“Look, the title is ‘Cowboys & Aliens,’” says Jon Favreau, “You can get away with a lot if you chose to.”
That was more or less the idea when the project was first pitched nearly 15 years ago. The whole affair began with the immediately-memorable title and its power to conjure images that range from bizarre and amusing to epic and exciting and every beat in-between. Universal and DreamWorks took their time in bringing the project into active development, though, knowing that every chance to get it right meant there were dozens of ways to get it wrong. Fortunately, Favreau is a man who has built his directing career on taking bigger-than-life stories and finding the reality they have to offer.
“We really wanted to challenge ourselves with making it the intersection of the two genres,” he adds, “It had to work for both [western and science fiction]. If it only worked for one, we booted the idea.”
To that end, certain rules were laid out soon after Favreau came aboard, having just finished his work on Iron Man 2. Despite the fact that the script (from “Transformers” and “Star Trek” writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) incorporated alien spacecraft and advanced technology, it was important that nothing feel tonally out of place in a traditional Western.
“Flashbacks occur in both,” he says of another cross-genre element, “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… And if you look at ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ or ‘The Wild Bunch,’ there’s great use of flashback. We wanted to create a language that would work for both.”
Another prime example of cross-genres is the film’s MacGuffin. Favreau and company were careful to make the aliens’ reason for coming to Earth something that would be just as valuable on the other side of the universe as it would be in the old west. All around, the key was bringing the sci-fi aspects down to Earth.
“We didn’t want it to be a huge, huge alien invasion battle,” continues Favreau of maintaining verisimilitude, “…We didn’t want it to feel much bigger than a cavalry charge or the Alamo.”
To help ground the film, it was agreed that it was important to not go the route that Hollywood has been taking over the past two years and, instead of 3D, Cowboys & Aliens is prepared for two-dimensions on traditional film stock.
“At a certain point there was talk about doing this thing in 3D and it was rejected,” says star Harrison Ford, no stranger to either genre, “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… The country is beautiful and you feel what you should feel in that empty space.”
Since so many of the characters are products of their environment, grounding the reality of the scenery intrinsically served the story. Leading man Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, a mysterious cowboy who wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is and with an extraterrestrial device strapped to his wrist. In the absence of exposition, Lonergan’s identity immediately parallels the harsh sun-bleached desert of New Mexico.
“It’s instinctively ruthless,” says Craig, “And that’s what I liked. In all good westerns, the good guy is always a little bit questionable because he kind-of has to make moral judgments. There’s an instinct within him, which is about survival and killing… [T]here’s a sort-of redemption about that. He wakes up for the first time having gone through this awful experience… That appealed to me. It gives it a few more levels and I kind of like bad guy, good guys. They’re kind-of the more interesting people.”
Lonergan isn’t the only character with some mysteries at his back. Olivia Wilde’s Ella is a gunslinger herself and enters the story with an agenda that will immediately have audiences asking questions.
“I think every great character has a great secret,” says Wilde, “I think that’s the trick to creating a great character in a film. I always try to pick one secret that the person is holding. I think it makes more interesting and layered that what you’re saying is not always what you’re thinking… Nothing about this movie is typical, and it would have been too typical to have it be about the romance. Even when Ella first meets Jake in that bar, it’s a seduction scene of sorts, but she’s not looking to seduce him to bring him into her bed. She’s trying to glean information from him.”
Shooting the film outside of Santa Fe was an easy sell for the cast and the promise of horseback riding only sweetened the deal for actors used to the experience. Wilde started riding at a very young age and Ford, who owns a ranch himself, actually wound up buying both his and Craig’s horses after the shoot was complete.
“I just wanted to play a cowboy for a long time,” says Craig of his own desire to ride on film, “…The best time I had was just saddling up every day. I mean, it really was just that. Whether you came to work with a bad head or just in sort of a bad mood, getting on a horse was just sort of like, ‘Oh, okay! Here we go!’ Everything just calms down a little.”
Of course, riding has it challenges, particularly when certain stunts involve being yanked off a running animal by alien lassos.
“That moment was crazy,” says Wilde, “and we did it about 12 times… I had a bungee cord attached to my back that at one point, unbeknownst to me, would be yanked back, and I’d be pulled 40 feet into the air as if I had been lassoed by an alien. It was wild because they were originally going to be doing it with a stunt double, then I looked at it and I thought, ‘That looks really fun. Can I try it?’ I always make friends with the stunt team. I always think they are the coolest people on set. Tommy Harper, who was our stunt coordinator, went to Favreau and said, ‘I think she can do it.’ They rigged me up, and everybody’s sitting there biting their nails like, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing?’ I did it, and then I did it 11 more times. It was so wild because once I was up there, I had to stay up there waiting for them to reset. I was floating 40 feet above this set, and I could see for miles. I could see the mountains and the canyons and the desert, and then our little film crew down there. I thought, ‘How wild that we’re out here doing this.’ Then they’d bring me down and we’d do it all over again. It was really a thrill to be trusted by this team to do those things.”
Craig, meanwhile, also had a tricky challenge on his hands.
“[You] can’t lose your hat,” he laughs, “…I lost my hat a couple of times and I had to buy a crate of beer every time. So I glued that motherf–er to my head… Of course, the best proponent of that art is the man sitting over there.”
One scene that, unfortunately, was deemed too jokey for the final cut, actually involved Craig and Ford’s character’s hats getting switched, putting Ford for a brief second in his iconic Indiana Jones fedora.
“For Christ sake’s, [even] Han Solo’s a cowboy,” Craig kids about working with his childhood hero, “I took advantage of all of those [jokes]. It was the only way I could stay sane working with him.”
Craig didn’t escape some on-set jokes himself, though. His wrist blaster quickly became a target for his co-stars.
“He hates when I call it a bracelet,” laughs Wilde.
“Like I said, you should see the earrings,” Craig shoots back, “That’s that Daniel Craig line. That will be on QVC before you can launch.”
Ford, meanwhile, pokes a bit of fun at himself when he recounts what brought him aboard the project.
“Well,” he deadpans, “I told my agent that, one of these days, I wanted to be in a movie that people wanted to go see.”
As seriously as he takes the project, that’s a concept not lost on Favreau, either, who says that his goal is to make something that audiences are going to respond to.
“Your first job is to sell popcorn,” he admits, “So you can never lose sight of the fact that you have to make money back for the people who are giving you money. That being said, my boss is Steven Spielberg… I think what he finds to be the challenge is how you can bring an integrity to what you’re doing while you’re doing something that’s commercial. That’s the advantage of having a filmmaker as the head of a studio and I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was quite eye-opening.”