SANTA FE – One of the joys of the “Cowboys and Aliens” set visit was getting to hang out with Bob Orci. The guy is a bundle of energy and really likes to talk about his projects. For ‘Cowboys’ he’s performing double duties as writer and as producer, so he had spent a better part of the past three months before our visit on set in the New Mexico desert. As I mentioned before, the set had a light and happy mood, or perhaps everyone was just happy to have someone new to talk to.
Ever since the trailer premiered last week, there has been talk, most notably in the New York Times about audience expectations about a movie with such a flatly comedic title like “Cowboys and Aliens” but a very serious tone, even in the trailer. Orci was aware of this disconnect and talked to us about the various directions they thought about going tone-wise before settling on “Western, interrupted.” He looked upon it as an advantage.
We all know of movies that work really well for the online film folks and the Comic Con crowd, but falter when they hit the less “quirky” world of mainstream audiences (Scott-COUGH-Pilgrim-COUGH.) Obviously with talent like Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde, Orci and company do not mean for this picture to only appeal to a niche audience, even though the film is based loosely on a comic book by Scott Michael Rosenberg and Damon Lindelof. Mr. Orci seemed confident that they had enough lead time to get audiences used to the idea of a non-ironic movie with a very ironic title. Time will tell if he was right.
When you say the title “Cowboys and Aliens” to the general public, they kind of snicker. But this is obviously an action adventure. Did you find any trouble, you know, getting that tone across?
ORCI: We tend to treat these things like a campaign, and you don’t want to be the frontrunner up front. So having a title that people snicker at is actually not a terrible thing, because when they find out what it really is, it actually compels them to discuss it and to say, “It’s not what you think. You don’t want to be Hillary Clinton a year out, you want to be Obama a year out.
ORCI: And we’ve been through this before. We’ve been through it with “Transformers”, where they thought it was “Is it a cartoon, is it the Power Rangers?” And then you see a trailer for it and you realize it’s got a different scale and a different theme to it. I think “Iron Man” went through a similar thing. “Oh, it’s a B grade, superhero.” And then when you see it… So – we like coming from behind, and having the title change in your perception.
So what did it take to get him (Harrison Ford) on board for this?
ORCI: I don’t know how it happened. I’m assuming Spielberg called in some kind of a favor, because we were shocked to hear that he was interested. We found out that he’s been interested in doing a Western for a long time. He was skeptical about the genre blend – because you read the script and you get some sense of tone, but you’re thinking, “God, like a flying saucer is gonna land on the cowboy? What’s this gonna be?” And it wasn’t until he saw the production design and what the aliens looked like, and what the ships look like, and how they looked in relation to each other and to the Western that he said, “Ah, now I get it.” And that’s when he agreed to join.
When you look at blending these two genres, it’s been done before, to not great effect like, “Wild, Wild West.” Does that fear of those sort of films where it didn’t work come in (to your thinking?)
ORCI: I mean, absolutely. That’s why we’re playing it very straight. That’s why the twist is that there are aliens. There’s not another twist on top of that. Being funny about it or making sort of ironic casting choices would have been what they call a “hat on a hat.” And seeing what those movies did, without condemning them in any way, we knew we wanted to do something a little bit different. We wanted “We interrupt this movie to bring you this movie.” Literally, this movie could keep going as a Western, and it would be a compelling story and everyone would be happy. Harrison Ford, I think, sometimes would prefer that there were no aliens in the movie. (laughs) And so the alien genre really interrupts the genuine Western, hopefully.
Is there comic relief?
ORCI: Comic relief? I don’t know if there’s comic relief in terms of anyone’s job to do that. But there is humor in it. I mean you can’t find yourself in some of these ridiculous situations and not comment, as you would if you were really in that situation. But there are no jokes in it for jokes sake.
What about that dynamic between Daniel’s character and Harrison’s character? What sort of bond do they form, or what sort of chemistry is going on there? Because you’ve got one guy, the big cheese in town and Daniel is just the tough guy stranger…
ORCI: Well, that’s what’s great. If aliens hadn’t landed, this movie would be about how Daniel and Harrison are adversaries. And actually, Harrison would be the villain. And so that’s the trajectory that the movie’s taking. It’s only the interruption of this other genre that forces them to work together. We don’t break the ice between them soon at all. They have to continue butt heads throughout the movie and really earn whatever thinning of the ice and chemistry they have. And hopefully by delaying it and by having them have to witness each other at their best and at their worst, by the end of the movie you really feel like they’ve earned each other’s respect.
You mentioned a lot of the characters in the script, you took from the comic book and you made up your own. Can you talk about where those inspirations came from, and which characters were original?
ORCI: Part of it was just doing a little bit of homework, looking up what kind of people lived in the – what we’re calling the Arizona Territory, New Mexico, back in the day. You know, so obviously, a Harrison Ford character [is] someone who fought in the Civil War, who got the rank of Colonel. Back then, if you brought enough men into a battle, you suddenly got a field promotion so you can become a colonel without actually having to go through WestPoint or any of that kind of stuff. People migrating from the city, like Doc, (Sam Rockwell) who when they hear the dream of expansion to the West, they think that’s the place to be and they don’t realize how difficult it’s going to be.
Orci: Ella, who is sort of anomaly, played by Olivia Wilde, and she’s sort of a female prospector going through the West. The West was a place, coming around this time, when women had the most rights. You know, so we tried to kind of just take a mosaic of what kind of people were heading out to the Frontier and draw the characters from that.
The elements of the classic Western. Did you feel like you had to include those things in this? Like, you know, a showdown, or a stampede, or that kind of thing?
ORCI: Only inasmuch as they were able to cross over with the genre of the aliens. So in this, you know, the classic trope of a Western is a guy with no name comes into town, he says few words. Normally it’s because he’s tough and he doesn’t want to give you the time of day. In this case, it’s because he doesn’t remember who he is because he was abducted by aliens.
It might be a self-conscious Western, but yet at the same time you’re trying to not be ironic or too tongue-in-cheek or revisionist.
ORCI: We started off very tongue-in-cheek, particularly when we were thinking about casting Robert Downey, Jr. We were thinking of how much more of a talky character he would be and how much more it would ironic. And as we zeroed in on it started really thinking about it, we realized that irony was a little bit of the last thing we needed. The spin on the movie is already there: “Aliens are landing in a Western.” That’s all the spin you need. The way to maximize that is to play it extremely straight, and to have any fun or comedy come out of the natural moments that would come out of a situation like that, not out of writing the jokes and winking at the audience. And that’s what’s been good about having Daniel sort of as our lead cowboy, is that he immediately switched the tone - just by knowing that we were going to be writing someone who’s going to really play it straight. And he kind of looks like Steve McQueen, you know, he’s got a Steve McQueen vibe, and we’re always shocked when you find the right thing at the last minute. We really came to what we wanted the tone to be after jumping back and forth. It went from a little too funny to way too dark, to a little bit too funny to a little bit too dark, to hopefully just right. We’ll find out.
Cowboys and Aliens opens in theaters July 29th 2011