Despite the extraterrestrials, if director Jon Favreau has his way, this may be the next classic western.

No matter what you might have thought when you first heard the title Cowboys & Aliens, no matter what you may have dreaded when you started considering the outlandish possibilities of a sci-fi western mash-up, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) wants to set you straight: He’s playing for keeps while aiming to please with “a very traditional western” that just happens to include some extraterrestrials.

“I’ve always been a fan of westerns,” Favreau insists, pointing out that after he scored a surprise success as costar, screenwriter, and coproducer of Swingers, his 1996 breakout indie comedy, he and collaborator Vince Vaughn cowrote a dead-serious Wild West drama called The Marshal of Revelation. But he notes, “We were sorely disappointed when we found out that, at the time, there was no market — especially in foreign territories, in international sales — for a western.”

Indeed, Favreau believes that even with the help of Hollywood heavy hitters Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, who serve as producers on Cowboys & Aliens, he still would have had a hard time getting his latest project off the ground if Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Adam Beach, and other notables in his cast weren’t sharing screen time with ... well, aliens.

“I think most directors, deep down, have the desire to make a western,” Favreau says. “It’s a classic American cinematic form. And our stories somehow become bigger and more timeless when set in the mythic West.” Trouble is, back when Cowboys & Aliens originally was green lighted for production — that is, before Rango, True Grit, and the video game Red Dead Redemption recently launched what Favreau hopes is a western revival — the genre was viewed as, if not dead, then pretty dang dormant.

Oddly enough, it was the outer space aspect that revived interest. “The alien side of it is what really made it possible,” the director claims. “Because even though, up until recently, the western has been viewed as box office poison by Hollywood, the alien invasion movie has been seen as a very lucrative international genre. So by taking these two genres and putting them together, it allowed us to make a very traditional western with this sci-fi element to it.”

Based on the 2006 graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Cowboys & Aliens — set to open July 29 in theaters and drive-ins everywhere — spins a fanciful tale set in the New Mexico Territory of 1875. The desert town of Absolution is controlled by Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), a grizzled tyrant who rules with a whim of iron, and whose spoiled son (Paul Dano of There Will Be Blood) is repeatedly at loggerheads with the local sheriff (Carradine). One day, a stranger (Craig) with no memory of his past wanders into Absolution. At first, the only clue to his history is a mysterious shackle that encircles his wrist. But then someone identifies him as a notorious outlaw, and he winds up inside the local jail.

Photography: Zade Rosenthal/Universal Studios and Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC
Photography: Zade Rosenthal/Universal Studios and Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC

Which, of course, places him in the right place at the right time to join forces with the sheriff, Col. Dolarhyde, other townspeople, and several Apache warriors from the surrounding area when marauding extraterrestrials drop in for a hunting party.

“What we’ve done,” says coscreenwriter Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek [2009], Mission: Impossible III), “is to essentially set up this very serious, very stark, very dangerous world with all the conventions that apply to a traditional western. And into the middle of that world, we drop aliens — and then have people react the way people in that world would have reacted.”

It’s a world that Favreau has taken great pains to make look and sound vividly real. Filmed mostly on location in New Mexico — including at the famed Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe — Cowboys & Aliens is the work of a handpicked production team that includes veteran stunt coordinator Terry Leonard and costume designer Mary Zophres (who dressed Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and others in last year’s True Grit remake). Rounding out the acting mix are veteran western actor Buck Taylor, and, in the key supporting role of the sheriff’s loyal deputy, Brendan Wayne — grandson of The Duke himself.

Speaking of that sheriff: Keith Carradine — whose father, John Carradine, memorably costarred with Brendan Wayne’s grandfather in Stagecoach and The Shootist — counts Cowboys & Aliens as one of his career highlights.

“The atmosphere on the set was quite joyful, I have to say. Everybody was really, really happy to be part of this thing,” Carradine says. “And Favreau is a very, very smart guy. He was quite specific. He wanted to be sure he was absolutely true to the language and the imagery of the classic western. That was essential to his vision — that the only way this concept could work was if the audience gets invited in this world, and finds this world is absolutely authentic.”

With Carradine and Wayne, Favreau knew he’d be getting some built-in western authenticity. “By casting me and Brendan, I guess you could say he went for pedigree in certain areas,” Carradine says with a chuckle. “But, really, I think he felt it was very important for him to populate his story all around with characters and actors who would support his vision.”

Favreau says his biggest challenge was filling the boots of the nameless stranger who’s willing to slap leather against space invaders. “Here’s the trick,” he explains. “When you’re casting a role like this, you want a guy who seems like a man, who’s lived life. And I’m 44. My generation of actors and younger — they seem like little boys to me. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say little boys. But they don’t seem like men as they’ve been traditionally depicted in westerns. They’re people who are very verbal. Extraverted. Sensitive. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But for a western, it feels anachronistic. It doesn’t feel of that time.”

Photography: Zade Rosenthal/Universal Studios and Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC
Photography: Zade Rosenthal/Universal Studios and Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC

On the other hand, there was Daniel Craig. “There was something about Daniel Craig and the way he performed in [the 2004 British gangster drama] Layer Cake and in the James Bond films [Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace] that made me say, ‘Okay, there’s something there.’ Still waters run deep with him. There’s a lot going on behind those eyes, even though his performances are very simple.” Even so, Favreau initially hesitated to trust his instincts and pull the trigger. Why? Sounding almost sheepish, he admits that he worried whether audiences would accept a British actor — even one as demonstrably manly as Craig — as the straight-shooting lead in a western.

“But I looked closer at him and I just thought of him in the hat,” Favreau says. “And all of a sudden, a light bulb went off. He reminded me of Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven. He has the same rough features. He’s got the same eyes, the same presence. That was the entry point for us. He felt very traditional. And we wanted this film, up until the point the aliens come into it, to feel like it could have been made decades ago.”

Very early in production, Favreau recognized just how profitably his bet had paid off. As the cameras rolled, he noticed that Craig “had that very classic feel and look in his performance. He was able to communicate a lot with just a look and a few words. Which is great, because if there’s anything I learned while looking at so many westerns, it’s that there’s definitely an economy of dialogue in them. And you have to find an actor who can say a lot without a lot of words.”

Coscreenwriter Roberto Orci (Transformers, The Legend of Zorro) points specifically to a key scene in which Craig’s taciturn stranger must quickly choose between his trusty six-shooter and extraterrestrial weaponry, and where the actor vividly demonstrates that less is indeed more. “He doesn’t have to say a thing,” Orci says with admiration. “You see it all in the look on his face. Priceless.”

Throughout the many weeks of on-location filming, Craig often allowed his actions to speak louder than words. “He wanted to do as much of the physical work on the film as he could,” Favreau says, “whether it was horsemanship or stunts or fighting.” But Craig also proved every bit as invaluable during the preproduction period: “Because he’s a very gracious guy, and very inviting, he was very helpful in convincing Harrison Ford to get aboard. And the great thing about that was, once Harrison joined on, now you’ve got two icons, one from each generation.”

Photography: Zade Rosenthal/Universal Studios and Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC
Photography: Zade Rosenthal/Universal Studios and Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC

To Favreau, “Harrison Ford is John Wayne. He represents to my generation what John Wayne represented to his generation. So we wanted to remain aware of audience expectations. Expectations based on who he is and his body of work, and how those expectations informed how people would view him as he stepped on screen.”

That’s something Favreau says he learned when he made Iron Man with Robert Downey Jr. “You’re inheriting a person’s history and reputation when you cast them in a movie. People don’t make the distinction between one movie to the next. Most people see the person on screen, and that’s whose movie it is. They don’t care who the director is, they don’t care about anything else. They fall in love with their movie stars.”

And that love doesn’t necessarily wane, Favreau says, when the star advances into middle age and beyond. “What was fun about this was, we play that tension, we play that age. But [Ford] isn’t just relegated to a supporting role. I know you see people of his generation and his stature popping up in supporting roles in a lot of other action movies, and they tend to group their work into a small number of weeks. They’re brought in to play supporting roles to lend a certain amount of credibility to the film. But ultimately they have only a few interesting moments over the course of the film.”

But there’s no relegating Ford in Cowboys & Aliens. “What’s very different about our film is, it’s a two-hander,” Favreau says. “Harrison’s in the thick of the action. He’s riding the horse, he’s firing the gun, he’s throwing punches. I would liken him to John Wayne in The Searchers, or Red River, or even the original True Grit. In those movies, Wayne was playing characters who were advanced in years but could still handle their business. They’re scarred, and they might move a little slower. But they’re just as tough. And they’re a lot smarter than they were when they were kids. They’re still very dangerous, and they have to be contended with.”

So when a reluctant peace has to be struck between the two leads — between Craig’s character and Ford’s character — in order for them to face their common enemy, there’s plenty generational gravitas. It would appear there’s only one drawback to having so much star power on the same set: Other actors in their orbit might get blinded by the light. Or at least a little star-struck.

Just ask Walton Goggins, the costar of TV’s Justified, who laughs heartily while recalling a mishap during his first day as a supporting player on location in New Mexico. “I’m the kind of guy who fancies himself a pretty good horseback rider,” Goggins says. “So, yeah, I kind of crowed about my riding skills before I got there. And then I was the first guy who got bucked off my horse. Nerves had something to do with it, I have to admit. Because in the scene, I’m leading all of these people back to the camp. And among these people, there’s Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. And I’m a little bleeping nervous, because this is my first day.

“So I fall off the horse. And my foot is still in the stirrup. And I’m flat on my back, while everybody started laughing. And I’m thinking, Okay, just give me a second. That’s Han Solo, and that’s James Bond. Could everybody just give me a break here? Could I get just one more take so I can get my feet underneath me here, guys?”

From the July 2011 issue.