Next summer’s “Cowboys & Aliens” features an unusual mix of genres that director Jon Favreau hopes will both intrigue and entertain audiences. It’s also somewhat risky, as one of those genres is the Western, which hasn’t been a major box-office draw for years. “We figured that the alien side of things, hopefully, will take care of the people who don’t know the Western,” Favreau explained to CBR News in August while on location in New Mexico. “But for people who love Westerns, let’s do it using all the archetypes of the classic Western films.”
In preparation for tackling that aspect of the Universal Pictures/DreamWorks film, Favreau extensively researched classic movies of the genre. “[I] went through the whole John Ford [set], you know, all the John Ford films I could get my hands on; also some [Sergio] Leone [films].” Ford made his name exploring the world of the Western with “Stagecoach,” while Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” is lauded by film historians as the eulogy for the Western as an important genre. With some 30 years of movies being released between those two landmark films, Favreau noticed a recurring format despite the influence of technology and world history. “Each era did their version of a very similarly structured story type, so we tried to preserve those archetypes in those characters. It’s like each musician would cover, you know, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and it would be done differently by Billie Holliday than it would by, you know, Louis Armstrong.”
Although studios continued to make Westerns throughout the 1970s, the films lost the cultural resonance they held prior to the Vietnam War and the turmoil of the 1960s. “[The movies] felt a little insensitive, racially, at times, in who the bad guys are and what they represent,” Favreau observed. “As people became more socially conscious, some people found it distasteful, until you lost a whole tradition of the Western because it became anachronistic. It’s time for our generation to take that class historian and show it through our perspective.”
During the late ’70s, science fiction films began to take the place Westerns once did in the theaters and in the imaginations of audiences. Favreau recalled watching films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Alien,” noting the latter as a particular inspiration for the extraterrestrials in his movie. “There was a logic to it, but the way it unfolded, you didn’t really know it,” he remembered of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic. “I really liked the experience, how Sigourney Weaver was going through it and how much it was affecting her, the nightmares she was having.” As that film was filmed prior to the modern computer effects era, it had to work harder to make its creature more convincing. “It was a real unveiling of the creature, little by little, using lighting and camera work and music to make it a very subjective experience,” he said of Scott’s film, noting how this ended up as a technique he used on “Cowboys & Aliens.” “Even though we have [Industrial Light & Magic] and we could show everything from the beginning, it’s nice to let things unfold.”
While computers will ultimately make the cowboys’ nemeses come to life, the film will also feature many practical effects and interaction between real people and the special effects. “You’ve got to get that right, otherwise it’s ‘The Valley of Gwangi,'” Favreau joked, referring to the 1969 film featuring cowboys fighting stop-motion dinosaurs animated by late special effects artist Ray Harryhausen. “‘Gwangi’ did it. I think we’ve got to take the next step.”
Helping Favreau make that step are producer Ron Howard and executive producer Steven Spielberg. As a boy, Howard appeared in several Westerns and later made “Far and Away” about the Land Run of 1893. And while Spielberg has never made a Western himself, he is an expert on the genre and the films of John Ford. Additionally, both men have dealt with special effects, fantastical creatures and genre mixing. “At this point in my career, it’s really a welcome new layer to add, to be able to actually have people that I can ask questions of and who know so much about making movies,” Favreau said of Spielberg and Howard. “Talking about film theory or storytelling, or what would be exciting and then hearing stories about what they’ve tried and how they did it.”
Also helping with that balance is actor Harrison Ford, the walking personification of the very tone the director strives for. “When you cast Harrison Ford, he’s bringing that whole tradition of sci-fi and action, and even in [those movies], he’s always playing a version of a cowboy; even though he’s only played one once in his career on film,” Favreau said. “You think of him as a cowboy and he really, you know, he’s an excellent rider, he understands the weapons, he understands the culture, and the rules.” He also credits the actor with a deep understanding of filmmaking and how to make action scenes work.
Though Westerns and sci-fi films seem worlds apart at first glance, Favreau notes UFO sightings in the U.S. began during the western expansion. “There was that first photograph of a spaceship was from, I think, the 1870s,” he said. “The first shot of a UFO was like a cigar-shaped silver thing in the air.”
The director first revealed the movie’s tone at Comic-Con International, where he screened a specially prepared sequence showing the conflict between Ford’s character and Daniel Craig’s wandering gunman before the aliens attack the town. Complete with effects, sound design and score, the clip was well received by the crowd. And while he was happy to work extra hard to make that single scene ready for the convention, Favreau notes that CCI is only one part of Universal’s marketing strategy. “It was the same thing in independent films,” he said. “You could be the hit of a festival, and the minute it hits the multiplexes, the movie dies in the third week. Once you platform out, the movie goes away. The trick is to get that core to like it, and what they’ll do is they’ll at least be vocal about what it is, so if people are curious about the film, the word of mouth will spread out from there.”
Beyond the marketing message, the director faces a bigger challenge in successfully creating a Western invaded by aliens. “It starts off with the lone rider and ends with the town blowing up. That’s kind of the world of our movie. As a director, my biggest responsibility is to make it work. Whether I’m making a Western or a Sci-Fi movie, I would still have that responsibility.” While this sort of genre mash-up is be a big challenge, Favreau is confident the mix will work. “I think I found the tone that marries the two,” he declared.
“Cowboys & Aliens” opens July 29, 2011, from Universal Pictures