“Cowboys and Aliens” was shooting a good distance away from Santa Fe. As we sat on the bus for over an hour, parked in a large field and waited for another bus to take us to the set itself, I looked up at the giant desert sky and reflected on other set visits I”d been to, and how often they were not like this one.
Set visits, can often be very ordinary things. Usually we are ushered in quickly to a sound-stage somewhere to watch a scene over and over again. We are then escorted to another room and the actors are brought in, one by one, to discuss a movie that is currently in the process of being made, so no one is really sure what to make of it yet. Sure, they can talk about what they love in the script, how nice the other actors are, etc. But often times there are still lots of lingering questions: Will this movie be any good? Will it go straight to video?
“Cowboys and Aliens” will not go straight to video. The film boasts a production team of Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer, folks who certainly do not do things by half measures. And all though they weren”t present on the set when we visited, there was a certain confidence and enthusiasm present in everyone we talked to that really stood out in my mind as special and exciting. We may have hit a weird day, but everyone seemed… Happy.
We rode the second van up to the gorgeous white walls of a large box canyon where the days’ shooting was taking place, and then walked up to where the large scene was being shot. As luck would have it, the scene they had planned on shooting for our set visit was a smaller one with only Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. It was to take place further up the canyon and was to involve explosives, so we would have been stuck behind a monitor for most of the day. Due to scheduling matters and weather, they were shooting a much larger and more pivotal scene instead that day, and we got to watch it take place right in front of us, with almost every single star from the movie. We are ushered into an open sided tent facing the scene with a large air conditioning fan blowing cool air. Extras and actors alike, all wearing authentic western gear, saddle by us to get to the cool air. We see Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell, and Anna de la Reguera come and go. Adding to the films credentials as a western, we even see John Wayne”s grandson Brendan Wayne swing by and say hi. I”ve noticed that folks tend to be friendlier when they are shooting on location, especially in a location without cell service. There”s really nothing else to do besides talk to each other, and any issues that one might normally be concerned with are far away, back in the city.
Now of course I can”t go into what the scene was. I don”t want to ruin the movie for anyone and honestly, I kind of wish I hadn”t seen it myself. But oh, so are the perils of this job! Suffice to say that the scene involved Cowboys, Indians, as well as aliens, and people looking up into the sky.
Now as someone who has worked on many sets, and has more than once retreated to an art department truck to break down and have a cry when the stress got to be too much, I really couldn”t get over the general good humor of everyone we met. From the actors to the production assistants everyone was cheerful and nice, even the Assistant Director said “please” and “thank you.” Keep in mind as well that all these people had been shooting out in the heat of the desert for over three months. Once even evacuating the set due to a flash flood. They are in it for the long haul.
A large part of this good mood, can be attributed to director Jon Favreau. The guy is all smiles in his panama hat when he comes to say hi to us as they are setting up a different shot. Right off the bat he gives us the present of a “challenge coin.” In his words:
“We would work with the Air Force a lot, on “Ironman”, “Ironman II”, we were at Edwards Air Force Base. And I would shake hands with people, and I would feel they would stick a coin in my hands, right? And it was a challenge coin. The reason they call it challenge coins is, if you don”t have your unit coin, or a unit coin with you when you”re out drinking, and somebody pulls out the coin in a bar, if anybody in the bar doesn”t have a coin, they have to buy a round for everybody. But if you challenge everybody and everybody has it, you have to buy the round for everybody. But it was also a sign of respect, it was a sign of respect to give a coin. So I had them made up for “Ironman II”. And it became like a tradition. So I had them made up for “Cowboys and Aliens” also. I made them look a little more old school.”
He gives us all a large golden coin with two six shooters on one side and an alien spacecraft on the other. It”s kind of the coolest thing in the world. And every single internet journalist there is agape with wonder. He has won us over.
He then proceeds to completely ruin the movie for everyone present. Every plot twist is revealed and every piece of movie magic is demystified. “I”ve discovered that the only way to keep you guys from leaking stuff is to tell you everything. It”s when I don”t tell you that we get in trouble” he says with a smile. The man is incredibly well versed in film and excited about this project. He went from directing the indie movie “Made” to the mega-hit “Iron Man” franchise in less than ten years. He”s excited about his craft and especially excited about making a new kind of hybrid with “Cowboys and Aliens.”
The idea is to make a western with aliens in it, as opposed to a sci-fi movie with cowboys in it. When asked about his approach he replies: “You can do anything now. So we”re picking a very narrow interpretation of what an alien invasion means. You know, because it could be “Independence Day”, where it”s all about how big the ship is and how many ships come in, and how many ordnance that you could have fighting them. Or it could be like “Mars Attacks”, or it could be you know – the fifties stuff… So it”s picking what version, and limiting ourselves in a way that we would – that technology used to limit those filmmakers.”
Favreau is using as many practical effects as he possibly can in the film. Even things that you wouldn”t expect. If you notice in the trailer the invading ships that fly over the town have flashing laser lights. These were actual lights suspended by a crane and a great help for the actors who almost all commented on the fact. He continued.
“As far as the tone of it, I think what”s nice about the piece that we showed at Comic-Con, (The Teaser trailer, essentially) I think it shows the marriage (of the two genres.) So as a director, my biggest responsibility is to set the right 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. And it”s a balancing act, and that”s what makes this movie work.”
I happened to have a friend working on the set, so every once in a while I would get pulled away from the bunch and be shown cool things like Daniel Craig”s gun and Daniel Craig himself. Dirty and covered with sweat, I asked him how long he”d been out in the stinking desert. “since June, I guess” I commented that it must be pretty hot, but he shook his head. “There are worse jobs, I”m having fun.” Of course I missed Harrison Ford who came over to talk to the group, while I was talking with Craig, but I”m ok with that. I got to see him up close as he almost ran me down with his golf cart. “He will not stop” a friendly PA said hurrying me out of the way.
All in all I came away with a good feeling about this movie and an ever increasing respect for Mr. Favreau. The guy can talk and he knows his craft. That is,unfortunately, a lot more than you can say about many directors. As I rode back to the hotel I looked at my challenge coin and couldn”t help but get excited about this movie. I guess that was the point, wasn’t it?
“Cowboys and Aliens” opens this summer in theaters everywhere July 29th, 2011
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