Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Roberto Orci thrilled an energetic crowd at WonderCon with a special Saturday presentation of new footage from Universal Pictures and Dreamworks’ “Cowboys & Aliens.” Walking onto the stage to his now traditional “Back in Black” musical accompaniment, Favreau received a warm and energetic welcome from the audience filling the Esplanade Ballroom. The director started by saying the show reminded him of Comic-Cons long past. “It’s a little more intimate,” he said. “I want to make sure we make this special for you.”
Before showing the clips, Orci, who joined Favreau on stage, asked the director a few questions about the film, starting with why he thought he could take aliens back to the 19th Century. “I had heard about ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ many times,” recalled the director about project which floated around Hollywood for years before a draft written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby gained the interest of actor Robert Downey Jr. While working on “Iron Man 2,” Favreau heard updates from Downey, who was hoping the right tone for the potential film would be found. “There’s a really great version of a film called ‘Cowboys & Aliens.’ There are a lot of really bad version of a film called ‘Cowboys & Aliens, too,” Favreau told the audience Eventually, Favreau inquired about the film in a more official capacity, eventually being named the film’s director.
When Downey left the project, Favreau cast Daniel Craig in his place, who Favreau called a “professional, great dude.” Set against Craig is Harrison Ford, who signed onto the project in a rare antagonist role. “We never thought [Ford would] want to come back to genre. To have him bring that pedigree, it’s almost like when you cast John Wayne in a western,” said favreau of the veteran actor’s involvement.
Though Favreau is known for appearing on screen in his directorial efforts, he chose not to act in this film, joking, “On ‘Family Guy,’ Seth McFarlane made fun of me for putting myself in my movies.” The real reason, however, was an issue of tone. It was important to play the world straight so the people inhabiting it had an authenticity about them. “I wanted the characters to be freaked out, but the audience to be laughing,” he explained, saying a director cameo could break the delicate balance. “I like the people to be worried about what coming next and I want the excitement to come from the juxtaposition of things.”
Setting up the preview reel, the director mentioned the importance of social media and giving the WonderCon audience something special to talk about on the Internet. “This is not going online, this is not the trailer. This is footage we put together for this room and this room only,” he said. With that, the lights went out and the audience was treated to a collection of never before seen footage.
The first clip opened with Craig as cowboy Jake Lonergan riding up to a small farm. He inspects it for signs of life before entering. Bloody and injured, he cleans up and prepares to bandage a recent wound. Before he can finish, Meacham, (Clancy Brown) arrives, holding a rifle to the back of Jake’s head. He turns around as the other man says, “Only two kinds of men get shot: victims and criminals. Which one are you?”
“I don’t know,” replies Jake.
“What do you know?” asks the irritated Meacham.
From there, the scene changes to the wilderness at night where Harrison Ford’s Colonel Dolarhyde asks a man set to be stretched out by a pair of horses to tell him the truth. The tortured man relays a fantastic tale of a huge explosion and something falling from the sky. Unimpressed, Dolarhyde cuts the ropes from one of the horses, but sets the other in motion, dragging the man with him into the darkness. Just then, one of the Colonel’s men tells him Jake is in town.
The preview cut to Dolarhyde attempting to get Jake away from the local law enforcement. Ella (Olivia Wilde) asks Jake where he came from. The preview then shows a series of quick clips, with Jake waking up in the middle of nowhere, the device on Jake’s hand powering up and the alien ship attacking the town. After Jake shoots one down, he and Dolarhyde walk toward the crashed alien ship. Dolarhyde asks Jake about the machine, but gets no answer. As they inspect the craft, Doc (Sam Rockwell) runs up and asks if his wife is inside. Just then, they hear shots in another building. Running toward it, they find weird footsteps leading away from town. Dolarhyde intends to follow the trail, insisting Jake should join him.
The last of the footage consisted of quick cutsrevealing spectacular vistas, action scenes, men on horses chased by a bizarre insect like space ship and even a glimpse inside one of the alien vessels. The final scene featured Olivia Wilde’s character ordering Jake not to look at the light before she shoots a luminescent bag attached to the ceiling of an alien chamber. The sequence concludes with a short look at one of the aliens, best described as a walking shellfish.
With that, the lights brightened and the audience applauded loudly. Favreau looked quite happy with the response, telling the crowd “You don’t know how good this makes us feel right now.” According to the director, the glimpse of the alien was a real WonderCon exclusive and will not appear in any other marketing for the film. “We want it to be a surprise,” he explained.
“[The film] will be shown in glorious 2D,” announced the director, getting a huge wave of applause.
“Same price as 3D,” joked Orci.
Favreau, a believer in traditional film asked the audience to support their choice not to convert the film to 3D or shoot on digital cameras by seeing it early and often. “Let the theater owners know that 2D is not dead yet,” said the director.
Opening the floor to questions, Favreau was asked if he preferred acting over directing. He replied, “To come here and feel like we’re throwing a party, it makes directing the most fun job in the world.” He also wished Shane Black and the Marvel team the best as they start their journey on “Iron Man 3,” but did not say if he would return as Happy Hogan.
Orci explained to a fan that it was a deliberate decision to avoid populating the movie with actual historic people from the time period. “We wanted it to be people you can relate to,” he said.
“I think by peppering cute cameos of historical characters, it would’ve interfered,” added Favreau.
Talk moved to the cast, which includes actors Walton Goggins, Keith Carradine and Paul Dano. Orci said all of the actors were thrilled to be part of a Western and they all brought their best to the film. “There are no small parts in a western; every part matters.”
Returning to audience questions, Favreau said Harry Gregson-Williams provided the film’s score while the effects work was split between two companies. Industrial Light & Magic handled the digital effects while Legacy — made up of talent from the Stan Winston Studio — took on the practical effects. Favreau found the mixture of in-camera and computer tricks made for a stronger film. “They did the same thing on ‘Jurassic Park’ and I think that movie holds up because of it,” he said.
Asked about the tax incentive situation in New Mexico, Favreau recalled the tax breaks were not a primary decision to shoot in that state. “I think the situation is a tricky one,” he added. “I don’t think a film’s quality should be compromised by chasing tighter margins.” He also praised the film professionals in New Mexico.
When another member of the audience asked about Olivia Wilde’s character, Favreau remembered to deliver a message from the actress to the WonderCon crowd: “She texted me to tell you that she sleeps naked.” He also called her character the “key” to the film.
Finally, asked if he would ever take on another comic book character, the director quickly responded, “I would like to play Groo,” referring to Sergio Argones’s “Groo the Wanderer.” With that, Favreau and Orci exited the room to thunderous applause.
“Cowboys & Aliens” arrives in theaters on July 29