Interview: Jon Favreau on the Set of ‘Cowboys & Aliens’

By  · Published on December 1st, 2010

Yesterday we took you out into the middle of New Mexico and behind the scenes of Cowboys & Aliens. Today, we continue our week-long set visit report by talking with director Jon Favreau.

I’m standing in the middle of the desert, and Jon Favreau is holding an alien arm up toward my face. There’s this look in his eyes that reads as a mix of sheer excitement and a hopefulness that the group surrounding him approves of his alien arm. From the amount of questions buzzing him like airplanes taking a pass at a giant ape on the top of a tall building, it seems like they do.

Favreau has navigated a jungle-like career (which started in earnest when he met Vince Vaughn on the set of Rudy) in order to stand in front of some sun-stroked journalists with a piece of painted plastic in his hand. That career has taken him from the college of PCU to the fighting style of Friends and through indie acclaim, Comic Con domination, and into the metal suit of Iron Man which, of course, led him to New Mexico in more ways than one.

Upon arriving on the set of Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau handed each visiting journalist a challenge coin ‐ a round metal object used in the military as both a point of achievement and as a drinking challenge. It was a tradition born for the director on the set of Iron Man.

“On Iron Man [and] Iron Man 2, we were at Edwards Air Force Base. And I would shake hands with people, and I would feel they would stick a coin in my hands, right? And it was a challenge coin. The reason they call it challenge coins is, if you don’t have your unit coin, or a unit coin with you when you’re out drinking, and somebody pulls your glass off the bar, if anybody in the bar doesn’t have a coin, they have to buy a round for everybody. But if you challenge everybody and everybody has it, you have to buy the round for everybody. But it was also a sign of respect, that they liked the way the crew was, and the way we treated them, and who were ‐ you know, developed a nice relationship with any of the individuals ‐ it was a sign of respect to give a coin,” Favreau says, handing everyone something we’ll use later at the hotel bar.

I look down at the metal coin and notice it has what looks like a cigar with wings on it. It turns out to be part of the inspiration for the film.

“You know, there was that first photograph of a spaceship was from I think the 1870s, and you know, they had the first shot of a UFO was like a cigar-shaped silver thing in the air,” Favreau explains. “And there have been certain recurring themes and sightings and ‐ and then the way film has treated them, UFOs. So we tried to use reference stuff and make it fit into the cultural memory of alien stuff, especially ‐ you know, I’m more of a fan of the alien movies from ‐ you know, I guess I grew up around the time of Close Encounters, E.T. and Alien I like a lot, and Predators. 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 you could show everything with CG.”

This gets us back to the alien arm which, at this point, I haven’t seen yet. What I have seen are the dowel rods with small foam balls attached which are hanging visibly off a prop cart. Someone has drawn mean-looking faces onto the balls with a marker.

There’s something refreshingly innocent and simplistic about them that matches the DIY nature of some of the films Favreau grew up watching. Instead of holding UFO miniatures in a smoke-filled room, he’s holding an orange ball on a dowel rod in the middle of the desert. With all the tempting CG at his disposal, at least he’s holding something.

Of course, he’s also holding on to a legacy of sorts. Just as John Ford’s Devil’s Tower in My Darling Clementine inspired Spielberg’s Close Encounters, Close Encounters has inspired Favreau to make a Ford-like western. It’s a circle that is now complete, and will remain so until a future filmmaker is inspired by Favreau’s western to make a science fiction film in the spirit of Spielberg.

Despite the science fiction elements in Cowboys & Aliens, though, the genre tropes of the cowboy seem to be the base for the feel of the film. It’s something that Favreau takes seriously.

“We looked at films like The Professionals and Magnificent Seven. But the first meeting I had, along with Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof and with Steven [Spielberg] ‐ he screened The Searchers for us. So I definitely watched and went through the whole John Ford, you know, all the John Ford films I could get my hands on. And also some [Sergio] Leone. Each era did their version of a very similar structured story type, so we tried to preserve those archetypes in those characters, and figured it’s time for our generation to take that class historian, and show it through our perspective.”

What that perspective is remains unclear even as Favreau describes the falling out of favor for the Western after the Vietnam War due to racial sensitivities. As a contrast, the cowboy half of Cowboys & Aliens are forced to work with the Native Americans (in grand historical departure) in order to fight off the invading beings from another planet (which, according to my friend with tinfoil on his head, isn’t historical departure).

These brave men happen to walking around the set in between takes, and Favreau has high praise for them. He likens Daniel Craig to Steve McQueen and the chiseled-faced stars of the late 60s and 70s. He describes Harrison Ford (a chiseled-faced star of the 70s) as a master at making action scenes work ‐ a veteran with the kind of knowledge that works in active collaboration with a director to bring the lessons he’s learned over nearly half a century to the present project.

Ford and Craig, alongside Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde to round out the top bill, are an ensemble that is churning out a directorial experience altogether different from the singular storm of Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man.

“I’m very proud of the Iron Man films, and I think that we found a really good balance, but the personality of the film is affected by the personalities of the individuals. I could be very dialogue driven and very spontaneous and open to improvisation and reinvention of moments. In the first Iron Man we did that quite a bit, and the second one, even more so, as Robert Downey’s personality affected the rhythm of things. With this one, you know, there’s been a tremendous amount of preparation. You’ll see the camera work is a lot more decisive. You know, again, it’s the personality of the film that’s going to affect things. And also, with Iron Man you’re shooting plates. It’s about the characters, with multiple cameras to get the spontaneous dialogue. Here, you can really make it about the locations, about the vistas. And in a Western, the character is a small piece of the landscape sometimes. And sometimes, what’s going on behind their eyes.”

At any rate, it will be a much quieter film than Iron Man or Iron Man 2. The antiquated pyrotechnics promise to be there, but Daniel Craig’s lonesome stranger is a man of action more than words. Listening to Favreau speak while staring out onto the dozenth take of the same scene of the day, I realize for the first time that Craig hasn’t said a single word. Even though it’s a short scene, he’s patiently, quietly walking across the same patch of dry dust as his director fills eager records with paragraphs of quotes.

Beyond the muted differences of the film that launched Favreau’s big budget stardom and the film he’s using that clout to make, the most striking factor that he brings up seems to be the odd disconnect between the source material and what makes it to the screen. On the topic of Iron Man, Favreau is candid about the need for balance, the mistake of comic adapters of the past, and the triumph of Marvel recognizing a distinct method of drawing in larger crowds without alienating the fans.

Even after celebrating that method, he claims he’s not exactly using it for Cowboys & Aliens ‐ which comes from a graphic novel. Instead, he’s relying more on the script from Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman to act as his guide, regardless of how near or far it comes to the pages of the comic book.

If you’re a fan of the original comic series, don’t be expecting any magical, flying horseshoes in the film. Favreau claims he was more interested in capturing the spirit of the book while leaving some of the more cartoonish elements behind.

“I don’t know that much about the comic book, but I do know we definitely reinvented things.”

That is what’s most interesting standing in a dust storm in front of a man holding a plaster alien arm. Favreau is a man inspired by a master filmmaker that he’s currently working alongside, an adapter who made his mark staying true to source material without much concern for his current source, and a director talking about reinventing the future while attempting to capture the spirit of the past.

After spending ten minutes describing a bi-pedal, biologically-based alien menace from outer space in the blistering heat of the New Mexico sun, he wishes us a warm goodbye, and then jogs off to try to capture a few more takes before the sun sets. Just another day in the desert. A man of many words calling “action.”

We’ll have to wait until the dust settles next year to see Cowboys & Aliens, but we’ve got a week’s worth of features from our set visit to drop you into a rusty UFO in the middle of the desert. Find out what films (and video games) inspired the shoot, revel in the Western heritage and history, and stay tuned. We’re just getting started.

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