Behind the Dust of the ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Set

By  · Published on November 29th, 2010

“So anything you’re seeing is really spoiler stuff here, right?”

That’s how Jon Favreau greets us as he takes refuge inside a pop up tent that is struggling to keep the New Mexican heat and dust out. He’s a force as he enters, a commanding man whose voice is a mix of sarcasm and sweet. Still, he’s about as unimposing as a man over six feet tall can be, and with his breathable pants and bandana he seems more likely to be taking a group of scouts camping than directing a science fiction western starring Daniel Craig.

Plus, he’s right about the spoilers.

Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t hit theaters until July of 2011, but FSR was invited to the set in the middle of August to watch the crew film a scene and to see who could avoid heat exhaustion the longest (it was Harrison Ford). We won’t be revealing any spoilers from the film, but we will be spending the entire week exploring what the set was like, discovering the movies that inspired the shoot, and talking with Favreau, co-writer Bob Orci, and the cast.

Plus, hot off the old dusty trail, we’ve got two behind-the-scenes pictures to share with you after we take you into the canyon where the film was made.

Where we are is nowhere, and it’s breathtaking here. Tucked somewhere in the middle of New Mexico amid all the movie memories of Bonanza Gulch and the western heroes in ten gallon hats that rode here before is a basin surrounded by sprawling cliff sides standing guard and trying to touch Heaven. Everything is painted in washed-out colors, and it looks so much like God’s Country, that you almost don’t realize that half the vegetation has been trucked in specifically for the film. Even the fake bushes add to the natural beauty.

After a full day’s ride south of Santa Fe (achieved by charter bus in only an hour), I joined a cadre of other journalists in hopping onto a smaller bus in the crew parking lot. The small bus became two vans, and the two vans turned into a hundred yard trek through back country that made me wish I’d worn hiking boots instead of Converse. We’d successfully left the safety of the highway system in favor of a location where flash floods are a possibility and dust storms are a definite.

“When you’re traveling out to a remote location, it’s hard,” Favreau tells us after settling into the hot cooling tent. “This ground is nice and level because this is a flood plain. The weather here’s crazy, and if the thunderheads come in and it starts to rain, we have to evacuate. Otherwise, you know, we’ve been up to our – we’ve been sitting like this, and then we’ve been up to our knees.”

He goes on to explain that the production has halted at least twice with hurried crew members grabbing expensive equipment in an attempt to find drier land. I imagine Favreau doing a side stroke while lugging a boom mic through the rain, but it manages to stay oppressively sunny the entire day.

This is a place where cell phones are useless, but I’ve got a large monitor inside the tent to see what the camera sees. I’ve also got headphones to hear dialog and the Mexican folk music that rings out between takes. Depending on your viewpoint, the scene playing out in front of me is either a massive spoiler, or an inevitable shot right out of the western genre playbook. Whatever the content of the scene, the feel of it is transformative. A group of Native Americans in ancient regalia kick up sand that flies into the tent. Sam Rockwell walks by looking like a bespectacled Doc Holliday that survived to see forty, and Harrison Ford stands twenty feet away with the stoic calm and wisdom of the West. Daniel Craig cocks a rifle in my ears.

It’s only when I see a man in a blue polo shirt misting Walton Goggins that the spell of the costumes, make up, and scenery is broken. The modern has come crashing in, and the giant camera crane behind everything comes suddenly into focus.

In a few weeks, Favreau and company will leave this scorched earth for the comfort and air conditioning of a studio back lot, but it’s easy to see why the director saw the imperative to shoot on location. Despite the threat of heat stroke and instantaneous drowning, this wondrous plain is flooded with hundred-year-old ghosts and gusto. Every inch of it seems to exhale the spirit of the quiet stranger who rides into town and the blazing gunfire that lights up a poetically clear night sky.

What we’re seeing is unspoiled.

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We’ll have to wait until the dust settles next year to see Cowboys & Aliens, but we’ve got a week’s worth of features from our set visit to drop you into a rusty UFO in the middle of the desert. Find out what films (and video games) inspired the shoot, revel in the Western heritage and history, and stay tuned. We’re just getting started.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.