Cowboys & Aliens co-writer/producer Roberto Orci is one of the most prolific and successful screenwriters in Hollywood right now. With Cowboys & Aliens in post-production, Fringe renewed for a fourth season, the Star Trek sequel, Enders Game – and a bevy of other films all in development – Orci does not have much in the way of free time.
In regards to Cowboys & Aliens, Orci spoke about the learning curve he faced within the framework of the Western genre, the recent resurgence of said genre, and the unique pleasure of having a portion of your education derive from having Steven Spielberg provide a live commentary during a screening of The Searchers.
Q: Can you talk about combining the visual legacy of Westerns with that of aliens, given that the aliens in question are evocative of Close Encounters.
“Our production designer, Scott Chambliss, who we worked with previously on “Alias” and “Star Trek” was gracious enough to come on and do this with us, and we were very conscious of that. We knew that it couldn’t just be a classic flying saucer over a Cowboy, or the classic tractor beam that floats up; it had to feel like it was all of the same world even though it’s not. So that’s why when you see the ships from far away, they kind of look like dragonflies, or they look sort of organic, and that’s why instead of a tractor beam, they use lassos; it’s like using the Western language and you’re having the influence of sci-fi. When we designed the silhouette of the alien, he looks kind of like a gunslinger. And it’s subliminal – you don’t realize it’s fitting in, but it starts to fit in; they have almost kind of a reptilian, iguana thing, so when you see them in the Western landscape, they don’t hurt your brain – it actually seems organic. Also, when Harrison Ford read the script, he was interested enough to come meet us, but he said after the fact that it wasn’t until after he saw the artwork on the wall that he realized, ‘oh, I understand this tonally now,’ and it was because he was very consciously paying attention to the production design.”
Q: How much design of the aliens came from the script, and/or how much did the script shape what the aliens looked like?
“We prescribed things that had to happen in the script that therefore give you some sort of physical basics, but no amount of description in the script could ever get close to…They have to fulfill the function that we lay in there, but it’s really the artists who take it to another level.”
Q: How tough was it to combine Westerns and aliens?
“It’s tone, because again, this started as a comedy back in the day, in ’96 or whenever this first started getting developed – it was kind of a comedy script, kind of like “Men in Black” or “Wild Wild West.” So it’s very easy to go that way, and then when we came on, it was very easy to get too serious, and so the next draft gets funny, and you’re sort of [going back and forth] until it’s just right, hopefully. So it’s tone, really, is the biggest hassle of it. Making sure you have taken pains to set up a world realistically enough that when this other genre interrupts, that they’re reacting like you would. [As if they were experiencing a biblical, or demonic event.] In fact, I’m not sure the word “aliens” ever appears in the movie or it was ever uttered out loud.”
Q: As we have seen in films like Wild Wild West, the combination of sci-fi and Westerns can sometimes be unwieldy. Did you have to be conscious of that (potentially) questionable combination?
“Tone is half of it, but you want to think about it from the beginning, the DNA of it, and that’s why we made the decision to treat the Western like this movie could go on, Harrison and Daniel versus each other and the town in between – that could be a movie. If aliens didn’t land 10 minutes into the movie, that movie could keep going.”
Q: Was the appeal of this project combining your interest in Westerns with subject matter that’s commercially viable as it was for director Jon Favreau? And do you think C&A will benefit from the recent resurgence in Westerns?
“Luckily there’s been a resurgence in Westerns – it’s crazy. I mean, like, you saw what “True Grit” did, and that was a huge surprise, and they don’t even have aliens in it! So that’s a lucky thing, and hopefully that will take, because when we first got this movie up and running, one of the big barriers was, well, Westerns they say don’t travel well internationally, and it’s not exactly a vibrant genre in this country, so that’s been a lucky thing. But Westerns, I was not a student of them, really. Sci-fi, yes, but I’d have to go back and sort of watch Westerns and send myself back a little bit to film school to prepare for this. For me, it was a challenge of, audiences are so savvy – they’ve seen everything, and so my draw was just doing something they haven’t seen before, even though the Western part of it for me was daunting in terms of ‘I’m going to have to learn this now.'”
Q: Was there anything daunting for you in the process of that education?
“Tons of things. You know how you forget there’s different flavors, a million different shades of white? It’s the same thing with a Western: you realize there’s a bunch of different kinds of Westerns, and they all look the same when you step back, but when you get in there, there’s the genre of the guy who comes into town, there’s the genre of the town that actually fights an outside thing, there’s “The Searchers,” where you’re going after something, there’s “The Seven Samurai.” So there were lots of flavors within there that we had to sort out.”
Q: How far along is this film in terms of its completion?
“We’re still editing it, and one of the reasons we’re here on top of wanting to be [at Wondercon] is because we’re going to stay here for the week. Because we’re at ILM and Skywalker Sound, doing the mix; more alien designs are coming in as we speak, and we’re over there to kind of edit the effects. The music, we haven’t heard, so that’s still coming in. There’s a lot to do – we’ve probably got a couple of months.”
Q: How does all of this work train your friendship with Alex (if at all)?
“One of the ways we’re cleansing our palate is that Alex just finished directing his first directing job for a movie that we just wrote and produced called “Welcome to People.” It’s a “talkin’ picture” as we call it, and there’s no robots, no aliens, there are no car chases, there’s nothing fun (laughs). No, I’m kidding. It’s a true character piece, and that’s one we’ve been writing with another writer, Jodi Lambert, for years at night just hoping that someday someone would give us a chance to do something that didn’t have special effects in it. That’s been a nice little change of pace for us.”
Q: How tough is it to compartmentalize finishing this movie while you’re also presumably working on other projects like the script for the next “Star Trek?”
“The hardest part is time. But in terms of your mind, it’s actually nice to get away from stuff you’re doing; you get a little bit of perspective and time gets elongated when you’re thinking about something else. If I spend two days thinking about “Star Trek” instead of this movie, when I come back to this movie, it’s like I’ve been gone for two weeks, and it allows me to come back fresher, so it surprisingly helps each other if it’s not too much and you have the energy for it.”
Q: What was the thing that you learned from your research into westerns that you might carry with you?
“The role of the environment, I guess. In a way, one of the things we learned about the Western, we talked about this, but Spielberg screened “The Searchers” for us – he got a new print of it, he took us to a theater, me and Jon and Damon and Alex, and showed us a print and then did commentary through the whole movie live. He was saying, ‘Okay, look at the horizon, why is the horizon where it is in relation to the actors? Why does it change as the movie progresses?’ It got us thinking about the role of the environment versus your role in it. And in a way, an alien is part of the environment; in a way, it’s part of nature, really, even though it’s sci-fi, and it’s nature intruding on you. So the idea of the environment being a character is something I’ll take with me.”
Q: Does that extend to film language – and did you ever think that way in the past?
“No I hadn’t. Unless it was like, ‘they’re facing a tidal wave,’ I didn’t think of the environment as something to think about on its own even if it’s not obvious.”
Q: How do you go back to watching movies after seeing one with a Spielberg commentary?
“It’s like, ‘this movie’s lame!’ It’s tough.”
Are the humans the resources they’re coming to the town for?
“No. I was going to ask Jon in the panel, so why did you not like my idea that the horses are the aliens?”
Q: How difficult or easy is it to give such a sizable ensemble as the one in this movie something to do?
“It is a challenge. Luckily the Western has a great history (as we were saying) of,’no role is too small,’ and I think that’s why people came out and did roles that may have been too small for them in another movie, and in this movie it felt right for them because the characters are very specific and very delineated, so it’s something you fine tune in the editing room. Like maybe you shoot more than you’re going to use, so you make sure that you’ve developed it at least enough in the script that if something has to go away, but we have got a great cast so we’re lucky they showed up.”
Cowboys & Aliens arrives in theaters on July 29th 2011 – directed by Jon Favreau and starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, and Noah Ringer.