Favreau Tips His Hat To The Western With 'Aliens'

Originally published on July 29, 2011 1:50 pm

Set in the old West desert town of Absolution, Cowboys & Aliens has almost everything you'd expect to see in a classic Western: gunslingers, shoot-outs, saloons ... and aliens.

Just think of it as gourmet comfort food.

"Hopefully it's a really, really smart version of a very simplistic concept," actor-turned-director Jon Favreau tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

As a director, Favreau is best known for his Iron Man mega-hits, but he says he was cautious not to let his latest film devolve into a sci-fi action popcorn movie.

"The trick is to discipline it so that the scale of the film remains a Western all the way through," he says. "Make it feel like a Western, don't immediately turn it into Independence Day."

Learning From The Greats

To keep the film's action in the Western style, Favreau says he looked to director John Ford for inspiration. He even had a private screening of Ford's classic Western The Searchers with Steven Spielberg, one of the executive producers for Cowboys & Aliens. Spielberg followed the screening with a lecture on how to make a good Western.

"That was the key," Favreau says. "I'm amazed he hasn't done [a Western] yet because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of John Ford ... He is a dyed-in-the-wool Western fan."

So what is the key to making a good Western?

"It's about this twist you put on a very confined set of characteristics," Favreau says. "It's a very specific form with a specific cast of archetypes and each generation revisits the same Western tropes and puts a slightly different spin on it based on their context."

Unfortunately, he says, his generation has yet to leave much of a mark on the Western.

Not Just 'Mashing Up Cowboys And Aliens'

If Cowboys & Aliens wasn't already teeming with crossover appeal, then casting the faces of James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in the leads probably did the trick. Favreau says that was no accident.

"I felt that part of the fun of this movie wasn't just mashing up cowboys and aliens, but also Bond and Indy," he says.

In fact, he says he consciously infused Craig's character with a Bond-like, supernatural ability to get out of trouble — like the opening scene in which an unarmed Craig disarms three men with shotguns in less than 10 minutes, before walking off into the sunset.

Harrison Ford, meanwhile, plays somewhat against type. Indiana Jones and Han Solo were jaded but likeable heroes, but in Cowboys & Aliens Ford is more of a curmudgeon — and a bit of a racist.

"Yeah, we took a lot more liberty with it since it was him," says Favreau, who grew up watching Ford on the big screen. "If you're a student of the Western, Harrison Ford I think is our analog to John Wayne. They both had tremendous bodies of work, good will [and] always came off more likable than they would seem on paper."

But there's also something very Western about casting Ford as a curmudgeon. After all, Favreau says, John Wayne's character was pretty anti-Native American at the beginning of The Searchers — but he changes over the course of the film.

Favreau says he appreciates how the Western format gives characters room to grow.

"The character arcs are very strong and arguably more interesting and exciting than the action that is metaphorically representational of those arcs," he says of his film. "So, what our job is ... in a Western is to lay out characters that have a long way to go, and through overcoming their own inner demons they can then fight off — in this case literally — external demons."

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MARY LOUISE ELLY, Host:

Jon Favreau's new summer action flick is set in the old West, the desert town of Absolution. The story is trotting along with plenty of gunslingers, shootouts and saloons. And then, things start to get a little weird.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COWBOYS AND ALIENS")

LOUISE ELLY: I don't know what it is, but it's bleeding.

LOUISE ELLY: It's in the same direction those machines went with our kin. Are you going to be able to track it in the dark?

LOUISE ELLY: Round up the horses. Get some supplies. We'll set off, first light.

KELLY: Jon Favreau directs the aptly named "Cowboys and Aliens"; welcome to the show.

LOUISE ELLY: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: So help us wrap our heads around this. In a nutshell, what is the plot?

LOUISE ELLY: Well, I think the title says it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Pretty much, if you're going to make a movie about cowboys and aliens. You know, call it that.

LOUISE ELLY: It's a bit of a mash-up, which is, you know - much like with gourmet cuisine, with fusion. There is a trend toward mashing up different genres, everything...

KELLY: So this it like the Latino...

LOUISE ELLY: Asian fusion...

KELLY: ...Chinese, yeah...

LOUISE ELLY: Yes, that's right. Or like I think, more aptly in this case, it's more like gourmet comfort food. Hopefully, it's a really, really smart version of a very simplistic concept.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Were there bits of each genre that you knew from the get-go you had to have? You know, you were definitely going to have a cowboy, you know, jumping off his horse and landing on, you know, instead of a stagecoach, instead of a train, landing on an alien spaceship - something like that.

LOUISE ELLY: We didn't want it to just devolve into a big sci-fi action popcorn movie. The trick is to discipline it so that the scale of the film remains a Western all the way through. And when the action gets big, keep it in the language of the big action of the classic Westerns, from the John Ford era. You know, the stagecoach chase, the battle over the Alamo. You know, make it feel like a Western. Don't immediately turn it into "Independence Day."

KELLY: You know, in talking about Westerns, I read that Steven Spielberg, who was one of the executive producers on the movie, actually invited you and the writers to a private screening. And he showed a bunch of Westerns and then gave a bit of a lecture on how you make a good Western.

LOUISE ELLY: I think that was the key. And at the end of a meeting - where I was rather intimidated - in his conference room...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE ELLY: ...sitting under the original prop of Rosebud the sled...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Uh-huh.

LOUISE ELLY: ...literally over my shoulder. So I was looking up at the most famous movie prop in the world. And I would look across the table to the most famous living director in the world. And it was a bit off-putting. And then finally, he really just ingratiated himself to me by putting me at ease. And he said hey, I just got a restored print of "The Searchers." You want to see it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE ELLY: And I'm like, yeah. If you...

KELLY: Yeah, I can make the time for that. Yeah.

LOUISE ELLY: ...I'll make the time. And he - yeah, he talked us through the entire film and pointed out every detail. And it was clear that he is a dyed- in-the-wool Western fan.

KELLY: Well, and what is the key to making a Western, according to Steven Spielberg?

LOUISE ELLY: It's a very specific form with a specific cast of archetypes. And each generation revisits the same Western tropes and puts a slightly different spin on it based on their context. And so, much like when a singer performs a standard, the insight comes not from the music of "Bye-Bye Blackbird," but it's the phrasing that Sinatra brings to it versus Billie Holiday versus Charlie Parker. And...

KELLY: So it's about the rhythm that you're able to give to a movie.

LOUISE ELLY: It's about this twist you put on a very confined set of characteristics. And each generation is able to comment on it. And our generation, unfortunately, hasn't really had that opportunity because Westerns have not been box-office powerhouse, like they used to be in the first half of the last century.

KELLY: I mean, I was sitting there thinking, hand this guy a martini and I could be watching the opening scene of the next Bond movie.

LOUISE ELLY: Yeah, it quite consciously utilized his characteristics. And I felt that part of the fun of this movie wasn't just mashing up cowboys and aliens, but also Bond and Indy.

KELLY: And just to be clear, Indy - we're talking Indiana Jones.

LOUISE ELLY: Indiana Jones.

KELLY: Harrison Ford is your other leading man here.

LOUISE ELLY: That's right. So both of them are cowboys, in a sense. And James Bond has that magical gunfighter, supernatural quality where he can do things that are a little bit hyper-real. Leone really took the gunfighter and turned him into the samurai character from Kurosawa films, or a ninja or a Jedi. And you know, James Bond also shares that, and we wanted Daniel Craig's depiction to encompass that.

KELLY: Now, Harrison Ford is playing somewhat against type here. I mean, he usually plays pretty likable heroes - Indiana Jones, of course, springs to mind; Hans Solo. In this movie, he is playing this very curmudgeonly, somewhat racist guy. Was that deliberate, in the way that you cast?

LOUISE ELLY: Yeah, we took a lot more liberty with it since it was him. And if you're a student of the Western, you know, Harrison Ford - I think - is our analog to John Wayne. They both had tremendous bodies of work, goodwill, always came off more likable than they would seem on paper. And if you looked, from "The Searchers" - which, of course, was the film Steven screened for us, you know - John Wayne starts off pretty dead-set against the Native American population.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE ELLY: He was coming back from the Civil War, and John Wayne is able to get away with that.

KELLY: And you think Harrison Ford pulls that off here.

LOUISE ELLY: So what our job is to do in a Western, is to lay out characters that have a long way to go. And through overcoming their own inner demons, they can then fight off - in this case, literally - external demons.

KELLY: But I guess if you're, you know - the other genre we're talking about here, alien movies. Harrison Ford, obviously, has quite a bit of experience with those as well.

LOUISE ELLY: And now here I am, a couple of decades later, sitting with him and conspiring over how best to bring this vision to the screen.

KELLY: Jon Favreau, thanks very much.

LOUISE ELLY: Thanks for having for me.

KELLY: That's director Jon Favreau. His new movie is "Cowboys and Aliens." It opens today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE THEME, "RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC")

KELLY: It's MORNING EDITION from. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.