Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Harrison Ford was in a series of films--going back to George Lucas' AMERICAN GRAFFITI--that literally changed the way I looked at and loved movies. And I knew that agreeing to interview him in a roundtable setting would mean that I likely would not be able to talk about any of the films that literally shaped my life in many ways (the STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES movies, BLADE RUNNER, the Jack Ryan works, THE FRISCO KID, THE CONVERSATION, WITNESS, THE FUGITIVE, WORKING GIRL, FRANTIC, AIR FORCE ONE), because Harrison Ford is a man who doesn't like to talk about the past. Hell, he hardly likes to talk about the present, and barely acknowledges the future.
But here's something you may not realize. I'm 99 percent sure that Ford had a lot of fun making COWBOYS & ALIENS. He got to be outdoors, on a horse, doing what he does best, which is being a great action star. As much as Ford tends to avoid questions about older films and characters he's played that have become part of the iconography of movies, I think he enjoyed making this film with director Jon Favreau because he wants audiences to remember what he can do in a movie like this. Ford may be our greatest living action stars, and he seems to get an extra kick when he has an opportunity like this to prove it.
Me and a small group of online writers met with Ford in Montana recently to discuss his work in COWBOYS & ALIENS as well as Westerns as an art form. He was downright charming at times, but tended to shut the conversation down if older works were mentioned. It still turned out to be a lot of fun to talk with him. Please enjoy Harrison Ford…
Question: I’m always very curious about how specifically projects come to people and what their initial reaction is and specifically with something like this where the title is so much a surface and there are other riches within. What was your process of coming onboard the project and learning to, in your way, love it for lack of a better word.
Harrison Ford: Well you know I told my agent I wanted to be in a movie one of these days that people want to go see.
HF: Something that appeals to what’s left of the movie audience, and he said, “I think we’ve got one,” and he sent it over and it was COWBOYS & ALIENS and I read about 30 pages and I was like, “I don’t get it.” So I said “I don’t think there’s anything in this for me,” and he said, “Well I thought you wanted to be in a movie people were going to go see?” I said, “Alright, I’ll finish it,” and then I read the rest of it, and it was ambitious I thought, but you know I said, “Why don’t I go talk to Jon?” I met Jon Favreau and I was impressed by what he had to say and his collegial spirit. I met the writers. It was clear it was still a work in progress and I met Daniel [Craig] who was very generous about sharing a little bit more space for the character, and I began to see an opportunity to play a different kind of character than I've played before, to have an opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of a character part where you don’t have to have anybody like you. And I could just attend to bringing some texture to the piece and I had a great time, so I said, “I’m in. This should be fun,” and it was.
Question: And after a couple of roles where you are doing a lot of typing and a lot of sitting, was it good to literally saddle back up and get back on the literal and figurative horse?
HF: It’s nice to get some outside work. I thought it was fun. It was a beautiful location. It was altogether a pleasure. I had a great time. Santa Fe was quite beautiful.
Question: They’ve talked about your character would be the villain of the piece if the aliens didn’t come in, but my sense of him was that he just had this really resolute sense of doing what he thought was right and that what was it. Were you working with that at all?
HF: It was certainly a point of reference, and I think in the original script it was a lot more about his military career and his suitability to lead this party, because he had a strategic understanding of warfare. I think we rightly sloughed off a little bit more of that and added a little bit more of his relationship or lack of with his son and how he treated people and perhaps focused more on his disappointment in his military experience and what happened by the end. I thought it was very cleverly kind of parsed out, so that that we didn’t sit down and have a chat about where he comes from and what he’s like and why he is the way he is, but we see it in behavior in situations that the audience gets to participate in rather than listen to, which is the key for me to good screenwriting.
Question: It was nice that there wasn’t that kind of expositional scene for showing your back story, but can you talk a little bit about the key to tackling the challenge of showing an experienced character display all of their history in their actions and how they treat other people in the present time or during this crisis?
HF: I don’t know if I can talk about that. [Laughs] I think I can do it maybe given 60 days or so to work.
Capone: You tell that story to the little kid about where you got your knife, and that’s just one story; it’s not a whole back story. But with that one little story, there’s a lot of information there.
Question: And there’s also the line of, “You call me Colonel, you must not know me very well…”
HF: “Them that call me that are mostly dead.”
HF: A lot of those lines were… The writers were wonderfully collaborative and engaged and so was Jon and so everyday… We knew where the choke points were coming up ahead of us and I think we probably talked about them every day saying “I’m thinking today” or “Last night I was thinking what about if…” Everybody was working on it.
Capone: I noticed Adam Beach had a scar right here under his chin that is very similar to yours. I thought that said a lot about your connection to him.
HF: You mean you think he was in a fast car crash too?
Capone: I had to ask Jon if Adam’s was real or not. I knew yours was.
HF: Yeah. First of all, I wanted him to represent the reality of the western experience. He’s the richest man in town. He’s the most powerful man in town. He’s arrogant. He’s contentious. There’s no sign of Mrs. Dolarhyde; she must have fled a long time ago, and his son is a reflection of his inadequacy as a father. So those moments with the boy, for instance, were of particular importance; the references go in all directions and for me that’s just great opportunity. You don’t want to hit it too hard, because you are in the middle of COWBOYS & ALIENS, but if it can be there and if it can have an emotional reality, that’s part of the pleasure of going to a movie.
Question: But as a follow up, I mean you have that great seen with Adam Beach, meanwhile people are out there dying. Do you find it rare to see scripts that combine that kind of character with that kind of action? Do you not see that terribly often?
HF: I don’t think anybody sees that very often, I mean this is a very original concept. It was an ambition of the writers and Jon from the very beginning to have a textured and layered experience for the audience. COWBOYS & ALIENS is a kind of a good joke, but the minute you sit down and the lights go out, you’ve got to get way past that and start getting into something else, because that’s some poor version of MEN IN BLACK. You have got to attend to both the myth of the west and reality of the west. You have to talk about relationships, because this is about going and getting back our kin, getting back people who have been snatched away. What does that mean to a guy who treats his kid like shit anyway? Does it mean that he recognizes that this is unfinished business? This is bad business? That he’s got another chance at it? Then the other young boy in this represents him and gives him an opportunity to kind of explain himself to somebody. I don’t know, it was complicated and it was interesting, and Jon chose wonderful actors and I had a great pleasure working with all of them. It was fun for me.
Question There’s a lot of talk about nostalgia and bringing a sense of nostalgia to movies currently for an audience. Jon mentioned earlier that they had kind of envisioned a scene where Daniel Craig’s character jumps on one of the alien spacecrafts as sort of a similar moment to that Vick Armstrong stunt in INDIANA JONES where he jumps on the tank. I was wondering if there is also a sense of nostalgia for action adventure that drew you to this film as well?
Question: Fair enough.
HF: I’m in it for the money. This is my job. I love making movies and I love being a part of good movies and I love working with ambitious people. Nostalgia doesn’t enter into it for me.
Question: I heard you bought your horse, is that true?
HF: I bought my horse and I bought Daniel’s horse.
Question: You did? That was nice of you.
HF: The horses are still debating, but they have a nice place to live now and they don’t have to work everyday.
Question: Was the fact that you guys were shooting in New Mexico and that you had that, was that a factor? Instead of being in a green-screen room for months on end for this size of a movie?
HF: Certainly, I anticipated it would be nice to be outside, but you know being outside means not being home. So there’s a give and take on the whole thing, but I enjoyed being there. I liked the area away from Santa Fe a lot more than I did… It was kind of Disneyland in the desert there, but the country is beautiful. You feel what you should feel in that empty space. At a certain point, there was talk about doing this thing in 3D, and it was rejected as you can see. But I’m glad that it didn’t turn out to be a 3D movie, because that sense of place is really important and goes a long way towards explaining people’s need to depend on themselves and crunch up against each other to see who had the most capacity to affect the situations they find themselves in. It was a tough world and an empty place, and you had to depend on yourself and the people around you, and I think that’s expressed in the anamorphic scale of the way the movie was shot. There’s something really important about that, and it’s the iconography of the western; you have all of that space and you can still see into people’s faces.
Question: You spoke earlier about this character being a new kind of character for you to play. I’m wondering what, if anything, you learned from the process of creating Dolarhyde.
HF: I don’t think there’s anything… You learn to play the violin when you're eight years old and then you just keep practicing, you know? You want to keep your chops. The process is the same always, it’s creating behavior to help tell the story, understanding the utility of the character to the story overall and then efficiently attending to that and trying to bring as much life and texture and reality to a situation that might not be real for an audience if they didn’t recognize human behavior and human emotions in that context.
Question: How important is historical back story to you? When you are creating a character, do you really spend more time with his inner workings, or do you study Antietam or wherever he fought?
HF: I wanted to know the history and certainly did study Antietam, and I wanted to make sure that we had those references correct, and in fact we did make some corrections to that. Yeah, it's important for me to just know what I’m talking about and tuck that in. I don’t really have to do a sense memory about it, I just need to know what I’m talking about and I think it was important to know why he was not going to turn this over to somebody else. He was not going to depend on somebody else. The line, I think it’s still in the movie, is “I’m not going to turn this over to some guys who have to telegraph Washington to find out which hand to wipe with.”
Capone: It’s in there.
HF: Yeah and the audience might find a little pleasure in that even today.
HF: Thank you guys very much.
Question: Thank you, we appreciate it.
HF: You bet.
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