‘Cowboys & Aliens’ star Harrison Ford: Most special-effects films are soulless now [updated]

April 25, 2011 | 2:04 p.m.
cowboysfavreau Cowboys & Aliens star Harrison Ford: Most special effects films are soulless now [updated]

Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Jon Favreau on the set of "Cowboys & Aliens" (Universal)

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’sPredator,” 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.

cowboystall Cowboys & Aliens star Harrison Ford: Most special effects films are soulless now [updated]

A Stetson-wearing Harrison Ford in "Cowboys & Aliens" (Universal)

“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.”

cowboys and aliens harrison ford and daniel craig Cowboys & Aliens star Harrison Ford: Most special effects films are soulless now [updated]
Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in “Cowboys & Aliens” (Universal)

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.

indianaj Cowboys & Aliens star Harrison Ford: Most special effects films are soulless now [updated]

Ford as Indiana Jones in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (Paramount)

“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.”

callista Cowboys & Aliens star Harrison Ford: Most special effects films are soulless now [updated]

Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

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.


super 8 poster1 Cowboys & Aliens star Harrison Ford: Most special effects films are soulless now [updated]J.J. Abrams speaks: The secrets of “Super 8″

“Cowboys” challenge: A new hat for Harrison

Abrams: 7 films that shaped “Super 8”

“Trek” writers: We’ve broken the sequel story

Jon Favreau hits “Cowboys” campaign trail

Favreau: Why I’m leaving “Iron Man” series

Director: “Capt. America” will surprise people

Ron Howard’s quest for King’s “The Dark Tower”

Ridley Scott’s “breathtaking” return to sci-fi

“Pirates 4″ filmmakers: Our movie will make sense

Abrams: “Trek” still in shadow of George Lucas


27 Responses to ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ star Harrison Ford: Most special-effects films are soulless now [updated]

  1. Joe says:

    The screenplay for Cowboys & Aliens is by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, from a screen story by Fergus & Ostby and Steve Oedekerk. It is based on Platinum Studios' "Cowboys & Aliens" by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Grazer, Howard, Kurtzman, Orci and Rosenberg produce. Spielberg, Favreau, Denis L. Stewart, Bobby Cohen and Ryan Kavanaugh executive produce.

  2. pete says:

    Truer words were never spoken about the current state of most films.

  3. Brett says:

    It's interesting that Harrison Ford describes modern CGI films as examples of a soulless enterprise. That's pretty much how I felt about "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

    • Tom says:

      So true. There is nothing so sad as the complete implosion of a fantastic character driven fantasy world as when the viewer is booted completely out of the movie theatre when Indiana Jones climbs into that refrigerator. After that, who cares what happens?

  4. Dan says:

    Great article. The man is a legend. And that last paragraph pretty much sums it all up for me, although to be fair it's not always CGI's fault for losing the threat on a human scale – sometimes that falls down to plain old bad storytelling. (For 'sometimes' read 'more often than not these days'.)

  5. Brett says:

    I haven't been thrilled with some of Ford's role choices in recent years, but this interview definitely has me back on board. His thoughts about Westerns and CGI are both right on.

  6. Joseph L Cooke says:

    I CANNOT wait for Cowboys and Aliens to hit the big screen.

  7. Joseph L Cooke says:

    What detracts from most movies of the last decade is the horrifically ugly blue tint effect. Damn any director who has used it.

  8. Diana Jones says:

    SOOO hoping this is a good movie – I miss Firefly…

  9. Bruhn says:

    Ford must hate "Indy 4". Like most people.

  10. Andy says:

    I couldn't agree more. When I saw "300," I thought, this is a hit???? It was like watching a video game that somebody else is playing.

  11. Wesley Nike says:

    hahaha… was Harrison refering to Indy 4 when he had a go at CGI effects I wonder? That film had extremely poor characters and so many awful and un-neccessary CG additions… terrible. Here's hoping that Cowboys and Aliens returns us to the cool Harrison Ford of old!!! Sounds like it'll be great entertainment

    • Tom says:

      Before there can be CGI, there has to be a story. "Indy 4" has zero story, and the bits of attractiveness in that film are swallowed up by the repugnant abuse of the characters. Yuk.

  12. r421 says:

    When is "Regarding Henry vs Alens" coming out? I'd pay to see that.

  13. senileford says:

    He is getting Senile. Either act or go to the old actors home

  14. mikek says:

    It seems most of the movies today are like watching sophisticated cartoons. RIdiculous action and no dialogue . Bring back the 40's & 50's and early 60'S.

    • craigar says:

      Get Netflix and use their streaming service. They have a pretty cool selection of independent and foreign films that don't have the budget to rely on major special effects. They aren't all great movies by any stretch, but I've found some interesting selections on there.

  15. C.S.Poulsen says:

    What an AWESOME idea for a story….can't wait to see Ford and Craig on the same screen!

  16. Kobalt says:

    Ford nails what I've been saying (to myself, I guess) for 12 years: there's no identifiable threat left. All that's missing a controller or a light gun. That's why Avatar made what that made (don't tell me that it didn't like a video game) but moreso because of its alternate world it created. The Transformers and its eight zillion rip-offs just feature massive, unstoppable monsters and Earth being swallowed whole. Yawnzies. A guy hanging off a suspension bridge or going hand to hand with a fellow human beat that crap anyday.

    And, yes, you know Ford had to be taking a veiled jab at his own recent Indy universe.

  17. Izayi says:

    some of the best stories i know come from video games.

    • BCam says:

      Best stories? Try starting here:

      "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

      Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities"

  18. kyle says:

    I want INDY 5!

  19. goldtrader says:

    I would have had no clue what “six-iron” ment. I would have thought it had something to do with iron man.

  20. TallGirl says:

    It’s so sad when people who are supposed to be fans of Fantasy and Adventure are so ignorant about the very genes and origins of the Indy series to the point where a simple old-school movie serial gag as “Lead Lined” completely escapes them and “boots” them out of a fun movie.

    The “wrath of ‘God'” popping out of a box and melting a bunch of Nazis, however…no problem.


  21. kyle says:

    I watch Cowboys & Aliens Hd Trailer , special effects and crystal clear screens Harrison Ford has not loose any performance

  22. ron olander says:

    Has he seen his own movies?

Leave a Reply to Brett Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

E-mail It
Powered by ShareThis