An enormous cast populated by iconic movie stars and beloved character actors. A director hot off the success of launching an entire comic book movie universe. A canvas as large as the American West, with a budget and action set pieces to match. When it hit theaters ten years ago on June 29, 2011, Cowboys & Aliens, based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, had all the necessary ingredients to dominate the summertime spectacle competition, and launch a new film franchise in the process.
When the dust settled, though, the Jon Favreau-directed sci-fi Western — which starred Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford as Old West cowboys battling invading aliens — proved a one-and-done affair. While the film grossed more than $175 million worldwide for, the film's price tag was just shy of $160 million, leading some to label it a disappointment compared to blockbuster competitors like Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, all of which went on to spawn multiple sequels.
Looking back a decade later Cowboys & Aliens creator, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, has a different takeaway about the project he shepherded from the page to the screen. "If the movie cost $60 million less to make, it would have been considered a much bigger hit," he tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "It did gross $175 million, and when you add DVD sales and TV and everything, it's probably double that number — and that's in 2011 dollars. So it grossed a great amount and had it cost less, it would have been touted as a major success."
Rosenberg feels that the relentless focus on box office impacted the way critics and reporters viewed the movie at the time. "It's interesting: when it debuted at San Diego Comic-Con, the reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter were very positive," he says. "But the articles that came out after talked about the box office, and because it didn't do better at the box office, the reviews were different, which I don't think is very fair."
"From an audience perspective, they don't know or care what's spent on something — if they like a movie, that's all that matters," he continues. And, for the record Rosenberg says that Cowboys & Aliens has a robust fanbase. "I'm always getting messages from people who watched the movie ten times and are just really into it," he says, also pointing to the success of the mobile game. "It has a life outside of the film."
According to Rosenberg, studio politics — not box office — is what ultimately killed the chances of a Cowboys & Aliens 2. Besides Favreau, two other major Hollywood power players were part of the film's long journey to the big screen: Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard. Both directors wanted the movie to be made by their respective production companies, DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment.
At the time, DreamWorks had a deal with Paramount, while Imagine was set up at Universal — which had previously been Spielberg's home for many years — requiring the two studios to team up to make Cowboys & Aliens a reality. (DreamWorks and Universal had almost made a version of the film in the 1990s when Rosenberg was first pitching the idea.)
"They made a deal that they would do it together, which ultimately caused some problems," Rosenberg explains. "Steven was now at Paramount, which Universal was never very happy about. Then DreamWorks started getting into a fight with Paramount. There's no good guys or bad guys in this — it's just the way the business is. But it was a wild ride while we were making the movie."
Rosenberg says that the cast and crew tried to stay "neutral" when shooting started in the summer of 2010, but the studio sniping resulted in decisions that ultimately hurt the film. "Universal announced the release date for the movie without going over it with DreamWorks," he recalls. "Had everything been cordial, it would have been bumped to the following summer [of 2012] because that way we could have gotten a lot of merchandising going. It was just 11 months without a Christmas in between to do anything. They just weren't working together on things, and people were pointing hands in different directions. It had its effect."
The tense relationship between Paramount and Universal also came into play when the time came to pull the trigger on a sequel. "They couldn't figure out how to do it because of all the studios involved," Rosenberg says. "It was just too complicated for them to deal with. That would have been the advantage of either Universal or Paramount making it, because when we were negotiating the deal we had all these different business affairs departments on the phone at the same time!"
But the sun hasn't set on more adventures in the Cowboys & Aliens universe. The movie rights have since reverted back to Rosenberg, and his production company, Platinum Studios, and they have big plans for a next chapter — albeit one that will be connected to the graphic novel rather than Favreau's version. "We've been talking to investors about a new movie," he reveals. "It can't be based on any of the stuff that came before, so we have to go back to the source material or create new source material."
"It'll either be a sequel to the graphic novel or it'll be a reboot," he continues. "The movie is long enough ago that people might assume that it's a sequel to it, although it technically isn't. There's a lot of cool stuff there — for instance, we're planning to have flying horses!"
In an extended conversation, Rosenberg shared how his Cowboys & Aliens empire grew out of a childhood game, and reveals the actor who Ford replaced in the film. Let's just say they have a history together.
Yahoo Entertainment: I have to imagine that the genesis of Cowboys & Aliens was akin to how Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — those words just came together in your brain and off you went.
Scott Mitchell Rosenberg: It actually came to me when I was about 13 years old. I remember that I was in seventh grade and played "Cowboys and Aliens" with my friends. We had these little Star Trek tracer guns that shot out little discs, and then we'd throw snap caps on the ground to make noises for the bullets. Flash-forward to the 1990s, and I sold my company, Malibu Comics, to Marvel and then decided to start up Platinum Studios. That's when I started thinking about Cowboys & Aliens as a possible movie.
It sounds like Steve Oedekerk was attached to the original version that DreamWorks and Universal almost made in the 1990s.
Yes, but his take on it was a bit too comedic. It felt like Mars Attacks! and that wasn't my vision for the movie. I like humor that's more straightforward than slapstick and things that are improbable. I'll leave those to cartoons where a character can blow up and in the next scene he's fine. I didn't want that for Cowboys & Aliens. That version was turned down cold [by DreamWorks and Universal], so it never got far enough along to consider actors and things like that.
By 2006, you decided to put it out as a graphic novel. Was that intended to be a kind of proof of concept?
We were originally planning to come out with a comic years earlier, but our contract with DreamWorks and Universal said that we could not release the comic until it was going to be tied in with the movie. But that deal had expired, so we put the graphic novel out and it did really well. We put it on the internet where people could read it for free, while at the same time shipping it to stores. People thought we were crazy at the time, but it sold well at the stores and we had millions of potential viewers reading it for free.
I basically wrote up what should happen in it, and made sure that our focus was on the theme of manifest destiny. That was a big deal to me. The writer of the comic was Fred Van Lente, who is a very good writer, but I was intimately involved with it all the way down to what the first cover would look like. I took it to a few places that said no, and then I got a phone call from DreamWorks saying, "We'd like to do it." And I said, "You mean the movie you passed on?" [Laughs]
We didn't talk finances, but we pretty much shook hands on it. Then 13 minutes later I got a phone call from Universal. I said, "Unfortunately, I made a deal with DreamWorks." They said, "You mean, if we had called thirteen minutes earlier, it would have been us and not DreamWorks?" [Then they said] that they had left messages that we had never returned. We had just moved offices and had a brand new voicemail system, and it was screwed up. We eventually found messages from both studios, and at that point made a deal that it would be Universal and DreamWorks doing it together.
As I understand it, Robert Downey Jr. was the first actor to attach himself to the movie.
Yes, but then he was going to go off and do another movie [Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows] that would interfere with the timing. Favreau liked the idea of Daniel Craig, so we contacted him and he was gung ho for it, so that was quickly fixed. Then Harrison Ford called us wanting to be involved with it, which was terrific.
The script had to be retooled for [him] significantly. That role was going to be played by Tommy Lee Jones, and it wasn't supposed to be a big part. When Harrison Ford joins, obviously it's going to be a big part! He's going to be on the movie poster. So it definitely took rewriting to fit him into it, all the way down to him being able — like in his past movies — to take the first shot. [Ford and Jones previously starred opposite each other in the 1993 action favorite, The Fugitive.]
Obviously once you have a director like Jon Favreau onboard, he's going to bring in his own creative talent. Did he still involve you in the adaptation process?
Yes, we saw that happening, and I wanted this to be a learning experience. Men in Black was one of our comics, but I was just out of college when that [became a movie] so I wasn't experienced enough to be a producer at that point. I was happy for the involvement they graciously gave me for Cowboys & Aliens. I always wanted to be called "producer," but a lot of the people on the set saw me as a creator and in their mind that's elevated above a producer. I had never thought of that, but given my history was with Cowboys & Aliens all the way back to being a kid, I almost welled up. I thought that was really cool.
Favreau was coming off the first two Iron Man movies at this point in his career. It seems like he was very attracted to the Western side of Cowboys & Aliens.
Yeah, he wanted to be true to Westerns while also being true to aliens. In a way, he's getting his wish with The Mandalorian and playing with Western themes there.
There are some notable differences between the comic and film versions, including the theme of manifest destiny, which is backgrounded in the movie. Was that something Favreau still wanted to include?
He got it, Ron Howard got it and Steven Spielberg got it. They knew it needed to be in there somehow, because that would only make sense. In the comic, we did it a bit differently and some of the characters [changed]. Olivia Wilde's character, Ella Swenson, was actually two characters in the comic that we combined into one. We had Kai, who was an alien, and Verity who was an off-again, on-again love interest for the protagonist. So we meshed them together to create a human-looking alien.
The Native American characters also play a bigger role in the comic than they do in the movie. Was that something you were disappointed to lose in the film version?
Yeah. I wanted a little bit more of that. It definitely got crowded out. That's what happens when a studio is ready to greenlight something — things start rushing. It's like a locomotive that's moving and some things are going to get trampled over. That's what was happening.
Once production began, how often were you on set?
I moved my family to Santa Fe, and we were there for three months. And when I came back to L.A., I went to the Universal lot where they built the space ship. It was like 18 stories high or something. All the alien ship interiors you see are from the Universal lot, but the [exterior action scenes] were in New Mexico. When the town is attacked by the aliens in the beginning of the movie, you'd think that it's mostly special effects. But with a couple of exceptions, we did it all practically. When you see someone getting pulled out of a building or off the ground, we actually did that!
The explosions were also all practical. We filmed in a ghost town, and were to set fire to whatever we wanted, as long as we put it back in the same condition. When you saw the alien ships flying overhead, we had built a monorail-ish system there where they could actually be in the air. So the actors weren't looking up at a green screen — they're actually looking up at a ship going by. The green beam that comes down is taken directly from the comic and that was done practically, too.
One funny thing I remember happening on the set involved my cameo. There's a scene in the bar at the end where everyone is celebrating, and I was dressed up as a cowboy. I had a mustache put on me, so I was completely unrecognizable to everybody. But I blew the shot several times, because my mustache kept falling off! The make-up department head come over and put some super sticky stuff on, and we were finally able to do the scene. Afterwards, a bunch of extras came up to me and said, "You're not a normal extra — who are you?" [Laughs] I don't know why they came up to me: I was doing the same thing they were. Maybe it was just because of the mustache falling off.
Is it frustrating knowing that you'll never be able to tell another story featuring the Daniel Craig character?
I think it's pretty fulfilling. Plenty of time is spent on the characters in the movie, and you get to see them go through a whole redemption and everything else. So I think it did a pretty good job of that.
What's the biggest lesson you took away from the experience of making the film that you'll apply to the new version of Cowboys & Aliens that you're working on now?
I think we need more of what was left out of the film, like the cowboys and Indians working together. And I would put more tech in it. In the comic, the alien ship just crashes and there's stuff they're able to get. I really like the idea of a cowboy with a ray gun, or at least what he thinks is a ray gun. It shoots things and explodes, so for him it's a gun. But the Indians use the technology differently and put the stuff into their arrows and use anti-gravity material to make a flying horse. I like the idea of doing all of that.
Cowboys & Aliens is currently streaming on Hulu.
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