On a windswept plot of land about an hour outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, the cast and crew of “Cowboys & Aliens” worked feverishly throughout the day. The production would soon wrap its final weeks of location filming before moving back to Los Angeles to shoot the remainder of the scenes on sets, but that didn’t keep director Jon Favreau from showing CBR News an alien’s arm.
The Universal Pictures/DreamWorks film, based on the Platinum Studios graphic novel, pits Daniel Craig’s unnamed loner against Harrison Ford’s Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde in 1873 Arizona. Craig’s stranger, who awakens with no memory and a mysterious shackle on his wrist, wanders into Absolution, the town ruled with an iron fist by the Colonel, who has little time for outsiders. It’s a classic Western setup, writer/producer Roberto Orci readily acknowledges.
“Filmmakers love the Western because they can’t hide behind anything — unless you have aliens, of course,” Orci said. “It’s just very elemental. It’s truly one of the most basic stories – you, against an untamed environment, attempting to get to the civilization that we all love and enjoy.
“This movie could keep going as a Western. It would be a compelling story and everyone would be happy,” Orci continued before joking, “Harrison, I think, sometimes would prefer that there were no aliens in the movie.”
With a traditional western setup, the film opens as the town is attacked by alien invaders, forcing the stranger to unite not just with Dolarhyde, but a disparate band of Apaches, criminals and townsfolk, portrayed by actors Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Adam Beach, Walton Coggins, Raoul Trujillo and Brandon Wayne, the grandson of Western legend John Wayne.
In addition to the all-star cast, the film also sports an impressive pedigree behind the camera. Orci, along with writing partner Alex Kurtzman, penned the recent, massively successful reboot of “Star Trek,” co-writer Damon Lindelof was one of the key members of the “Lost” creative team, and director Favreau is a veteran of the “Iron Man” films. Even Steven Spielberg is on-board as executive producer.
Which brings us back to that alien appendage. “If Steven likes this, he’ll give us the rest of the alien,” Favreau joked as he shifted the arm around in the New Mexico sand. While the aliens seen on-screen will mostly be computer-generated images, they will also appear in certain shots as traditional special effects. “We have full [aliens], too,” the director said. “This is taken from a cast and then we bring it out into the light. We see how the light reacts to it so we’re matching [it in the computer] perfect.”
Although Favreau was willing to show us the extraterrestrial appendage and praise his cast and crew, he wasn’t at liberty to discuss much more about the aliens. When asked how tall they are, the director answered, “You know, it depends on how they’re standing.”
Despite having cutting-edge technology at their fingertips, the cast and crew are quick to let it be known that the aliens will not be the film’s only practical effects. “We had these light rays that were flying over our heads at 60 miles an hour,” recalled co-star Paul Dano, referring to a scene shared with an enthusiastic audience at this past summer’s Comic-Con International. According to the actor, much of that was actually shot live on set. “[It] is like a dream for an actor, you know, not having to like look like an ass in front of everyone,” he said, referring to the often-awkward business of shooting special effects-laden scenes in front of a green screen.
“It’s nice and cool in here,” Favreau said between takes of a key scene in the dramatic wind- and rain-eroded landscape. As he looked around his tent, set up with a monitor to watch just-shot scene, he joked, “I know when we have visitors, because we’ve got the air conditioner in here.” The director likened the movie to playing the video game “Red Dead Redemption,” but with one huge difference. “I tell Daniel, ‘Go there.’ I don’t use a joy stick.”
The New Mexico nature preserve where the movie was shot is decidedly off the beaten path. Working in a canyon on a downward slope, crew members told CBR flash floods were not uncommon in the otherwise dry riverbed. “If the thunderheads come in and it starts to rain, we have to evacuate,” Favreau said. “We’ve been up to our knees [in water].” Even the tent containing thousands of dollars of filmmaking equipment was located in the flood plain. Luckily, while ominous clouds occasionally blew into the sun-drenched area, no rain — or floods — ever hampered the visit. Despite the difficulties the terrain presented, Orci told us, “Spielberg was pretty adamant from Day One that [the location] had to be either like Monument Valley or here.”
Looking around the location, anyone not in period costume still dressed in a manner fitting the film’s Old West vibe, with wide-brim hats, bandanas and blue jeans everywhere. The sudden winds and desert sun required every possible method of protection, but it didn’t dampen the spirits on-set. Harrison Ford, for example, happily drove to set in his golf cart, decked out in full Western fashion. “We found out that he’s been interested in doing a Western for a long time,” Orci said. “He was skeptical about the genre blend but agreed to a meeting. It wasn’t until he actually came in and saw the artwork and what the amazing production design team had done — what the aliens looked like and what the ships look like — and how they looked in relation to the traditional Western that he said, ‘Ah, now I get it.’ And that’s when he agreed to join.”
“Harrison’s a presence, you know?” Dano added. “I’m pretty cool, usually, you know, meeting people. But I grew up watching his movies. He’s a badass! Then you hear he’s riding up on his motorcycle, on his Chopper, and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this dude’s even cooler in life than in the movies.'”
For Sam Rockwell, who plays Doc, “Cowboys and Aliens” is a return to the Western setting. The actor, who appeared in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” joked, “I’m probably better on the saddle now than I was then. I actually get to do more shooting and riding and stuff like that in this movie than I did in ‘Jesse James.'”
Having worked with Favreau on the heavily improvisational set of “Iron Man 2,” Rockwell told us the freedom to ad-lib is somewhat more subdued on this film. “We have a solid script, but we improvise within that,” he said. “The obstacle here is obviously that we’re doing a period piece. So it’s not like you could just say anything — you can’t just say, ‘Ah, dude, that sucks.'”
Popular from the advent of cinema, the Western eventually went into decline as a dependable money-making genre in the 1970s, so the opportunity to make a Western/sci-fi film infused the production with a special energy. “We have people from all over the country who came out just to be in this, because you don’t get to make [Westerns],” Favreau said. He offered the example of his Second Unit Director Terry Leonard. “He worked with John Wayne, [but] he switched over to being a stunt coordinator for car movies. Now, to be able to do a Western, with all the horse falls and all these things that he knows how to do in his sleep, it’s great to have that.”
“It’s been as positive experience as I’ve ever had,” Favreau said, describing his time spent on location. Indeed, he was already missing the harsh, but beautiful, desert landscapes. “I’m starting to get a little nostalgic,” he said. “The whole experience has been good, and I would – if there’s any way to feel it again, you know, it’s something I wouldn’t run away from. It’s something I would embrace.”
“Cowboys & Aliens” opens July 29, 2011 from Universal Pictures