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COWBOYS AND ALIENS

About The Production
Manifest Destiny: The Project Begins

The promise of the title "Cowboys and Aliens” was so compelling that the movie rights to Platinum Studios chief Scott Mitchell Rosenberg's graphic novel were snatched up before the book was even completed. It was so intriguing, as executive producer Steven Spielberg recalls: "I kept wondering why no one had done anything like this before.”

The cover art for the comic made Oscar®-winning producer Ron Howard a believer from the first time he saw it. He summarizes: "It was everything I hoped for and beyond: the coolest version of the West meeting some badass aliens. It's the West, with all of its tensions. It was cool for me to see characters who would have been shooting at one another a few days before suddenly forced to try and survive together.”

Rosenberg's graphic novel detailed a terrifying invasion set in the mysterious land of the American West in the late 19th century. Replete with gunslingers, outlaws and saloon fights, the harsh backdrop provided a unique place for the otherworldly assault on our planet. With the end of the Civil War only a decade prior, innovations in technology and industry—from the light bulb to telegraphs and transcontinental railways—shared space with a violent expansion of the young country. It would not be uncommon for cattlemen to encounter Chiricahua Apache in the New Mexico Territory during this time, and encounters were rarely friendly. When these classic antagonists realize they have a shared enemy, interactions move from grim to cooperative.

In the 14 years since Rosenberg first showed what was to be the "Cowboys and Aliens” graphic novel, many have grappled with the conundrum of how to bring these two classic genres together on film. Iron Man screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, as well as writer Steve Oedekerk, known for his work on Bruce Almighty, crafted the screen story that would serve as the basis for the screenplay of Cowboys & Aliens. In addition, Fergus and Ostby share screenwriting credit on the film.

Recalls Ostby: "We were brought onto Cowboys & Aliens just as the Iron Man shoot was wrapping up, and were offered a chance to create an entire story universe on a blank slate. There was an existing graphic novel, which we very much admire, but we chose instead to be inspired by the novel's indelible cover art: a cowboy on horseback, racing away from a looming spaceship overhead.”

Fergus loved that residents of the Old West didn't possess the mindset to "process the impossible.” He says: "That image, not to mention that title, said it all for us. Bring the classic Western genre together with the alien invasion movie and the results could be mind blowing on the big screen.” Indeed, the writing partners had the same reaction that Spielberg had to the source material. Adds Fergus: "It occurred to us as we started writing our first draft, ‘Why hasn't anyone done this before? These two genres belong together.' We imagined the epic grandeur of John Ford's The Searchers, infused with the magic of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Every character in the piece touches on a classic Western archetype, but each also strives to be a rich, unique character in their own right.”

The project would have to wait until 2008 before it would fire on all cylinders. Spielberg, who had joined earlier with Imagine's Howard and Brian Grazer, brought writers/producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci onto the project to get it ready for preproduction. Along with Damon Lindelof, the men reworked the screenplay to create a shooting script that fulfilled Imagine, Spielberg and Rosenberg's ultimate vision for the project.

With the blockbuster successes of such films as the first two Transformers, Mission: Impossible III and the reimagining of Star Trek to their credits, Kurtzman and Orci had more than proven themselves as exceptional storytellers on a big scale. The same was true of Lindelof, through his work as the showrunner of the television phenomenon Lost and producer of the Kurtzman & Orci-scripted Star Trek. All were eager to work with the group of influential filmmakers whose work had so impacted them over the years.

Academy Award®-winning producer Grazer felt that the stars had finally aligned for the team to make the action-thriller. "Ron and I have discussed that the Mayan culture is infused with the possibility of alien visitation,” he notes. "We thought this was a brilliant starting point and wondered, ‘Why couldn't it have happened in the Wild West?' After reading Scott's story, we knew we wanted the film not to be tongue-in-cheek, but an entertaining look at what happens when two disparate worlds collide. The writing teams were able to capture that vision perfectly.”

Reflects Spielberg: "What I respect about Alex and Bob is that they wanted to keep this concept authentic. They've made it all real from the standpoint of the characters. Even if the aliens never came down in this film, there's still a tremendous story of conflicted characters in a range war. It's one that starts to bubble up to the surface in the very first act of Cowboys & Aliens. If it was just cowboys, it would be a pretty darn good cowboy story. If it was just aliens, it would be a pretty good alien story unto itself, but then when you combine the two…it's wonderful.”

"When we heard the title, it immediately evoked some of our favorite titles that inspired us as kids,” states Orci. "We thought of films that have the various degrees of a sci-fi movie and films that are extremely emotional and heartwarming, like E.T., as well as movies that are extremely action packed, like Aliens. On the cowboys' side, we saw an opportunity from films we'd been inspired by, such as Unforgiven, which has people trying to come to terms with a past that has come back to haunt them or who must deal with crimes they are trying to outrun.”

Orci's writing and producing partner was equally intrigued by the prospect. Kurtzman recalls: "In a world where studios are frequently looking for big titles, there aren't many that stand out, and this one did that for us. Not just because it's catchy, but because it held the possibility of genre blending in a way people had never seen before. That got us incredibly excited, and we knew that we wanted to dive in at the opportunity to make a Western and a sci-fi movie at the same time.”

The men found the trick would be to strive for a balance between these distinct worlds of the lawless West and alien invaders. As Orci says, however, it wasn't long before they understood the rationale for the project's lengthy gestation. "Although we heard the title and said, ‘Let's do it!,' when we sat down to write, we realized it was going to be much harder than we initially thought. We knew that it had to feel organic and had to weave together naturally.”

The collision of genres gave the writers a rich palette of archetypal characters and situations with which to play. They took the elements that fans of the Western are familiar with and reinterpreted them through the lens of an alien-invasion film. Kurtzman notes: "It was about honoring specific tropes to each genre, then figuring out how to blend them. In the Western, everybody recognizes the man with no name. He walks into town and everyone wonders who he is and what he's trying to do. The sci-fi spin on that is that he's the man with no name because he was abducted by aliens and doesn't remember who he was. He must discover his identity and come face-to-face with his past…while simultaneously becoming a hero to people whose loved ones have been taken by aliens.”

In July 2009, Kurtzm

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