Wonder Con Interview: Cowboys & Aliens Director Jon Favreau
Thanks to the vagaries of the music industry and the need to have some semblance of skill, not everyone in this world can become a famous musician. But while director Jon Favreau may never go on to the stage at Madison Square Garden and rock out a sick guitar solo, if he ever feels the need to feel like a rock star, he need go no further than a comic book convention. This past weekend actor/director took the stage at WonderCon in San Francisco to promote his newest film, Cowboys & Aliens and verified what we all already know: the man is a Geek God.
Following a panel with writer/producer Roberto Orci, answering fan questions and showing the crowd nine minutes of footage from the new movie – due out on July 29 – Favreau came back stage to participate in roundtable interviews with eager members of the press, including myself. Check out the interview below in which the director talks about the move from on-location shooting to soundstages, the convention experience, and keeping the look of the alien out of the marketing.
When was your first convention experience?
The first time I was [at ComicCon] was for Zathura. Roughly ten years ago, if not ten. It was different when I went with Iron Man, when we first announced, we were handing out a poster – we weren't even in Hall H, we were in a smaller room. From watching a lot of these, you sort of realize what the people here want. It's different from the mainstream. They really want to understand what they're looking at. They want to hear the people speak, they want to hear insight that they're not going to hear anyplace else, and see things that they are not going to see anyplace else. That's why they go out of their way to come here. So, to speak to this audience...It's a little more inside baseball, your usually dealing with a large room, though this room isn't as large as Hall H, you can actually have a little bit more of a conversation with them [here], and that was fun, but you still get that crazy energy when you show them fun footage.
How do you decide what to bring, and have you found that in coming to ComicCon you kind of have a gained audience already? That people are primed and so that may or may not be an accurate gauge?
Oh, it is accurate. Yeah, I've bombed here before, I know what it's like. I've underwhelmed them with footage from Zathura, I've underwhelmed them with just showing a poster image the first time I was there for Iron Man, and that's when I realized that you have to understand your audience. I think for this one what's fun is, a lot of people spend a lot of their energy last week at CinemaCon and a lot of people gear up for ComicCon, so this one, you see there is not the presence of all the studios or all the films here, and that's when I think it's fun to over-deliver. You always want to over-deliver, you always want to do more than people are expecting in any given circumstance. This year ComicCon is going to be a week before we come out, so we've got to do something big and different, that nobody has done before. If we're gonna go, we better do something exciting.
Right, ComicCon has become beyond genre, I guess Twilight is genre, but it's sort of the tween genre fans, and like any other movement the very thing that makes it popular is the thing that overwhelms it. And when you go to ComicCon it's become this huge global event, and it's been something that's given me...really if I were to point to one thing that's contributed to my career and the opportunities that I've gotten, it's been the audiences at ComicCon. You know this [WonderCon] is a sister event to that, it's run by the same people, so they both have two different personalities. It just timed out well for us to show stuff here, and I think that opportunity was taken also by Green Lantern – they stepped in. Others are holding off and waiting to premier their new footage for the trailers coming out in the summer, and they're getting into they're mainstream marketing campaigns, and once the dialogue begins with the mainstream audience a lot of studios start to prioritize their mainstream marketing campaign. For us, this was a really fun opportunity to show some new stuff, and to show a lot of stuff, I like to show more than other people do.
You talked about holding back the look of the aliens and aspects of the final act in the promotional materials for the film, was that a difficult negotiation with the marketing team?
Well it's still a conversation that's going on, and a marketing campaign more and more runs like a political campaign, where there is constant polling, and constant focus groups, these people are looking at, taking the temperature of the audience, all the time. The days of a bold visionary having a gut feeling and going with their gut regardless of what feedback they're getting – those days are over I think. That being said, you can take the research and you can make a statement, and you can pitch a vision much like you would for a movie, for a marketing campaign, and I think there are enough visionary people involved with this film that there is an understanding that there is a personality that the marketing campaign can take on as well as the film itself.
The story is if you show two pieces to an audience, and one shows the entire move and the other one holds things back, they will say that they like the one that they see everything in better, but if you look at what they actually spend their money on, they tend to be more intrigued by something that holds a sense of mystery, where you feel like you are getting to experience something new and not just fulfilling a check list of the trailer that you saw when you go to see the movie. For this film I want to make sure that if the audience goes to see it that there is going to be a lot of surprises in it that they haven't seen in the marketing materials.
You know the title was the original thing that drew me to it, I heard about it from [Mark] Fergus and [Hawk] Ostby when they were first hired to write it. I heard about it on Iron Man 2 from Downey as he was considering being involved with it. So, it was always a title where I thought, the best version of this movie could be awesome. What they were doing with it was intriguing to me. And to be honest with you after Zathura and having a title that people couldn't even pronounce and never bid in from a marketing standpoint, I've grown to appreciate something that's memorable. So the beginning of the campaign for Cowboys & Aliens was saying “Here it is;” and the teaser shows it, and the cowboy sees the aliens and what the hell is gonna happen? I like the people involved with it, I like the people in it, what's this gonna be? They will either cheer, be confused or not understand what it is, but you've made an impression.
You've created a box in people’s minds called Cowboys & Aliens and now what we're doing is we're filling that box with what it is. Some people hear the title and they expect that it's going to be a spoof, some people hear the title and they hear what's been said about it and they think it takes itself too seriously – when you get to show nine minutes of it you get to see, it's movie stars who are dancing as fast as they can. They're facing circumstances that they don't know what it is. But the fun comes out of the mash-up, it comes out of the situation. It doesn't come from people making jokes that are dismissive of the stakes of the movie. And the movie has to be bad ass and it has to be fun, and if you can get those two things together, and we have the right cast to do it, and the right people behind the screen to do it, then I think we've come up with something really original and unique. In a summer that's filled with sequels and superhero movies, this might be a breath of fresh air. A nice, 2D original concept at the end of a very exciting summer of films.
I faced the opposite challenge with Iron Man 2 last time where everybody knew, everybody got out of our way, everybody wanted to partner with us for marketing. The real excitement the first time was the casting of Robert, the suit, and Marvel as a new studio. So we had that wave, and we had the challenges of: Is the superhero genre done? Are these B-level heroes going to make an impression? That's what we were facing, you know, is Marvel even going to be a viable studio? Is Favreau going to be the right guy to direct? It felt scarier than the second one, but you can't show footage and be received like you are here when you're showing a sequel, because they already have a set of expectations. What are you going to do differently with it?
Fortunately [with Cowboys & Aliens] we have a title that's sticky and an idea that people are curious about, that's been a very valuable asset to us. We're also one of the few movies that are about the cast and the stars. Typically before 3D, before big visual effects movies the stars were the point of departure for the audience. You would be paying for the stars, you'd get the stars and then you'd say, “Okay who's gonna see the next movie starring this guy?” Nowadays you're having films being driven by the content, being driven by the technology used to do it, and I think this is going to feel a lot more traditional both in the way that we approach the alien genre, the Western of it and in the way we've cast it and shot it, is going to feel a little bit more classic I hope, that will help it stand out in the summer as well.
You shot this on location in both Santa Fe and in California so when you brought production to sound stages how did you keep the energy and make sure you still had that same feeling?
Well, some of it was gone. Some of that energy was gone because we were doing rehearsals in Santa Fe beforehand and everybody came out and not everybody had their families with them and I think we got over the intimidation factor with each other, especially having Harrison Ford coming by, and us lighting a fire and everybody sitting around talking about the script and the characters and you’re not taking business calls or going out to lunches. You're there, and that was the fun part, it was like going away to camp, and making each other laugh, and me being a student of who they were as people. Because I think that the thing that has saved me, the most, has been my cast and my casting.
I've always been inspired by the people I brought in, I've always been really adamant about getting the people I want, and fighting for the people that I want and having a vision for who can really bring up the film. And usually it's that casting more than any other one factor that gives the film its personality and then allowing the depiction of that character to reflect who they are as a performer. So, getting to know them was wonderful, and when we got back it was a nice release. You know, it's a very powerful place, Santa Fe, the weather is powerful, the scenery is powerful, the altitude...So to be back in Los Angeles and being on the sound stages at Universal was a nice luxury.
I think it's just that. I mean I think that it's fun to be able to play the enemy, I think now as well it should be that people are treated as complex and there is no them and us anymore. The world is too small. What's interesting is when you start dealing with our differences in a very intelligent way. I think a lot of that is happening in cable television and series, and a long-form program; but in an hour and a half movie, you really have to be careful to be responsible about how you present things. That presents a lot challenges in the comic-book movies too, where you treat people a lot differently than you did during war-time or when these characters first emerged, the world was a different place. So in order to not be anachronistic about it, and not make the wrong statement, you have to update these things in a delicate way and inevitably you’re going to be violating the source material.
In a Western, I think that goes without saying as well, and I think there was an age of Western's that were a little bit more sensitive to that. You know the Dances With Wolves moment, that moment in making Westerns -- but it lost its grittiness as well. In dealing with aliens you can create this allegorical evil presence that you have to muster up everything to fight against and show no mercy. What's fun too, is to bring the Cowboys and the Apaches together. I love to take reality and change one little aspect of it, and see how reality then shifts. That was what was fun about Iron Man, you take one little thing – let’s say that this piece of technology changed and he can create this power source. Or that Tony Stark can create slightly higher than real technology, and how does that affect the real world?
As you get further from reality, it gets harder for me to bring to a project what I'm good at which is: What would it really be like for this to happen? What would it really be like in a Western to have aliens arrive? What would it really be like if a guy grew up in a Christmas special and then went to New York and his dad was James Caan? That's the fun of it to me, because that's verging more on satire, you’re dealing with reality and bending one aspect of it and seeing: What statement you are making about our world by changing one little aspect of it? Being There, Big, all of those movies that I really like, Tootsie, it's bending one little thing, and the ridiculousness comes from that one little shift, but your treating reality in the same way.
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