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In the 'Cowboys & Aliens' editing room with director Jon Favreau

Back in November, MSN was among a small group of online outlets invited to a Santa Monica editing facility to visit with "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau and check out footage from "Cowboys & Aliens," his big-budget sci-fi/Western epic due out next July. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, and written by "Lost" and "Star Trek" veterans Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the film stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, Paul Dano and Adam Beach. With lots of producing and writing firepower, a solid cast, and the man who brought "Iron Man" to the screen on board, "Cowboys & Aliens" is already one of the most eagerly awaited films of this summer.

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Based on the graphic novel created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the movie stars Craig as Jake Lonergan, a man with no memory of his past and a strange shackle on his wrist who stumbles into the 1873 Arizona Territory town of Absolution. Run by the despotic rancher Dolarhyde (Ford), the town is already paralyzed with fear when it is attacked by malevolent invaders from the sky. Soon it's up to Lonergan -- who might just hold the key to their salvation -- to unite enemies and allies and battle this otherworldly menace.

The first thing to grapple with is the concept itself, which is bluntly embodied in the film's title. It sounds almost like a joke at first, someone's idea of a spoof. The idea that humans in the late 1800s could confront advanced beings from another world and even stand a chance against them with the weaponry of the time doesn't lend itself right away to serious consideration. "The trick is to do it in a way that's plausible, so that you believe each chess move," says Favreau when asked about this situation. "And a lot of it has to do with just having a good piece of material and good writing. On this one it's not like we're pulling it out of our a-- as we go. It was very well laid out, well planned, and there were a lot of discussions with a lot of actors who called me to task on things that seemed too convenient, so we made sure we earned each step."

Favreau -- relaxed and very enthused to show some of his movie to reporters -- makes his comments after screening an astounding 40 minutes of footage to us in his editing suite. What we see is pretty much the first act of the film, which begins with Lonergan waking up in the middle of the Arizona desert and immediately beset by danger of the earthbound kind. Even in his confused state, Lonergan eventually heads in the direction of Absolution, the kind of frontier town where everyone lives in fear of the man who lords over them.

That man is Harrison Ford, and the legendary actor's hard-edged, dark-hued performance is both reminiscent of his past successes yet unlike anything we've seen from him before. "It's so much fun to present him, as a fan, in the way that I like him the most," says Favreau, who famously lured the publicity-shy Ford to his very first Comic-Con last July. "He's a very versatile player, he's doing a comedy now, and he's certainly been enough iconic characters. But to have that sort of gruff exterior -- there is a warmth to this guy, but he's not trying to be likable in this movie. He's tough as nails."

Ford, who's notoriously choosy about his projects these days, seems to have tapped into a deep appreciation for the role and the film as well, according to Favreau. "It's amazing how much enthusiasm he brought every day and how hard he worked and how many of his own stunts he wanted to do," says the director. "He really cares deeply that the movie is going to be something that he's gonna be proud of."

With Dolarhyde's minions, including his son (Paul Dano), running roughshod over the town, the opening scenes set up a classic Western scenario. Lonergan himself is a wanted man, for crimes he has yet to recall, paving the way for an iconic confrontation between Craig and Ford's characters that could be taken right out of a John Ford or Howard Hawks film. "Daniel Craig's just a pleasure," says Favreau. "He really brings a lot of reality, and your heart really goes out to the guy. On the one hand, he's like this Jason Bourne type, a leading man who's also a lethal character, but on the other hand, he's also got a lot of humanity and vulnerability to him."

But it's at the height of the drama unfolding in Absolution that "Cowboys & Aliens" takes its wide and bizarre turn, as the night skies above the town are suddenly filled with lights -- and it ain't no meteor shower, pardner. The first scene of invasion is the payoff that the escalating tension of the movie's first act has been building toward, and without revealing too much, we can tell you that Favreau has concocted one hell of a showstopper (keep in mind as well that we saw this footage without many of the visual effects completed). The earthy daytime sequences give way to starkly beautiful night photography seemingly lit just by firelight and those piercing alien headlights.

"We had Steven Spielberg around during preproduction to go over the script and the artwork and discuss, 'Hey, on "Close Encounters," how did you approach this stuff?'" says Favreau about his approach. "Because in my mind -- and it might be my age; I'm 44 -- I still think of the lights in 'Close Encounters' and that ambiguity of what you're looking at and the way it was revealed slowly, I bought into that because it kept so much in my imagination. The way he created these lights and language for these flying machines that you really didn't see right away ... I remember watching those last couple of reels at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York when I was little, and your eyes were just like saucers watching, and it still holds up."

Indeed, the section of "Cowboys & Aliens" that we saw is not in a hurry to get to the monsters, but the pace never feels slow or dull either. It moves the story forward cleanly and logically, establishing the town, the hero and the supporting characters in a way that really does draw from classic Westerns, even if none of them featured spaceships zipping down out of the sky.

"That's really what we're going for, is to not back off the Western genre and get scared of it," explains Favreau. "You know, everybody tries to reinvent it, throw in music that goes against it, use an editorial style that kids like -- make it 'young.' Even when we were talking about Daniel Craig in the beginning of casting, we were saying, 'James Bond,' but I said he reminds me a lot of Steve McQueen in 'The Magnificent Seven.' These feel like faces from period films." Even when the movie veers into science fiction, Favreau adds, "We tried to maintain the tone of a Western, too, as the movie goes on, because it's very easy to just cut the string and then all of a sudden the action starts and you're in 'Independence Day.'"

It helps that Favreau doesn't show all his cards right away -- keeping an air of mystery about the invaders that makes the transition believable, exciting and menacing. "A lot of it is us just doing our homework on the Western, understanding it, and keeping it in that world," says Favreau, who confides that Spielberg gave him an iPad loaded up with classic Westerns as production began. "You want the sci-fi to stand on its own, too. It's about finding the intersection of those two genres. ... If you do it right, it honors both, and it becomes interesting and clever and a reinvention of two things that people understand the conventions of, instead of just a retread or remake or sequel or reboot of a film you've seen before."

If "Cowboys & Aliens" can hit that sweet spot between these two classic film genres, then Favreau, Craig, Ford and the rest of the cast and production team might have a completely original summer blockbuster on their hands come July 29. Just the 40 minutes we've seen make us eager to check out the other 60 or 80 yet to come. This is definitely not your grandfather's Western. ""For me, it was reading the script and seeing something a little bit more mature and epic, a little bit more cinematic, and a little more classic," says Favreau. "Yet still delivering on all those things that make people of all ages come to the movies."

Send us your thoughts on all things sci-fi, horror, etc. Write us at heymsn@microsoft.com

Don Kaye covers film, TV and entertainment for MSN.com

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