WonderCon: Jon Favreau on Cowboys & Aliens

 It’s been a big weekend for Cowboys & Aliens as nine minutes of the upcoming film met with a very positive reaction from attendees to San Francisco’s WonderCon. (Check out our take on the footage here).

Following the panel, ComingSoon.net/SuperHeroHype had the chance to take part in a separate press interview with both Jon Favreau and Roberto Orci. We’ll have Orci’s full interview posted shortly, but here’s what a very earnest Favreau had to say about the film and his deep appreciation for events like WonderCon. He also reveals for the first time some information about how the aliens of his film operate in that they’re not capable of faster-than-light travel and, while technologically advanced, aren’t so radically super-powered that the cowboy/alien encounters won’t be an impossible match.

Q: What are your thoughts coming off the stage from that packed room of fans?
Favreau:
These are really wonderful, memorable moments because you don’t know how they’re going to feel. They’re always going to be polite, but you can tell when they’re really feeling it and are excited by it. This was like a throwback because I’ve had cast come out. I’ve had great people. But this was all about talking about the movie and showing some of the movie without all the crazy bells and whistles. It feels a lot like when I was here in 2008 showing "Iron Man" before it had ever come out. The vibe is a little bit different from Comic-Con. It’s more intimate. At Comic-Con, they’re like, "Show me. Wow me." Everybody will come out. It was fun to bring footage here where people don’t expect it. Just to show up, people would have been happy. But to show them all this stuff, probably more than anybody else is going to be able to see is a lot of fun.

Q: You were once planning on writing and directing a Western with you and Vince Vaughn.
Favreau:
That’s right. "Marshall of Revelation."

Q: Did any elements carry over from that project?
Favreau:
Certainly the research that I’ve been doing for a decade in the hopes that I would get to do a Western did and a lot of the elements I had written where we were commenting on some of the tropes of a Western. Westerns have always done that. You think back to "Stagecoach." That was already after Westerns were done. It was reinvented in all those archetypes in all of those moments. The showdown. There are certain paradigms that the Western never departs from. There are only so many stories that are told in the Western set of mythology. They borrowed and researched the same thing, so there was a lot that was very similar. The important difference is that that was meant to be more of an indie. By combining it with a Western, it turned it into something where the title was very memorable and evokes reaction instantly from people. Either, "That’s awesome!" or "Is that going to be silly? Is that a comedy?" But everybody remembers it. It’s hard to talk now, but when I signed on to do this, we were entering into the summer with all the superhero movies and all the big sequels. There are a lot of big bad wolves in this forest. I’ve had the experience with releasing movies like "Zathura" where they don’t even know your name. This isn’t strong source material where it has a following. The interesting aspect of the source material is what it evokes, but you’re guaranteed nothing with it. By showing that first teaser trailer where you see Harrison [Ford] and you see Daniel [Craig] and the people behind the camera — myself, Steven Spielberg,Ron Howard — it starts to intrigue people. But they’re confused. They don’t know if it’s going to be a joke. They don’t know if it’s going to be funny or if it’s a spoof. Now that the summer begins, it’s wonderful to get nine minutes to say, "Look, here’s exactly what the tone is." We can’t hope to always do that with the trailers, but we can show it to people and they’ll talk to others and then show it to the few people in the press who care enough about getting the story right and not just talking about a blurb and a soundbite. That’s whyit’s fun to come here, because I don’t have to explain what it is. There is fun to it, but fun is not at the expense of the stakes. It’s badass, but it’s still human. There’s some emotion and confusion. These people are vying to get their families back. The odds are really long. How are we going to be able to do this in a believable way? We set up a conundrum that seemingly can’t be solved. That’s the fun. That’s the fun of making movies. Of working with ILM. Putting aliens in daylight is something that I would never have taken on without having worked with them twice on the "Iron Man" franchise. That was all metal in the dark. You probably all know that I’m very skeptical of CG. I has to be done exactly right. But I’ve worked with them and I understand it better. The stuff that, in the footage, was just hinted at is really at the end of the movie and is just incredible. It’s very exciting. Hopefully we can hold that stuff back and not show it all.

Q: The effects are really looking solid. Is that all CG or are you working in a good deal of practical effects?
Favreau:
Thank you. I think you subconsciously turn something off and you start saying, "Wow me." It becomes a sort of fantasy land and it’s hard to connect with something that you don’t feel is real on a lot of levels. Part of the trick is the same trick that they used in "Jurassic Park" and in "Iron Man," which is getting great craftsmen to build practical stuff and then make the decision about the CGI about matching to things that are actually real. That has worked well for us and getting that mixture right I think solves the problem of having to talk about it. It’s also how you build up to it. If you saw that shark in "Jaws" in the first scene, you’d turn off to that movie. But by the time you see that shark, you’re so invested psychologically that you know it’s coming and when that thing pops into the frame, you’re really effected. You s–t your pants. So much of that is what they had to do in the CG era of teasing things and making you scared of it and anticipate it. Playing with your expectations. That’s why I like the sci-fi that verges on horror. All the stuff that they couldn’t show, they had to justify it. Later on, when they could show it, they just threw money and artists at. Suddenly, you were dealing with more of these things and you’d think it would be more exciting, but it kind of had the opposite effect. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 70′s and 80′s, but I love "Alien" and "Close Encounters." The early, pre-CG monster stuff. So it’s having Steven Spieberg and Ron Howard there and being able to ask, "How did you do the lights in ‘Close Encounters’? How would you do it now? Come into the cutting room and help me." Having a mentor like that has been a wonderful aspect of it. Then allowing it to stay unique to my body of work as well has been quite a treat. Seeing it today in front of all those people made me say, "Well, I found a way to put my humor into it and I found a way to do it in a way that’s exciting." People don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the movie. That, to me, is the rarity. Every movie feels like a slow train coming because you’ve seen everything. You kind of know what it’s going to be and the challenge of a filmmaker is to throw in a few twists and a few left turns. That’s what’s fun. As familiar as I am, these people don’t know exactly what they’re going to be watching. It was a lot of fun.

Q: Is the world of the aliens very thought-out and logical so that, if you wanted to, you could easily jump back in for a sequel and know where to go with the alien race?
Favreau:
Yeah. I understand what it is and, though it’s not in the movie, I made a few leaps like, "Okay, instead of inheriting what the technology will be, let’s assume that all travel is sublight and let’s assume that there’s no transmutation. You can’t develop whatever material you want." You still have a society based on what we would have been like, essentially, coming to the New World. It’s not people just hitting a warp drive and going wherever they want to in the universe. I grew up with "Planet of the Apes" where you’re traveling a great distance and it takes a great amount of time to go to the other Goldilocks planets. I just liked the idea from the comic that the aliens were to the cowboys what the cowboys were to the indigenous population. I think there’s a interesting aspect to that irony. Guns, germs and steel. Whenever that greater technology encounters the lesser technology, it seems like manifest destiny is on the side of the higher-tech species or race. There’s a methodology to it. You don’t want to just be steampunk. You don’t want to just plug your standard sci-fi look into this movie. You want to feel the landscape and justify it.

Q: The lighting is also of extreme importance. Can you talk about finding that look?
Favreau:
It was very important to get Matthew Libatique and to not go 3D. We went anamorphic because, in anamorphic, the lenses look twice as long as they really are, as far as framing goes. You get great flares and you get great blurry backgrounds. That’s why you get away with so much in "Close Encounters," because you don’t know if that light is a hundred miles away or a hundred feet away. The ambiguity feeds into your imagination. Having Mattie shoot on film was just beautiful. He had just finished "Black Swan" when he came on board for this. He’s really hitting the pinnacle of his career right now. We shot tests because, if I was going to shoot, I was going to shoot digital stereo. We didn’t want to convert. I think you’re going to see a lot of movies contending with conversion right now because they wanted to shoot stereo, but it’s hard to do on the fly. So they say, "Let’s convert. Let’s do a hybrid." And then, if they’re going to make their release date, they’re going to be rushing to lock the release date and to get the 3D done. I know that, a lot of times, those movies are made in those last few weeks when you’re getting it just right. That’s the difference between looking like a videogame and looking photo-real. I’m very curious to see how the learning curve changes with 3D because it is something that I think is good for certain movies. I look forward to working in 3D, but I think it would have held this movie back and now it’s part of what makes us original and unique. It actually seems to be one of our strongest assets right now. In a summer where everything seems very familiar, this one looks very different.

Q: Sometimes bad 3D can detract from the reality of the world of the film.
Favreau:
Sadly so. It’s the same thing with bad CG. That’s the first conversation point. It takes you out of the reality. To me, if CG’s adding, I think it’s great. I think it’s really cool. If it’s not, though, I think you feel like, "Oh, they found a way to charge me more." And if they’re going to charge more, they need to deliver more. So for this one, it didn’t seem right. But I certainly don’t want to say that it’s a bad thing. It’s progress and technology and it’s adding to the theatrical experience and the community. The sense of going to a ride and making it more interesting. When it’s done right, like in "Avatar," I’m happy to pay the money.

Q: Surely WonderCon, Comic-Con and even Twitter are great for encouragement from fans, but do they actually give you a chance to go back and change things while the film is still being tweaked?
Favreau:
I think it does. It’s very good now because we’re in that home stretch where everybody is challenging every moment. It’s really nice to get some fresh feedback. Me and Bob [Orci] were up there just going, "Are we showing too much?" and then said, "No, we’re not showing too much. This is wonderful." So we just enjoyed it. There are so few moments where you can actually enjoy it. It will show you when you should be concerned, if you’re not getting the message out. It’s really like having a microphone in everybody’s water cooler. That’s really what it’s like. And it’s great when you’re strategizing because it allows me to speak with authority when dealing with the studios. You can say, "People like this part" or "People love Harrison Ford. We should let people know that he’s in this." or "Look how many people like ‘True Grit.’ Maybe we should embrace what’s making this different and not try to hide it." There’s a million other alien movies coming out. So what’s unique about us? What’s original? It’s nice to listen in on the conversation and not just have it transmitted to me through people who are working at studios and running their own little test groups. To sit in the back of the theater and listen to people’s reactions.

Q: How was the response from CinemaCon (previously titled ShoWest)?
Favreau:
We showed some footage, not this, to exhibitors. I didn’t get to go there. I was finishing up up at ILM at the time. ShoWest has traditionally been about exhibitors and stars. And they dig it. But this one is about the audience and they have as loud a voice as the exhibitors do thanks to things like social networking. I think they understand that, if you’re dealing with something like this, it’s a good place to start the conversation. They’ll throw in the towel if it’s not something they like. So you’re taking a chance when you’re showing stuff. I think our largest asset on this movie is the story itself. I think that’s worth a lot these days. There could be piracy. It might be hard to test a movie because everything gets reviewed. But I will say that, if you have something good, it will trend up over the course of a weekend and, if you have something bad, it will trend down. You can no longer predict from the first Friday what a movie is going to make. People talk to each other, so you really have to respect your audience.

Q: Can you talk about nailing the right score for "Cowboys & Aliens"?
Favreau:
Harry Gregson-Williams is somebody who I had talked to in the past. Before doing "Iron Man," actually, we had talked. He has both a classical aspect to him and he go techno. He can be very modern and very electronic. He can go very organic. In this film, so much of it is the tone. And tone is very much determined by the music. If you have something very playful, it’s going to feel like a wink. If you have something that doesn’t embrace the western enough, it will feel like we’re being dismissive of it. So, here’s a guy that can actually phase in and out of it. You want sweeping emotions sometimes, but you also want to have tension building while getting into that more tech-ey, synth-ey sound and being able to marry the two to provide a fantastic soundscape.

Q: Was it important to cast iconic characters. You’ve got both James Bond and Indiana Jones.
Favreau:
Yeah. I think that you’ve seen that, when Robert Downey walked on the screen, people’s reactions in "Iron Man" had nothing to do with the actual movie. It was the casting of him that brought so much of the audience’s expectations towards him. When you saw him, you thought like you knew who he was. When you saw him building his suit, you inherited that. In a summer where a lot of movies didn’t go for movie stars but went instead for technology and effects, to have Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in a 2D movie where they’re actually big on the big screen, they’re bringing their whole body. With Harrison, it’s like casting John Wayne in "True Grit" or "The Searchers" all the way back from "Stagecoach." So what version of Harrison is he? He’s kind of a rough, gruff version of Harrison. But does he still have that twinkle? Yeah. I’ve got the best version of him and you put him up against James Bond, "Layer Cake." Who is Daniel Craig? How do those two generations fit together? How do you contend with the balance of the buddy film? The emotions all spring from that. Casting is really the most important element of the movie.

Q: Ford famously made an appearance at last year’s Comic-Con. How did that come about?
Favreau:
I was just like, "They love you." It was Harrison Ford, for thirty years, the movie star. I just told him he had to show up and he really got it. It felt like he was coming home. It was really more for me. The handcuffs were his idea.

Cowboys & Aliens hits theaters on July 29th.