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On paper, the concept of genre mashing sounds fairly basic. Take one style, mix in another, set up the proper battles and go home. If done wrong, the whole thing could be quite the generic affair and, in some ways, exploitative – simply trying to cash in on getting two types of audiences into the theater at the same time. If what I saw this past summer is any indication, though, Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens will be anything but generic.
Shielded in my trusty Mets cap, aviator sunglasses and a bandana to protect myself against the sandstorms known to crop up in the region, myself and a group of other journalists ventured out into the New Mexico desert this past August to watch the Iron Man director work on his next film, which is due out next July. Armed with our trusty recorders, we ventured into the vast territory outside of Santa Fe known as Plaza Blanca, an area previously used in films such as Wyatt Earp, All The Pretty Horses and The Legend of the Lone Ranger, to watch the likes of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford roam the desert dressed in Stetsons and spurs battling outer-space monsters.
In the film, Craig plays Jake Lonergan, a man who wakes up in the middle of the Arizona Territory no memory of who he is and a strange, futuristic gauntlet around his wrist. He makes his way into the town of Absolution, an area run by the hard-nosed Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford), and is arrested by the local law enforcement. What the townsfolk don’t know, however, is that this stranger is not only a powerful ally, but possibly their only hope, as full-fledged alien invasion breaks out. Joining forces with a mysterious traveler named Ella (Olivia Wilde), the townsfolk and the Apaches, they work together to rid their town of the extraterrestrial menace.
If there’s one thing I took away from my time on set, it was the film’s choice of tone. Rather than make it hokey and cartoonish – as the title might suggest – Favreau and writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof are attempting to make a serious western in the vein of John Ford and Sergio Leone. The director believes that most modern films in the genre, with some obvious exceptions, have cheapened it by using the classic archetypes as backdrops rather than putting them front and center.
“It’s usually a sensationalized version of the western, or a new twist on the western, or a western with an interesting piece of casting that breaks the rules of the western,” Favreau said. “But all the way back from Back to the Future III it just becomes like a fun backdrop as opposed to buying into the whole tradition of it.”
“I grew up around the time of Close Encounters, E.T. And then Alien I like a lot, and Predator. So we’re definitely going for more of the horror side of the alien movies – and although we have quite a bit of CG – I like the way they told stories before – before you could show everything with CG,” the director said.
From a visual standpoint, it’s hard to imagine anything going wrong. Plaza Blanca, which Georgia O’Keefe depicted in her painting “The White Place” is a stunning bit of terrain and Craig, who approached us in full costume spattered with blood and mud, looked as though he could have been a stand-in for Steve McQueen in another era. As for Ford, let’s put it this way: watching Harrison Ford, dressed head-to-toe as a true grit cowboy, emerge from a cloud of dust in the middle of the New Mexico desert is an event that when witnessed in person, calls for a brown pair of pants.
Lastly comes the story of the Challenge Coin. Prior to sitting down and answering some of our questions about the film, Jon Favreau told us all a story from the set of the first Iron Man. While working on the blockbuster superhero film at Edwards Air Force Base, the director would be given what coins called “challenge coins.” A drinking game of sorts, anyone with a challenge coin in a bar may present it at any time. If anybody in the group fails to produce their own coin, they have to buy the next round and if everyone has their coin then the challenger must buy the drinks. Favreau saw the coins as a sign of respect and decided to make it a part of his filmmaking process. Needless to say, all of our jaws hit the ground when he gave us all our own challenge coins, which you can see both sides of below (note the “JF” initials on the “Cowboys” side and the clear look at one of the alien spaceships on the other).