In the second part of our visit to the Santa Fe, New Mexico set, we speak with Sam Rockwell writer Roberto Orci and actor Paul Dano about the new Sci-Fi/Western
Recently, we took you behind the scenes of Iron Man director, Jon Favreau's new Sci-Fi/Western, Cowboys and Aliens. Last fall we had an opportunity to travel to the set in Santa Fe, Mew Mexico and watch the production first hand. While on set we had a chance to watch the filming of the final sequence of the movie, some roughly edited scenes and even talk in length with director Jon Favreau. The movie is loosely based on the 2006 graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, but it is mostly an original story inspired by the title of the source material. The film was described to us as Unforgiven meets Independence Day, and it is scheduled for release on July 29th, 2011.
The movie stars an amazing cast of actors who have experience with both sci-fi and Western films including Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2), Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), Adam Beach (Flags of Our Fathers), Clancy Brown (Highlander), Keith Carradine (Deadwood), Walton Goggins (Predators) and Hollywood icon Harrison Ford (Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope). The film was also written by some experienced sci-fi writers, Star Trek's Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, and produced by three men that know a little bit about Westerns and sci-fi films ... Brian Grazer and Ron Howard (The Missing, Far and Away) and Steven Spielberg (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
In the second half of our visit to the set we had the opportunity to speak with Star Trek writer Roberto Orci, who is one of the three writers that is helping to bring this story to the big screen. We also had a chance to talk with actors Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano about their roles and their involvement in the project. Finally, we took a tour of the set, got to see one of the massive alien spacecrafts that will be used in the film and even briefly met a movie legend!
After we were done speaking with director Jon Favreau, he went back to the set to shoot another scene. We were then greeted by writer Roberto Orci who began by explaining his excitement to combine two popular genres with this film. "The Western is something that kind of went out of style a little bit but the alien invasion movie has never really gone out of style. So it is a way to bring in, the kids that are going to see this, because they don't know Westerns at all. So they will learn some of the Western tropes that they wouldn't have otherwise, and I think they will be open to it by the fact that they know there is going to be a little bit of sci-fi," said Orci. "But we tried not to cheat the Western in this. The moments where it's not sci-fi ... it's really a Western. If you were to watch the dailies of any of this, you wouldn't have any idea that there's going to be anything other than a straight Western. That's why we wanted it. We wanted to make sure the Western moments were true to themselves and not just relying on what's going to happen later," he explained.
In addition to having Steven Spielberg, who has some experience with alien movies, as an executive producer, Ron Howard is also a producer on the film. Not only has Howard directed several Westerns but he also appeared as an actor in John Wayne's last film, The Shootist. Orci discussed having those valuable resources to draw from on this film. "We've been very well protected, not only just with good suggestions, but then also just whenever we go outside of the bumper rails, they'll push us back into the center," he explained. "You know, Spielberg's screened several movies for us, he even did commentary in the theater. He got a new print of The Searchers, and he took me, Jon, Alex and Damon to the Warner Brothers Theater, Orci explained. "He sat behind us and it was just like a DVD commentary live, with Spielberg behind us. He was like, Okay, where's the horizon? Why do you think the horizon is there? What is the horizon's relationship to the actors mean about the scene? We're like taking notes," he joked.
Orci continued by explaining what he learned from this experience. "To be cautious of what you're trying to say with your framing, you know. We have a great environment here. In a way, any Western tends to be about how you're dealing with nature. Another facet of nature are aliens, so how you move through the movie and where you are in relation to nature, are you up against it? Are you down against it? Are you winning? Are you losing? Is it beating you? Or are you beating it? That becomes a conscious thing that's subliminal to the audience, but it still affects how you feel about the transition because in a way, this is a road movie, too. They're traveling across to get to what they need to get to. So how the environment changes and how they change in relation to it was, you know, a big lesson from that day," Orci said.
We asked Orci to discuss the format of the film and how he plans to introduce the Western to an entirely new generation while reintroducing it in an original way for fans of the genre. "Well, for kids today, they've never seen Westerns. So it'll all be new. In terms of new elements of a Western, it's how it blends with another genre but not breaking it," he explained. "In the Western, usually it's a man with no name comes in and he doesn't know who he is. He doesn't say much and he's tough because he's a bad guy. He doesn't want to tell you who he is. In this case, we have a stranger with no name coming in because he literally doesn't remember his name, because aliens abducted him. So it's trying to take as many of the Western things that you know, some might even call them clichés, and seeing how they fit into the genre. So it's taking not the top ten lists, but taking the elements that fans of Westerns are familiar with, and then reinterpreting them in light of how it crashes in to this other genre. Like, all the beats that will be familiar, if you've been watching a Western, will have a little bit of a spin on them."
The mood and tone on the set, along with the film that both Favreau and now Orci have explained, seems very serious and not at all played for laughs. Putting to rest any fear that this will be another Wild Wild West. Orci talked about the tongue-in-cheek tone of the original script and when it began to change. "We started off a little bit tongue-in-cheek, particularly when we were thinking about casting Robert Downey Jr. We were thinking of how much more of a talky character he would be and how much more ironic it would be. As we zeroed in on it and as we went to Western school, we started really thinking about it. We realized that irony was a little bit of the last thing we needed. That the spin on the movie is already there, aliens are landing in a Western. That's all the spin you need. The way to maximize that is to play it extremely straight, and to have any fun or comedy come out of the natural moments that would come out of a situation like that, not out of writing jokes," Orci said. "That's what's been good about having Daniel sort of as our lead cowboy, is that he immediately switched the tone. Just by thinking about him, and knowing that we were going to be writing for someone who's going to really play it straight. He kind of looks like Steve McQueen, you know? He's got a Steve McQueen vibe, and we're always shocked when you find the right thing at the last minute. But we really came to what we wanted the tone to be, after jumping back and forth. It went from a little too funny to way too dark, to hopefully just right."
Finally, Orci discussed the dynamic between the films two stars, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. "What's great is that if aliens hadn't landed, this movie would be about how Daniel and Harrison are adversaries, and Harrison would be the villain. In fact, I think sometimes Harrison would prefer that there were no aliens in the movie. So that's the trajectory that the movie's taking. It's only the interruption of this other genre that forces them to work together. Hopefully, we don't break the ice between them too soon. They have to continue to butt heads throughout the movie and really earn whatever thinning of the ice and chemistry they have. Hopefully by delaying it, and by having them have to witness each other at their best and at their worst, by the end of the movie you really feel like they've earned each other's respect," finished Orci.
While we were wrapping up our conversation with Orci the strangest thing happened, we heard a familiar, grisly voice behind us. "This is how it works, if you are good to us, we'll be good to you," said the voice. When we turned around it was none other than Indiana Jones/Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. The actor had on his cowboy outfit, complete with hat and bandana tied around his neck. The actor was unshaven, dirty, dusty and looking like he was right at home on the desert canyon location. Before we could speak to him the iconic actor smiled, tipped his hat and walked of into the hot New Mexico sun.
After that, we had a chance to speak with actor Paul Dano, who plays Ford's son in the film. We began by asking Dano what it is like working with such a legendary actor? "You know, Harrison's presence is palpable. The first time he was here ... I'm pretty cool meeting people, but I grew up watching his movies. He's a bad ass, you know. Then you hear he's riding up on his motorcycle, or on his Chopper and it's like, my God, this dude's even cooler in life than in the movies," joked Dano.
During one of the scenes that we witnessed, we could see that Ford finished the scene by ad-libbing a line and we asked Dano if that through him off at all? "You know, he slips them in when you don't expect it. You know, he's kind of on the sly," he replied. "We continued by asking if the veteran keeps the young actor on his toes? "Yeah, because he's been doing it for so long and he knows so many things that I don't know. He'll just know something instinctually right after a take, you know, a new line that could help the shot. I would have no clue. But yeah, he's pretty tenacious, I would say," Dano concluded.
Dano also told us what really excited him about working on this project. "You know, the best thing about it for me was that Favreau was like super clear-cut about his approach to the whole thing," he explained. Finally, Dano talked about another aspect of the production, which he really enjoyed. "You know, we had these light rays that were flying over our heads at sixty miles an hour and most of that stuff was done practically, which is like a dream for an actor. You know, not having to look like an ass in front of everyone. It's just pretending. You know, we've been able to do so much practically and it's been really nice."
Next, we had an opportunity to speak with actor Sam Rockwell, who plays Doc in the movie. Rockwell was cast by Favreau after working together on Iron Man 2, which proved to be a good experience for both men. First, we started off by asking Rockwell to tell us a little bit about his character. "He was a doctor and, I'm not sure, we think maybe it could have been the Civil War. I think a lot of stuff spooks the doctor, and I think he wanted to get out of the MASH unit business and do something a little safer," he said. "Then this happens and you know, sort of pushes him. He's not really like the kind of guy that deals with confrontation very well. So he's sort of forced to confront all those fears," answered Rockwell. "So then you know, Doc is sort of forced to cowboy-up with the rest of the cowboys, and he's more the every man."
We followed up by asking the actor, if the fact that his character is a doctor means that he spends a lot of time bandaging people up in the movie? "You know, there's a little bit of that, of seeing him be a doctor and it's probably reminiscent of something he did in the Civil War. He's dealing with stuff that's pretty hairy and then he goes after all the aliens," explained Rockwell. "I kind of serve as the Jimmy Stewart, or Bill Paxton of the piece," he joked. "I'm sort of like sincere but I have those moments of levity." "I copied everything I did in Galaxy Quest from Bill Paxton in Aliens," continued Rockwell. "I owe him some credit."
We also asked Rockwell if Favreau had first mentioned this project to him while they were making Iron Man 2, or if he just decided to do the film because he had so much fun with the director last time? "Yeah, we just had a good time. Bob and Alex have a great track record, obviously, and Daniel was a big part of the decision too," answered Rockwell. "You know, the part sort of turned into something and Jon's just great. We had a great time on Iron Man 2 and we really worked well together." Finally we asked Rockwell to describe the difference between working with Favreau on this film and working with him on the last one? "Well, it's a similar ... we have a solid script but we improvise within that and we change stuff on the day. But the only obstacle here is obviously that we're doing a period piece. So it's not like you could just say anything, you know, you can't just say, ah dude that sucks. I mean, you can't do that because you're in the Old West," finished Rockwell.
Finally, before leaving the set we had a chance to tour the alien spaceship that was constructed in the desert canyon. The structure is only half built, showing the bottom part of the alien ship with giant green screens across the top, where CGI will later be added to enhance it. The spacecraft was circular in shape, enormous in size and looked like what you would expect an alien spaceship to look like. While it is hard to judge without seeing the final product, from what we saw, its safe to say that sci-fi fans will be pleased with the level of detail and authenticity that the filmmakers are striving for with this film.