Cowboys and Aliens

Here’s the thing most people don’t know… to get one job as a writer, you have to NOT GET dozens of others. And many of those not gotten gigs are movies that eventually get made. Some turn out great. Far better than I would have done. Some turn out dismal. But that’s how she works out here.

Many know the story of Halloween 3D. We got the gig. Wrote the screenplay. Project was put on hold until after Drive Angry and only just now are we finally restarting the engines. But during that downtime, I never shared the screenplay. And that’s because… we sold it. It was no longer ours to share.

BUT…of those dozens of gigs you don’t get… you do all this work. You break the story. Many times you write an outline. Then there are rounds and rounds of notes. Rewrites. And more rewrites. All this work for free and most of the time you don’t get the job. Some examples. The Fly. Ghost Rider 2. Fright Night. I could go on on on. But the point is… I can actually share those outlines and screenplays because no one ever bought them. They are still creator owned. And since the movies are being made or have been made then that means the scripts and outlines are deader than dead. They’ll never get made so why not share?

So first, let’s talk about COWBOYS AND ALIENS.

We must jump into the TARDIS to do this proper. I don’t recall the date we actually started discussing but it was well before Jason X.

This was even before the EverQuest addiction. The oldest script I have on hand (which doesn’t mean the oldest written) was dated Nov 5, 1998 and it was titled WESTERN FRONT.

I co-wrote it was my friend Mark Haslett who was Sean Cunningham’s VP of production. I was Sean’s staff writer chained to a desk in the maid’s room. For Sean I mostly wrote anything that wasn’t horror. This was back when nearly all studios, producers and movie entities were too snooty for horror. SCREAM had opened at 6.2 million. A flop. The first flop to reverse due to word of mouth. When it hit 100 million studios took notice but it still took a little time for all of them to start screwing the corpse.

During this time Mark and I would dream of all the marvelous things we would do when we “made it.” We would brainstorm story after story. One such story we came up with was a western. What if gold miners in and old west town, constantly at war with local Indians, dug up a buried space ship? And that’s how WESTERN FRONT started.

We pitched Sean. He said you couldn’t mix genres. Sean had a lot of rules. He had no interest but Mark and I thought it could be huge.

I had a contract with Sean, several over the years. My deal was that Sean would pay me a thousand bucks every two weeks. IF we got a movie made then I would get a bonus minus the money (plus interest) Sean had paid me. While my deal was for a thousand every two weeks, what he paid me was two thousand a month. Clever. On his part. Do the math. Eventually I got paid the difference but it wasn’t until we were negotiating year 2’s contact. My contract stated that Sean owned everything I wrote. Except limericks. So during year 2 negotiations I told Sean that Mark and I were going to write Western Front and we wanted to own it. He thought it a waste of time so he agreed.

(I interrupt this post to brag about the fact that Bill Fichtner just called me.)

Mark and I got to work. We wrote it in my apartment in Korea Town. Our goal was big budget, action, fun. A gold mining town constantly on the verge of attack from the local Indians. A band of bank robbers enter town. Miners uncover and enter a buried space ship. We finished and we really did love it.

Sean read it and really didn’t like it. Noel didn’t like it either. But that was fine. Mark and I still believed in it.

Until we got kicked in the face. A week later Steve Odekirk sold a pitch for COWBOYS AND ALIENS to Dreamworks for 1.5 million. The title said it all but it was the same premise. Shortly after and likely due to the buzz, a long forgotten Fox script called GHOSTRIDERS IN THE SKY made a resurgence. Meanwhile, Mark and I, utterly unknown jokers with no agent or real contacts felt… well sad. Very very sad.

It was over.

But not for Mark. He simply wouldn’t give up. Somehow, I forget how long after, but Mark ended up having drinks with Greg Noveck at Platinum Studios (not to be confused with Platinum Dunes). In the middle of their second Martini, Noveck told Mark they were having script troubles with COWBOYS AND ALIENS and Mark said, “Well, here’s ours” and handed him WESTERN FRONT.

They read it immediately. Which rarely happens. But more importantly they loved it. Which freaked the higher ups because Noveck shouldn’t have read our script without paperwork protecting them. So we went in and met with them and happily signed the paper stating that if they had the exact same ideas that it was okay and we couldn’t sue them. The funny thing was, they didn’t really have notes. A few type-os. And they went on and on about how we’d solved problems they had been struggling with draft after draft.

We would polish it then the script would be sent to William Morris, Universal and Dreamworks as they were all attached. When Mark handed in our little type-o polish to Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (his whole company was based on comic book properties from Europe and he had owned the comic for “Men In Black”), he asked if we had an agent. Mark said, “No but we want Rob Carlson.” Rosenberg replied, “Great! He’s our agent too so that shouldn’t be a problem.”

For a few days, Mark and I were soaring. It was euphoric. The guys at Platinum were pretty stoked too. Our script did what they had been trying to do. We felt like heroes. As though the next step was simply a matter of letting everyone else in on the celebration. How crazy. This was it. We’d worked hard and not only were we getting our foot in the door but we were about to play ball with the big boys.

A couple days later I was telling the story to a Dean Lorey and he stopped me and said, “You know, Rob Carlson is also Odekirk’s agent.” That gave me a bit of pause. It would be tough for Carlson to back us over his 1.5 million dollar writer.

Next we heard that Universal had passed. No reason given.

Then we heard that Dreamworks had passed. No reason given.

And like that it was over.

Much later a sympathetic suit told us that in retrospect, we likely never had a chance. From the start Spielberg’s mandate had been to do ALIENS in the west. Our aliens were humanoid therefore the higher ups deemed our script unworkable.

When I look back, this one hurt. This was back at at time when studios still paid 1.5 million for a pitch. Universal, Dreamworks, Spielberg, William Morris… this was a career maker. We did it right. Our instincts were right. Mark even brought it back from the dead and had us sitting with the producers who owned the rights, who had been struggling with the script, who believed we had the best story. But then it just all went away.

But everything happens for a reason I suppose. So, I put Jason in Space.

In the tiniest of ways we are part of the COWBOYS AND ALIENS story. Although we’ll never be discussed on the DVD, or discussed at Comicons or listed on Wiki. Therefore, I attach the script. Written 13 years ago.

Just click the link and enjoy the read.

Without further ado, WesternFront.

14 replies on “Cowboys and Aliens”

So sad. You almost got the gold ring. So sorry for the disappointment and with that the cash that went down the drain. Sure does suck.

Thanks for sharing that sad and interesting story so eloquently. Your boldness, thanks to the magic of twitter is appreciated. I have no doubt it is a good script. :(

Wow. That’s a great story, Todd Farmer. Fascinating. The more you write, the more I realize that Hollywood is almost as fucked up as the government. Almost.

Thanks for sharing. Nice pics, too!

P.S. Did you tell Bill that I would totally fuck the shit outta him?

Yay! Another journal entry! (Yes, I’ve bookmarked your site, and plan to go back and read it all.) I really like your style of writing, and am looking forward to reading the script.

I’m sorry the Hollywood machine chewed y’all up and spit you out on this one. It sounds like you have a healthy attitude about it, though.

It’s funny that Mr. Fichtner called while you were writing this — when I first heard of “Cowboys & Aliens,” I told my friend that it sounded like the kind of off-beat movie Bill’s agent would pitch to him.

That’s really tough. It seems like a dream job, but really it rips out pieces of your soul here and there. Luckily, there is payoff and when it happens, life couldn’t be better. Nice blog, by the way!

Anyone reading the script? I’m only ten pages in (tough to find time to read) but it’s pretty awesome so far.

I get why Cowboys & Aliens kills Western Front’s chances but you’d think the reverse could be true too. If C&A opens well and hangs on for weekend #2, it should be a shot in the arm into the sci-fi western sub-genre as opposed to a killer of films like it.

The feedback’s been great. Better than expected for a script written so long ago. Such wonderful fun writing it.

Finally sat down long enough to read. I always like a good shoot ’em up, and this one had just the right mix of action, humor, and good old-fashioned humanity (with a smidge of Charkin-ity thrown in for good measure).

Too bad it didn’t make it to the screen, as is. Have you thought of trying it as an animated flick, some day? It has lots of potential for merchandising, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Been working my way through the archives (no, I’m not reading every single word of ten years’ worth of posts, sorry ’bout that). I really like the advice you give to writers. Have you ever been a guest lecturer for film schools? I bet you’d do a bang-up job (pun intended).

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