Cowboys & Aliens, starring Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde, opens this weekend, and we were lucky enough to chat with director Jon Favreau up at the Paws Up Ranch in Missoula, Mont. Favreau had to make a lot of heavy decisions while working on this genre mashup, including whether to shoot the film in 3-D.
He gave us his reason for the choice he made, a bit of info about blending two very different genres, the alien advice he got from Steven Spielberg and the story on how he evened out the playing field between a superior race and some tough-as-nails cowboys.
Favreau was intrigued by the project from the get-go and told us it was a challenge to keep this film within boundaries. "Look, the title's Cowboys & Aliens, so you can get away with a lot if you chose to," he said. "You could make it the union of cowboys movies and alien movies and done whatever was convenient at any given moment. I think that's what most people would do, especially if you went broader and more comedic.
"We really wanted to challenge ourselves with making it the intersection of the two genres. It had to work for both. If it only worked for one, we booted the idea. So 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 ... the first thing we had to set out and do was decide what kind of western we were going to do, if it was just a western, and what kind of alien movie.
"The type of alien movie 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/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. ... "
The decision about whether to go with 3-D is always a dicey one. Audiences are getting louder in their disdain for the glasses, the darkness of the screen and the higher prices. But that wasn't the reason Favreau went 2-D. "The minute we decided to go with film, and we tested digital 3-D—just for the record, I love 3-D, I have nothing against it, I think it's here to stay, I can't wait to work in 3-D, and I was compelled by the test—but it has to serve the story. Just like casting, just like performances, dialogue, everything has to serve the story, otherwise you're being indulgent. Also, I felt there was a lot of pressure with everyone rushing to do 3-D, I felt like, tactically, at the end of a summer when everything is in 3-D, maybe even things that shouldn't be, and everything is of a similar genre, and everyone is exploring the same types of stories and sequels and reboots, that it would make this movie even more fresh.
"At the end of a summer, where people are just bottlenecked with movies every weekend, it was a great opportunity to do something that might pop and be refreshing. I feel even more strongly about it now. That being said, once we decided to go with film, which you can't do if you're shooting native 3-D ... it's not feasible, you either have to shoot digital or convert film.
Steven Spielberg is an executive producer on the film, and no one can argue that he knows his aliens. He had a bit of advice for Favreau and the crew. "We had one design that we really liked that was very similar to all the materials of the Kraken in Clash of the Titans. Even though the scale was much different, we went, 'Whoa!' The way the teeth were, and we actually had six eyes at a moment. He was always making sure that you could identify that the alien had some aspect that was anthropomorphic enough to make you able to feel personal connection between Jake and the alien that he had issue with. That also comes from The Searchers. That's more a storytelling thing than an alien thing, but he had certain instincts about that that he was always gearing us towards, and he was right. He was dead right."
One of the main challenges is making the two races equal in some way, so audiences don't leave thinking there is no way a group of cowboys with pistols could ever beat creatures with an FTL drive. Favreau had a lot to say about that.
"Well, it's all about plausibility, right? You don't want to do this with a deus ex machina. You could totally get away with that in an alien movie. Look at War of the Worlds. They caught a cold and died. So, that's okay, that's part of our history, but that's the fun. Isn't that what movies are always? How is David and Goliath? There's no way that kid's going to play football for Notre Dame. But it's plausible ... and the fact that it's based on a true story makes it even more plausible, but the plausibility of the Spartans making that stand (in 300), isn't that always the story that you want told? You want say, '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.
"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.' It's up to you guys to tell me, but I think we've earned the thing; that there was enough of a game balance that it makes sense. I think the suggestion that Steven made before I came on board was to have a guy walk into a bar with a blaster. Now, had that suggestion not come into it, and I don't think that's even in the comic, if that was not part of it, I don't think you could have tipped those scales. Also the fact the fact they're a scout party, and the fact that they're probably an inferior race that hibernates during sub-light travel to get to a certain planet, so you just can't call on the radio and call in an airstrike."
Cowboys & Aliens opens in theaters on July 29, 2011.