Exclusive: Cowboys & Aliens Producer/Writer Roberto Orci

Here at SuperHeroHype, we’ve had the pleasure of talking to writers/producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman a number of times over the years, probably because the duo tends to work on the type of movies and television shows we love, whether it’s “Alias” or the “Transformers” movies or

Eagle Eye or others. Hopefully, our readers feel the same way, which is why we tend to jump at the chance to catch up with them at least once a year.

For years, they’ve been developing, writing and producing Cowboys & Aliens, a project loosely based on the Platinum Studios graphic novel–which incidentally, wasn’t a graphic novel when they started developing the movie–and it’s coming out this Friday, July 29, with

Iron Man director Jon Favreau at the helm and bringing together powerhouse action stars from two generations in Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. If it’s not obvious from the title, they play cowboys and they fight against aliens. What more do you need to know?

Orci’s producing and writing partner Alex Kurtzman was busy editing his directorial debut Welcome to People, which stars Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, Elizabeth Banks and will be released by DreamWorks sometime next year. Because of that, Bob was flying solo this time around, and besides talking about the origins of

Cowboys & Aliens, we also talked briefly about some of their other projects including

Star Trek 2 and the second season of “Hawaii 5-0.”

SuperHeroHype: I know this has been in development for a long time from talking to Scott Rosenberg years ago. When did you and Alex come on board? Did Damon come on at the same time to write it?

Bob Orci: No, Alex and I, Steven Spielberg and Imagine all came on at the same time as producers. We hired (Mark) Fergus and (Hawk) Ostby to do the first draft–the draft they did was the one we developed with them as producers–then they went off to fulfill their other responsibilities and then we brought Damon on to write it with us.

What was it about the comic or the premise that got you interested in developing it? The title kind of sells itself in some ways, but was there something else about the comic that attracted you?

Orci: Honestly, it was the title. We saw it on a list of development projects and we thought, “Why isn’t that awesome title being actively turned into a movie?” Then we looked at the comic, and it was exactly what we hoped it would be, which was – I don’t know, you hear the title and you’re like, “What is that?” so we looked at the comic and it indeed is aliens in the Old West, so when we saw that, that’s when we really got excited and thought, “We have to try to make this movie. I know it hasn’t worked so far but let’s give it a go.”

Have there been other aliens in the Old West movies that I missed? (Apparently, there was one called “Oblivion” which we did indeed miss.)

Orci: I hadn’t seen a whole lot, at least not that were directly about aliens in the Old West. As we’ve discovered before, “Star Wars” in a sense is just a Space Western. “Star Trek” was originally pitched as wagon trains in the stars. The idea of blending the two genres, it wasn’t entirely new, but I think it was original sort of having it be our Old West and our history. When we looked it up and saw that one of the first UFO sightings was in 1870 or 1880, we thought, “Huh, that’s interesting.” (chuckles)

I’m not really sure, but I thought the actual comic book came out around the same time as the movie was being developed? I remember there was the idea for the comic but not actually a comic book.

Orci: The movie prior to us had been in development for several years before the comic book had been published. That I think was published in ’06.

Was there any kind of crossover between the two things or did they approach the comic book on their own while you were developing the movie? I haven’t read it but I assume some of the characters between them are the same?

Orci: There’s a bunch of similarities. Obviously, the team of people coming together to find the alien threat, Olivia’s character I think has a counterpart in the comic. They’re similar but they were developed separately.

Did you have a completed script before you got Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig on board or were they attached during the process of developing it?

Orci: We were pretty far along. We already hired Favreau, we were deep in pre-production and getting a budget together, and that’s when we went after all the cast. Obviously, no matter how far along you are, when you get an amazing cast like we get, you want to make sure that you are tailoring the part as specifically to them as possible. Although the story was pretty much intact, and certainly the structure, we spent a good deal of time with all the actors just going through the lines, rehearsing, adjusting them, making sure we were milking everything we could out of their characters.

I remember when I spoke to Jon Favreau for “Iron Man 2,” I guess it was last year, and I remember him mentioning that he really wanted to make a Western. What was your approach to staying true to Westerns while also bringing in the sci-fi and action elements?

Orci: Well, the point of view of the movie, part of the originality of it, is that it’s about people living in the Old West, people who have never seen electricity or a car or an airplane, how would they process the idea of seeing something as amazing as an alien spacecraft and aliens from another planet? So the point of view is one from the Western point of view and that’s what the characters are. I think it can be easy to–I don’t want to say get lazy–but it can be easy to decide to overpopulate the movie with sci-fi and kinda hide behind it rather than try to be true to what the starting point of the characters is and what their lives are and what their abilities are and what their adventure would be. We knew that it had to first feel like it was a Western that could’ve gone on as a Western even if extra-terrestrials had not interrupted the movie. It had to feel like we were building a world that was interrupted by this other world. We wanted to really make sure that we did our homework on what the Western was and then as organically as possible have the science fiction element intersect with it.

Obviously, for a Western, you have a lot of references whether it’s other movies or the history books, but for the aliens, how did you go about approaching the rules for them and where they came from and how much to tell about them? Especially since we have to learn about them from the perspective of these cowboys?

Orci: Well, obviously as fans of something of “Alien” and “Aliens,” “Predator,” that was part of it, but really more even the sci-fi element was informed by the Western. Back when westerns were really in their heyday, part of the sign of a real popcorn Western was the idea of a merciless enemy. In those days, it was the Native Americans, so clearly they were portraying Native Americans as these merciless savages who are keeping our heroes from their natural destiny of the expansion of the frontier, you didn’t really know much about them. You were somewhat misinformed about their goals and their humanity. So in our movie, the aliens take the place of the merciless homogenous misunderstood enemy because frankly, we wouldn’t want to say that about Native Americans anymore. It’s not right, it wasn’t true, and that was a trope of the Western that we felt was not applicable to our modern day, so the aliens take the place of that. That’s why you see a lot of their development take place. In a way, they’re now the conquerors. They’re in a way the expansionists, they are the ones who are after natural resources. Even in the clues for who they should be and how they should behave and even how they should look or what they should be up to was informed by trying to keep it true to a Western.

Cool, so the shoe’s on the other foot in some ways, which is kinda interesting. I’m sure you’ve been asked this, but there’s this kind of a zeitgeist right now with all of these alien invasion movies. Even JJ did his own version of one, and there’s probably about a dozen this year, which is kind of crazy. To what do you owe this kind of zeitgeist that all of a sudden everyone’s kind of interested in these movies again? Is it because of the success of “District 9” or are there other factors?

Orci: Well, I think it’s probably in the zeitgeist, agree with it or not, because as a country, we’re in a perpetual war with a merciless enemy. As I was saying before, that was one of the tropes of the original Western, so I think clearly there’s a lot of paranoia out there, (chuckles) paranoia about foreigners coming and taking our stuff and taking our lives. I mean, that’s probably why it’s in the zeitgeist right or wrong – by the way, I’m not advocating that paranoia.

And yet, you guys were developing this movie long before all those others although it’s coming out later and it’s a very different take on it and nothing like the others.

Orci: That’s what we wanted it to be. We thought a good way to make it original and not just be an alien invasion movie, that first and foremost it’s a Western. As you pointed out, that’s where its soul really lives and the sci-fi element is something that interrupts the soul of it.

What I really liked about the movie, and it’s something that Gore Verbinski did in “Rango,” is that you have a lot of satellite characters, ones who are just there for one line and one moment. I’ve seen the movie twice, and the same minor characters got laughs each time. How do you decide how many of these characters you can have in there without it taking away from the leads and the main story?

Orci: The Western has an amazing tradition of no role is too small, probably because in a way, part of the early frontier was so sparse that everybody you met loomed large in your life. I think all of the talent involved in the movie understood that, and that’s why we have such amazing actors for everything. There’s not a single role in this movie that’s not populated by someone that we just thought we were lucky to get, so we’re not trying to populate the movie with a lot of characters. We wanted it to feel again, in the tradition of the great Westerns, probably something like “The Magnificent Seven,” and you can certainly see the influence there, the idea of a village coming together. Part of making that feel real and full is to make sure you spend sufficient time. It’s not like just the way New York City modern day where you can show it a million people and you get it, I’m in New York City. The illusion of painting a society in the frontier in the Old West requires a little bit more attention and a little bit more from our characters.

I know Alex is directing a movie and I assume he’s off editing that. Has that already been shot and how far long is it?

Orci: Yeah, it’s shot and we’re almost done. We’ll have it locked up in a month.

How did that go? How did it change your relationship where he’s directing a movie you both wrote?

Orci: I’m biased obviously, but I think he’s doing an amazing job. (Laughs)

Fair enough. Since I talked to you both last you seemed to be drifting back to television between “Hawaii Five-O” and “Fringe.” Has that been something very conscious or have you found that it’s easier to get things done faster in television than in movies?

Orci: You know, we switch back and forth. I mean, the movie we wrote that Alex directed, that was a spec. That was something we were writing at night on the side for years, and we never knew in the end where the movie was going to go. We suddenly, thanks to DreamWorks, when we finally felt the movie was ready to be shown, we didn’t know what would happen. When they gave us the opportunity to make it right away, that’s one we couldn’t pass up. Although we always hoped to make that movie, we weren’t necessarily planning on making it this year, so once that happened, that obviously had a big part in prescribing what our schedules could be this year. (Laughs)

I get the impression that’s a smaller movie with no science fiction elements whatsoever and it’s something very different from what we’d expect from you guys?

Orci: For sure. It’s a family dramedy, so there’s not a single car chase, explosion, gunshot, alien, robot or clone in the whole thing.

I’m really surprised that DreamWorks was interested in doing something like that, so do you think it’s going to be a wide release or a smaller arthouse type movie?

Orci: We’ll find out when we finish it and show it to them, but again, it’s one of the reasons we love DreamWorks. They do make both kinds of movies that we love. They will make big popcorn sci-fi awesome stuff and then they’ll also take chances. This is the studio that did “American Beauty,” so they have a long tradition of that, and it’s one of the reasons why we’ve been there for five years now.

What are you guys up to as producers? I remember you telling me about “The Proposal” and that ended up being a big hit despite being something different and out of your comfort zone in some ways. It was a really fun movie and did really well. Are you guys looking to do other things like that? Do you have anything else you’re working on right now that might have that kind of energy and get people excited?

Orci: We are in the midst of putting together a movie called “Now You See Me,” which is about a super-cool crew of magicians who commit bank robberies or at least that’s what the police think, but they can’t prove it because they do it during their act on stage. (Laughs) Tonally, it’s a little bit like imagine “Ocean’s 11” crossed with “The Usual Suspects” or something. So again, that’s a different movie for us. We do like to branch out, you know, we just like good stories, it doesn’t matter what they are. A good story is a good story and just because the subject matter is different or not a genre or not a sci-fi doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be highly entertaining. We just like good entertaining stories.

I saw director Louis Letterier (who is attached to that movie) at the premiere on Saturday and he was saying, “Oh, I’m working with those guys,” and I didn’t know what he was talking about because I didn’t know you guys were producing that. Obviously, there isn’t much that can be said about “Star Trek” at this point. The only thing I’m really curious is about, when I talked to JJ last, I mean, Paramount still has a release date for 11 months away. (Note: Well, that changed literally hours after this interview.) Is that impossible at this point? How do you feel about a late June 2012 release date as someone working on the script?

Orci: Oh, I’ll have to defer to JJ on that one; he can often achieve the impossible. It’s certainly a tight schedule, but if he wanted to try and go for it, we will be there ready to fight. If we determine that it’s better to take more time in post-production, we can do that, too.

There you go. I’m not a big television person, but I assume “Hawaii Five-O” is back next season. Did that get renewed?

Orci: Yeah, it’s back, yeah. We’re already shooting it. We’re working on episode two and three already.

How’s that going and will Season 2 be very different from the first season? I remember “Lost” had very specific seasons that each had their own feel.

Orci: Absolutely. You want to make sure that the characters all have a major life change coming into it, you know? You don’t want it to just feel like the same people. We have some new cast coming in too. It takes a little bit for any show to find its stride, and I think we found it pretty early in that we found it within Season One and now we really feel like we’re just – sometimes it just comes more easily, and I think that’s when you know you’ve set up a good foundation.

Have you found that the show is finding its own identity and people are discovering it who never even knew about the previous incarnation of it?

Orci: Yeah, hell, the previous show was ’68 to ’80. That was now, believe it or not, 31 years ago, so I don’t think that anyone is watching it just for nostalgia. I think some people maybe watched it for that reason originally like, “Let’s check it out.” When we announced we were doing that show, obviously, it was met with a lot of skepticism because there’s people that think it’s easy for someone in our town to cynically take a name and hope that just by doing a slight remake or something that they can just slap a name on something and that people will tune in for it, but we know that that’s not the case. The show has to have a reason to exist with or without the title, then if the title on top of that helps you cut a little bit of the advertising clutter, great, but the show has to stand on its own. That’s partly by the way why we started the show with an origin story. The original “Five-O” just came in on their lives, they were already cops, so we didn’t want to take anyone’s love of those characters or anyone’s love of the situations for granted, and we started over. The show’s not a remake. It’s an adaptation for the 21st century; it’s not a nostalgia piece.

Cool, man. It’s great talking to you again and good luck with “Cowboys & Aliens” and the movie you’re doing now. Hopefully we’ll see it soon, probably next year I’d assume.

Orci: Thanks. We’re just waiting for Steven Spielberg to tell us that we need a robot in it.

Cowboys & Aliens opens nationwide on Friday, July 29.

(Photo Credit: FayesVision/WENN.com)