Jon Favreau interview “Cowboys & Aliens”

CINEMABLEND: Jon Favreau talks about developing the film’s cinematography, how the script changed when Daniel Craig came on to replace Robert Downey Jr. and how the film was pitched to Harrison Ford.

At what point did you make the story decision to not know yourselves out doing things like developing a language for the aliens that would be subtitled, developing characters within that organization, letting us know about their hopes or dreams or aspirations, and just going with mysterious monsters?

Look, the title’s Cowboys & Aliens, so you can get away with a lot if you chose to. You could make it the union of Cowboys Movies and Alien Movies and done whatever was convenient at any given moment. I think that’s what most people would do, especially if you went broader and more comedic. Do whatever’s the most fun in the moment. We really wanted to challenge ourselves with making it the intersection of the two genres. It had to work for both. If it only worked for one, we booted the idea. So you’ll see a lot of the set pieces feel like they could be in a western. We tried to echo what would be in the western; the scale of it. We didn’t want [the action] to feel much bigger than a cavalry charge or the Alamo. We didn’t want it to be a huge, huge alien invasion battle. We wanted to keep that same texture.

So, in answering your question, the first thing we had to set out and do was decide what kind of western we were going to do, if it was just a western, and what kind of alien movie. The type of alien movie we seized on was –I guess because of when I grew up — the moment just before CGI hit. There was, I think, a golden age of that kind of movie because you were dealing with animatronics, you were dealing with the Stan Winston/Bottin era of The Thing, Alien, and even Aliens and we really looked and examined closely what was done right before you could do everything with a computer. I think once Alien 3 came out, you just should them swimming and it was just a different … you were showing off the technology. I know with Iron Man, it worked very well because we looked at Top Gun when we looked at how to cover him flying. We looked at what the last big practical flying movie was to see the way you cover it, what lenses you use, how to discipline the cinematography. Not because anybody would notice it overtly, but subconsciously you feel it’s more real. So we decided to look at films like Alien, Aliens, Predator, and even Jaws, Close Encounters, a lot of the Spielberg stuff that play up the tension. In those movies, you played on the verge of horror and spent less time explaining the culture of that because you want to keep them this distant, evil, shadowy, primal force.

Were you really paying a lot of attention to selecting different stocks and using different techniques? How much did you and Matthew Libatique talk about that?

A lot. The minute we decided to go with film, and we tested digital 3D — just for the record, I love 3D, I have nothing against it, I think it’s here to stay, I can’t wait to work in 3D and I was compelled by the test, but it has to serve the story. Just like casting, just like performances, dialogue, everything has to serve the story, otherwise you’re being indulgent. Also, I felt there was a lot of pressure with everyone rushing to do 3D, I felt like, tactically, at the end of a summer when everything is in 3D, maybe even things that shouldn’t be, and everything is of a similar genre, and everyone is exploring the same types of stories and sequels and reboots that it would make this movie even more fresh. At the end of a summer where people are just bottlenecked with movies every weekend, it was a great opportunity to do something that might pop and be refreshing. I feel even more strongly about it now.

Before Daniel Craig was cast, Robert Downey Jr. was attached to the film. How much did the script change between actors?

When I read the draft of the script that I was show, I met with … Just the whole history of this: at first, I first heard about it when it was announced. It had been picked up before the comic book had ever been written. I think it was just an image, I don’t think it even had a title. It was very compelling. Years later, when we were shooting Iron Man, Fergus and Otsby, the writing team that I developed the John Carter of Mars script with and then brought them onto work on Iron Man when that didn’t pan out, they had a meeting with Steven about Cowboys & Aliens, which I was like, “Really? Wow! Tell me about it.” They got hired, then I didn’t hear about it. Then in Iron Man 2, Robert said, “Yeah, I might be doing, with Fergus and Otsby, Cowboys & Aliens. Now I was really curious about it. Didn’t really hear much about it again. Then, finally, when I was at Comic-Con promoting Iron Man 2, I ran into Kurtzman and Orci, who are the producers and wrote the latest draft. They were just talking to about getting together and meeting and I was curious, still. I said tell me about the draft and they said, “Oh, we just finished the draft. Come on over.”

They sent me the draft and it was really strong. The only thing that was a little off for me was that the main character was a little chatty. The gag has to be that you play one straight and the other straight and then let it get crazy when they come together. Don’t play a funny western. Don’t have a fast talking gunfighter. Then it becomes a different thing; then that’s the comment. That’s the fun you’re having. That’s the twist, but you don’t want a twist before the aliens come, I felt. Then, also, Sherlock had taken off and [Robert] was in two franchises now, so he couldn’t do because Sherlock 2 was going to be shooting in the same window. By the time I had come on as a director, he was already drifting, so the first person I cast when I came in was Daniel, who I really liked. There’s not a lot of people who can play this role. Most people his age feel more like kids. They don’t feel like guys who’ve experienced enough to feel remorse and need redemption. They feel like people who are just coming of age. He had that history to him and he was a real good foil. Then we got Harrison and it really made a lot of sense.

Talk a little bit about getting Harrison in. How do you go to him and pitch Cowboys & Aliens?

It was a little more surreptitious then that whole thing. We were already going through lists of actors and he was somebody who, when we first discussed it, the people who knew what he was up to and what he had been doing said that he was not going to be into it. He’s not going to be looking at doing a supporting role. There was a myriad of reasons we never went out to him. Then, through mutual contacts, I found out that people asked “why didn’t you go to Harrison?” I said it was not a realistic thing. To be honest, when you’re dealing with a movie of this size and dealing with stars, you don’t want to start sending scripts to people and getting passed on it. Then next thing you know, people might start feeling like a second choice or the movie might lose momentum. It’s a very small, weird, gossipy town and you have to be very decisive when you make movies to set things up because you don’t want to insult anybody.

So we didn’t want to do that, we were hurrying up. It also takes several weeks sometimes to get an answer. Then I heard from somebody who was close to him saying this might be something. He’s looking to work with filmmakers like you on interesting projects. So, I said if this is a realistic possibility, then this is the best news ever, but it can’t turn into… sometimes you’re encouraged to make offers because it makes the representatives look good, even if they know they don’t want it, but say “Look, I go you five offers!” So they might give you a false positive, so I didn’t know where this was coming from. When I later talked to his representatives, who I’d known for many years, it was pretty clear that they could get a quick answer and see if it was something he’d be into.

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