You see the strangest things in the desert. Last year, for instance, if you followed a ridgeline in Abiquiu, N.M., you would have discovered a massive alien spaceship and, nearby, James Bond strumming a ukulele beneath a wispy tamarix tree. “Wait around,” he muttered, “and Indiana Jones might show up too.”
The man with the four-string uke was actor Daniel Craig, who is best known as the British spy 007 but was on this particular day on location with “Cowboys & Aliens,” an audacious $180-million film that also stars “Raiders of the Lost Ark” hero Harrison Ford. Both actors have brought grim, granite stares to the project, which leads to a nagging question: Is this film as silly as its title or as fierce as its famous faces? “I’m not sure anyone knows what to make of this movie,” Craig said as he plucked away on a Beatles ballad. “But you know that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
When “Cowboys & Aliens” makes its world premiere Saturday night at Comic-Con International in San Diego, it will introduce the biggest (and perhaps the only) wild card in Hollywood’s stacked-deck summer. It’s been a season of sequels (more pirates, more hangovers, more wizards, more giant robots, etc.) and big-brand heroes (Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America), but this is a horse of a different color. The movie, directed by Jon Favreau and opening July 29, is set in the 1870s in a blister-scab town called Absolution that kneels before a cattle baron named Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford). One day a wounded man (Craig) arrives with a strange metal device affixed to his wrist and zero memory. The Man With No Name, it turns out, is an Old West victim of alien abduction.
The film, which also stars Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell, is structured like a western and (somewhat) resists the contemporary approach of nonstop action in favor of building toward a big showdown, a la “High Noon.” At the same time, it promises the visual-effects velocity and crackle of today’s summer films. If all that sounds like a tall order, well, check back after the premiere. The core of that concept and the film’s title come from an obscure, small-press comic book series by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and the potential of it (and winding path of the property) has brought together a startling posse of Hollywood big names. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are two of the producers and Steven Spielberg, as executive producer, was so engaged by the possibilities of the story that he arranged for Favreau and two of the screenwriters, Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) and Roberto Orci (“Star Trek”), to join him for a private screening of John Ford’s “The Searchers.”
“He sat over our shoulders at a screening room on the Warner Bros. lot and gave us a running commentary,” Favreau said with marvel in his voice. “What happened with this film is you had creators like Ron Howard and Steven who are very passionate about the western genre and saw here an opportunity to tap into that in a big and crowd-pleasing way.”
One crowd that needs to be pleased are all the money people. The movie arrives with three financiers (Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios, Universal Pictures and Relativity Media), two distributors (Universal in the U.S. and Canada, Paramount overseas) and 16 credited producers or executive producers. In these tight-margin days it’s not unusual to see a lot of Hollywood players splitting the risk on a big project, but Howard said the herd behind “Cowboys & Aliens” went well beyond the norm.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where there were so many people who were accustomed to being virtually autonomous in terms of decision-making on most projects,” Howard said. “It all went really smoothly though, and I think that’s due to the respect for and belief in Jon. He came in, and we all saw that he understood the movie and the tone we were all hoping for. And it was clear he was going to elevate it all and make it his own. It was also clear the buck was going to stop with Jon.”
Last week, the 44-year-old Favreau talked about the experience of working with Howard and Spielberg as if it were a master class. Whether it was in pre-production story meetings or in the editing bay, the elder Oscar winners were a fount of insight about pacing, priority, tone and, above all, winning over the audience.
“Filmmaking is not an art that you would do if you were alone in a room,” Favreau said. “The way it is received is part of the approach, it informs your decisions. You want the film to be seen; you want it to be embraced and successful.”
Favreau is a filmmaker clearly comfortable with both the art and commerce of today’s Hollywood. Intense and competitive, he is eager to follow up the $1.2-billion grosses of his two “Iron Man” films for Marvel Studios by carving out a new winner with an unproven brand in the same summer that Marvel has two of the biggest releases, “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
It was no secret that Favreau was ready to leave Marvel behind, although he won’t elaborate. “Iron Man 2” was a grueling shoot (the star, Robert Downey Jr., described it as a “screaming, wild-eyed bar fight” to make), and Favreau looked haggard and exasperated in the final days of work. It was a far different vibe on the set of “Cowboys,” where Favreau had a ukulele of his own on his lap and watched the monitors with the quiet confidence of a director who is open to surprises but not facing daily chaos.
“This is so different, we started with very strong material in the script …and the western genre has a lot of rules to it, you’re not discovering a form, you’re commenting on an established form,” Favreau said. “There’s plenty of room for inspired moments, but the exposition is laid out. There’s freedom in the structure too in a way.”
His voice trailed off, and he began strumming “Sea of Love.” “You know, there’s snakes around here, we had a 6-footer one day. It’s good though. You just give them a line of dialogue and they’re fine.”
Favreau is a kid from Queens who loved Dungeons & Dragons and may be best known as an actor in thoroughly contemporary comedy (“Swingers,” “Friends,” “Couples Retreat”), which doesn’t make him the most obvious person to be making the most expensive saddle film since “Wild Wild West” in 1999. But Ford, who is making his first western since “The Frisco Kid” in 1979, said the director has a passion for the heritage.
“He’s the real deal as a director, and just with the work we’ve done getting this story to this place has shown me a lot about him,” Ford said. “I’ve enjoyed it, and I’m excited to see where it goes.”
In preview screenings, fan and blogger audiences have been upbeat about the film and its gritty action, which has been compared to “3:10 to Yuma” in its intensity. There’s humor in the film, but it never winks at the audience, said Orci, who said the guiding sensibility was to keep the peril real.
The history lessons went beyond Spielberg’s screening room too. On the set, Craig and Ford both spoke of the celluloid past — “My Darling Clementine,” “Destry Rides Again,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“The conventions of a real western basically are terse language and anamorphic frame — you see things, and you appropriate a lot of information visually — and it’s spare and focused and the relationships are spare and focused,” Ford said with familiar squint. “And that’s what I’m loving about it, there’s no wasted language or wasted energy. You really have a focus on the true ambition of a scene, and there’s time to leave atmosphere and air around it.”
There’s plenty of passion among filmmakers for making westerns, but how viable are they with audiences? The Coen brothers film “True Grit” racked up $259 million in worldwide box office, but that December release wasn’t aimed at the young audiences that Favreau and company are courting.
For Favreau, talking to Howard and Spielberg only underlined the risks and rewards. Howard directed “The Missing,” a 2003 western that Favreau greatly admires, and its commercial failure is hard for the younger director to think about for too long. “That scares the hell out of me, because that film had everything,” he said.
On the plus side, Favreau has a compass point in the reflections of Spielberg, who confided that his greatest successes came with a preamble of deep anxiety. “He talked about uncertain steps, like going into a dark cave with a flashlight,” Favreau said. “The success only existed once it reached an audience, and they decided that it was a success.”
Actually, he sees the lack of westerns today as an opportunity as well as a challenge. “This generation of young moviegoers aren’t conversant in it, but I think when you see them playing video games like Red Dead Redemption I think they’re open to the power of these stories if they can be presented in a context that’s exciting,” he said. “Where westerns go wrong is when people try to do a new take, they try to modernize it.”
This is the year, apparently, to add aliens to every sort of movie genre and watch the results — there’s “Attack the Block” (aliens + London crime film), “Battle: Los Angeles” (aliens + commando fantasy), “Paul” (aliens + stoner comedy), “Green Lantern” (aliens + superhero movie) and “Super 8” (aliens + coming-of-age tale).
No film has been infused by Comic-Con quite like “Cowboys & Aliens.” It was at the San Diego convention in 2009 where Favreau, in town to promote his “Iron Man 2,” first encountered the project during a conversation with Orci and his writing partner Alex Kurtzman. Last year, “Cowboys & Aliens” created a sensation in Hall H (the 6,000-seat room where stars and filmmakers promote upcoming projects) when Ford showed as a surprise guest and joined Craig and Favreau on stage. Favreau was only a few weeks into production, but he brought footage of a strafing UFO attack. The director had gone against conventional thinking and filmed the big visual effects sequence right at the start of production just so he would have something to show at the expo. “Comic-Con is where all of this started, and if this is a success Comic-Con will be a part of that success story,” he said.
No major Hollywood filmmaker is more adept or attuned to social media than Favreau, who has more than a million followers on Twitter. Message and messaging are as important to him, in some ways, as camera position or lighting. Favreau is the guest editor of the Hollywood Reporter’s special Comic-Con edition this year and (with Guillermo del Toro) will discuss pop culture’s future in Hall H on Thursday. It’s interesting to consider that a man so fixed on the present and on the future has gone back to the grand old western on a revival mission. It’s also ironic, as Howard points out, that a movie with spaceships is a truly tradition-bound western in stealth mode. Last year, on the set, Favreau contemplated the desire of so many filmmakers to ride off into the sunset one more time. He said plenty of them set off tracking the trail of John Ford but get lost on the long trail leading to opening weekend.
“Look, even great westerns, films like ‘Unforgiven,’ they can win Academy Awards and they still aren’t [commercial] powerhouses where studios can justify the high budgets or put them up against big releases,” he said. “Fortunately, alien invasion films are, worldwide, a genre that people are very comfortable investing in. It gave us permission to really …”
Craig, sitting nearby, finished the sentence for him: “… spend some money.”
— Geoff Boucher, reporting from New Mexico and Los Angeles
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