Westerns and science fiction: two genres that have been mixed before, with equally mixed results. This week’s release Cowboys & Aliens gives the mash-up the blockbuster treatment, with Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde battling against creatures that attack the small town of Absolution. At the UK press conference to launch the film, producer Roberto Orci, director Jon Favreau and the stars talked about what attracted them to the project…
Words: John Mosby
Jon Favreau: I grew up watching science fiction, so I was first exposed to the Western through science fiction. I grew up with Star Wars, I’m part of that generation, and Lucas drew a lot of inspiration from [Akira] Kurosawa, who drew a lot of inspiration from John Ford. My favourite Kurosawa is probably The Seven Samurai – I’d guess you’d call it a Western by its structure and as far as its characters. It’s the sort of film that every time you watch it you see something new in it.
Spielberg is a huge John Ford fan as well. I think as you learn more about directing, you start to appreciate the Western more and this was a huge opportunity to get to do a large-scale Western, which has fallen out of favour for many years. I think we all gathered around the notion of doing a Western together and it seemed like an unique opportunity.
Daniel Craig: It was probably the Western element, though I’m a huge science fiction fan. I think I’ve always wanted to play a cowboy, so that’s the bottom line.
Olivia Wilde: I’d say the Western as well. It’s something that I never thought I’d have the chance to be a part of, because I felt the genre had died for the most part. I certainly didn’t think there’d be a female role in a Western that would be this interesting and this tough – and I’ve had the chance to do it.
I grew up watching Star Trek with my family. My sister was a Trekkie as well. There’s been some great female characters in Trek over the years and still are. There was Captain Janeway [Kate Mulgrew] who had that great voice that I could never compete with. But I would love to play more powerful women in science-fiction. What [Alien star] Sigourney [Weaver] did for women in science fiction is incredible and she set the standard. I love the genre and would love to do more of it.
Harrison Ford: To be fair, I don’t really care what the genre is. I’m in it for the money! No, I was playing the Western side of the story, so that was what really attracted me. But, in particular it was a special character – not the genre – and the opportunity to work with all these wonderful people.
Roberto Orci: I liked the mix – I’m a fan of both, but we all felt that the challenge and the fun was to do something you hadn’t seen before and mix them very nakedly and openly. We wanted to make sure we took the Western seriously. We wanted to make a genuine piece with a real story and real emotions. It was a pleasure to go back to school that way.
Harrison Ford: I spoke to Jon about what tone he was looking for with the film. I was reassured. But you can read the same words and imagine different music. His intention was to be committed to the Western rather than do a tongue-in-cheek pop mish-mash. That reassured me – that and getting to know what work he’d already done. Our first meeting, he showed me a lot of graphics that had been developed showing the feel of the thing. He also made it clear to me that he was committed to the realities and relationships of the characters, which is what – for me – makes it work.
Jon Favreau: The movie is called Cowboys & Aliens and we thought long and hard about whether that was the title that we would keep. It was the title of the graphic novel and it certainly made me curious when I read the script.
The script had been developed for a long time and I think they had tried, for a while, to make it a comedy. I have a comedy background and the first rule is that the more ridiculous the premise, the more seriously you have to play it, otherwise it’s a joke on a joke. I think there’s something refreshing as I speak to the British press that there’s this phrase here: ‘It does what it says on the tin.’ I think there’s a certain integrity to that. The irony is intrinsic to the title and we tried to support that by presenting both genres with a pretty straight face and let the juxtaposition of them create the absurdity and the comedy. But the characters should never know they are making people laugh, they should be playing it to the hilt of reality.
It’s been a part of, certainly, the comic book culture for a while, this specific tone where you let the irony of the situation play the comedy. You’ll see a wave of films coming soon. There’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, there’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies… hopefully they’ll play them dead-on otherwise I’ll be really upset with them. If you play Abe Lincoln for laughs, you’re going to have big problems because it’ll last five minutes.
The challenge is to make something that is emotionally compelling in both genres, combining the two. What I’m proud of [with Cowboys and Aliens] is that these are characters with real stakes. We seem to be able to honour the traditions of both genres, while combining them. Music has done it with mash-ups… it’s a way to bring the new voice of a generation to something you appreciate and respect and most of all to do something original.
After doing the two Iron Man films, I really wanted to try my hand at something different. If you look at the films coming out of Hollywood this summer, you’ll see a lot of things that are sequels and remakes and superheroes. There are not a lot of chances being taken. I figure, at this point in my career it was my chance to do something I felt very passionate about even if it was a little off-beat and risky. You’re seeing a group of people up here who worked on something they believed in and was something a bit different and that was part of the appeal.