“What’s interesting is that people back in 1875 in the Old West didn’t have our experience of space travel and planetary understanding.When the [alien] invasion happens, they have no context in which to understand what was occurring.”
—Harrison Ford/Colonel Dolarhyde
Director Jon Favreau brought in Production Designer Scott Chambliss, Set Decorator Karen Manthey SDSA and their teams to bring about the two visually distinct worlds of the 19th century American West and gold-seeking inter-dimensional aliens -- who are planning to eradicate humans and take over the earth -- in the action-thriller COWBOYS & ALIENS. A lone cowboy,Jake Lonergan [Daniel Craig] leads an uprising against “the terror from beyond our world”.
Manthey talks with SET DECOR about the extensive research involved in trying to make something fantastical as real and “accurate” as possible, grounded in the depiction of the old west.
SET DECOR: Please tell us about this classic set, the desiccated and decaying town we first see in searing sunlight, and then at night when the skies open up and terror rains down.
Set Decorator Karen Manthey SDSA: The town of Absolution included the exterior main street, a church interior & exterior, a sheriff’s office int./ext., a saloon int./ext., a whorehouse bedroom, an undertaker’s, a blacksmith’s, a general store and a dry goods store. We also dressed window treatments and light fixtures into every storefront in the town (over 60), and enough furniture to create shapes for the night shots with lit interiors.
For our research we relied heavily on two books: THE GREAT AMERICAN BARS AND SALOONS by Kathy Weiser and THE WEST: AN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE by David R. Phillips.
Saloon: For our saloon set, we researched 1870 American West gambling, from craps table design, poker chip design and the game of Faro to saloon art and details of art hanging. We learned that nudes were typically hung at the eye level of imbibers, as advertisement of sorts for the whorehouses upstairs. Another interesting note: whorehouse beds were usually protected at the foot end with oilcloth because business was often transacted without removing boots. We detailed Alice's Bedroom set (ultimately not seen in the film) with mid-late 1800 period items from History for Hire and New Mexico antique stores.
Before we left for Santa Fe, Assistant Set Decorator Amanda Moss Serino, Leadman Scott Bobbitt and I did some intense L.A. area shopping at our favorite prophouses and other western venues in the southland. We had a short prep, so we worked as a team, making some very fast but very careful decisions. We took 5 trucks of rentals and purchases from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, including the beautiful bar from CP2 for our saloon.
Undertaker: Production Designer Scott Chambliss walked into my office one day and was amused to find me watching a YouTube video “The History of Coffins” to understand the design of rectangular coffins versus ‘toe pinchers’—the design that is anthropoidal in nature, being wide at the shoulders and narrow at the feet. In 19th century America, Yankee ingenuity created the simple rectangular shape, which was easier to mass produce. However, we had toe pinchers manufactured for our undertaker because of the aesthetically interesting shape.
Sheriff: Our Sheriff’s Station set led us to research “Wanted” poster designs. We learned that drawings and/or photographs of the criminal appeared on wanted posters around 1865. The reward poster to catch Lincoln’s assassin, which included photographs of the conspirators involved, is recorded as one of the first known in America. We also confirmed the exact style of the tacks used to hold the posters in place—the large hook that holds the poster of Lonergan [Daniel Craig] is copied from a research photo.
Church: The Church interior, where the preacher sews up Lonergan's wound, was a small existing structure (renovated for the film) with a back room that was both a study and a washroom. For the sanctuary area, we fabricated the pews and lectern based on a photo from the era, so beautiful in its simplicity. A local set dresser hand bound hymnals that we had printed from religious music compositions of that time. We purchased the hanging light fixtures for this set from Film Maker, a subsidiary of Universal Property that was based in Albuquerque, but was in the process of closing during our prep.
Crew: Eric Ramirez, our early delegate out to the area, went ahead of us to evaluate and organize, then stayed to handle the wrap after the rest of us moved on to the sets on stage at Universal Studios in CA. When we were in Santa Fe, we worked with a great local buyer, Edward McLoughlin. His input was invaluable in regard to the area’s shopping venues as well as the ins and outs of the Santa Fe “prophouse”. We were also very fortunate to have local Leadman Ernest Sanchez and his set dressers, who were an amazing support team.
SET DECOR: During a downpour, the bedraggled posse comes upon what seems a mirage: a paddlewheel riverboat overturned and tossed in the middle of the desert. The studio describes it as “…A frightening, environment: the first face-to-face encounter with the alien.” Please tell us the details of this set and of creating it.
Manthey: Dressing our upside-down/crashed Riverboat set on Stage 27 at Universal and the Riverboat Captain’s Quarters set at Garson Studios in Santa Fe called for research into steamboats of the period. We consulted STEAMBOATS ON THE WESTERN RIVERS by Louis C. Hunter and THE RIVERMEN from the Time-Life series THE OLD WEST. We looked for information on steamboat lighting, engine rooms, steamboat accidents, and casino and saloon styles.
Gas lighting was introduced on many steamboats in the 1840’s, although its use did not become immediately widespread. The gas was manufactured from lard or sperm oil in an apparatus placed on the deck below and was conveyed by pipes to the different parts of the boat.
The saloons and gambling casinos were the showpiece of the riverboats, and the steamboat owners went to great lengths to attract business by creating an ornate and elegant décor. Each piece of art in our riverboat set was researched by period and style.
We worked with an amazing carpenter, Michael Maloney, who had worked for years for the Santa Fe Opera. Based on epoch-correct photos, he built four beautiful 1870's era gaming tables (2 roulette, 2 craps), which we then shipped to Universal where our interior riverboat was built. Warner Bros. Graphics Department custom-printed accurate-to-the-era felt graphics, which were applied to the tables by our draper Jay Smith. We then beat them up and placed them upside down in precarious positions! We also purchased a late 1800's piano, which was so heavy and unwieldy that it was something of a project to dress it into yet another precarious position.
We had the frameworks for the giant chandeliers built at Warner Bros. Metal Shop, working together with the Warner Staff Shop for the more decorative details such as finials and bases. Giant Plexiglas 'bubbles' were painted to look like stained glass to complete the look.
The period draperies were researched through TEXTILES IN AMERICA 1650-1870 by Florence M. Montgomery. Amanda and I ordered a large shipment of furniture from a company she found that does very decent antique reproductions. We shipped them fabric we had purchased to coordinate with our riverboat drapery, and they upholstered and shipped back to us just in time (their manufacturing was overseas). Then we beat up that furniture, ripped up the upholstery and dressed it into the set. The set was full of water and 'lightning' strikes, and at one point they brought in troops of rats to run around in it—I wondered how they ever got them all back to their wranglers!
Alien cavern and ship…
For the alien’s earth environment, Director Jon Favreau asked for “…a setting in the throes of the Industrial Revolution…the future from a decidedly late-Victorian vantage point.”
Writer/producer Roberto Orci points out, “The alien hardware is a far cry from the high-tech gadgetry or shiny antiseptic armor of much sci-fi imagery… the invaders’ nightmare technologies are gritty and creepily biological…Chambliss and his team created two astonishing environments…a modular set…an intricate puzzle of huge, dark rock walls and floors with interchangeable pieces that could be moved into different configurations to accommodate the actors and the shooting crew. Giant ‘rock icebergs’ that were up to 14-feet tall were lifted by a gantry system or rolled around whenever Favreau wished to change the sets.”
Chambliss explains of the 19,200-square-foot set: “We wanted the cavern to feel like it is miles underground and goes on forever. These tiny tunnels open up into big, scary spaces and then close down into creepy areas where the aliens do unspeakable things to their human captives.”
SET DECOR: Please tell us about the set decoration aspect of this, including the surgery room where the aliens perform human vivisection!
Manthey:There were complicated aspects of the Alien World in terms of large set dressing pieces carved out of foam, and LED lighting that was integrated into these pieces, and/or into the set of foam itself. We worked collaboratively with the Electric Department’s fixtures team to solve the related problems.
The alien “torture” tables were designed by Scott. We worked with Shane Mahan from Legacy Effects in the manufacture of these important set dressing pieces—it's always a treat to hang out at Legacy and see what they are up to!
One of the interesting aspects of the alien caverns was the remnants of life from the captured townspeople …their clothes, jewelry, watches and precious belongings. Set Decoration Coordinator Anne Tobin and Set Decoration Production Assistant Skye Stewart-Short became expert researchers in regard to the 1870's era and the specifics of set dressing pieces like these.
Chiricahua Apache encampment
SET DECOR: Please tell us about the set decoration for the Chiricahua Apache encampment, the last of Geronimo’s proud and fierce people.
Manthey: Our research of the nomadic Chiricahua tribe for our set in San Cristobal was extensive. We compiled a binder filled with photos and information regarding dwellings and their seasonal variations, furniture, cooking and utensils, ritual and ceremonial life, thieving and warfare, weapons, etc.
Scholar Scott Rushforth, our official contact to the Apache Nation, recommended the book WESTERN APACHE MATERIAL CULTURE by Alan Ferg, and led us to websites that depicted the way the nomadic Chiricahua lived in the 1870’s American Southwest.
The Chiricahua wikiup, erected by women, was the standard Apache house, made of a framework of poles and limbs tied together and covered with a thatch of grass, brush, leaves and rushes. Canvas, hides and blankets were stretched over these structures, depending on the season.
Our Chiricahua wikiups were dressed with an assortment of blankets and canvas because the Apaches did not make their own blankets, but traded or stole them. We created drying racks for hides, meats and mescal. We scattered pottery containers and baskets used for carrying and storage of various foodstuffs and water. The “burden basket” was used to pack belongings when moving camp and for gathering foods. Hand-woven burden baskets of the period are rare and expensive, ranging from approximately $800 to over $30,000 in value.Amanda and I purchased a number of contemporary Ethiopian baskets which had a similar nature at flea markets near Santa Fe, and we found a few reasonably priced authentic baskets in the New Mexico area. We also purchased poor reproductions that looked great after heavy paint aging.
SET DECOR: What did you learn from this film? What was unique about it?
Manthey:Everything was unique about it. It was an honor to work on a project that involved the history of the American West, and I really enjoyed the research aspects. It was fascinating to learn of the Chiricahua tribe and the ultimate fate of their culture.
New Mexico is an amazing place. The clouds there are like nothing I've ever seen. To work there during monsoon season was quite an experience – the rain would come in torrents for a short time and then it was gone and blue skies appeared. I went home each night exhausted and really dirty, and somehow it was great.
And I re-learned what I already knew: that to have the greatest team of support is everything.