Cowboys & Aliens Set Visit: Bob Orci Interview

Roberto "Bob" Orci is one of the hottest writers and producers in Hollywood today. With hits like Star Trek, the "Transformers" films, and "Fringe" under his belt, it’s no wonder that Cowboys & Aliens has the attention of sci-fi fans and general audiences alike. On the set of the film in New Mexico, we started by asking Orci about how the aliens were going to be integrated in this Western.

Q: What’s the story behind the whole abduction thing? Is there a bigger scheme to it?
Roberto Orci: It is to figure out what the resources are here. They are – someone said the other day – I hadn’t made this connection – but they are like a modern day multi-national corporation. They study the resources of whatever new place they find, to find out what’s exploitable, what’s usable, what’s conquerable, and what’s returnable to their planet.

Q: So they’re really more like prospectors, in a way.
Orci: Yeah. Exactly.

Q: You know, when you say the title "Cowboys & Aliens" to the general public, they kind of snicker. But this is obviously an action adventure; it’s not a comedy or anything. Did you find any trouble getting that tone across when you were pitching it?
Orci: You know, 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." As opposed to – you don’t want to be Hillary Clinton a year out, you know. [chuckling]

You want to be Obama a year out. And that’s what you get with title. And we’ve been through this before. We’ve been through it with "Transformers," where they thought it was – whatever you think of the movie – 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. And it’s the same thing with this. 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.

We started off a little bit very tongue-in-cheek, particularly when we were thinking about casting Robert Downey, Jr., and when we were thinking of how much more of a talky character he would be and how much more it would be about – a little bit more ironic. And as we zeroed in on it and as we went to Western school, and as we, you know, started really thinking about it, we realized that irony was a little bit of the last thing we needed – that 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 for winking at the audience or whatever. 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 thinking about him, and just by knowing that we were going to be writing someone who’s going to really play it straight. And he’s got a – 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. But we really came to I think 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.

We definitely [referred to] "Close Encounters" and a bunch of other stuff. It kind of goes from a Western to a little "Close Encounters" and then it becomes a little darker; it goes to like "Alien." And then it goes into its own thing. So there is a little bit of wonderment in there, but it’s a mix of "Close Encounters" and "Alien" in a way. 

Q: We were talking earlier about what were the elements of the classic Western. Did you feel like you had to include those things in this? Like a showdown, or a stampede, or that kind of thing?
Orci: Only in as much 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. [laughter] So any time you could find something like that, that actually you could twist into the genre of sci-fi, that’s when we stuck to it.  But we didn’t make a list and go, "Well, we have to have this or that or this or that."  It’s only when it served the whole.

Q: I know you talked about things you had to cut after the first draft, because you know, finances or what is feasible. What did you have to cut, just when you got here, and you’re like, "Oh, we can’t do that."
Orci: When we got here. Nothing when we got here. By the time we got here, we had it pretty much figured out. Originally we had a big train sequence, where Jake and his gang had to like board the train mid-moving, and we actually ended up switching that to something more in between the two genres. And that was the biggest kind of a change.  Instead of jumping on a train, he jumps on an alien ship. [laughter] But it’s still the paradigm of the classic, the cowboy has to catch up to the coach and jump on it to save somebody. It was gonna be a train and then we were like, "It should be a ship." 

Q: So it’s horizontal movement?
Orci: It flies. So suddenly, it’s still the Western trope, but totally reinvented for the mix of the genres.

Q: Was there a lot of those moments where you sort of knocked your head, "Of course, it would be this, it would be…"
Orci: There were a couple.

Q: Do you think that will sort of like boot up the whole sort of Western franchise, the fact that it’s got that sci-fi, that it’ll be easier access for audiences, in a sense?
Orci: I think so, because the Western is something that kind of went out of style a little bit – I don’t know, mid-’70s. The alien invasion movie has never really gone out of style. So it is a way to, for those who don’t know – because a lot of the, hopefully, the kids that are going to see this, don’t know Westerns at all.  And so they will learn some of the Western tropes that they wouldn’t have otherwise, I think, opened themselves up to by the fact that they know it’s going to be also a little bit of sci-fi.  And that’s gonna buy you the Western. But didn’t – we tried not to cheat the Western in this, you know, we really – the moments where it’s not sci-fi, it’s a Western. And if you were to watch the dailies of all this without any of this, you’d think – you wouldn’t have any idea that there’s gonna be anything other than a straight Western.  And that’s why we wanted it. We wanted to make sure the Western moments were true to themselves and not just relying on what’s gonna happen later.

Q: When you look around, it’s clear that you spared no expense. But like when you’re writing this, do you find yourself having to rein in and go, "We can’t write this because it’s too big"?
Orci: Not at first. Not at first draft. But then once you get into it and you start to make compromises, a little bit. But normally, across the board, any limitations that you find are actually good for story. Whenever you can do whatever you want is when you really get in trouble. Whenever you’re, you know – and Spielberg teaches us this – when he says, "The only reason I had that great scene in ‘Jaws’ at the pier is because a shark didn’t work. So all I could show was the pier. So instead of using a shark, we showed the pier going all over the place." And it’s great. And if you have that mindset, you actually find that you actually improve the story whenever you come up against the walls.

Orci spoke a bit more about Steven Spielberg’s input into the making of the film.

Orci: We’ve been very well protected, not only just with good suggestions, but then also just whenever we go outside of the bumper rails, they’ll push us back into the center. You know, I think we talked about – of course, Spielberg’s screened several movies for us, even did commentary in the theater with us. He got a new print of "The Searchers," and he took me and Jon and Alex and Damon to the Warner Brothers Theater. And he sat behind us and he’s like, "Okay."  And he – it was just a DVD commentary live, with Spielberg behind us. It’s like, "Okay, where’s the horizon? Why do you think the horizon is there? What is the horizon’s relationship to the actors mean about the scene?" You know, just – and we’re like taking notes.

Q: Is that like film school?
Orci: Yes.  Of course, it’s film school. I would have paid for that class. [laughter] Totally film school. It was crazy.

Q: And what do you learn from that that you and Jon were able to use on this?
Orci: To be cautious of what you’re trying to say with your framing, you know. We have a great environment here. So one element tends to be how you’re dealing with nature. Aliens are another facet of nature. And so how you move through the movie, and where you are in relation to nature – are you up against it? Are you down against it? Are you winning? Are you losing? Is it beating you? Or are you beating it? That becomes a conscious thing that’s subliminal to the audience, but it still affects how you feel about the transition. Because in a way, this is a road movie, too. They’re traveling across to get to what they need to get to. And so how the environment changes and how they change in relation to it was, you know, a big lesson from that day.

Q: As far as shooting here and shooting on location, was there – did you look at Canada? Was there never a second thought? Or how did that process go?

Orci: Spielberg was pretty adamant from Day One that it had to be either like Monument Valley or here. So it was just like what’s going to be the most legitimate. And we wanted it to take place in the Arizona Territory. 

Q: How about the portrayal of the Apaches and sort of their culture? I mean, just – I’m a big Old West buff and just – it’s a real amazing thing, just to see these guys looking so period accurate.
Orci: We got some great consultants. There’s obviously Apache around here. A lot of the people we have working are from around here. And in getting Apache consultants, we actually augmented the Apache story to be even more – I don’t want to say sensitive – not only better for the story, but something I think the Apache will be proud of. 

We of course had to chat about the casting of legendary film star Harrison Ford in this unique movie.

Q: Now, this is not blatantly obvious, but as a big nerd, having Harrison Ford walk around in a vest…
Orci: Is he in this? [laughter]

Q: Shooting at aliens and then saying, "I’m your father." Are you aware of the "Star Wars" references?
Orci: I am, but it’s not a surprise that he’s his father. But I’ve seen him shoot a gun. You can’t help but see a little Han Solo there, he’s got a little…

Q: ‘Shoots first’, right?
Orci: Yeah. [laughter]

Q: Is there a ‘shoots first’ moment in this?
Orci: Yeah. [laughter] There is.

Q: Right. It’d be really gratifying.
Orci: We’re gonna fix that. [laughter] Yes, there is.

Q: So what’d it take to get him on board for this?
Orci: I don’t know. 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, and agreed to a meeting. And it wasn’t until he actually came in and saw the artwork and saw what the amazing production design the team had done, and saw the – because you read the script and you get some sense of tone, but you’re thinking, "God, a cowboy on what’s gonna be like – 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 look like and what the ships look like and how they looked in relation that he said, "Ah, now I get it." And that’s when he agreed to join, when he came in and really saw the stuff on the walls.

Q: What about that dynamic between Daniel’s character and Harrison’s character, and he sort of – what sort of bond do they form, or what sort of, like just chemistry is going on there  Because you’ve got one guy – the big cheese in town and Daniel is just the tough guy stranger, so…
Orci: Well, that’s what’s great, is that 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. So hopefully, it’s not something we – we don’t break the ice between them soon at all. It’s something that they have to – they have to continue to 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.