‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Set Visit

The moment where I start to wonder if Cowboys & Aliens might just work isn’t when I’m standing just to the edge of set and Harrison Ford strolls by all dirty, bloody and decked out in period garb. The actor cuts an impressive figure as a beat-down cowboy, but anyone could have predicted that. The convincing moment was a bit later when, during close-up takes for the large scene we saw being filmed, he ad-libbed jokes before and after ‘cut’ was called, coming to life as the impish, smart Harrison Ford we always hope to see on screen. Its a man who enjoys acting and has a lot of life left in him. He might have been acting for us, the visitors, as well as for the camera — I’d bet on it — but to a certain degree it doesn’t matter.

Other moments presented themselves as well. I can’t tell you about the scene we saw being filmed. It’s a big one, and I understand why Universal doesn’t want a description floating around. It’s not from the comics because, well, very little of the film is really from the comics. This is very much an ‘inspired by’ scenario. While early stories about the film pegged it as an adaptation of the comic book version of the story, director Jon Favreau insists that this is a unique take on the idea of a Western territory besieged by aliens, and with new characters to go along with it.

So what can I tell you? Quite a bit, actually. I’ll be posting extensive interview transcripts over the next couple days, but in the meantime hit the jump for a more detailed look at Cowboys & Aliens.

The production is heavily dug into the white canyon of Plaza Blanca in New Mexico, an hour or so northwest of Santa Fe. It’s late August, and Plaza Blanca is hot. Moving towards the working set we pass tables and trucks with shrouded alien heads and bodies. They’re huge — maybe ten feet tall — and very classic, from what we can see. Think ‘monster alien,’ not the reliable almond-eyed grey. “It’s not like a ’50s ‘walking robot’ alien,” Mr. Favreau says. “It’s definitely more in the tradition of Alien or Predator.”

The crew is a mix of locals and LA imports; the locals have recent experience on films like Let Me In and the last Indiana Jones film, but the notable unifying characteristic of everyone I spoke to was a prevailing good mood. It’s hot as hell, dry and dusty, and the crew has been at work on location for weeks. But work seems to be moving quickly, the vibe is upbeat and positive. Never assume that a happy crew means a film will be good (or vice versa) but it’s a persuasive factor, nonetheless.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who shot both Iron Man films for Mr. Favreau) works at a distance, composing fragments of the character-heavy sequence under way for the day, but director Jon Favreau quickly makes an appearance, joking that work on the film kicked off with a video game. “I’m basically playing Red Dead Redemption every day, except I’m telling Daniel [Craig] ‘go left, go right’ instead of using a joystick. We were playing that game together, it’s how we kicked off [the film].”

But don’t let that statement define the tone of the film. Instead let this be the guiding light:

We’re really trying to do something classic here, that feels like it could be made at an earlier time, except for the technology with which we can show all the effects.

Most of us on the set visit had seen the Comic Con footage presentation, during which we were told to expect that mix of classic Western feel and a somewhat old-school sci-fi approach. Favreau and Writer/producer Roberto Orci roll a new reel of footage to further our understanding of what the film might look like.

All the clips are first-act stuff, and I’ve been asked not to go into detail about it. But a chunk of what we saw is included in the first trailer release, and what I can say is that the stated intention of letting the film breathe as a Western definitely comes across. The footage we saw was all long takes that allow the actors to build the scene. While these were master shots, and will likely be embellished with close-ups and other footage in the final edit, there is a prevailing sense that this is not fast-paced revisionist storytelling. While the genre mash-up inherent to the film might seem pretty topical, that sense of needing to tell an old story in a new way isn’t there.

Let Jon Favreau explain:

The first shot of a UFO [in real life] was like a cigar-shaped silver thing in the air. There have been certain recurring themes in sightings, and then the way film has treated UFOS…so we tried to reference stuff and make it fit into the cultural memory of aliens…We’re definitely going for more of the horror side of alien movies. Although we have quite a lot of CG I liked the way we told stories before you could show everything with CG. There was a real unveiling of the creature little by little and using lighting and camerawork and music to make it a very subjective experience, and we tried to preserve that here. Even though we have ILM and we can show everything from the beginning, it’s nice to let things unfold in a way, especially ’cause you’re seeing it through the eyes of people in this Western milieu. And for the western, we really tried to embrace that and not try to update it too much or change it or make it more accessible for a younger audience. We figure that the alien side of things hopefully will take care of the people who don’t know westerns, but for people who love the western, let’s do it using all the archetypes of the classic western films.

Roberto Orci scripted along with Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, and addition to explaining that executive producers Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg acted as Western film historians in the early days of the production, he elaborates,

…if you were to watch the dailies of all this without any of this [alien stuff in mind] you’d think – you wouldn’t have any idea that there’s gonna be anything other than a straight Western.  And that’s why we wanted it.  We wanted to make sure the Western moments were true to themselves and not just relying on what’s gonna happen later.

While I can’t describe any specific footage, draw your own conclusions based on the cast that was floating in and out of the tent where we monitored the day’s shoot: Daniel Craig, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Walton Goggins, Paul Dano, Ana de la Reguera (Eastbound & Down), Julio Cedillo (The Mist, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) and Noah Ringer. When I see the latter acting in the scene I don’t even recognize him, as he already looks considerably more adult than he did as Ang in The Last Airbender.

Their costumes are impressive: extraordinarily detailed layered suits for the townsmen, rib-crushing corsets and dense skirts on the women from town, and various rough garb for the natives, most of whom we only see from a distance. Many of the costumes betray some interaction with the aliens, most prominently in the streaks of greenish distressed lashes that are evidence of some alien subjugating force.

We didn’t get a lot of time with the cast. Sam Rockwell hedged about explaining his character, but allowed that “I kind of serve as the Jimmy Stewart or Bill Paxton of the piece. I’m sort of like sincere but I have those moments of levity,” going on to reference his work in Galaxy Quest, which occasionally had a similar effect. And Paul Dano was enthusiastic about the degree to which practical effects were used:

The best thing about it for me was that Favreau was super clear-cut about his approach to the whole thing.  And I feel like there’s a nice sense of what the aliens are… You know, we had these light rays that were flying over our heads at 60 miles an hour and most of that stuff was done practical, which is like a dream for an actor.

I’ll leave you with a bit of explanation about how the film relates to the comics, and why the simple title has stuck. Bob Orci explains

Well, we wanted the story to be a surprise.  If you were a fan of the graphic novel, we wanted to make sure that you were going to get a new thing, that you weren’t going to know what was going to happen – even though the theme is still kind of from the GN.  The characters are all different, the characters – some of them overlap.  But we wanted it to be inspired by the graphic novel, and covering the same things, but we wanted it to be a surprise.

Translate that as you will — I get a sense of “well, we had our own ideas and were more interested in those,” but you can take that statement literally if you like. The end result is the same. And I know there are still some who can’t get past the basic idea of the film, especially with a pretty on-the-nose title like Cowboys & Aliens. But Mr. Orci isn’t worried.

Having a title that people snicker at is actually not a terrible thing, because when they find out what it really is, it actually compels them to discuss it, and to say, “It’s not what you think.”

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