Imagine a classic Western where a mysterious stranger with a dark past walks into a dusty town and stirs up intrigue among the residents. While the storyline can be associated to dozens of films made over the last 60 years, screenwriter Roberto Orci (“Star Trek,” “Mission: Impossible III”) and his writing team decided to take that conventional idea and add a little twist.
“We thought, ‘What if that man walks into town with no name and is a man of few words because he was abducted by aliens and doesn’t remember anything?’” Orci explained to me during an exclusive interview about his new film “Cowboys & Aliens.” “In alien lore, people are abducted and then returned to their life and don’t remember what happened. So, we mixed a big Western idea with an alien story. We kept finding these places where the genres intersected very naturally.”
In “Cowboys & Aliens,” which is based on a graphic novel, a town in the Old West is invaded by alien spacecraft. Although enemies when they first meet, loner Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) and a cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), must join forces to defeat their new intergalactic foe.
During our interview, Orci, who was born in Mexico City, talked about adjusting the script specifically for Craig and Ford, and whether he thought the actors’ past roles as James Bond and Indiana Jones would help or hurt the project.
What did you first think about the combination of aliens and cowboys for a movie?
I thought, “This is as good as chocolate and peanut butter. Why haven’t I seen this movie yet? Where is it? No one has done it, so I’m going to do it!”
During the writing process, did you already know Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford were your leading men?
At first we didn’t know. We had no idea when we were writing we would get the amazing cast we ended up with.
Did you have to make adjustments to the script when they were cast?
When we got Daniel and Harrison, we absolutely developed the role for them. Daniel is such a good actor he can do more with less, so we actually took words out of his mouth because he was so good with his eyes and his body. We didn’t realize Harrison’s role could be so big until we got him. He became a co-lead in the movie.
Since both men have played iconic characters in other movies, did you worry their past work in action adventure films would have audiences subconsciously thinking about those roles?
Worried, no. More like hoping. (Laughs) That doesn’t mean we just hired them to copy what they’ve done before. We like to think that neither Harrison nor Daniel would have signed on to do this movie if they felt we were merely exploiting their image. They had to have real characters. When they came onto the movie, we made sure they felt they had new characters to play. But we also didn’t want to deny their history.
What are the challenges in combining advanced science fiction material to a setting as bare-boned as the Old West?
There were two main challenges: How do you do it tonally so it isn’t a joke? The idea might make some people giggle, but we wanted to take it seriously. That’s not to say it’s not a fun adventure, but we wanted to treat it like a real story. The second thing was, how do you make it believable that humanity would have a chance against an alien race? If aliens landed 120 years ago, how do you make it believable? People back then hadn’t even seen electricity yet. They don’t know what an alien is.
The script had gone through many incarnations over the years. When you finally got your hands on it, what condition was it in? Did you work with what you had or did you start from scratch?
We really didn’t read any previous drafts because we knew [past screenwriters] were developing it as a comedy. We didn’t want to do a comedy. We wanted to take the premise seriously. So, we started over.
Were you worried since crossing genres in the past hasn’t worked very well with movies like “Wild Wild West” and more recently “Jonah Hex?”
We were worried, yes. We didn’t want to be a gimmick. We wanted cowboys and aliens to be something that went together naturally. We didn’t know if it would work, but we liked the title and just started to explore.