The thoughtful nature of “Cowboys & Aliens,” Dreamworks Studios and Universal Studios’ new film based on the Platinum Studios comic book, might take some moviegoers by surprise, but for director Jon Favreau the option to play the film as straight as possible was one of its more interesting challenges. “Look, the title’s ‘Cowboys & Aliens,’ so you can get away with a lot if you chose to,” the director told CBR News and other assembled journalists during a press day in Montana earlier this month. “You could make it the union of Cowboys movies and Alien movies and do whatever was convenient at any given moment. I think that’s what most people would do, especially if you went broader and more comedic.”
Instead, Favreau sought the most essential aspects of each genre, hoping to find both comedy and action in the marriage of those things. “If [a concept] only worked for one, we booted the idea,” Favreau said. “You’ll see a lot of the set pieces feel like they could be in a western. We tried to echo what would be in the western; the scale of it. We didn’t want [the action] to feel much bigger than a cavalry charge or the Alamo. We didn’t want it to be a huge, huge alien invasion battle.”
At the same time, the alien side of the equation also faced the same concerns. Favreau and his collaborators asked themselves what type of alien movie would work best for them. “[What] we seized on was — I guess because of when I grew up — 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/[Rob] 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.” That shift in technology changed the very essence of the alien movie and Favreau singled out one film as the pivot point. “I think once ‘Alien 3’ came out, you just showed them swimming and it was just a different… you were showing off the technology.”
Though the film uses computer technology, the director used the nature of those earlier movies to discipline the cinematography. “Not because anybody would notice it overtly,” he added. “But subconsciously you feel it’s more real.”
On a story level, this means the aliens have less of a culture and play the part of the unknown; a choice Favreau believes works well for the mash-up. “Although we have our own internal logic of how it works — the way the technology works, why they do what they do — it would never be obvious to these people and we just reveal as much as we need to allow the characters to be able to face them.” While that internal logic could mean an understanding of the creatures, they are instead played “on the verge of horror.”
Another stylistic choice came with the departure of original star Robert Downey, Jr., whom Favreau worked with on “Iron Man” and its sequel. “The only thing that was a little off for me was that the main character was a little chatty,” Favreau said of the way gunslinger Jake Lonergan was initially written. Of course, fate intervened and Downey’s commitment to the Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” franchise meant he had to drop out of the project.
At this point, Favreau had already signed on to the project and cast Daniel Craig as the tight-lipped version of Jake the director intended. “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,” he explained. “They feel like people who are just coming of age.” Alternatively, Craig’s face and style offer that quality of a hard lived life. With the actor on board, much of the character’s dialogue was jettisoned.
The involvement of Harrison Ford led to further changes in the story. “You can’t have him whipping a guy at the beginning of the movie. Now he has the guy tied to horses, [but in an earlier draft] he had a bullwhip. That was his thing, a whip. You can’t have him with a whip or you’re making a very different comment.” To Favreau, having Ford on set means taking on the baggage of his filmic history. He compared it to John Wayne’s role in “The Searchers,” which is informed by his role in “Stagecoach” and other iconic westerns. “To overtly say, ‘Okay, I’m going to make it seem like you’re bad Indiana Jones’ I don’t think would’ve served the film. It would have taken you out of it,” he added. This inevitably led to further changes in what the director felt they could get away with in regards to the darkness of the character. “Because of who he is and the affection that the audience feels [for him], you just play that hand differently.”
For Favreau, everything comes down to this simple storytelling rule: “Find the reality of that moment and play it as smart as you can.” Using the example of his own film, “Elf,” Favreau elaborated on the rule. “What would it really be like if you grew up in a Rankin-Bass Christmas Special and then you went to New York?” Then next step is to play up the rough edges of those premises for humor, tension, or drama. “I think Neil Simon said it too as a playwright. They’re all facets of the same gem,” the director added.
Despite the thematic concerns bubbling under the film’s surface, the director knows he still has a duty to deliver the summer movie goods. “You can never lose sight of the fact that you have to make money back for the people who are giving you money,” Favreau said. “[In this case,] my boss is Steven Spielberg.” Having a producer with a special talent for engaging audiences with commercial high-concept properties left Favreau free to think about more of the underpinnings in the story. “What [Steven] 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.”
As our time with the director wrapped up, he was asked about the seeming imbalance in a fight between cowboys and aliens. “Isn’t that always the story that you want told? You want to ask, ‘How the hell are they going to get out of this one?’ and then you want to know how Robin gets out of the giant clam,” he answered. “You always want that cliffhanger and you always want the storytellers, through ingenuity, to bring you out it in a way that you say, ‘Y’know what? I enjoyed it enough and it’s plausible enough that I buy it and that held my attention for a moment.'” Favreau believes he has earned that trust from the audience, but he also accepts that “it’s up to you guys to tell me [if we did.]”
“Cowboys & Aliens” opens in theaters Friday.