Standing in the desert with a six-shooter on his hip, Harrison Ford seemed as surprised as anyone by the fact that he hadn’t starred in a cowboy movie since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. “Back in the hat … yeah, it has been a long time,” Ford said last year as the crew of “Cowboys & Aliens” set up for a chase scene. “Longer than a lot of these guys have been alive, I’m sure.”
The crew of director Jon Favreau’s new film can be forgiven if they aren’t familiar with 1979’s “The Frisco Kid,” the Old West comedy that paired Ford as a bank-robbing bandit with Gene Wilder as a Polish rabbi trying to survive the frontier trek to San Francisco. If that doesn’t sound like a pure western, well neither is this latest movie, which arrives in theaters July 29 as the true wild card among the summer 2011 popcorn films — a gritty cowboy tale that just happens to be interrupted by an alien invasion flick.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan, a hard-eyed loner who arrives in the town of Absolution with no memories and no clue about the strange shackle on his left wrist. The cast also includes Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Noah Ringer, but it’s hard not to focus in on Ford, the 68-year-old Hollywood icon who brings menace to movie as Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, the cruel master of dusty Absolution.
The on-the-nose title of the film was met with some chuckles and, during the property’s long development path, there were times when it looked as though it might veer toward comedy or camp. Instead, Favreau, producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and executive producer Steven Spielberg took off in the direction of an intense rawhide adventure where there’s no winking at the camera.
“The world feels like the world in ‘3:10 to Yuma’ or even ‘Unforgiven’ but introduced into that are these aliens who arrive and start attacking,” said Roberto Orci, who with Alex Kurtzman (the same tandem behind “Transformers” and “Star Trek”) are part of the screenwriting team as well as producers of the new film. “The audience knows what they are after years of Spielberg movies but the guys on the horses in the movie have no words for what they’re seeing.”
In a way, “Cowboys & Aliens” is similar in hybrid ambitions to John McTiernan’s “Predator,” a commando movie melded with a sci-fi alien concept, and Joss Whedon’s underappreciated series “Firefly,” which showed that Han Solo rhythms fit with “High Noon” harmonies. For this new movie, the pitch of a true genre mash-up was intriguing to Ford but also elusive and plenty risky.
“The thing I was most curious about coming in was tone,” Ford said as he sweated beneath his wool period-piece costume on the New Mexico set. “You don’t get it off the page. They’re just words, so we dug in for almost two months of work on the script in these story conferences trying to define the character and the lines and the tone. The trick of this thing and the beauty of this thing is that it’s a cowboy movie first and then stuff happens. Even after stuff happens it doesn’t change — it hasn’t suddenly changed into another kind of movie. It’s still a cowboy movie. And that’s what’s incredible about it because nobody has done that before, that’s new territory.”
Covering new ground is an enticing prospect for the actor who, 45 years ago, earned a $125 paycheck (but no screen credit) for delivering a few lines as a fresh-faced bellboy in “Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.” The roles and paychecks got a bit bigger through the years as he piled up one of the great résumés in Hollywood history: “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Fugitive,” “Blade Runner,” “Air Force One,” “Patriot Games” and dozens of others. Oddly, despite the saddle-and-hat work in the Indiana Jones films, there were no signature westerns in that filmography.
“For years, I’ve thought the western – as a genre – needed this guy,” said Howard, whose career path memorably crossed with Ford’s back with 1973’s “American Graffiti.” “When Jon Favreau started seriously going after Harrison for this role, I was dubious that we could get him on board. But it speaks to Jon’s power of persuasion and the fact that he’s found something in this material that really elevates it. And the two of them have been able to take this ranch owner character and make him closer to John Wayne in ‘The Searchers.’ Harrison has this persona that fits the western. In a way he was a cowboy in ‘Grafitti’ and ‘Star Wars’ and when you see him on screen in this setting it just feels right.”
Other cast members, even that fellow who plays James Bond, found that they stood up a bit straighter when Ford was in the room or sitting on the next saddle. “You do get that flash of, ‘How am I going to hang with this?’ ” said Craig. “I’ve been a fan since I was a baby but then, you know, you’ve got the job to do. And I hate to say it but he’s a delight. Don’t tell him I said that, though.”
Ford, a longtime ranch owner in Wyoming, is a man of few words and he found a lot of resonance and even a sort of cinematic relief in “Cowboys & Aliens,” which is very of-the-moment in its special effects but has a throwback spirit in its compass points.
“Indiana Jones is kind of a western character, in a sense,” Ford said, “but 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. 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.”
As part of his preparations, Favreau sat down with Spielberg for something close a to a master course in the history of Hollywood westerns. The heritage of “Stagecoach,” “My Darling Clementine” and “Destry Rides Again” was key to the film even as the visual effects team labored on the physiology of the alien invaders and the profiles of their spacecraft. It made an interesting exercise for Favreau, whose last two films, the “Iron Man” movies, grossed more than $1.2 billion in worldwide box office combined.
“With ‘Iron Man’ there was a lot of freedom but the western genre has a lot of rules to it, you can’t just discover your own form – you’re commenting on an established form,” Favreau said. “If you’re going to do it justice, you have to maintain the balance and structure of a western. This isn’t just about plugging characters into a sci-fi movie. There’s plenty of room for inspired moments but you need that set document to work off of. And for us, Harrison Ford is a way to connect into the western just by what he brings to the screen.”
Ford was standing amid the bleak splendor of Plaza Blanca, the northern New Mexico landscape that so enthralled Georgia O’Keeffe. With the cowboy hat and unshaven jaw, Ford seemed a bit like a western monument himself, perhaps the only living man beside Clint Eastwood who might qualify should Hollywood decide to chisel out its own version of Mt. Rushmore.
“There’s no air and a lot of reflected heat off the white cliffs,” Ford said. “They search around for snakes before we shoot. That’s reassuring. I’ve been here about a week. I came sort of ‘horse ready.’ I auditioned a couple of horses, three or four, before I ever came out. I found one horse that is so good — I’m trying to buy him right now. Yeah, so I’m really happy with my horse and he’s relatively happy with me.”
The making of “Cowboys & Aliens” seemed to be an especially enjoyable experience for the perennially prickly Ford, a guarded and private star who enjoys the craft but finds his celebrity to be exhausting. That led to a memorable sight gag at Comic-Con International in San Diego last summer where Favreau led the actor out on stage in handcuffs for a surprise appearance that sent the audience of 6,000 into a collective fanboy swoon. Also, back in New Mexico, Ford used a day off to marry actress Calista Flockhart, his partner of eight years, in a small ceremony in Santa Fe.
“It’s been really gratifying, I have to say,” Ford said. “A lot of that is because of Jon, who has surprised me with his spirit and his insight, and I only say that I was surprised because I knew him better as an actor than as a filmmaker. He’s a very clever actor but as a director he’s shown that he can solve the problems that come up every day and not become mechanical.”
It was time to get back on the range, but Ford had another point he wanted to make. The onetime pilot of the Millennium Falcon said that in the big universe of contemporary special-effects films, it’s easy to feel alienated.
“I think what a lot of action movies lose these days, especially the ones that deal with fantasy, is you stop caring at some point because you’ve lost human scale,” Ford said. “With the CGI, suddenly there’s a thousand enemies instead of six – the army goes off into the horizon. You don’t need that. The audience loses its relationship with the threat on the screen. That’s something that’s consistently happening and it makes these movies like video games and that’s a soulless enterprise. It’s all kinetics without emotion. I don’t have time for that.”
— Geoff Boucher
UPDATED: In an earlier version of this story I used the term “six-iron” in the first paragraph but now I’ve changed it to “six-shooter” because, well, real cowboys don’t golf.
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