Interview: Jon Favreau Plays Cinematic DJ With 'Cowboys & Aliens'

This weekend, director Jon Favreau's highly anticipated Sci-fi/Western genre bender Cowboys & Aliens comes galloping into theaters. Last week, we had the unique thrill of being flown out to Missoula, Montana, to interview Jon Favreau, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde and, of course, Harrison Ford.

We were also privileged to be among the first people in the world to see the movie and to experience three days of living like a Cowboy (if by Cowboy we mean city-slicker on an incredible country joy-ride). Said Western-style  joy-ride included horseback riding, archery, skeet shooting with a gun in one hand and a glass of wine in the other (I kid, I put the wine down to pick up the shotgun), axe-throwing and learning to lasso (a plastic cow, but still).

Over the course of the week we will be providing continuing coverage of the film and our time in Missoula. To begin our exploration into this unique and sprawling adventure film, take a look at what the director himself has to say.

We sat down with Favreau on a glorious morning with the sun high, the sky clear and blue, the smell of fresh grass in the air, and a herd of real cows and real Cowboys just a few feet away from us. In fact, one or two journalists became somewhat anxious when a couple of the bulls treaded just a bit too close for comfort. We decided that only the vegetarians would be safe in what was sure to be an impending cowpocalypse. (This is what happens when you bring concrete jungle journalists into the splendor of a Western landscape.)

Cinematic Remixing:

Sitting in this magnificent atmosphere we spoke with Favreau about his approach to crafting this singular film. An approach which was, in part, to create a fully functioning Western that happens to intersect with an alien-invasion film. The second mandate Favreau had for himself was to create a fun, but grounded film - one that had a sense of reality rather than one that got too kitschy with the tropes.

"The first thing we had to set out and do was decide what kind of Western we were going to do, if it was just a Western, and what kind of alien movie. The type of alien movie we seized on (I guess because of when I grew up them) was the moment just before CGI hit. There was, I think, a golden age of that kind of movie because you were dealing with animatronics, you were dealing with the Stan Winston/Bottin era of "The Thing," "Alien," and even "Aliens" and we really looked and examined closely what was done right before you could do everything with a computer. I think once "Alien 3" came out, you just showed them swimming and it was just a different ... you were showing off the technology. I know with "Iron Man," it worked very well because we looked at "Top Gun" when we looked at how to cover him flying. We looked at what the last big practical flying movie was to see the way you cover it, what lenses you use, how to discipline the cinematography. Not because anybody would notice it overtly, but subconsciously you feel it's more real. So we decided to look at films like "Alien," "Aliens," "Predator," and even "Jaws," "Close Encounters"...a lot of the Spielberg stuff that play up the tension. In those movies, you played on the verge of horror and spent less time explaining the culture of that because you want to keep them this distant, evil, shadowy, primal force. And then as you slowly reveal them and make them vulnerable. Then you think of the way that "Predator" plays out, you don't even see the thing. It's a shadow, then it's a ripple, it's a movement, music, sound, and then the aftermath of what it does and eventually, the armor comes off, you see it, and then they end up fighting."

Take a look at the featurette below in which the cast and crew discuss the challenges and rewards of creating this genre mash-up:


The Beauty Of 2D Anamorphic:

Cowboys & Aliens will screen in theaters in, as Jon Favreau says, "glorious 2D." The value of 3D has become a point of contention among both filmmakers and film fans over the past year, but at the time that Cowboys & Aliens was first going into pre-production there was a large push for directors to either shoot in, or post-convert their films into 3D. The decision to shoot in 2D was made in large part because the goal was to capture the essence of a more traditional Western and let the aliens (which would also be treated in an organic manner) be the twist. Shooting in 2D anamorphic lent itself to achieving that goal.

Cowboys and Aliens movie to show at Comic-Con 2011

Knowing that 3D may in fact become the dominate format for films, Favreau was concerned that Cowboys might have been his last opportunity to shoot on film. So when the director began working with his spectacularly talented cinematographer, Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, Black Swan) they spent a good deal of time making choices about how to use the medium to its fullest to help support the the tone of the film and story.

"Once we decided to shoot anamorphic, which I don't think Matty had done before, nor had I, we were really embracing what the film could do. There were going to be both flashbacks and also a decision about what the alien vision should look like and we looked at a lot flashback stuff from the Westerns. Flashbacks occur in both [genres], that's one of those intersection moments if you look at "Fire in the Sky" and you look at when people remember alien encounters or abductions, they have spotty memories with it ... even "Men in Black." And if you look at "Once Upon a Time in the West" or "The Wild Bunch," there's great use of flashback. So, we wanted to create a language that would work for both. Matty had done some [color] reversal(***) work in "Inside Man" I believe. So we worked tests of it because we didn't just want to go with vignetted, sepia wash. We didn't want anything to ever feel kitsch. We didn't want it to feel like a wink about the Western. We wanted to do something that made you feel like what you saw, but we didn't want it to be a pastiche. So reversal felt like it gave it an otherworldly quality. It sent a message to the audience that you were looking at something different. It became challenge with visual effects in the flashback, because it already makes it look unreal, so to have the different things that we had do became more challenging because even if you showing something real in reversal, it feels a little unreal. That was only challenge and Matty was really the steward of that and he has a great aesthetic eye."

One of the classic tropes of the Western is "the silent stranger." The hero of Cowboys & Aliens, Daniel Craig's Jake Lonergan, is both that and (initially) "the man with no name." Having a hero who is able to express a lot with a little was important to Favreau and finding an actor who has the ability to portray those qualities -- crucial to the film.

"The only thing that was a little off for me {in the initial script} was that the main character was a little chatty. The gag has to be that you play one straight and the other straight and then let it get crazy when they come together. Don't play a funny Western. Don't have a fast talking gunfighter. Then it becomes a different thing; then that's the comment. That's the fun you're having. That's the twist, but you don't want a twist before the aliens come, I felt. The first person I cast when I came in was Daniel, who I really liked. There's not a lot of people who can play this role. Most people his age feel more like kids. They don't feel like guys who've experienced enough to feel remorse and need redemption. They feel like people who are just coming of age. He had that history to him and he was a real good foil. Then we got Harrison and it really made a lot of sense."

Stay tuned for more from our conversation with Jon Favreau in which he discusses pitching Harrison Ford on the film, defeating unbeatable odds and the mythology of aliens.

Cowboys & Aliens opens in theaters this Friday, July 29th.

***Color reversal film, or commonly called slide film, creates the opposite of color negative film or black and white film. Instead of creating a negative to be printed to a positive, the slide film is a positive of the image. As such, the slide film produces extremely rich and vibrant colors that come closer to the actual colors and tones present during exposure. -- Definition via Guide To Film Photography.

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