As a film buff, when you receive the opportunity to interview Harrison Ford with a small group of reporters, it’s simultaneously elating and intimidating. Ford carries with him the weight of one of the most iconographic filmography’s of our time. He is, as Cowboys & Aliens director Jon Favreau has said, “the John Wayne of this generation” in the sense that “when John Wayne stepped onto the screen, he brought his entire body of work with him, and you have to acknowledge that.”
As we noted in our earlier edit bay visit piece with the director, casting Ford is in some respects a metaphorical tip of the hat to the fans. He was a space Cowboy before anyone really recognized that Star Wars was borrowing many classic Western tropes and character traits and transporting them into the intergalactic realms.
What becomes somewhat off-putting is the knowledge that Ford is either unaware of, or entirely uninterested in, his significance as a public figure. One gets the sense that he would rather you not bring it up, and yet the Harrison Fordness of Harrison Ford is an inescapable reality for those of us who grew up with his films. Once again director Jon Favreau sums it up perfectly when he says, “First of all, you’re sitting across from Harrison Ford, which, even if he was the warmest, even if he was Santa Claus … but he is standoffish at first and he’s a man of few words and he has his own rhythm to him.”
During the course of our interview with Ford, the actor himself acknowledged that nostalgia holds no appeal for him, saying laughingly:
“Nope. I’m in it for the money. It’s my job and I love making movies and I love being part of good movies. I love working with ambitious people, and nostalgia doesn’t enter into it for me.”
Yet, even if nostalgia is not quite the word, many of us feel a connection to the characters that Ford has portrayed and the career he has created. So when the opportunity arose to sit across the table from a man I am convinced is (in his spirit) a bona fide Cowboy, in the glorious Missoula, Montana sunshine, with the sounds of horses neighing and Cowboys herding in the background — I recognized that this was a singular moment in my life. A moment in which I best just swallow my nerves, “Cowboy-up” and talk to the one, and only, Harrison Ford.
Ford’s management team initially approached him with the project after he had made one simple, clear, request — that they find him a movie that people would go see.
“I told my agent that, one of these days, I wanted to be in a movie that people wanted to go see. One that appeals to what’s left of the movie audience. He said, ‘I’ve got one,’ and he said that the title was ‘Cowboys and Aliens’. I read about 30 pages and said, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t think that there’s anything in this for me.’ He said, ‘Well, I thought you were into doing a movie that people wanted to go see.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’ll finish it,’ and I read the rest of it. It was ambitious, I thought. I said, ‘Why don’t I go talk to Jon?’ and then I met with Jon Favreau. I was impressed by what he had to say and his collegial spirit. I met the writers and they made it clear that it was still a work in progress. I met Daniel [Craig], who was very generous about sharing a bit more space for the character. Then I began to see an opportunity to play a different kind of character than I’m used to. To enjoy the pleasures of having a character where you don’t have to have anybody like you. It’s a chance to really attempt to bring in some texture to the piece. I had a great time. So I said, ‘I’m in. This should be fun.’ And it was.”
“This is a very original concept,” Ford continued, delving into some of the standard misconceptions people have about the film, based on the title alone.
“It was an ambition of the writers and Jon from the very beginning to have a textured, layered experience for the audience. “Cowboys & Aliens” is kind of a good joke, but you sit down, the lights go out and you gotta get way past that and start getting into something else, because that’s some poor version of “Men in Black.” You have to attend to both the myth of the West and the reality of the West, you have to talk about relationships, because this is about going and getting back our kin, getting back our people who have been snatched away. And what does that mean to a guy who treats his kid like shit anyway? Does it mean that he recognizes that this is unfinished business, that this is bad business and that he’s got another chance at it?”
Ford’s character in the film, Woodrow Dolarhyde, has been referred to as the man who would be the villain of the piece if the aliens hadn’t shown up. Yet there is sense that Woodrow simply has a resolute sense of doing what is right according to his moral code, with no room for discussion. When we asked Ford if he was working with that as idea in the crafting of his character he replied that:
“It was certainly a point of reference. I think that in the original script there was a lot more about his military career and his suitability to lead this party because he had a strategic understanding of warfare. I think we rightly sloughed off more of that and a little bit of his relationship with his son and how he treated people and perhaps focused a bit more in his disappointment in his military experience and what happened at the end. I thought it was very cleverly parsed out so that you didn’t just sit down and have a chat about where he comes from and what he’s like and why he’s the way he is. We see his behavior in various situations that the audience gets to participate in, rather than listen to. Which is the key, to me, to good screenwriting.”
Ford tends to work very closely with his colleagues on the construction of his characters and has called both the writers and Favreau “wonderfully collaborative” on this film. As far as his priorities for Dolarhyde were concerned, Ford first and foremost:
“Wanted him to represent the reality of a Western experience. He’s the richest man in town. He’s the most powerful man in town. He’s arrogant. He’s contentious. There’s no sign of Mrs. Dolarhyde. She must have fled a long time ago. His son sort of reflects his inadequacies as a father. So those moments with the boy are of particular importance. The references went in all directions. For me, that’s just a great opportunity. You don’t want to hit it too hard, because it’s a movie about Cowboys and Aliens. But if it can be there and it can have a real emotional reality, that’s part of the pleasure of going to a movie.”
Take a look at the featurette below in which Ford discusses his vision for this Western hybrid.
Ford felt that the visual aesthetic for the film served to support the organic sense of the landscape and culture that the team hoped to capture.
“At a certain point, there was talk about doing this thing in 3D and it was rejected, as you can see. But I’m glad that it didn’t turn out to be a 3D movie because that sense of place is really important. It goes a long way towards explaining people’s need to depend on themselves and crunch up against each other to see who had the most capacity to affect the situation they found themselves in. It was a tough world and an empty place and you had to depend on yourself and the people around you. I think that’s expressed in the anamorphic scale of the way the movie was shot. There’s something real important about that and it’s the iconography of the Western. You have all that space and you can still see other people’s faces.”
Dolarhyde is a man who has had his edges sharpened by hardship and war. A man who is aware of the realities of war and pain and, as such, is unwilling to acquiesce to those of lesser experience or expertise. In order to ground his character, Ford paid attention to the research and the details of the battles he was meant to have taken part in.
“I wanted to know the history, I certainly did want to study Antietam and I wanted to make sure we had those references correct, and, in fact, we did make some corrections to that. Yeah, it’s important for me to just know what I’m talking about, tuck that in. I don’t have to do a sense memory [laughs] I just need to know what I’m talking about. And I thought it was important to know about why he was not going to turn this over to somebody else, not going to depend on somebody else. I think the line is, I think it’s still in the movie, is “I’m not going to turn this over to some guys who have to telegraph Washington.” The audience might find a little pleasure in that, even today.”
Cowboys & Aliens opens this Friday, July 29th.
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