But for now, let me take you along the journey I experienced before we get down and dirty with the details.
I was in the first group to land in Albuquerque, the largest city of New Mexico. From there, I was driven an hour or so to our hotel in Sante Fe. We were still over an hour out from where the set visit would take place the following day, but it still offered a damn good indicator of the temperatures on set. Filming action scenes is a tough and grueling process. Doing it in the hot desert weather and avoiding destructive flash floods is another challenge entirely. This was but one of the obstacles faced by cast and crew at the particular location we were going to visit.
We traveled out the next morning in a bus and went into the wild. The landscapes and scenery on this ride is reminiscent of any visuals you can conjure when thinking of a Western (or playing the video game Red Dead Redemption – more on that later). As we made our way to the crew parking lot, we transferred from vehicle to vehicle to yet another vehicle as we passed through the rocky paths and eventually through the trailers for cast, equipment and props.
From this point onward, no one was allowed to take photos; Not of the trailers before we got to the set and not even of the scenery around us. It was our own little Area 51 and secrecy was of utmost importance.
As we arrived at the canyon where shooting would be taking place, we entered a large cast tent with over two dozen chairs and a monitor at one end to view the shots taking place. Sam Rockwell was in there fixing his grimed up and battle-worn cowboy outfit, greeting us before picking up his rifle and heading back out on set.
About the scenes being shot, I have good and bad news regarding what we saw. The good news is that due to a last minute scheduling change, we ended up watching them shoot one of the final and most important scenes of the film where everyone was included. The bad news is that we can’t tell you about anything we witnessed or how epic it was.
The sequence was being shot at White Place (Plaza Blanca), a beautiful and famous rocky canyon owned by Dar al Islam Mosque in Abiquiu, New Mexico. A location where The Missing was shot and not far from where previous Western films such as 3:10 to Yuma, Young Guns, Legend of the Lone Ranger and Wyatt Earp were made as well. Other projects that used these landscapes include City Slickers and Earth 2.
What I can say about what was being shot (and this harkens back to the big call out of the film) is that this movie is a straight up Western at its heart and in its style. Yes, instead of the traditional feuds between cowboys and Apache natives, Cowboys & Aliens pits them all against a new threat. But who these characters are and how they react to this situation is all within the realm of the Western genre archetypes… and it completely works.
Even when Favreau first entered the tent with us for a few hours, one of the very first things he said to us was about the authenticity of what and how they were shooting. He asked us if it was “better than a green screen” which reminded me of exactly what he spoke of at SDCC when he came out on stage and introduced the presentation by speaking of the “breaking news” that Cowboys & Aliens would be coming in 2D, shot on film, not digital video to keep the authentic look of the period piece. The use of on-location shooting and practical effects offers authentic/raw visuals which match the film’s tone.
Movies are a business, but they’re also an entertainment art form and it’s nice to see that balance shift in favor of the moviegoers for once. As Favreau re-emphasized to me on set and to our own Roth Cornet the other week at the Cowboys & Aliens edit bay, the film was not shot or converted in 3D as per most upcoming big budget blockbusters and instead was shot like traditional Westerns in 35mm anamorphic by Matthew Libatique, the same cinematographer who brought us the stunning visuals of The Fountain.
Throughout our day on set, we had the chance to meet and chat with most of the cast, including Sam Rockwell, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Ana de la Reguera, Walton Goggins and Raoul Trujillo. We also of course had little visits by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford which made for some of the most special moments of the day.
Stay tuned to Screen Rant all this week for your in-depth Cowboys & Aliens coverage as we’ll have something new up every day, from interviews with Jon Favreau, Bob Orci and Sam Rockwell, a look at what it takes to build an authentic Western with a sci-fi twist, to why Daniel Craig taking over the lead role from Robert Downey Jr. may have been the best thing that happened with the project.
We’ll also talk about why this film is quite a bit different, not only in style but in development, for producers Bob Orci, Alex Kurtzman and director Jon Favreau and whether or not there’s potential of a sequel.
For more on Cowboys & Aliens:
Cowboys & Aliens is scheduled for release on July 29th, 2011. It is directed by Jon Favreau and produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. The screenplay is written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, inspired by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s graphic novel.