Quint spends a night in the desert with Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Jon Favreau on the set of COWBOYS AND ALIENS!
Published at: Dec. 3, 2010, 11:25 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a little tale to tell about a recent adventure in the deserts of New Mexico. It’s becoming a bit of a habit for me to visit Jon Favreau movie sets, on or off the record. I must have convinced Favreau that I’m a good luck charm since I haven’t missed one since Zathura. Let’s just hope he doesn’t realize his movies do well because he’s a great filmmaker not because of me geeking the place up.
With Cowboys And Aliens they were filming outside of Sante Fe in an old Western Town that has been used in a ton of movies, most recently by James Mangold for the great 3:10 To Yuma and The Coen Bros for True Grit. I have family in Albuquerque, so I figured I’d make a drive out if I could arrange a visit, but once the studio heard about it they wanted to make it an official, on the record affair.
That was more than fine by me. I prefer sharing these adventures with you guys when I can, especially when the visit was as ridiculous cool as this one ended up being.
As always, Favreau’s set was very relaxed (once you got past the perimeter guards with the walkies and a list of names you have to be on in order to not get tazed when you step past their post). It’s rare for these visits, even exclusive days like this one was, to arrive before the first shot goes up, but there I was sitting in the catering tent having a bit of dinner/breakfast that late afternoon.
It was a night shoot, so that’s why the slash between dinner and breakfast. The publicist, Deb Wuliger has been with me on a couple of set visits. She’s a Spielberg regular and the first time I met her was when I got that exclusive night on the set of War of the Worlds (click to read Part 1 and Part 2), so it was nice to see her again.
Before we sat down to eat I was introduced to a young bearded man named John who informed me he was a big fan of the site and that he also happened to be Harrison Ford’s assistant. “I’ll make sure you get some time with Harrison,” he said before he left me to my green chili-covered burrito.
Coming down off of a bit of a geek high at the idea of standing face to face with a childhood icon I finished up my food and headed out to the set as desert sun sank below the horizon.
It was full dark by the time I was on the old Western street which was littered with the bodies of men, women and horses as well as the wreckage of a good deal of wagons. Spots of fire dotted the street. Chaos.
All smiles, Favreau came up and greeted me, the excited glint of a kid who brought something special to show and tell in his eye. After consulting with his brilliant DP Matthew Libatique and Favreau found he still had some free time as the shot was being set up, so he walked me around the old west town.
I think we’ve all been in an Old West town at some point, whether it’s at an amusement park or some roadside attraction detour on one road trip or another. This place was very much like that, except more detailed. There were false fronts, but most of the fronts led into real buildings with all the furniture and trimmings inside.
The main difference on this walking tour was that this town was trashed. Buildings were scorched, second stories exposed after being hit by some kind of fire. The extras were milling around the streets, stand-ins were on their marks for the camera crew, so it was starting to feel real on a level you don’t usually see in a tourist trap.
Favreau was happy to point out the carnage, but stressed that the appeal of this project to him was doing a real old school western first and foremost. He said he didn’t want to fall into the same traps that movies like The Wild, Wild West did and that’s why he cast the people he did and why he fought to film it in 2D.
It’s not so much that Favreau hates 3-D, he even did 3-D tests in the early stages of Cowboys and Aliens, but in order to capture that John Ford feeling he and Libatique felt like they had to shoot 35mm, specifically anamorphic 35mm, a format that doesn’t jibe with modern 3-D. A conversion was out the window since they wouldn’t have the time necessary to do it right, so their options were either Digital 3-D or Anamorphic 35mm 2-D.
It was an easy choice for Favreau, but it wasn’t so easy for the studio. Favreau mentioned that he thinks this is probably the last big budget film he’ll get to make in 2-D. I disagreed and told him that while 3-D is hot, people are getting burned on the conversions and every time a shitty 3-D conversion movie hits it weakens the idea in people’s minds.
For all the good that James Cameron did with Avatar, taking the time to shoot in 3-D and use 3-D as a storytelling tool, not just a gimmick, there are two dozen Clash of the Titans/Alice In Wonderlands that just make it hard to see what’s going on. No matter what side of the 3-D argument you fall on, pro or con, you have to agree that people won’t flock to an inferior product.
Favreau said he hoped I was right, but with shrinking DVD/Home Video profits 3-D is what the studios are grabbing on to for that extra boost to income, so he’s not optimistic. But you gotta love that he’d fight for 2-D as a way to keep a serious, filmic tone to his big alien invasion flick.
Favreau’s also cast some amazing faces, something that was struck home as I was walking around with Favreau only to see Clancy Brown walk with a group of extras to the set. I couldn’t help myself… I interrupted Favreau pointing out a fallen alien attack ship with a “Holy shit, The Kurgan.” He couldn’t help but laugh at my nerdishness, but considering Favreau was showing me an alien ship at the time I don’t feel too bad about letting my geek show.
The downed alien craft is glimpsed in the trailer as is much of the sequence I saw them shoot. Basically, Daniel Craig wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is or what happened to him, but he is wounded and iron strapped to his wrist, a device he can’t get off no matter what he does.
As the loner gets to know the inhabitants of a nearby town we get more and more clues that he might not be a good man. What would usually be an old west story of redemption turns sci-fi when a good half hour into the movie the town is attacked by lights in the sky. Bullets are useless against the attacking fighter, but the loner’s wrist apparatus activates by itself and proves to be a weapon that can do damage to the invaders.
It was the immediate aftermath of this discovery that I was witness to and the remains of the downed one-alien fighter was there for me to inspect. The cockpit lay open, an empty socket in the maybe 8 foot long torpedo shaped vehicle resting at the end of a long drag mark filled with debris, both alien and man-made.
Craig brings down this fighter, much to the amazement of the remaining townsfolk and to Craig himself. The cockpit is empty when they approach and then they hear a scream. The alien is lose in the town and that’s what I saw them shoot.
As Favreau and I were talking about the alien ship, Harrison Ford, decked out in full upper-class cowboy attire, walked by eating some kind of jerky. I know my grin was massive because Favreau noticed and immediately began talking about how much of a trip it was to work with Indiana Jones.
He even said he wanted to find a place for the finger (I like the term Finger of Doom myself) and that he saw it come out during rehearsals, but hasn’t caught it on camera yet.
An older guy ambled up the street towards us and Favreau told me I had to meet him. His name was Terry Leonard and his role on C&A was that of Second Unit Director, but his background is in stunts. Favreau introduced him as having worked with John Wayne and that was the major attraction to bring him onboard this film. In fact, John Wayne’s grandson, Brendan Wayne, has a role in the film as well.
But go look up Terry Leonard. The man did stunt work in El Dorado, Planet of the Apes, Blazing Saddles, Apocalypse Now, The Blues Brothers, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Conan the Barbarian, Blue Thunder, Gremlins, Red Dawn and acted as second unit director on many of those films as well. He was busy, so I didn’t get much more than a handshake and a hello out of him, but he seemed like the kind of guy that you could just sit down with for hours and talk about classic movies with.
We then started meandering back to video village, Favreau in the lead, when we got to the wooden-planked walkway in front of one of the old western store fronts. A man in a cowboy hat was standing there as we approached and it wasn’t until I was a foot from him did I realize that Favreau had led me to Harrison Ford.
“Harrison, I want you to meet a friend of mine. This is Eric.” I shook his hand and I’m not gonna lie… I was freaking out a little bit. It didn’t help my geek-out that he was wearing Professor Jones’ circular wire-rim reading glasses.
Ford looked thinner than he did in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which also, in turn, made him look more like Indiana Jones. I have no idea how I came off, if any of my nerdy geek-out showed through. I’d like to think I was professional enough to keep it at least at a manageable level, but it was a pretty big task for me not to turn into Chris Farley.
As he shook my hand he said, “You’re Ain’t It Cool.” I wasn’t sure exactly how to respond to that, so I just said, “Yes, sir. We’re all big fans of yours over there. And not just of your geek stuff, either. I’m a particularly big fan of your work in The Mosquito Coast.”
He then shot me a Han Solo half-smile, complete with the slight head nod and I felt like all the Beatles fans from the Ed Sullivan Show were screaming in my head.
Listen, I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve gotten to meet many of my idols… sometimes for 2 minutes, sometimes for hours. Not that something like that could ever become commonplace, however I feel like I’ve passed the point of drooling fanboy… but goddamn did I come close this night.
Ford thanked me for the specific mention of Mosquito Coast, a movie I get the impression he’s particularly proud of that doesn’t get much notice, and then Favreau, Harrison Ford and myself began talking about the Western as a genre and how it has all but disappeared from studio filmmaking. Ford said that Vietnam is really what killed the Western, that American audiences wanted more shades of gray to their heroes and villains, not just white hat vs. black hat.
Of course there was more to the good westerns than simple good vs. evil stories, but his point was that Vietnam and Watergate marked an evolution in the kinds of stories audiences wanted to see and the Western hasn’t really been able to get back its prominence since.
I know I’m recounting this all very calmly now, but as I was talking with these guys I kept waiting for the Make A Wish lady to come up to me and tell me it was time to go. What the hell was I doing discussing film with Harrison Ford?
Ford also gave Favreau a little friendly ribbing for all the dummies on the ground… dead cowboys still in their cowboy hats. “So what happened? They were blown out of their hats and then landed on their heads?” Favreau said “Don’t worry, they’re out of the shot.” With a smile Ford replied “If they weren't, I’d refuse to come out of my trailer!”
You guys have seen Ford on talkshows, where he just seems like he's on another planet… You can’t imagine how much I loved hearing him give Favreau some shit, like I do with my friends. Good natured, friendly, relaxed and, most importantly, interested. It was nice to see that side of the man.
After a couple of minutes we let Ford be and returned to the monitors where Favreau, sporting a smile I’m sure I mirrored, had Matty Libatique pull out his iPad and show me some frame grabs… epic western vistas, Daniel Craig’s outline against what seemed to be a wall of fire, etc.
Then the mini-tour was over as Favreau had to get to work. The crew was just about ready, so I grabbed a seat behind the monitor. Screenwriter/producer Alex Kurtzman said hello before Ford approached him with a question about the scene. I backed off so as to not intrude, but I could still hear the conversation.
Ford wanted to know how aggressive he should be at this moment. His character, Col. Dollarhyde, is a bit of a mean sumbitch, so aggression is always spring-loaded and ready to fire with him. Kurtzman told Ford that this particular moment is a time for awe, not just for the character, but for the audience.
The scene is a nice wide shot of the townsfolk in the street with Olivia Wilde, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford up front with recognizable faces like Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell in the background.
This is after the alien is loose in the town. My understanding is we don’t see it except in silhouette and dark movement in shadows… the characters maybe seeing even less.
Three cameras were set up, one focusing on Wilde, another getting all three of the leads in frame and the third a wide shot seeing more of the background actors.
From one of the houses there is a gunshot, a scream and then a splash of blood on the window. Of course that will be seen in the reverse shot, so all the actors had to play off of was a blank being fired (full load) for the gunshot, someone calling out “scream!” and someone calling out “Blood!” to trigger the appropriate reaction from the actors.
Just as he discussed with Kurtzman, Ford steps up in awe, but once he hears the scream he grabs a shotgun from one of his henchmen. He slowly approaches into a two-shot with Daniel Craig. The gunshots go off, causing everybody to jump.
Ford looks over at the alien weapon on Craig’s wrist and growls “Use that thing!” Craig reluctantly raises his arm, but the bracelet doesn’t open. “I can’t.” More pissed than anything Ford spits back, “What do you mean you can’t?!?”
They took quite a few takes of this moment, making sure everybody’s eyelines matched up, that they jumped at the right moment (believably) and they tried a few alternatives to the interaction between Ford and Craig. In later takes Craig looked down at his wrist device anxiously, hand opening and closing, trying to trigger the mechanism.
In-between some takes, Olivia Wilde came over to say hi. I was a little bit more composed with her than Ford, but I still had to think over the base mumblings of “purty girl purty girl purty girl” at the back of my mind.
I had met her once before in my group visit to the set of Tron, but didn’t do much but sit in on a roundtable discussion with her. At the time of this visit (this was about June, I believe) she hadn’t seen Tron yet, even a rough cut, but said that Spielberg was just shown the movie. I brought up D-Box and how awesome the trailer played in a moving seat, then had to explain to her what D-Box was and that Tron seems to fit perfectly with this format, with all the lightcycle action.
There wasn’t much more discussed except how awesome it was for her to work with Harrison Ford, but that’s a given. We’re of a similar age, so she understood the geek-out.
On the next take Harrison tries to holster his pistol (thus freeing up his hands to take the shotgun) and kept having trouble getting the gun into the holster. “Arghh! I’m right in the middle of the fuckin’ frame and I can’t make it work,” he exclaimed with a laugh, causing laughter from the crew as Favreau called cut. The next take went off without a hitch.
The only addition to this moment was made by Favreau, who wanted Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell to stay in the frame after Craig and Ford left so he can get a nice two-shot of them looking on.
Before this take was wrapped up, Favreau called me over to the monitors and ran a couple of shots from earlier in the shoot.
First up was the downed alien speeder, but with all the bells and whistles of the production design in place. Fire all over the place, smoke, the damaged church in the background, etc. It was a very wide shot of Daniel Craig, tiny in the frame slowly approaching the alien vehicle.
Visually it really merged the two genres together in one moment… you have the John Ford scope, the western background with sci-fi technology in the foreground.
The second shot was a long take of the lights in the sky approaching the town. You’ve seen glimpses of this in the trailer as well.
Dollarhyde rides into town with a small posse to stop the prison wagon taking his son (Paul Dano) and this stranger (Craig) to the big city jail. Dollarhyde recognizes Craig as someone who has done him wrong in the past and demands he be turned over. It’s during this conflict with the stern, but fair sheriff (Keith Carradine) that someone notices lights in the distance.
The way they filmed this was all practical. ILM will work some digital magic, but Favreau really seemed to take a cue from his producer’s own alien work, namely Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
At first the lights could be more posse on the ride into town, but as they grow it becomes clear they’re in the sky… and then all hell breaks loose. Favreau explained that complicated wire rigs had been set up to run these lights over the town, timed with explosions on the ground. In the resulting dust and smoke you could make out conical lasers, all practical. At that time they were unsure how much of that would serve as a visual reference for ILM and how much would stay in. Seeing that they included the lasers in the trailer footage I’d imagine we’ll see ‘em in the finished film, too.
Once again Favreau had to go work and I sat back chit-chatting with Kurtzman about the project, the evolution of the story (it was a much sillier movie when they originally had Robert Downey Jr. in the lead) and how seriously Ford was taking the role, involved very deeply from an early point in development.
Keith Carradine came to visit and I had the pleasure of speaking to him. He wasn’t working that night, but came by anyway and I got to talk to him a little bit, mostly about how awesome he was in Deadwood, a series I just began weeks before the visit.
Carradine came off as one of the most humble, nicest dudes ever and I’m dying to get him out to the Alamo Drafthouse… Can you imagine how badass an Emperor of the North screening with him and Borgnine would be? Be still my beating heart!
When Favreau finally got what he needed they began a different set-up. The alien in the town has escaped and Adam Beach, playing Ford’s tracker, finds a track leading out into the desert.
Usually these types of films are planned the Nth degree, but what I saw was fairly odd for this size of a production. I’m sure they had an idea of what they were going to do for this sequence which features not only the alien track and a significant amount of dialogue, but also a fist fight between Ford and Craig, but I watched as Favreau, the actors and the key department heads gathered around in a big circle and talked out the next series of shots and blocking.
They took their time, figuring out camera placement and just how the flow of the scene would work. It’s not dissimilar to what usually happens when a director and his cast block a new scene, but it seemed to be more fluid than usual, not just copying a pre-planned series of storyboards and Xing them out as they go.
One particularly funny moment from the blocking was Ford running through his lines, something to the effect of “Round up the horses, get some supplies. We ride at first light”, when his posse started walking off before they were supposed to. As they started to leave early Ford added “Wait for me, guys! I have more instructions!”
The beat by beat for this scene starts looking at the alien footprint in the mud as Beach crouches over it, looking confused at the track. It’s big, maybe double the size of a human footprint and there are clearly talons attached.
“Boss, boss! It went that way. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bleeding.”
Concerned, Ford looks out into the darkness. “That’s the same direction those machines went with our kin. Ain’t gonna be able to track it in the dark. Round up the horses, get some supplies, we set off at first light!”
Craig and Ford are standing near each other and Ford motions towards the alien tech strapped to Craig’s wrist saying “I need that weapon. It’s the only thing that counts. I figure you owe me.” Steely, Craig says “I don’t see it that way.” What’s a Harrison Ford to do when Daniel Craig tells him no? Why, ram him in the gut with the butt of his shotgun, of course.
Craig immediately responds with a right hook. The two men stare daggers into each other as Adam Beach slowly approaches to aid his boss. Without breaking eye-contact Ford raises a hand to stop him.
They break the stare and Ford looks out into the night. Beach approaches Ford and says “Don’t worry, we’ll get him back,” then leaves his boss. After a beat Ford says, “Goddamn Percy.”
Now, he said, Goddamn Percy, but standing a little ways back without the headphones on, I thought I he said, “Goddamn pussy.” Don’t get your hopes up, I heard him more clearly later and it was Percy, which is his son.
I might have forgotten to mention this part, but let’s just pretend that was intentional to keep this report all lively and unpredictable… When the aliens attack it’s not just to cause mayhem and destruction, they’re all so sucking people up into their nifty speeders. One of the people taken is Dollarhyde’s spoiled dickhead son, played by Paul Dano.
From what I’ve seen it looks like they took the standard Western formula of “taken kin” and replaced the Indians with Aliens a posse of people who don’t trust and/or particularly like each other has to hunt them down.
It was quite fun watching Indiana Jones and James Bond figuring out a fight scene between themselves. Favreau seemed content to stand back and let them work it out and they did for a good half hour, throwing half-speed punch after half-speed punch for a scene that ultimately is just two solid hits, one for each man.
But my geek started rising again watching Harrison Ford take a punch. The man was almost a father figure to me growing up, I spent so much time watching Indiana Jones and Star Wars. I recognized every facial tic and when he took a punch I immediately flashed on Indiana Jones getting socked in the jaw. It’s the way he threw his head back, the kind of stuttering movement of the recovery…
Sorry, the geek is back in the cage. Professional Quint has returned.
I spent most of my time hanging around with the assistants, namely Favreau’s and Craig’s… what can I say, I gravitate towards the cute girls… and Craig’s assistant kept promising she’d introduce me to him, but that he is kind of notoriously press shy. I understand that… the dude’s job is in front of the camera, not rubbing shoulders with nerds like me.
But after they set up the blocking on the brief fight scene, Craig ended up walking by me, looked up and then altered his course to come over and say hi. It felt a little like I caught him (“Damn, I made eye contact, now I have to go over!”).
He shook my hand and asked me if I was enjoying myself. I told him I was a big western fan and a big sci-fi fan, so seeing the worlds collide was a lot of fun. Then his pretty, and playfully sarcastic, assistant spoke up and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Eric, meet Harrison Ford,” to which we all laughed. I played along, saying, “I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark.” With a laugh he replied, “I didn’t!” and was pulled away to do real work.
During the long set-up for this new sequence I was introduced to Scott Rosenberg, creator of the comic book that serves as a starting point for this movie. He stuck me as a nice guy as we wandered the dark western streets in search of coffee to ward off the cool desert night chill.
The actual filming of the big confrontation went smoothly and they soon moved on to one last bit of business, focusing on Sam Rockwell. They had three cameras on the main action with Ford and Craig, one of them capturing a close-up on Olivia Wilde’s reaction to the alien track and the confrontation between Ford and Craig. Rockwell got his own moment.
You see, his wife was taken by the aliens, so he has more than a passing interest in the discussion. His close-up had his body still, but eyes darting back and forth between Craig and Ford as they talked/fought. After the confrontation, Rockwell knelt down to the track, touching it before taking off his glasses (the old timey ones that pinch the nose) and rubbing his eyes.
The dude know what he’s doing. I’ve seen him on a couple of different sets now (this and Moon) and there’s a quiet intensity to his work, a subtle emotion that is unlike anyone else I’ve ever seen act with my own eyes.
I think that about wraps up my night in the desert with Jon Favreau, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. Hope you guys enjoyed the report!
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