In part two of our Cowboys & Aliens set visit report, we interview director Jon Favreau and writer/producer Roberto Orci to take a deeper look at the otherworldly title characters of the film, their origins and design, and most importantly, why they’re on Earth causing havoc with the cowboys and natives.
Let’s start by going back to the beginning when we first arrived on the set of Cowboys & Aliens. Favreau took time out of his busy shooting schedule and chatted with for a good hour or so to start off the day. But before we got talking about the production, the aliens and the characters, he told us the story about the challenge coins he gave during the production of Iron Man 2.
The coin, which in military tradition is a sign of respect and membership, sparked an interesting discussion about the origins and designs of the aliens and their technology in the film as he handed a Cowboys & Aliens-themed one to each of us. We’ll use it as the intro to our look at the concept of the aliens, their origins and most importantly, their motivations and how it’ll fit into the framework of the film’s genre crossover.
This was the one real memento we could take home from the set. It’s approximately the size of a silver dollar and on the one side it reads “Cowboys” with two crossing six shooters. On the flip side, it reads “Aliens” and features a detailed satellite-looking UFO craft, the one that can be seen in the Cowboys & Aliens trailer as Daniel Craig’s character shoots it out of the sky with his alien wristband. Favreau explained that these are just the smaller craft that rope the people in, so to speak, as shown in the trailer.
Click here for Favreau’s explanation of the Cowboys & Aliens challenge coin and why it’s now a tradition for him to give out for his films.
About designing the look of the alien craft, Favreau talked about researching historical reports of UFO sightings and local lore.
“We tried to look at – you know, there was that first photograph of a spaceship was from I think the 1870s, not far from here… And you know, they had the first shot of a UFO was like a cigar-shaped silver thing in the air. And there have been certain recurring themes and sightings and – and then the way film has treated them, UFOs.”
Using other alien genre films as a reference point for presenting the alien space ships and creatures in an appropriate manner for the serious and more horror-oriented tone of Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau continued by explaining that it’s not all about revealing the aliens and their tech because they can, but slowly as if we’re experiencing this first encounter as the characters are in the film.
“I’m more of a fan of the alien movies from – you know, I guess I grew up around the time of “Close Encounters”, “E.T.” and then “Alien” I like a lot, and “Predator”. So we’re definitely going for more of the horror side of the alien movies – and although we have quite a bit of CG – I like the way they told stories before – before you could show everything with CG. And it was a real unveiling of the creature, little by little, and using lighting and camera work and music to make it a very subjective experience. And so we tried to preserve that here, even though we have ILM and we could show everything from the beginning, it’s nice to let things unfold, in a way – especially because you’re seeing through the eyes of these people in this Western milieu.”
As we know already from the Cowboys & Aliens Comic-Con footage, Daniel Craig’s character unwittingly sports some alien tech on his wrists. This device, reminiscent of Iron Man, is of course a weapon. How he gets this tech, what it’s capable of and if there are other devices similar to this remains a mystery.
Ship designs and horror elements aside, what about the alien creatures themselves? Favreau explained that they are biological in design, quipping that it’s not like the 50s with “walking robot” extraterrestrials.
“It’s definitely more in the tradition of like ‘Alien’ and ‘Predator.’ You know, that’s what’s compelling. And then that allows for – you know, you could create the biology of the alien that feels the most horrifying and reveal it slowly over the course of the film, as opposed to just form these columns of aliens marching out… You know, it’s not ‘Mars Attacks.’”
After nearly half a day of shooting and returning from lunch, Favreau chatted with us again a few hours later and this time we spoke of the designs of the aliens themselves. The aliens, as mentioned above, are meant to be scary and are slowly revealed throughout the movie. They’re large, bipedal and will be CG-rendered. To help gauge their size and look on screen, they had prop arms and heads as well as a funny-looking helmet with a ball that stood approximately two feet above it to simulate the height of the aliens as a focal point for the actors during scenes. Favreau had actually used marker to draw a “scary” face on the ball, if you could call it that.
We didn’t get to see concept art of the full creatures at the time and Favreau mostly joked with us when we asked details, but he did show us a cast of an alien arm and discussed how they used it to help film. They also have full bodies to represent dead aliens (we didn’t get to see these) but having something like an alien limb allows them to figure out and gauge the lighting and look of certain scenes and angles to they get a better idea of the finished product and how the CGI affects need to be applied. Remember, Favreau’s mantra is to film practically, “using CGI to enhance.”
The arm we saw was almost reptilian or frog-like, with plenty of detail and color. Take into consideration that they stand approximately ten feet tall on average, you can start piecing together an image in your head of what Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are up against.
Developing Aliens That Are New & Different
With there being so many depictions of aliens and UFOs out there, even from the films mentioned to the onslaught of upcoming alien invasion movies, how much of a challenge is it develop something unique in their offering with Cowboys & Aliens?
“Yeah, it’s very hard. You know, but thank – you know, actually Steven Spielberg was very involved at that point. And it’s hard to have a brainstorming session with Steven Spielberg because he’ll start talking about, ‘Well, in E.T. I did this, and then in…’ You know. And then you’re just – it’s hard for you to – it’s hard to not be distracted by that, you know.”
And it’s not just Spielberg who Favreau along with writer/producers Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman could draw knowledge and ideas from; Ron Howard and Harrison Ford offer invaluable industry experience and insight on the subject as well.
Will Cowboys & Aliens delve into the mythology of the otherworldly characters and explore their history and purpose of being on Earth?
“They do. I mean, we have an internal logic to it. But definitely, in again, the movies that I like, it’s not like you’re going to be cutting to the bridge of the alien ship like in the ‘Treehouse of Horror.’ It’s more like you can infer certain things. Again, to me once of the best examples is ‘Alien.’ There was a logic to it, but the way it unfolded, you didn’t really know it. And there was enough logic to it that you could accept it. But all I knew when I watched it is, ‘Oh, my God, what’s that? There’s eggs; it’s on his face. It’s coming out of his stomach… And they’re all over the place, you can’t kill them; they have acid blood.’ Those were things that were pulled together, saying what they were colonizing. But I really liked the experience, and how the actors, and how Sigourney Weaver was going through it, and how much it was affecting her – the nightmares she was having. And then as you – and the more I learned about the aliens, the less I enjoyed them.”
Favreau used Predator and Cloverfield as examples to explain that he could easily walk audiences through why each part of the movie’s plot happens and what the aliens are doing off-screen but that would take away from the dramatic impact and experience. If a sequel were to occur, like in other alien-based franchises, the horror and shock of the alien introduction will have passed and it makes sense to answer more detailed questions and dig deeper into the mythology of the aliens.
Producer/writer Bob Orci later expanded on the motivation behind the aliens being on Earth and why in the trailer we can see them rounding up human captives, Old West style (with tractor beams instead of a lasso). So, why are they abducting people?
“It is to figure out what the resources are here. They are – someone said the other day – I hadn’t made this connection – but they are like a modern day multi-national corporation. They study the resources of whatever new place they find, to find out what’s exploitable, what’s usable, what’s conquerable, and what’s returnable to their planet.”
If you wish to analyze the story of Cowboys & Aliens, looking deeper into potential parallels or metaphors, the obvious comparisons can be made to expansionism and how the aliens are a form of settlers, a common theme of the Western genre. But that’s not the goal or what the movie is about. It’s about cowboys and aliens.
Cowboys & Aliens is directed by Jon Favreau and produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. It opens in theaters July 29, 2011.
Jon Favreau explains the reasoning behind giving out challenge coins for Cowboys & Aliens and Iron Man 2:
“…in the military, when we would work with the Air Force a lot, on ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Iron Man 2′, we were at Edwards Air Force Base. And I would shake hands with people, and I would feel they would stick a coin in my hands, right? And it was a challenge coin. The reason they call it challenge coins is, if you don’t have your unit coin, or a unit coin with you when you’re out drinking, and somebody pulls your glass at the bar, if anybody in the bar doesn’t have a coin, they have to buy a round for everybody. But if you challenge everybody and everybody has it, you have to buy the round for everybody. But it was also a sign of respect, that they liked the way the crew was, and the way we treated, you know, them, and who were – you know, are developed a nice relationship with any of the individuals – it was a sign of respect to give a coin. So I had them made up for “Ironman II”. And it became like a tradition. So I had them made up for ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ also. I made them look a little more old school.”
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