A couple months back, I got a little furious when I started thinking about how much the film Your Highness cost to make. How such a worthless movie could have cost over 50 million dollars bothered me to no end. Well, my friends, that fury has been topped. Or should a say, transformed -- into sadness and befuddlement. I am of course speaking about last month's epic disappointment of a release, Cowboys and Aliens, which rang up at an estimated $163,000,000 when all was said and done. Oh yeah. That's right. You heard me. One Hundred. And Sixty Three. MILLION. Dollars. For a movie that was about as pointless, dull, and frustrating as it gets.
Meanwhile, over a 90-day on-and-off shoot in California, for a total of $17,000, Evan Glodell and his Coatwolf crew made film festival darling and critical hit Bellflower, a film unsettling in its originality that sneaks under your skin and stays there, haunting your dreams with a yellow color palette and a grimey haze. Literally. I can't get the images out of my head.
How is it even POSSIBLE that a movie so bad could cost over nine thousand times more than a movie so good? What is happening in the universe that this is conceivable?! In an effort to quell the building anger, we decided to break it down and see why Cowboys and Aliens, lovingly redubbed by many as Cowboys and Failiens, really cost so much more to make than Bellflower did.
So, you know, first off, duh. What, you think Harrison did it for the fantastic script? Considering he famously threw the script against the wall after reading its first 30 pages, no, he didn't. His paycheck alone is easily 500, if not 1,000 times the cost of Bellflower's entire production.
Meanwhile, over in indie land, I can't imagine that every actor got paid the minimal 100/day, considering the shoot went on for such a sprawling time, which means they most likely took cuts when it came to paying themselves, something any of us who have ever had a dream involving the arts has done at some point. Comes with the turf when initially going after your dream, and I'm sure that was the case here.
Cowboys and Aliens had five. Unoriginal drivel can get expensive to write, you guys. You really have to drink A LOT to get your brain to the point of that little logic and that much inanity. Do people have to pay cliches royalties nowadays? That would certainly explain where a huge bulk of the budget went.
Bellflower, on the other hand, was written by its star, director, and sometimes editor, Evan Glodell, so something tells me, again, that paying himself to write his own passion project wasn't a huge priority.
Both films have effects, though of very different kinds. Cowboys and Aliens has ESPLOSIONS! and CGI TOWERZ! and CGI/PRACTICAL ALIENS THAT INEXPLICABLY LOOK JUST DIGITAL AND ALSO LIKE EVERY OTHER ALIEN EVER! and more of the like. Although in order to make sure their aliens weren't a complete undeniable rehash of aliens that came before, the film had to spend a lot more money developing and nailing that second set of hands. Phew. Good thing they did, too. 'Cause those were certainly necessary. But seriously, the production had two different practical companies working to create the creatures, supplemented digitally by ILM and five other VFX companies. That's. A lot. And what I don't understand is why, with this budget, would the practical aliens, referred to by Shane Mahan of Legacy effects as "one of the most technologically sophisticated organic pieces" they'd done in a long time, look so damn digital? Just me?
Sure, Bellflower has an explosion or two, but they are 100 percent genuine. The flames come from real propane and real flame throwers. Everything is practical and minimal. No aliens. No alien ships. No alien towers. No 87 different effects companies working on one thing. Just reality.
On top of shooting on location over tens of thousands of acres for three months in New Mexico, Cowboys and Aliens also spent bank constructing a mostly modular 19,200-square-foot set on Universal's back lot that contained the inside of the alien tower. Different pieces of the set could be moved around at any time by a gantry system to accommodate where actors, crew, and camera needed to be. OK. Why not? Also on the back lot lived the riverboat set, built entirely from scratch based on foam core models based on concept art based on period illustrations. I mean, attention to detail is cool and all, but I've said it before and I'll say it again: you need quality in the script too, folks. During combat scenes, the set also had 300 tons of construction cranes suspended on trolleys that sported laser lights moving in tandem with detonating explosions. Not to mention all the stunt work -- a lot of which was done by the actors themselves. Don't even get me started on what the insurance costs must have been.
Bellflower took quite the opposite stance here, shooting in homes, on the street, in the car, most, if not all of it, permit-less and technically illegal. The actors themselves handled all of the weapons, drove the cars, and set things on fire, adding some certifiable danger to the set. Their home/production office for the entire shoot was the abandoned wing of an office building. No hotels or fancy craft service on this shoot.
Cowboys and Aliens had custom weaponry, including 30 versions of the "blaster" worn by Daniel Craig's Jake Lonergan, and training with Thell Reed, the best in the business when it comes to gun slinging.
Bellflower had custom weaponry *and* a custom camera, the Coatwolk Model II, made by Glodell himself. They had no training, they just blew stuff up. And almost took down power lines in the process. Hey, more power to 'em.
So what do we learn from all of this? Sure, we can see *how* Cowboys and Aliens cost 9,588 times what Bellflower cost to make, but can we really say we know why? Was it really necessary to sink so much money into authenticity of the location and time period, production-wise, when there was no care taken to reflect that same authenticity in the script or direction? Now that the movie is all but an official bomb, I bet Universal execs are answering with a resounding "No."
Once you juxtapose such an expensive colossal failure against the apocalyptic triumph that is Bellflower, you really start to wonder where on the path from low-budget passion project to big-budget shlock does the visionary lose his vision? Luckily, Evan Glodell shows a promise that leads me to believe he would never be comfortable wasting money for the sake of wasting money, while ignoring the more important matter at hand -- the quality of the film itself. I expect high standards, if not a high budget, from Glodell for years to come. As for Favreau? Magic Kingdom better be awesome or we're gonna have a problem, he and I.