Sunday, July 31, 2011

Giddy-Up! Writing About Buckaroos and Unearthly Bandits

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in “Cowboys & Aliens”

Although the word “extraterrestrial” was coined in 1868, inhabitants of the Wild West had yet to add it to their vocabulary when the action in Cowboys & Aliens unfolds seven years later. As creatures from outer space invade, folks in and around a scrubby desert town called Absolution think they’re up against them thar demons. (Nobody onscreen actually uses this old-timey idiomatic jargon but you get the idea.) Supernatural beings straight out of hell are the only visual references the locals have to go by in the 19th century.

The film also could have been titled Cowboys & Aliens & Indians & Mexicans & Outlaws, what with those diverse communities coming together in a can’t-we-all-get-along-to-save-ourselves story. The aliens? Not so much. The slimy beasts tend to resist any “Cumbaya” sentiment, though they do have a hankering for the gold in them thar hills. Yes, an addiction as ancient as the third millennium BC apparently has lured these metal-craving monsters from another planet willing to rob, murder and foster mayhem. Much like the worst of humankind but with superior gizmos.

Screenwriter Hawk Ostby
Hawk Ostby and his longtime writing partner Mark Fergus share screenplay credits with several other scribes – including Damon Lindelof, formerly of Lost. Their script is a clever mash-up of genres with a generous dollop of familiar archetypes. There’s Doc (Sam Rockwell), a medic who’s also the trusty saloonkeeper; the crusty sheriff (Keith Carradine); the wise preacher (Clancy Brown); the wide-eyed, plucky kid (Noah Ringer); the loyal Native American tracker (Adam Beach); and the pretty schoolmarm – just kidding. She’s Ella (Olivia Wilde), bearing a sidearm and hiding a major secret. Add some gravitas to the mix: Harrison Ford as an imperious cattle baron named Colonel Dolarhyde and Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan, a drifter suffering from amnesia. “Han Solo and James Bond in the same movie,” Ostby says. “Two acting giants. What’s not to love?”

For the recent premiere at San Diego’s recent Comic-Con International, he wasn’t wearing a costume like many in the crowd of 150,000 dressed as superheroes or sci-fi icons. But his wife Monica came to the annual convention as a cowgirl and had to go through a weapons check. She was sporting a fake version of the “wrist blaster” used to battle otherworldly invaders in the film. “Monica was standing next to a Princess Leia, who was packing a laser gun – bigger than my wife’s but not as deadly,” he quips.

Daniel Craig and the wrist blaster
In Cowboys & Aliens, the New Mexico Territory townspeople are wary when Lonergan shows up, but far more alarmed about the subsequent attack by creepy critters and their fancy flying machines. Luckily, the stranger with no memory has an odd device – the blaster, as it turns out – attached to his wrist. Ostby is a 1990 graduate of Boston University, where the couple met when he cast her in a student film project. Monica was required to stab a character played by his roommate at the time, so two decades later perhaps this is a person already familiar with weaponry. “I thought, ‘That’s the woman for me,’” Ostby says.

After college, Ostby and his bride-to-be migrated to New York City, where he teamed up with Fergus in 1994. Both were working low-level jobs at Showtime, the cable TV network. “I was told there’s this other weird guy trying to starve himself to death by writing. A week later, I invited him to my wedding.” They toiled on Consequence, a 2003 thriller that was picked up by HBO but proved to be a frustrating experience for them. Their debut theatrical release three years later was First Snow, an original script about a salesman (Guy Pearce) whose life detours sharply when he visits a fortuneteller (J.K. Simmons).

The 2006 graphic novel
When Ostby and Fergus, a California resident, began to adapt the 2006 Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel, “we saw the image on the cover and realized, ‘There it is.’ But we then we had to figure out how much fun and how much seriousness we needed. It’s a great story. We’ve been told the tone is perfect, never campy or silly, which is a real testament to Jon’s skills.” He’s talking about Jon Favreau, the director, who was also in charge of Iron Man, the 2008 Ostby-Fergus smash hit.

The duo also crafted the post-apocalyptic Children of Men, a 2006 collaboration that earned them Oscar nominations. Next on the agenda: A Lara Croft sequel without Angelina Jolie. Maximum Ride, about six genetically-altered kids who are part-avian. And Manhunt, an original tale in which an FBI  posse chases a survivalist.
In 2003, Hawk and Monica Ostby relocated to Vermont, which seemed an ideal place to raise their children, now 12, 10 and 5. “We wanted a lifestyle change,” he says of the move. That lifestyle has changed significantly for him since his birth – as Haakor Nygaard-Ostby – to a Norwegian father and East Indian mother. He was raised in Oslo until age 15, then spent the next four years in Malaysia and Singapore. His childhood was infused with the two cinematic traditions that are now blended together in Cowboys & Aliens. “As a preteen, I saw Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Ostby recalls. “That made me dream of something that then appeared to be unattainable: movies of my own.”

Olivia Wilde and Daniel Craig
He also grew up with TV Westerns such as Gunsmoke that were outdated in America but fresh to Norwegians. “There was only one video store in Oslo,” Ostby notes. “A friend of mine had a gigantic VHS player and we would watch pictures from the 1940s. Humphrey Bogart and all that. You might say I had a classical education.” But the opportunities that come his way in this complex era have been less Bogie and more blockbuster. “We’re living with the resurgence of the superhero trope. People once believed that evil lurks amongst us. Today, we’re not sure where evil lurks anymore. Individuals feel isolated and helpless. Maybe that’s why stories about one man saving the downtrodden have become so popular.”

Futuristic fare is in high demand as well, probably because audiences “want a new start, a better world,” he contends. “Both Westerns and sci-fi deal with frontiers.” As for his own take on enigmas of the universe like those explored in Cowboys & Aliens, Ostby surmises: “It’s all a great mystery.” 

A very big mystery is how Ostby’s movie could (reportedly) be neck and neck for the opening weekend’s box-office gross earnings with The Smurfs. Them thar little blue toys don’t seem to even have necks!

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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