I haven't done very many interviews yet for AICN, but I was really pleased with how this one came out. Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby have written some tremendous films - their CHILDREN OF MEN script was amazing, and IRON MAN probably wouldn't have worked as well as it did if not for their work - and they continue to do good work. Their new film, COWBOYS & ALIENS, was co-written by them as well as Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof. Although Mark lives in Los Angeles and Hawk in Vermont, they still write every day together and they write pop screenplays that are fun, but still smart and they know where they come from. I was given the opportunity on Saturday to talk to both of them via phoner, and what was going to be about 30 minutes worth of discussion turned into almost an hour.
At one point, my call dropped - after my AKIRA question - and I scrambled to get back in. Fortunately the conference call was recording and I was able to get all their information. But I had a lot of fun with this interview. Hope you will too. Thanks to Mike McCutchen for the transcription!
Nordling: Hey Mark, this is Alan.
Mark Fergus: Hey, how’s it going?
Nordling: I’m good. How are you doing?
MF: Good, good. We have strange telecommunication issues out there in Topanga Canyon, so if I vanish at all I will come right back on a different phone, but the cell phones don’t work and the landlines don’t work either, so (Laughs) that’s what you get for living in the country.
Nordling: Right, right. I guess Hawk should be coming along shortly.
Hawk Ostby: Oh yeah, I’m actually on.
MF: Oh you’re here?
Nordling: Yeah, I can hear you. Okay, cool. Great.
HO: I’m talking to you from under an umbrella where it’s raining… If you hear screaming and rain drops…
Nordling: I hope that doesn’t happen.
MF: We are just throwing everything at you man. We are going to make this really fun for you. (Laughs)
Nordling: Good. I’ve got a lot to talk about. I’m really excited. It’s funny, because today earlier I was actually watching THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, which is one of my favorite westerns and I said, “Well, I’m going to be talking to these guys about COWBOYS & ALIENS, so I ought to get myself in a really good mindset and watch a great western to start off.”
MF: Yeah, that’s how we put ourselves into the mood to kind of write it, watching those again and re-experiencing those all over again, because yeah, those are the gold standards for us too.
Nordling: Right. One of the things I love… Well I’ve seen the first 45 minutes of COWBOYS & ALIENS, they played it at BNAT in December and I really liked it a lot, but what I really liked about it was that it’s a Western first and foremost, and it puts you right into that. It’s not trying to play a genre mash-up so much as saying, “Hey, this is a Western where aliens come and we want to put you in the verisimilitude of a Western and not so much a science fiction film.” The science fiction stuff… Modern audiences are already really experienced with that, but they are watching a Western, so you want to put them in that world first. How hard was it for you two to… Well I guess it wasn’t difficult at all, because if you were going by the track line of all of these great Westerns, you just kind of watch those, and it’s like “Well, let’s get you into the Western mood.”
MF: Yeah, exactly. I mean you hit it right on the head.
HO: I remember one thing that was really intriguing right away was the idea that - I mean the word “alien…” that’s sort of in our patois and the west, what would they even call them? Things like that, you know were sort of intriguing. “What would they really think of these things?” They know no technology. “What is that light?” “What is the sound of the sound barrier being broken? What is that?" How do you grapple with that when it’s completely outside of your realm? I remember there they were saying when the native Americans first saw the western ships coming to shore they couldn’t see them because it just wasn’t in their realm of thought. They had no way to even grasp what it was they were looking at and therefore just didn’t see anything, which was sort of intriguing.
MF: Yeah, that idea of “How do you process the impossible?” I think you just totally hit it on the head about what the challenge was. Was it hard, like you say when you set up this western and we didn’t know this project had been bouncing around for a long time, which was good in a way, because we thought we were the first ones to get a crack at it. We had no idea there was a history, but we went in and pitched it as exactly that. “This is a western and science fiction starts to creep its way in,” much like that Twilight Zone where you set up reality with 95% reality and then in comes something impossible. We pitched it as “Start off with THE SEARCHERS and all of those great Ford westerns and Clint westerns and RED RIVER and those and then just establish that world and then have something impossible just sort of start creeping in very organically and naturally. It’s really happening,” no irony, no cuteness, and no… Like you said, “going in with the agenda of a mash-up.” No, you go in with the agenda of a Western, and then “Wow, what it this happened instead of a young girl getting kidnapped by the Indians," or something strange starts happening on the horizon and boom! We are into that, we meld organically into that movie. It was more like when we pitched that and they said, “Yeah, go for it,” and know that Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard were so passionate about the Western thing being the core of it that we felt once we had permission, it was like “Yeah, let’s go for it. We don’t want to write a post-modern cute genre mash-up type film.” And I guess that’s what had been done beforehand, there was a much more comedic edge to it, or the fun of it rather than the coolness and the awe and the mystery of it. So we went the other way and that was that and then we just found that seemed to be the thing that everybody had been waiting for, and we just kept down that path, and the film got made that way when the other guys did their drafts it continued that way, so that was the path that we all agreed upon.
Nordling: I imagine it was fairly challenging, because when you are introducing this science fiction to a western - especially like if you introduce science fiction to a modern day film, well you’ve got those characters who have got all those science fiction movies and stuff to base their ideas on, so it’s not as far fetched for them to grasp what’s happening, but these guys have no idea. They don’t have films; they don’t have any of the references. I mean, maybe a Jules Verne book, but that’s it, you know, and these people won’t have read that, so to them this is going to be a really crazy experience. How was that, trying to put that onto the page?
MF: I think that was the fun of it, because like Hawk said before, you are now introducing alien technology to people with no reference point for electricity, electromagnetic waves, sounds, flying ships… Everything is new, and I think the audience can step back and experience sci-fi fresh again. Even an audience like now is completely saturated with every convention possible. You can step back now and say, “Wow, what if the cowboys experience this?” and you get to take that ride, like the audience doesn’t know what any of this is either and I think that was like… We loved sort of pulling it back. Do you remember in NO COUNTRY, the great thriller parts in NO COUNTRY were so possible, because they set it in an era without cell phone technology and suddenly the thriller aspect of that became electrifying, because they couldn’t just call up or they couldn’t just… The low tech of what was going on, the tracker and the bag of money and all of that shit, that now became awesome and cool, because it was 1980 or whatever, and so you can re-experience that even though knowing that that wouldn’t really be the same story in 2010. I feel like in that way you take things out of their time and you get a whole new cool layer.
HO: I was going to say, just the contrast of things too. We just remember thinking from a design sense like how cool it is to have this old cracked leather, you have the Winchester, you have all of those sort of things, and then you have the polished steel and all of those, the blue lights, the drum of these… I mean it was just such a great sort of opportunity to put some tremendous contrast of things in there that we hadn’t done or seen before, so that was really fun.
Nordling: You two have worked with Jon Favreau, of course with IRON MAN, did you have any idea when you were writing at the time that you were going to be writing for Indiana Jones?
HO: No, certainly not.
MF: I think that was a cool surprise to everyone.
HO: Afterwards Jon… We started this right after we got off IRON MAN, and I remember saying bye to Jon when we were off to do this thing and so then it was cool later when he came on. That was just great.
MF: Yeah it was like… We were pitching this and going in, shaking in our boots going into pitch to Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard tomorrow regarding this sci-fi western and he’s like “Tell me about it.” So we were telling him about it on the last days of IRON MAN and then yeah, exactly like years later that would be one of his next few projects, and you know we couldn’t think of a cooler sensibility to tackle it. And it was fun to see how far it had come along those years and then to end up with somebody like Harrison in this role you are like… That’s one of Jon’s… every time he just casts so much cooler and so much… He gets these killer people to inhabit these roles and that’s such a… He attracts people to genre stuff, because he knows how to tell them, “Hey, you can do something awesome with this,” and he makes good on that.
Nordling: One of the things I really enjoyed watching the snippets that I saw was that Ford really fell into the part. I mean he was… You could see the life in his eyes right behind him. It was like “Wow this is great.” I felt like you guys and Jon Favreau kind of brought Harrison Ford back again, so I really have to appreciate that.
MF: He really does want to give actors a crazy challenge. I think of John Wayne in THE SEARCHERS like take an American hero and make him angry and dark and really struggling with all sorts of deep seeded feelings of hatred and still that’s your hero. There’s something really fun about that challenge for actors where you are giving them something to chew on, and you know how Jon being an actor and a writer as well as everything else knows how to speak to that, and I think it’s one of the reasons he gets the top guys to say, “Yeah, I’m into that.”
HO: He is very unique in that way, he does everything very well. He is a phenomenal writer as well, obviously SWINGERS and all of that, but he really wears all of those hats very confidently and even as a writer, it helps you so much and gives you so much.
MF: Yeah and it plugs the actors in when he knows… He knows what an actor is going through to inhabit these parts, and how scary that terrain is and how challenging that is, so he would never take it for granted that he’s asking the moon of these actors and knowing what that leap entails. That’s a huge part of what his success is based on I think.
Nordling: Right. Tell me a little bit about how the project kind of came across your radar screens a little bit? Like you had said it had been bouncing around Hollywood a little bit with… I know it’s based on a graphic novel comic book. I’ve never read the comic myself… Actually after I started seeing the trailers and such for the film I said “I don’t really know if I want to go back and read that. I would rather see it fresh.” Tell me a little bit about the process and how it came across to you two.
HO: Yeah, as we were finishing up IRON MAN, Kurtzman and Orci had sent us the comic book and said, “What do you guys think?” So we read that. We went in and met with them and it just sort of came about through that. We didn’t realize that there was a long history of it. As we sort of got into it, we realized that there had been previous drafts. We weren’t really shown any of those, which as Mark was saying earlier was good, we just sort of had fresh eyes and we were sort of babes wondering into the woods here with this. It just sort of came about through that and evolved and evolved.
MF: One facet is the comic was… the great part of it was the graphic novel had recently been… I guess the thing had been germinating a while, even the graphic novel hadn’t been out there for very long even though the project had been, so we got the graphic novel and basically… As much as we admire it, it was the title COWBOYS & ALIENS. The idea of what that could be and then they were basically like, “Listen, the graphic novel is just a springboard, you can embrace it, you can follow it… You can basically fall in love with this idea any way you want and approach it any way you want.” We liked the graphic novel, but we really wanted to approach it in a Clint kind of “Man With No Name” dark western, like you said with a JOSEY WALES kind of thing, where we are entering through the movies we loved, and we were given a lot of freedom, I guess is the bottom line, to invent this thing on a blank canvas. Because everybody was a little bit jaded about the approaches that had been tried, leaning towards the comedic, or leaning towards the ironic, or whatever. And so we were given this graphic novel, a blank slate, and said “Hey you guys…” and coming off of IRON MAN and that was a great experience as we were writing sort of during production. So it was a really kind of exhilarating experience, and everybody was happy, so it felt like they had given us a lot of freedom to invent this thing. It was a smart move and we chose the movie we wanted to see. We used a little bit of what we saw in the graphic novel, but mainly we used the inspiration of just the cover art of that graphic novel with just this guy on horseback.
Nordling: Yeah, I had seen that cover.
MF: That’s what inspired our vision of the movie. We were like, “Yeah, that’s how we want it to feel,” almost like you are saying, “I don’t want to even read the rest of it, I just want to take that inspiration and dive face first into this,” and it was cool, like we chose elements that really meant a lot to us and all of them are in the film. They are all the architecture of the film, so we felt like it was nice to have that freedom, because we chose the stuff we loved the most, as opposed to stuff we had to work with. Source material is tricky sometimes, because you have obligations to it and this one was different because it didn’t have sort of a fan base yet, it was a new graphic novel and it was more like, “Hey what a cool idea right? Run with it.”
Nordling: One of the things that kind of struck me about the material is that because they are going up against obviously superior technology, there’s going to be a point like “How are they going to get out of this?” Because they have no frame of reference, they have no technology that can fight back, so did you find yourself kind of painting yourselves into the corner a little bit with the plot? Not to go into any spoilers, because the film has yet to come out…
MF: Yeah, definitely. You love when you are painted into a corner and you are like, “Okay, now make it realistic that a bunch of guys without technology are going to go up against these guys and somehow figure it out, figure out how to fight." And it’s great that it’s impossible, because then you have got to find some really cool and dramatic stuff to get over that hump and the harder it is the better I think the story is. I remember the Coens always saying they used to write tag team write where they would paint the story into a corner, then hand it off to the other guy and say,“You figure it out," and then the other guy would paint the other guy into a corner and say, “You figure it out,” and that’s how BLOOD SIMPLE came about and you are like “Oh, look at that.” It’s pretty cool to make an impossible thing for the next guy to figure out and then dump it off on his lap and see what he does.
Nordling: Was that kind of like the process between the two of you as well? Was it more of a give and take with how you wanted the plot to go?
MF: I think we did a little of that. Well you know I guess Hawk can go on a little bit about our writing process, but he leaves in Vermont, I live in LA, and we generally write like that anyway. We tend to…
HO: Yeah, actually we kinda do.
MF: Yeah, we do a hand off to the other guy and then see what he’s going to do and really… so that was no different with this. We had an outline, we knew generally where we wanted to go, but it’s like “Hey what if I dump this on your lap? Then you figure out how to get over into act three and you throw me back the challenge?” That’s how we kind of work in general, which has always been our way, even when we lived two doors down from each other, we still had separate rooms like that.
Nordling: It would sound like a lot of fun to me, basically throwing the story back and forth and saying “Okay, now let’s see what you can do with it.”
MF: Yeah, because you are always surprised. I’m like “Oh shit, I never would have thought of that…”
HO: But when you are stuck, and you are tearing your hair out and just agonizing, it is nice to try to say “You know what? Here, try this.”
MF: “You figure it out.”
MF: Yeah, it is really a fun way to work. I know a lot of guys in town here and I see them working together really intensely across the table from each other or whatever and I think that’s fun, but I think we did that on IRON MAN. We had a very intense writing process where we were face to face the whole time and it was great, but it was definitely like we would end up talking half the time instead of writing you know? You end up just shooting the shit or goofing off rather than getting the writing done and when we are in separate rooms, it’s a much more streamlined process, so you know we really liked doing it that way and the main thing is you don’t know… Different energies, different sensibilities, you are going to get something different than you expected when you hand it over, turn off the phone, and let the other guy do his thing without interference and then see what you get back and “Wow,” you know?
Nordling: Right. Now you two have other projects coming in the works and I don’t want to get too into detail about it, because you will want to keep it close to the vest, but when you are working with established properties like COWBOYS & ALIENS or IRON MAN… I believe you were on AKIRA the past year, is that right?
Nordling: Now I know AKIRA has got a really fierce fan base. How much…
MF: (Laughs) Oh yeah…
Nordling: I remember when I first saw the original film and I was just blown away by it. There is obviously things that you want to keep and then there are things that you want to make your own, how much… and again I don’t want you to go too much into, because I know you really can’t, but how much of AKIRA do you feel like, “Well I think we actually gave this something new that hasn’t been done before, or something new to think about when you are watching this?”
MF: I honestly think that…
HO: Absolutely, that original is astounding. So many movies and stories have borrowed from that that a lot of it, you just really couldn’t fit in in and the sensibilities were so different to try and make it into a sort of western movie with broad appeal etc… You know, especially on that one, the fans too are so passionate, and you don’t often read about people who really want to see that movie or certainly we didn’t in our remake of that movie, so it was very daunting, but I think we would almost say that it was a closer re-imagination when we were on that. Wouldn’t you say that Mark?
MF: I think AKIRA, the thing we said when we were given the project from the creator who wrote the books, who directed the film, Otomo, had basically given his blessing to - “The original… don’t treat it like a holy text, treat it like a spring board for re-imagination of AKIRA." And we approached it the same way we do with all existing material, whether or not they are iconic like that or not, which is the same of CHILDREN OF MEN, which was kind of an obscure book that had very little sort of cinematic potential. We said “Okay, we can’t tell the book as it is” and we would look at BLADE RUNNER, which was one of our favorites from the book to the film, and the challenge is, I think the soul of BLADE RUNNER the film, and the source book are exactly the same, and I think Phillip K. Dick even said that himself when he was still alive he had seen some of the film and that’s the goal. The heart and soul of it should feel exactly the same, the execution though… “Why remake AKIRA? It’s already like an animated masterpiece, why remake that film?” What you do is you take the spirit of it and you take it somewhere new so that you kind of re-imagine and re-celebrate the greatness of it through a new sort of lens, and that was always the idea was to not try to just make a live-action version of the anime, because…
[The phone cut out.]
Nordling: Sorry guys, I guess I got dropped.
MF: Yeah, well we figured you would come back in, but we heard a couple of clicks and then it was like “Ah, we lost somebody.”
Nordling: Yeah, I think I got dropped. I’m sorry about that, I heard the clicks and then suddenly it went “Blip” and went totally blank, so I couldn’t hear anything.
HO: (Laughing) Some of the most brilliant things Mark has ever said in any interview were said…. It was stunning… It was amazing.
Nordling: It totally dropped on me. It was weird.
MF: Where were we when we dropped?
Nordling: I actually got the question out and then I heard all of these clicks on it and then that was it, so… It was really quiet and I go “Did I piss them off? Oh shit…”
MF: “No questions about AKIRA ever!”
Nordling: I feel bad now.
HO: It probably recorded anyway, so you’ll have it there.
MF: But were we on AKIRA? Is that where we left?
Nordling: Yeah, so I was saying it’s a very strong fan base and how you were trying to make it your own… If you have already said it, I will go back and hear it.
MF: Just to recap for you, but we see the passion of the fan base, but the author of the books and the director of the film, really the creative genius behind it really passed us when we started it of using it as a springboard to a new vision of AKIRA, with the same heart, the same soul, the same intention, but you can tell that story in many ways. And we always look at BLADE RUNNER and any of these re-imaginations of great material as an inspiration to how to honor the fiber of the original material, but you don’t have to execute it the same way. You don’t have to stick exactly to it like it’s a holy text. So that’s how we approached AKIRA. We loved working on it. We loved doing it and that is just a mountain to climb still. That movie still has its challenges in getting made.
Nordling: It’s just so huge in scale. In a way it’s almost like animation was perfect for it, because you can practically do whatever you want, but when you are going to ground it in reality, it’s going to be hard.
MF: Yeah, you know what I think? I think with all of the elements, I think the director has moved on as well, but when that thing comes together in the right alchemy and the right elements or whatever, I’m telling you people will doubt it, they will sneer at it maybe, but when the right director, and the right elements come together and that thing happens one of these days and we can talk about it then, people are going to be blown away.
Nordling: I think it’s too big not to happen you know?
MF: I think people are going to be so blown away, and they will see it as another chapter of AKIRA, not trying to replace the original, or compare itself to the original, but it will become another chapter in the story of that great material. It will become another sort of manifestation of it, and it will be unbelievably cool, and people I think will look back and say “Okay, we hated you for making it," but they will be pretty damn psyched that it got made I believe at the end of the day. So you can throw that quote back in my face dow the road if I’m wrong.
Nordling: I think that along with every product of something like that is going to have people saying what they are going to say about it and you know it’s up to the people who make it, like, “Well I’m going to prove something to you,” which makes it like a challenge you know?
MF: Exactly and this one will not disappoint, because the material is just so awesome and the ways of bringing it to life might seem a little radical at first, when you feel the same emotions of the original AKIRA you are going to… you are just on a different ride, but it’s the same heart and soul, and I think it’s really going to be an awesome experience one of these days when that thing coalesces, because it’s such a huge project to pull off, so it’s no mystery why it’s taking so long, it’s just that it’s a tough one to put all of the pieces together.
Nordling: Yeah, like I said, it's too big not to happen.
MF: I hope so, but we know that Steve Kloves had done a re-write on our draft, which we haven’t seen, but I mean what an awesome writer to have come in and kind of take it to the next level, and so we are dying to see it now too, because it’s evolved from our involvement it’s evolved on from there, so we are actually kind of excited to see where he took it. Anyhow we are big fans, and we hope it all comes into being one of these days, because I think it’s going to be something to behold.
Nordling: I’m excited to see it. I wanted to ask you a little bit about TOMB RAIDER. You two are working on that, right?
Nordling: I have to say the first two films, I was disappointed in them, because it’s really difficult to adapt a video game, but you want to kind of… it’s like, “Here’s your character and here’s the premise and let’s do our thing,” because I didn’t get the feel that the people who made the movies saw the game at all, and didn’t realize what they were making. Can you talk a little bit about that project?
MF: Yeah, we are not allowed to talk too much about it, because it’s just starting out, but I think we are really looking to just take the… Everybody has their notions about the game, it’s hugely popular, the character of course, with Angelina Jolie was kind of born to be the Lara Croft that she was, and it was just perfect casting, and so the idea now is to just really take it and reinvent it and not just reboot it, but reinvent it and take it to a place that people have never see before, and create this character from the ground up and that’s really the challenge. We just really want to make it awesome and new for people, even if they are familiar with the old movies and the games and everything, that this is a totally new experience, so that’s where we are taking it.
HO: Did you see the trailer that they had for E3?
Nordling: I didn’t. I missed it. I know that the game is actually going back to the beginning. Is that right?
HO: Yeah, exactly.
Nordling: So she’s actually going to be like…
HO: It’s really wild, and really exciting, what they are doing with all of that, so we are really thrilled too And it’s a wonderful company you know, Graham King and that whole outfit is awesome.
MF: Yeah and that’s why we were so psyched to do it, yeah.
Nordling: I always thought the best premise for a TOMB RAIDER would actually be like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK you know and go from there and then kind of…
MF: That really is the perfect, I still think maybe one of the perfect movies of all times, where everything just comes together in a way. It’s hard to believe it’s just two hours. It just feels so epic and tells so much story so efficiently, with who was it Lawrence Kasdan… of that screenplay and of that film, because… I think that’s really the gold standard for what we are doing here as well. You just look at character, action, storyline… Every element is firing together in this kind of perfect story machine and everybody goes back to that film, and there’s a reason, it’s just so damn perfect. That certainly is the gold standard for when you think of working on a movie like LARA where you can explore similar themes, and have a similar kind of character to make everything work that great. That’s sort of your target that you aim for in the clouds, to be that good and I think we are humbled, but we’ve got to shoot for it.
Nordling: It’s got to be a lot of fun to play in that universe too.
MF: Yeah, totally because I think the great thing we love about RAIDERS is that it plays in a supernatural realm, but really when you go back and look, you go, God, they didn’t flip that card over until the last possible minute. They kept that movie grounded. Everything was explainable. Everything was pretty grounded in reality, and then at the last minute, just when you think you were done they flipped that last card, and the shit hits the fan when they open the ark and you are like… It’s perfect. They kind of save that until the last possible moment in the story. So smart… such great story telling and sometimes we think we are just being nostalgic for older films, then you go back and you see just how beautifully these things were done, crafted perfectly. I mean it really is… that’s where you go back and try to get your education for how to do these better. A lot of the movies you grew up on were not… You are not just being nostalgic for being ten years old again, like EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, I mean I still can’t get enough of that movie, and I saw it when I was nine or something for the first time. It’s just such great storytelling, so we go back to those a lot to see… because pop movies don’t have to be shotty, they used to be really beautiful… BACK TO THE FUTURE is still one of the best movies ever made and appeals to everybody, but what a screenplay, holy crap.
Nordling: And going back to COWBOYS & ALIENS, that was the general vibe that I got when I saw the first 45 minutes of it, I was going, “Wow.” The pacing of it was very deliberate, and when I say deliberate I mean it’s like, “This is the way you want to tell your story. You don’t want to rush into things, you want to get people exposed to the characters. You want the plot to happen, but you want people to be immersed and not just shove them through, you know?”
MF: (Laughs) You don’t just want to take them hostage in the first few minutes you know? Exactly. I also agree…
HO: That’s what we sort of battle with today, that everybody wants things faster and faster and faster, like what used to happen on page 20 now has to happen on 4, and you lose something with that when you are pushing that hard, and you end up sort of having to upstage yourself all of the time, and you peak sort of too early. I think those older movies that sort of dared to stick with it to keep the pace low as you say, “immerse yourself” in the story…
MF: Yeah, the old Hitchcock thing you know? There would be this creeping sense of anxiety for 30 minutes, and nothing usually would be crazy happening yet, but then by the time Hitchcock pulled the first big card out of his hat you were in that story, your guard was down. And you were immersed like you say, and that’s how you get the audience just falls into the movie rather than like, “Boom, we are going to hit you and hit you and keep hitting you.” Hitchcock is probably the greatest movie storyteller of all time. You watch the care with which he pulled you into the world, and seduced you into the world, and then, “Oh yeah, now that you are in here we are going to completely play with you.” He kind of loved getting the audience to be disarmed to the point where now when the big stuff came out, you had them, you had them completely. And you need to be quiet at first in a way. You need to kind of roll it out slowly so that everybody kind of… they are not sure where you are taking them, and then everything matters later, so it’s tough to tell stories these days with the need for vast stimulation very quickly. It is a little bit more of a challenge to not exhaust the audience very early with spectacle, and then it was kind of cool that Favreau and IRON MAN really took the pace down. He really slowed things down, and had these character moments, let you breathe with the characters, and get to know these people and then get out the big guns, but take your time with it. The audience loves these characters. They will hang with you. They want to see where this goes, you don’t have to beat them over the head.
Nordling: Exactly. I think that setting up stakes, and giving people a chance to invest in the characters and what’s going on, and that way when you get into it and you can get to the spectacle, but you have to kind of earn what it means. It's like you want to really be able to care about who you are looking at and what you are dealing with, and like in IRON MAN, by the time… you know it starts off with the thing in Afghanistan, and then it goes back a little bit, and then it goes back to where he’s in Afghanistan, you are in it man, you care… you care what happens to this guy. And it’s really hard these days to me. A lot of films want to show how much they spent as opposed to how much they give to the story.
MF: That’s very true.
HO: Well I think it’s also nervousness… A lot of people seem extremely nervous, about letting things breathe. They are terrified the audience will get bored, but they don’t as long as you…
MF: They’ve already paid for their ticket, right?
Nordling: They are already sitting there. You got them already.
MF: It’s like THE SIXTH SENSE and the payoff of THE SIXTH SENSE which everybody loved, but up till then there’s this restlessness like, “This is a weird little movie… is this going anywhere? It’s creepy and strange, but nothing is kind of happening.” By the time you get to the end and it all ties up, you are so glad you took the journey, but yeah, they already paid, they are sitting there, no one is going to get up and walk out in the first act, because it’s not happening fast enough; they are going to see why everyone is talking about this movie. And they are going to take the whole ride. It’s just really… It is kind of a strange phenomenon, but it’s nice that Favreau has found a way to work in modern filmmaking while still having a sensibility that feels like… from a bit like another era like character matters, pace matters, trusting the audience matters, and that’s really cool that he’s been able to take that sensibility and do it on a big canvas now, and audiences love it, so obviously I think he can’t say people have… Their synapses have been so fried by over stimulation, and YouTube that they can’t chill out with a story any more, and take a three-act story the way it was meant to be. People still love that and they still want it. It’s hardwired in people and it’s no different; they still can fall in love with a story told on old-fashioned terms.
Nordling: And the western genre in this way is already a little bit slower paced than a lot of other genres anyway, because it doesn’t make sense to force feed into that genre, because you are dealing with characters, you are dealing with a time and a place and you really… I really enjoyed what I saw of it. I can’t wait to see the rest of it.
MF: Cool, yeah I think you will be very psyched. We are just really excited that you responded with what you saw to the magic of what the whole approach to this was, which was to be honest about the genre and about these characters in this situation rather than to be like we were winking at the audience and you felt like you missed some kind of post modern like, “Hey guys, isn’t this cool?” nudge, nudge… that you actually just fell into the story, and what it was. We were just really psyched to hear that as your gut reactions to what you saw.
Nordling: Right, can you tell me a little bit about… this is coming off of IMDB, so if I get my stuff wrong feel free to correct me. Can you tell me a little bit about THE WORLD AFTER, and what that’s about? Can you talk about that?
MF: Yeah, I think we can talk about it.
HO: Well, not plot-wise, but yeah that’s obviously something that Len Wiseman had in his stable there that may go at some point, where we are not sure where it stands actually. As it is, we completed our work on it, but again a very interesting take I think on… It’s been a sci-fi idea, but we probably shouldn’t get into plot things… It’s always like we are dancing with things like, “Wait, can you say that? No?”
Nordling: Yeah, well I don’t want to get you guys in trouble.
MF: Yeah, but what it is I guess is… The post-apocalyptic movie now we feel like has been done to death, and continues to be done in really awesome ways. This was an attempt to say, “Yeah, you think you’ve seen it all in that genre? Okay, well you haven’t seen this.” Len’s idea and Fox, the guys we were working with were like, “Hey, can we take the post-apocalyptic movie to some insane new place where you think you know where you are going with this and you really have no idea,” so they set the bar very high, and we fell in love with that project, it’s just that Len went to go do TOTAL RECALL, which he’s going to kill that one, it’s awesome, but the window for that one closed temporarily, where Len hopefully will do it after TOTAL RECALL. But in any case it was one of those ones where the genre was getting a little bit… you know everything was starting to look like I AM LEGEND. Cool stuff, but everyone had seen it all, and this was really an attempt to say, “Let’s flip that thing on its head, and do something that no one is expecting, and put it in an incredible ticking clock thriller kind of structure.” It’s one of the most fun projects we have ever written, and we are just dying to see that move forward, because it is a super cool one and nobody has ever done it before. It’s a cool one. That’s pretty vague I know to say, but we can’t give away any plot stuff, but it's so cool, so cool.
Nordling: No, no I don’t want you to. I’m one of those guys… I’m put in an awkward position where I ask a lot of questions about upcoming movies, but I don’t want to know that much about them myself, because I want to be able to see them.
MF: Right. It is, because you just want to go and be thrown… Obviously, COWBOYS & ALIENS tells you a lot from the title about what you are going to see, but it becomes about how we are going to tell you that story that becomes cool, but certainly I totally agree.
HO: Another bit of a beast is like the marketing campaigns now are so revealing, that they show you all of these scenes and when you’ve seen something iconic from the movie, you sit there the whole time waiting for that scene to come, and I always hate that feeling.
MF: Yeah, you are like, “When is that going to happen?”
Nordling: I’m glad you commented on that, because marketing campaigns really irritate me more and more every year. I don’t want to know too much, but I understand they have to sell their film, but again we can go back to the films of our youth… We never saw E.T. until the film came out you know? We never saw a lot of the stuff that these movies… Actually that’s one of the admirations I had for SUPER 8 is that Abrams held his cards a little close until the film came out and…
HO: Personally, I love that CLOVERFIELD… that came out of nowhere, and I was so thrilled, like “What is this thing?” And it’s so exciting when you just have no idea. I guess it’s that….
Nordling: Yeah, you see that cover art.
MF: I think in E.T. the kid looking in the closet going, “I’m keeping him,” and you are like, “What the hell is he looking at?” Then you had to go see the movie, but it haunted you way more than seeing what he was looking at, and I used to love that feeling of a commercial or a trailer as like a seduction. It made you want to get the rest of that world, it was not a way to summarize a plot or show you much, because if the promise of the movie was big enough, people… They want to be there, they want to learn the rest and I miss that.
HO: Well THE USUAL SUSPECTS, remember than one? That was a great one. God, you had to see that after you see that trailer, you were just like, “What the hell?” It’s such a great question they had built up, you just had to go and find the answer.
MF: Yeah and that was a seventies movie at heart. I always felt like THE USUAL SUSPECTS was a seventies movie and all of the movies we kind of… I didn’t realize it at the time, but even the eighties were a little mini-golden age of pop movie making where things were being done with such care and style that you kind of miss it that anybody would doubt audiences. Look, JAWS is so fucking… JAWS takes its own time, and has its own pace, and has this crazy structure than no one would ever let you do now, and it’s one of the greatest movies of all time, and it’s still awesome and it just felt like it couldn’t quite be made that way now. I don’t know, but it’s probably too unusual.
HO: Yeah, well, so many movies that we look at as our… even CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, one of the reasons we even got into any of this… could that get made today? I don’t know and JAWS, that is one of the most beautiful scripts I think I have ever read, Peter Benchley’s… It’s really scary to think maybe all of those things that we love couldn’t get made today.
MF: Well, it would be a lot tougher.
Nordling: Yeah, and that’s one of the things that I really admired with what I saw from COWBOYS & ALIENS, because it felt like a throwback to that. It wasn’t… I hate to say it like this, because when I say, “It wasn’t in a hurry…” but when I say it like that it makes it sound like it’s slow and it’s not. When you are watching it, and you care about everybody that’s coming across, and it sets up all of the characters… It sets up Lonergan, it sets up Harrison Ford’s character, and his relationship with his son, and it does it really well and then when the aliens come in, you are like “Okay I’m here, I’m hooked. You got me.”
MF: Totally. It’s like the way you feel going up on a rollercoaster, you know, the slow ascent, but the anticipation is building because you know you are going down, and it’s that kind of building adrenaline rush, and I think that’s what this pace is really about, to make you really excited about what’s coming, and the energy of the movie obviously will rise as you go, but you want people to be in anticipation of it, rather than exhausted by the time they hit act two, you know, and they are like “okay… I need a break, I’m so tired… My head hurts,” because you have been hit with everything under the sun. So yeah, we are taking that as a huge compliment, because it’s exactly the kind of story telling that…. And you know when we went in and pitched this, we said “Take John Ford and marry it to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. It’s the great Western, but it’s also the way that Spielberg made you see the possibility of alien life, alien ships, that kind of thing in the sky and the mystery of it, the terror of it, the awe of it…” CLOSE ENCOUNTERS rips you in half when you see that as a kid, because it blows your mind and to kind of get that back into a movie, where that kind of awes would be replacing cutesiness, irony mash-up shit, you know… You have the great western which everybody loves and then followed by sci-fi kind of grandeur and coolness that we felt as children watching these movies for the first time. That’s what we think the movie tries to do, bring those things back. We are enormously proud of the tone of it, and the fact that Jon was the filmmaker, because he knows how to do that better than anybody right now, you know.
Nordling: Yeah he does. He’s great. All right guys, well I think that will be it. I really appreciate you talking to me and this has been really great. I hope I got that AKIRA stuff, but if I didn’t you know that’s okay, because I didn’t want to spoil it anyways. (Laughs)
MF: That will be the one that people throw you the most angriest Talkback comments…
Nordling: Oh yeah, I already anticipate it.
Nordling: That’s okay. Talkback is a strange beast. It’s fun to get in there and talk, but sometimes… (Laughs) I have to deal with it, so, alright guys I really appreciate you talking to me. Thank you.
HO: It was really good chatting with you.
Nordling: Nice chatting with you too.
MF: It was really fun, thanks a lot.
Nordling: Bye guys.
I had a lot of fun with this one, and thanks to David Roberson for setting this one up. COWBOYS & ALIENS opens July 29th. Nordling, out.