When preparing to adapt the Platinum Studios graphic novel “Cowboys & Aliens” into a big budget feature film, executive producer Steven Spielberg took screenwriter Roberto Orci, along with director Jon Favreau and Orci’s co-writers, to film school. “Spielberg screened several movies for us, even did commentary in the theater with us,” Orci said. The writer, who also serves as a producer on the Universal Pictures/DreamWorks film, was on set when CBR News visited the film as it was wrapping its on-site production in New Mexico last August. “[Spielberg] got a new print of ‘The Searchers’ and he took me and Jon and Alex [Kurtzman] and Damon [Lindelof] to the Warner Brothers Theater. It was a DVD commentary, live, with Spielberg,” Orci recalled. “It’s like, ‘Okay, where’s the horizon? Why do you think the horizon is there? What is the horizon’s relationship to the actors mean about the scene?’ And we’re taking notes.”
With the Western genre essentially in hibernation for many years, Orci was appreciative to receive his executive producer’s input. One of the most important things he picked up was how best to utilize the impressive New Mexico landscape. “We have a great environment here, and in any Western, one element tends to be how you’re dealing with nature,” he said. “Is it beating you or are you beating it? That becomes a conscious thing that’s subliminal to the audience, but it still affects how you feel about the transition.”
In addition to their education in the Western, Orci credits Speilberg, along with producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, with keeping the creative team behind the genre-mashing film focused. “Whenever we go outside of the bumper rails, they’ll push us back into the center,” he said of the group.
When Orci first became involved with the project, Robert Downey Jr. was set to star and the film was intended to utilize a more tongue-in-cheek tone in order to capitalize on the actor’s strengths. When Downey left, the production team quickly reconsidered that angle. “As we zeroed in on it, and as we went to Western school, we realized that irony was a little bit of the last thing we needed. The spin on the movie is already there; aliens are landing in a Western,” Orcie recalled. “The way to maximize that is to play it extremely straight and to have any fun or comedy come out of the natural moments that would come out of a situation like that, not out of writing the jokes [or] winking at the audience.”
Casting Daniel Craig in the lead part solidified that impulse. “[Craig] immediately switched the tone just by thinking about him and just by knowing that we were going to be writing someone who’s going to really play it straight.” The actor, best known for his turn as the international super spy in the most recent James Bond films, has a look and style that recalls an earlier age in cinema. “He’s got a Steve McQueen vibe,” Orci observed.
“What’s great is that if aliens hadn’t landed, this movie would be about how Daniel and Harrison [Ford] are adversaries. And actually, Harrison would be the villain,” he says of the film’s two leads. “That’s the trajectory that the movie’s taking. It’s only the interruption of this other genre that forces them to work together.” While the two headliners will fight aliens side-by side, the writer readily admitted it will not be a chummy partnership, saying, “They have to continue butt heads throughout the movie and really earn whatever thinning of the ice and chemistry they have.”
That notion of enemies putting aside their differences in the face of a common adversary is what attracted Orci to the story in the first place. “Instead of the natives and the settlers being adversaries – they are at first, as was historically at the time – a common foe unites them,” he recalled.
While taking it’s overall inspiration from the original graphic novel, the film expands on the concept and features an entirely new cast of characters. The writing team researched the era in building their cast, filling out the movie with characters based on the sorts of people living in the frontier at the time. “Harrison Ford’s character, Dollarhyde, [was] someone who fought in the Civil War, who got the rank of Colonel. Back then, if you brought enough men into a battle, you suddenly got a field promotion so you [became] a colonel without actually having to go through West Point or any of that kind of stuff,” Orci explained. “[There were] people migrating from the city, like Doc [Sam Rockwell’s character], who when they hear the dream of expansion to the West, they think that’s the place to be and they don’t realize how difficult it’s gonna be.”
In adding their characters to the story, Orci and the other writers looked at the Western archetypes through the prism of the movie’s alien invasion. “It’s trying to take as many of the Western things that you know. Some might even call them cliches until you see how they fit into [this other] genre.” Using Craig’s character as an example, Orci elaborated. “Usually, a man with no name comes [to town] and doesn’t say much. He’s tough because he’s a bad guy and he doesn’t want to tell you who he is. In this case, we have a stranger with no name coming in [who] literally doesn’t remember his name because he was abducted by aliens.”
Even the abductions are married to a classic Western concept: the prospectors who search for gold. “[The aliens are abducting people] to figure out what the resources are here,” Orci explained. “They study the resources of whatever new place they find, to find out what’s exploitable.”
Ultimately, by injecting an alien invasion into the Old West, Orci believes the film offers a chance for audiences to see the setting as fresh rather than something tired and worn out. “Kids today, they’ve never seen Westerns. So it’ll all be new.”
“Cowboys & Aliens” opens July 29, 2011 from Universal Pictures