The ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Ride Away in Harrison Ford’s Helicopter

By  · Published on December 2nd, 2010

We’ve taken you behind the scenes, into director Jon Favreau’s mind, shared the movies that inspired the sci-fi western, and now we continue our set visit of Cowboys & Aliens with a look at its stars. Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Daniel Craig, and Paul Dano all took time out of a busy shoot to talk about the film and get our hands dirty.

All professionalism goes out the window when talking to Harrison Ford. He was standing 20 yards away the entire afternoon of the set visit, posted up like a western specter on the top of an outcropping in his cowboy hat against the blazing sun. Now he’s standing toe-to-toe with me, and I’m not embarrassed to admit now that I lose my cool. I find myself shaking hands with a living legend and looking around to make sure that the other journalists lose their composure, too. There’s a one-sided giddiness that suddenly finds its way permeating the steel cool of those used to meeting the famous, and the latent buzz is pretty heavy in the air with Ford standing there.

I imagine this is what God must feel like when he’s shaking Harrison Ford’s hand.

The man of so many iconic roles doesn’t say much, but he smiles a wry smile when he does speak, leading me to believe that even he can tell that the group is seriously considering losing critical credibility in order to give him a great big hug and ask Indiana Jones to autograph their chests.

No one does, but you can tell we all want to.

Ford is the second to last actor we meet, doing a quick fly by to tell our group that he flies to set every day in his helicopter and chooses one lucky cast or crew member to fly home every evening. Today is Paul Dano’s turn.

“Harrison’s a presence,” Dano says, revealing that he also had trouble maintaining composure when meeting Ford. “The first time he was here – I’m pretty cool, usually, you know, meeting people. But he – you know – I grew up watching his movies. He’s a bad ass, you know. It’s – then you hear he’s riding up on his motorcycle, on his Chopper and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this dude’s even cooler in life than in the movies.’”

Dano plays the son of Ford’s character, a brash young hooligan named Percy who takes his father’s money for granted and finds himself in a jail cell. From the look of his performance on set and in the footage shown at Comic Con, it’s a definite departure from his decidedly quieter roles in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood. It’s a character that gets into trouble by running his mouth – a trait Dano hasn’t yet expressed on screen.

On the other side of that spectrum is Daniel Craig, whose character barely ever speaks in the film. He plays Jake Lonergan (which looks shockingly like “Loner Gun”), the silent stranger who wanders into town with a piece of alien technology attached to his wrist. Like his character, Craig, the last actor we meet, doesn’t do much talking beyond rolling his own cigarette and expressing his gratitude for playing a cowboy and for being out in the elements.

Fortunately, Sam Rockwell is up to the task of talking. A mustachioed Rockwell approached the tent where we were watching playback and listening to Tejano music almost as soon as we had reached the gulch where they’re filming.

Rockwell describes his character Doc as the everyman of the film – a man not accustomed to confrontation who finds himself forced to fight. As for his back story, Rockwell speaks in possibilities, seeming to craft and re-craft details on the spot for a character he’s continually toying with. Fortunately, the everyman also gets to cowboy up.

“I actually get to do more shooting and riding and stuff like that in this movie than I did in Jessie James,” Rockwell claims.

In describing the difference between working with Favreau on Iron Man 2 and working with him here, Rockwell also hits upon the big challenge of Cowboys & Aliens.

“Well, it’s a similar – we have a solid script but we improvise within that and we change stuff on the day, and the obstacle here is obviously that we’re doing a period piece. So it’s not like you could just say anything, you know – You’ve gotta like – you can’t just say, ‘Ah, Dude, that sucks.’”

That statement is somehow completely representational of the attitude on set. It’s clear that Favreau and company are taking the prospect of making a true western seriously, but even with the brutality of the heat and dirt and dryness, everyone seems to be having a hell of a time. Raoul Trujillo and Walton Goggins are all smiles. Veteran Keith Caradine stands behind me as we watch some footage of a bar fight and jokes about the film earning its western pedigree with that scene alone.

Even Harrison Ford cracks a joke about toilet training during a take that catches everyone within view of the camera off guard.

The good spirits prevail throughout the entire day and through every conversation. Maybe it’s the environment Favreau brings to the shoot. Maybe it’s simply the only way to stick together against the oppression of the desert heat. Maybe it’s because the end of that oppression (and the joy of shooting on a gorgeous location) is within sight.

Whatever the reason, I walk away from the set that day wishing every day of my job could be as fun (minus having to wear heavy tweed in 110 degree weather). The thought doesn’t last long, though, because Harrison Ford comes blaring down the only path in or out, speeding in a 4×4 gator, waving wildly, and screaming his goodbyes.

As I look out the window of a bus leading me back to a historic hotel in Santa Fe, Ford is most likely hovering somewhere overhead, heading home and taking a talented young actor on the helicopter ride of his life.


Related Topics: ,

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