It was a hot August day when Cinematical stepped foot on the set of this summer's 'Cowboys & Aliens.' Production was set up about an hour's drive from our hotel, out in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico, at a place referred to as Plaza Blanca. As we lathered up in an awfully sticky combo of suntan lotion and bug spray, the unit publicist encouraged our small group to shift over to the side as a man in a cowboy hat raced up a dirt path in a golf cart that was going way faster than it was ever meant to travel. "Oh, that's just Harrison," the publicist noted as one of Hollywood's most iconic actors shot past us like a bat out of hell. "He likes to travel around set at 70mph."
That's not all we'd learn about Harrison Ford on this visit. For example, Ford, who was staying at a ranch nearby, also traveled to and from the set each day via his own private helicopter (that he flew). Word had it that he would give one lucky castmember a lift at the end of each day. This afternoon it was Paul Dano's turn, and he was as giddy as someone who was about to travel home via a helicopter flown by Han Solo himself.
Ford and Dano are just part of a larger ensemble cast that also includes Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell, among others. Due out July 29th, 'Cowboys & Aliens' follows a fearless group of Cowboys in 1800s Arizona who team up with a set of rival Indians to defend themselves and their land when a batch of menacing aliens attack. You've seen the trailer and images, so here are 10 things we learned from the set that should get you excited for one of this summer's biggest blockbusters.
1. It's 'The Searchers' Meets 'Close Encounters' Meets 'Alien'
'Cowboys & Aliens' is an interesting beast because of the way in which it blends two genres that, historically, haven't mixed very well: Sci-fi and Western. One of the things director Jon Favreau has done in order to separate it a bit from other films that have attempted the same genre crossover is to really play it up as a straight, old-school Western that could be a movie all on its own, except for the alien battle that nudges its way in there.
As such, Favreau -- along with his team of writers and producers -- really went to work on learning about The Western, watching (and subesquently analyzing) films like 'The Searchers', 'The Professionals' and 'Magnificent Seven.' "I definitely watched and went through all of the John Ford films I could get my hands on," Favreau told us. "Each era did their version of a very similar structured story type, so we tried to preserve those archetypes in those characters, and figured it's time for our generation to take that class historian and show it through our perspective."
Keeping in mind that this was still definitely a sci-fi movie, a similar amount of work went into creating a new breed of alien that brought some of the same fantastical wonderment you sense when watching 'E.T.' and 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind," but also evoke the sort of fear audiences felt when they first watched 'Alien' or 'Predator.'
"We're definitely going for more of the horror side of the alien movies," Favreau said. "And although we have quite a bit of CG – I like the way they told stories before – before you could show everything with CG. And it was a real unveiling of the creature, little by little, and using lighting and camera work and music to make it a very subjective experience. And so we tried to preserve that here."
2. Steven Spielberg's Film School
In order to bring the filmmaking team up to speed on the proper way to make a Western, Steven Spielberg invited Jon Favreau, and writer-producers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof to a private screening in which he provided live commentary as the film was running. "Spielberg's screened several movies for us, even did commentary in the theater with us," Roberto Orci noted. "He did this – he got a new print of 'The Searchers', and he took me and Jon and Alex and Damon to the Warner Brothers Theater. And he sat behind us and he's like, "Okay." And he – it was just a DVD commentary live, with Spielberg behind us. It's 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?" You know, just – and we're like taking notes. It was just like film school. I would've paid for that class."
Favreau later admitted that Steven Spielberg was the one who first pitched him the idea of 'Cowboys & Aliens' as "a stranger walks into a bar with a blaster," but also noted how intimidating it was to workshop a movie with Hollywood's most famous director. "It's hard to have a brainstorming session with Steven Spielberg because he'll start talking about ... "Well, in E.T., I did this ..." and then it's hard not to be distracted by that, you know. But you're hoping those stories will come up when you sign on to work with these people."
3. An All-Star Team of Filmmakers
Steven Spielberg isn't the only "big" name to grace this production. Other members of this all-star filmmaking team include Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof, as well as cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who shot both 'Iron Man' films, as well as 'Black Swan' and Darren Aronofsky's upcoming X-Men movie, 'The Wolverine'.
4. Filming on Sacred Western Land
The day we were on set they were shooting in the New Mexican desert at a location known as Plaza Blanca, aka "The White Place," as made famous by Georgia O'Keeffe's series of paintings. The beautiful white rocks and gorgeous landscapes immediately transport you to another time, which is why 'Cowboys & Aliens' is not the first Western to shoot here. Other films that have shot at Plaza Blanca include 'The Missing', '3:10 to Yuma', 'City Slickers', 'Young Guns' and 'Legend of the Lone Ranger'. You can see an image of Plaza Blanca below.
5. Western Roots and Royalty on Set
Not only did they film 'Cowboys & Aliens' in a location that's played home to many Westerns before (see list above), but the production itself also boasts a few people with ties to Western Royalty. Producer Ron Howard knows a thing or two about the late 1800s after directing 'The Missing' back in 2003, while Second Unit Director Terry Leonard began his career doing a tremendous amount of stunt work alongside folks like John Wayne in 'McLintock', 'El Dorado' and 'The Train Robbers', not to mention Harrison Ford in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'.
In front of the camera, we have Keith Carradine, who began his career as a Cowboy in 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller'. Here, he's playing Sheriff Taggart. And speaking of John Wayne, his grandson Brendan Wayne also stars in the film as Deputy Lyle.
6. So What About These Aliens?
Sure, you're dying to see more of Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig as Cowboys, but you genre fans are probably itching to learn more about the aliens. What are they? Where do they come from? And do they look like anything we've seen before? What we can say is the aliens are approximately nine-feet tall, bipedal and scary. Their arms are long, and come equipped with a giant claw at the end. At the risk of spoiling any more of the movie, we'll stop there, but know that you'll see plenty of these creatures up close and personal when the film arrives in theaters this July.
7. 'Cowboys & Aliens' vs. 'Iron Man'
Coming off hugely successful, back-to-back 'Iron Man' films, Jon Favreau has instantly turned into one of today's more sought-after big-budget blockbuster directors. Unlike 'Iron Man' and 'Iron Man 2,' which were working mainly off outlines until they coughed up shootable scripts right before filming, 'Cowboys & Aliens' is an entire different monster; one that required a lot more preparation, allowing everyone to really take their time to flesh out the story and characters.
"It was nice to have a piece of material before we even started the casting or prepping," Favreau told us. "And it was a very strong script. I'm very proud of the 'Iron Man' films, and I think that we found a really good balance. But the personality of the film is affected by the personalities of the individuals. With this one, there's been a tremendous amount of preparation. You'll see the camera work is a lot more decisive. With 'Iron Man' you're shooting plates; it's about the characters, with multiple cameras to get the spontaneous dialogue. Here, you can really make it about the locations, about the vistas. Robert [Downey Jr.] speaks a mile a minute, and you know, a gunslinger doesn't say that much. He says a lot with his actions. And you have to make the actions the dialogue, whether it's the gunfight, hand to hand combat – that's all part of his personality. And in a weird way, the dialogue is almost a secondary concern."
8. Harrison Ford Shoots First
Having people like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Jon Favreau involved in a film immediately makes it a project you need to keep an eye on, but adding Harrison Ford to the cast kicks things up a notch and makes it a project you really need to see. In 'Cowboys & Aliens', Ford plays Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, a tough-as-nails-type who rules the small Arizona town of Absolution with an iron fist.
Though Ford has played a space cowboy before in 'Star Wars,' and an archeologist/ rugged adventurer in Indiana Jones, he's never quite suited up for a straight Western before, which is what attracted him to the project in the first place. "I don't know how it happened. I'm assuming [Steven] Spielberg called in some kind of a favor, because we were shocked to hear that he was interested," Bob Orci said about Ford's initial involvement. "We found out that he's been interested in doing a Western for a long time. He was skeptical about the genre blend, and agreed to a meeting. And it wasn't until he actually came in and saw the artwork, saw what the amazing production design team had done, saw the production design and what the aliens look like and what the ships look like. That's when he said, "Ah, now I get it." And that's when he agreed to join, when he came in and really saw the stuff on the walls."
Fans of 'Star Wars' may also be happy to hear that there's a nod to Ford's most iconic character in the film, not to mention one of his most famous scenes too. When asked whether there would be a "shoots first" moment in 'Cowboys & Aliens', Orci laughed and replied, "Yeah. There is."
9. Don't Worry, It's Not Another 'Wild, Wild, West'
One of the concerns early on with a film called 'Cowboys & Aliens' was that the blending of two genres like Science Fiction and Western would ultimately end up hurting the production; turning off genre fans, while evoking comparisons to Will Smith's 1999 stinker 'Wild Wild West'. The filmmakers were aware of that, and, as such, wanted to attack the concept from a more dramatic perspective.
Producer Bob Orci notes, "That's why we're playing it very straight. That's why the twist is that there's aliens. There's not another twist on top of that. Being funny about it or making sort of ironic casting choices or something would have been what they call a hat on a hat. And seeing what those movies did, without condemning them in any way, we knew we wanted to do something a little bit different. Literally, this movie could keep going as a Western, and it would be a compelling story and everyone would be happy. Harrison [Ford], I think, sometimes would prefer that there were no aliens in the movie."
Favreau told us that it's really all about getting the tone right. "As a director, my biggest responsibility is tone. And whether I'm making a Western or a sci-fi movie, I would still have that responsibility. And I think I found the tone that marries the two. It's a balancing act, and that's what makes this movie work. And I think where Westerns have failed in recent years is that they got the tone wrong."
10. Will There Be a Sequel? Is This a New Franchise?
Though the graphic novel with which the film is based on came out with an online-only sequel in 2007 called 'Cowboys and Aliens: World at War', Jon Favreau and producer Bob Orci aren't rushing to call this summer's film part of a larger franchise. "Don't be counting your sequels before they hatch," Orci told us. Favreau jumped in: "I don't know what a sequel would even be now. But I have to say, this has been as positive experience as I've ever had, as far as the material that I've had to work with, the producers, the type of support I've gotten from the studio; the actors are talented and everybody is really enthusiastic, [and] if there's any way to feel it again, you know, it's something I wouldn't run away from – it's something I would embrace."