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
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...