Jon Favreau Talks Genre-Mash Cowboys & Aliens: The Science of Sincerity

by Anthony D'Alessandro
May 27, 2011 12:18 PM
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Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
In an interview with TOH's Anthony D'Alessandro last week at the National Italian American Federation Gala, where Jon Favreau was lauded with the org’s Special Entertainment Achievement Award, the actor-director gave up some nuggets of intel on his upcoming summer genre-mash Cowboys & Aliens, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.

Kitschy high-concept vehicles can be a turnoff on their title alone.

Before moviegoers even approached the ticket booth, they could smell the stench of the ridiculous in polyester pics such as 1996’s Mars Attacks! ($37.8 million), 2006’s Snakes on a Plane ($34 million) or 2007’s Grindhouse ($25 million) – all of which crashed at the domestic B.O., despite having credible talent attached.

However, with Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau and Universal are hoping to best such Z-movie stigma by selling the summer tentpole as a straight-up, serious X-Files western, evident in the first trailer (see below) they released back in November.

Working to Favreau’s advantage: westerns and offbeat sci-fi and horror such as True Grit ($171 million), District 9 ($115.6 million) and Zombieland ($75.6 million) made strides at the recent domestic B.O.

“We thought the aliens would save us virtually (at the B.O.), especially worldwide. But with Rango, True Grit, the successful videogame Red Dead Redemption and even Tarantino's upcoming film, we seem to be at the beginning of a new wave in Hollywood with westerns. Typically, they were box office poison,” says Favreau.

Playing the sincere side of campiness isn’t new for Favreau. In fact he was reared in that dramatic philosophy at Chicago’s Improv Olympic theater under maverick instructor Del Close – who impacted two generations of comedians, from John Belushi to Tina Fey, with his unbridled teachings. For those cinephiles who have never heard of him, Close had a vivid cameo in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables as an Al Capone underling who tries to bribe Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness.

In the case of Cowboys & Aliens, Favreau is approaching the farcical genre mash-up much as Close would: grounding the western in reality.

Says Favreau: “Del Close and the tradition of Chicago Improv always held satire in the highest regard, which is different from doing a spin-off of something. When you satirize, you bring out the truth of something by exaggerating an aspect of it -- by treating everything else with as much reverence and honesty as you can and showing an incredible amount of restraint (in the outrageousness of a situation).

“With Elf, it was silly to have Will Ferrell in that costume, but I tried to keep the New York City world as grounded as can be. I wanted James Caan to play it real emotionally. In the case of Cowboys & Aliens, we play it close to the vest and cast it as a real western. Then when the aliens come, we let the humor and excitement come out in the combination of genres.”

And despite his blockbuster success, Favreau claims that he hasn’t sold out to the majors; indie projects remain a possibility down the road: “I have been fortunate to find projects that have concepts that are commercial enough where I can obtain big budgets and bring a sensibility to a larger film that I had in my smaller ones. But if I was ever struck with an idea that wouldn’t dictate a big budget, because it didn't appeal to a broad audience, I would just make a smaller film.”

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