Harrison Ford: I don’t really care what the genre is, I do it for the money (cracks that Indiana Jones smile). I’m playing the western side of the story so that’s what attracted me - the character not the genre. It was something different for me to do. But I didn’t know where it was going when I read the script.
So you weren’t sold on the idea initially?
HF: I was impatient with it - until I’d finished the script and spoken to Jon about the tone he was looking for. Then I was reassured. You can read the same words and imagine different music. His intention to be committed to the western and not just a tongue-in-cheek pop culture mish-mash is what reassured me. He showed me graphics, the look and feel of the thing. He was committed to the reality of the characters – which makes my part in the film work out.
You’ve made some iconic science fiction films – Star Wars, Bladerunner. Does the use of green screen and CGI make the acting process more difficult?
HF: Special effects require only an act of imagination. I don’t find it more difficult to believe there’s an alien scampering over the rock towards me than I do ignoring the grip who’s sitting in the truck pulling me through a romantic countryside. You blank out what’s there – and you put in what isn’t there. And at all points you refer to the story. That’s your primary obligation.
What’s your take on special effects in movies – this one and generally?
HF: We now have the ability to replace a man in an alien suit with a computerised version. I was pleased with in this film as the alien doesn’t move like a man in an alien suit. They created a movement that wasn’t humanoid. The danger of computer generated images, and the temptation for many directors, is to generate more than they need. From what I see, they tend to lose human scale.
Mr Favreau, as director, which side of the film attracted you the most – the cowboy or the alien?
Jon Favreau: I grew up watching science fiction and was first exposed to the western through science fiction. I grew up on Star Wars. And of course Lucas drew a lot of inspiration from Kurasowa who drew a lot of inspiration from John Ford. Spielberg is a huge John Ford fan too. And I think when you learn about directing, you appreciate the western more. And this was a wonderful opportunity to do a large scale western – which has fallen out of favour.
What’s it like directing a film that’s produced by Steven Spielberg?
JF: When I first sat down with Steven, we were in his conference room. It’s a very intimidating space, small and with the actual sled from Citizen Cane that says ‘Rosebud’ on it, hanging over your head. So if it’s not intimidating talking to the most important, powerful director in the world, there’s the most important prop in the world too!
Is it true Spielberg gave you a starter pack of westerns to watch, in preparation?
JF: Yes. Our meeting went well and at the end Steven says ‘I have a restored print of The Searchers’, would you like to take a look at it with me? He screened it for us and gave us a commentary! A very interesting perspective. And our starter pack was an iPad filled with classic westerns, everything from Stagecoach to Unforgiven. Every night after rehearsing we’d watch another western.
Were you concerned that the title ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ would put some people off?
JF: We thought long and hard about the title. It was the title of the graphic novel. And it made me curious when I read the script. It’d been around for a while and they’d tried making it a comedy. But I had a comedy background and the first rule is - the more ridiculous the premise, the more serious you have to play it. Otherwise it’s a joke on a joke. There’s an irony intrinsic to the title – we play both genres with a straight face and let the juxtaposition of them create the absurdity and the comedy. The characters should never know they’re making people laugh or that their situation’s absurd.
It’s quite a violent film in places. What’s your take on that?
JF: I’m a parent and I have a clear sense of what I’m comfortable with for kids of varying ages. We allowed ourselves to have more fun with the violence when it got more fantasy oriented. That’s part of the appeal of these genres – cowboys and aliens - they both have their bloody moments. The alien movies we pointed to were horror – Alien and Predator. We wanted people to feel that. The opening is about as hard as it gets. We were releasing it for a wide audience and were pushing the bounds of what’s acceptable. I wasn’t told to cut or trim things for the rating.
After the Iron Man films, was this a bit of a risk for you?
JF: After the two Iron Man films I wanted to try my hand at something different, something original. If you look at the films coming out of Hollywood, they’re sequels, remakes and superheroes. There’s not a lot of chance being taken. So at this point in my career, it was great to do something a little offbeat and risky.
Why do you think alien movies are so popular though?
JF: Two reasons. One, there’s a whole group of people out there whose job it is to figure out the risk-reward for putting a lot of money on an effects driven film. They look at the list and see which make money – and Avatar made money. Typically that genre’s a safe one for the financiers. Also the worldwide market is now tending to dictate what product Hollywood’s putting out. The international market’s responsible for 70% of revenue. It used to be that Hollywood made movies for the States. But now the overseas market is driving the entire industry.
So alien films translate well?
JF: When a film’s green lit, they always consider if it’ll translate well to other cultures. When you deal with more complex themes like politics they can be divisive. But with alien movies, it’s an enemy everyone can agree is bad and it brings out the best in people and unifies those who might otherwise be enemies. It creates a sense of harmony, that we’re all part of one group. As I think Ronald Reagan said, “To end the cold war would require aliens to land on earth”. He was wrong about that thankfully.
You’ve made big blockbusters and smaller films. Is there still room for such variety in cinema?
JF: As online theft is becoming more prevalent you don’t have a DVD market that’s worthwhile anymore. So it’s all about the cinema theatre. And those who go to it are teenagers mostly. So content is geared to the youth audience. Nowadays that’s especially the case – and there’s competition for those precious few summer months and those few weeks around the holidays. It’s an audience that responds to branded content more than it does to movie stars and directors. So it becomes about products they already have a relationship with – like superheroes, board games, sequels.
So what about films for adult audiences?
JF: There’s still a rich product coming out of the industry but it’s being spread out across the internet. The independent film world is being replaced by what’s on television – following the BBC model of fewer episodes and more complete storylines. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Wire. It’s a real golden age for adults. But higher rated content is now on the small screen. So it’s very difficult if you’re going to take a chance and use the big canvas of a mainstream film for something like a western. Perhaps we’re introducing this generation to the western, to part of their heritage. It’s fun to challenge ourselves, to try and buck the trend.