On August 19, 2010, a group of other online journalists and I visited the set of Cowboys & Aliens. At the time we visited, the cast and crew were shooting at a location called "Plaza Blanca" about an hour north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The property is owned by the Dar al-Islam Mosque and features a canyon of white rock carved over the centuries into a surreal landspace. It’s a location suitable for both cowboys and aliens and several productions have shot there in the past including City Slickers, Young Guns, Wyatt Earp, Earth 2, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, The Missing, and more.
As we arrived at the set, it at first looked like any other movie set. There were a fleet of trailers, caterers, vans, and dozens of people wandering around with walkie talkies. But as we drove down into the canyon to where the actual filming was taking place, it was very apparent we were on the set of a Western. We immediately saw real Apache Indians dressed in period appropriate attire. There were horses tied to trees and settlers who were dirty, beaten, and bloodied. There were also cowboys with pistols. As we walked around a corner, we saw a massive metallic looking block dubbed the "Alien Tower." We saw the bottom 30 feet of it, but with the help of CG it would be transformed into an 85 foot tall ship that, when emerging from the ground, would be a 300 foot tall ship. Floating over the prop ship was a large orange balloon that served as an eyeline reference. Yes, this was the first big sign that this film was a true genre-mashup.
Shortly after arriving on the set, we were escorted to a tent where we were able to watch filming. But here’s the catch – they were filming the very end of the movie. Not only did we have the movie spoiled for us, but we were embargoed from even discussing what we saw being filmed. So I’m fairly limited as to what I can say. We were able to briefly say "Howdy" to a few cast members. We met Keith Carradine (Sheriff Taggart), Ana de la Reguera (Maria), Walton Goggins (Hunt), Paul Dano (Percy), Noah Ringer (Emmett), Brendan Wayne (Deputy Lyle and John Wayne’s grandson), and Sam Rockwell (Doc). While we were discouraged from doing formal interviews with the cast, we were able to briefly chat with the funny and talented Sam Rockwell.
Q: Did Jon start talking about this script on "Iron Man 2" or was it just that you two had so much fun working together you wanted to do it again.
Q: How awesome is it working with Harrison Ford?
Q: Yeah, right. [laughter] I heard.
Q: How did the experience differ, working with Jon on "Iron Man 2" and then working on this movie? Is there a lot of improvisation?
We also briefly met Daniel Craig who plays Jake Lonergan. Two things were striking about him. The first was how much he looked like Steve McQueen. He looked very natural in the cowboy attire. The second striking thing about Craig was his blue eyes. Every heterosexual male journalist on the van later commented on their hypnotic power, a point that the females among us thought was quite amusing. Craig told us that he had to learn to ride a horse for this film and ended up being so taken by it that he planned to continue riding after the film stopped shooting. It was realizing a childhood fantasy to play a cowboy in a film in the actual West.
Then, of course, we ever so briefly met Harrison Ford. Now I’ll be honest, I’m a longtime Ford fan. I’m a major Han Solo and Indiana Jones geek. So it was a genuine treat to see him in person and in full cowboy attire. This was the first Western he’d done since The Frisco Kid in 1979, so when Ford walked up to where we were sitting, I jumped up and went over to shake his hand. As I was shaking his hand, he said, "So how does this work? We treat you nice and you write nice stuff about us?" Now what would you have said? Well, I did what any one of you would have done in the same position. My brain locked up, I said, "Uhhh…", and that was it. And like you I later thought of a million other things I could have said but didn’t. Ford peeked in the tent, saw us chatting with Bob Orci, then departed. So that was my ‘Harrison Ford moment’ and I was happy for even that. I later asked Orci about what Harrison Ford thought of attending Comic-Con. Orci said they initially had to talk Ford into going, but once he got out on the stage and saw everyone’s warm reception, Ford was genuinely moved by it all. He and the rest of the cast were ultimately glad they went. As we watched Ford shoot scenes throughout the day, he joked with the cast and crew and even made some jokes on the side that I can’t mention due to spoilers. I hope they end up on a gag reel on the DVD. In an unusual move, Ford and Craig were there for all the shooting, even in scenes where you couldn’t see their faces. They repeated the scenes over and over even when they didn’t have a line of dialogue and they seemed to do so quite happily. We were told this was a great set with an energetic, positive cast and it was certainly apparent from what we saw.
Throughout the day we chatted with director Jon Favreau and producer Roberto ‘Bob’ Orci. But there was one group of cast members that remained strangely absent – the aliens. Even though we watched them shoot the very end moments of the movie, the look of the aliens was off limits. We did see a large alien body under a tarp at one point, but when asked about it later our chaperones denied its existence. The one look we did get was when Favreau brought out a clawed alien arm for us to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over. If the arm alone is any indication, this will be a cool looking alien. Orci gave us a little more information over lunch in which he said they loosely based the aliens on the Babylonian legend of the "Annunaki." According to legend, the Annunaki are an alien race with a distinct interest in gold.
As we were departing the set, we got to meet Dart the Dog who plays "Happy" in the movie. The energetic Border collie let us pet him. (Actors don’t usually let you do that on set visits either.) I had seen the dog earlier in the day chase down a lizard during the middle of a scene and eat it. So it was a cool dog. A crew person then came up to us and said, "I’m going to need everyone to move over. Harrison Ford’s coming and he’ll run you over!" We quickly moved to the side. Sure enough, Ford came zipping by us and Dart on a Gator at a high rate of speed, gave his trademark smirk and a wave, and shot past us on the way back to the set.