Screenwriter Roberto Orci Talks Cowboys and Aliens' Tone and Script Compromises
12.04.10 by Ryan
After writing the screenplays for Star Trek and the first two Transformers movies, adapting a graphic novel called Cowboys and Aliens was a natural progression for screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the Platinum Comics graphic novel follows a mysterious stranger who rides into the town of Absolution, Arizona, just in time for an alien invasion.
Robert Downey Jr. was originally cast in the lead role, but ultimately left the project for Sherlock Holmes 2 before Favreau signed on and replaced Downey Jr. with Daniel Craig. In an interview with SuperHeroHype, Orci revealed that Craig's casting changed the tone of the movie.
We started off a little bit very tongue-in-cheek, particularly when we were thinking about casting Robert Downey, Jr., and when we were thinking of how much more of a talky character he would be and how much more it would be about — a little bit more ironic. And as we zeroed in on it and as we went to Western school, and as we, you know, started really thinking about it, we realized that irony was a little bit of the last thing we needed — that the spin on the movie is already there. Aliens are landing in a Western. That's all the spin you need. The way to maximize that is to play it extremely straight, and to have any fun or comedy come out of the natural moments that would come out of a situation like that, not out of writing the jokes for winking at the audience or whatever. And that's what's been good about having Daniel sort of as our lead cowboy, is that he immediately switched the tone — just by thinking about him, and just by knowing that we were going to be writing someone who's going to really play it straight. But we really came to I think what we wanted the tone to be, after jumping back and forth. It went from a little too funny to way too dark, to a little bit too funny to a little bit too dark, to hopefully just right. We'll find out.
With Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard producing and Jon Favreau, Orci says that he and Kurtzman's script has "been very well protected, not only just with good suggestions, but then also just whenever we go outside of the bumper rails, they'll push us back into the center." This means that the writers haven't had to compromise much of their script, however, Orci learned that the occasional script compromises can be a good thing.
But normally, across the board, any limitations that you find are actually good for story. Whenever you can do whatever you want is when you really get in trouble. Whenever you're, you know — and Spielberg teaches us this — when he says, "The only reason I had that great scene in Jaws at the pier is because a shark didn't work. So all I could show was the pier. So instead of using a shark, we showed the pier going all over the place." And it's great. And if you have that mindset, you actually find that you actually improve the story whenever you come up against the walls.
The mindset helped Orci and Kurtzman change a sequence that was initially more in keeping with the Western genre and was altered to blend in the sci-fi genre as well.
Originally we had a big train sequence, where Jake (Craig) and his gang had to like board the train mid-moving, and we actually ended up switching that to something more in between the two genres. And that was the biggest kind of a change. Instead of jumping on a train, he jumps on an alien ship. [laughter] But it's still the paradigm of the classic, the cowboy has to catch up to the coach and jump on it to save somebody. It was gonna be a train and then we were like, "It should be a ship." So suddenly, it's still the Western trope, but totally reinvented for the mix of the genres.
Cowboys and Aliens opens on July 29, 2011, and co-stars Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Walton Goggins, Noah Ringer, Paul Dano, Keith Carradine and Abigail Spencer.