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Locations and Shooting
The landing place for the army of hostile invaders in Cowboys & Aliens is the New Mexico Territory circa 1875. The Civil War has only recently ended, and in the American West, bloody battles raged as Apaches, Navajo and other American Indian peoples fought the expansion of settlers into their lands. Tensions mounted between homesteaders; uncertainty, fear and distrust ruled the land.

More than just a location, the American West is an iconographical landscape, a vast terrain that has become as much a part of film history as it has American history. Places such as Monument Valley, the Alamo and Dodge City are etched into the minds of movie lovers. Keeping the backstory of the Western in mind, the filmmakers looked for a location to make their own, one that could accommodate everything from the first showdown with the aliens in a small town to the miles-long high-speed chases on horseback. They found that and more in New Mexico, the ideal locale for cinematographer Matthew Libatique to shoot Favreau's vision.

The once bustling, vibrant town of Absolution is barely hanging on. Whatever prospects brought people west have dried up, and life exists between a saloon where they can drown their sorrows and a jail, the last bulwark against complete anarchy. All the scenes that take place in the dusty Western town were shot just southwest of Santa Fe at Bonanza Creek Ranch, a working cattle ranch that spans several thousand acres.

"The bones of a town were there, and we built Absolution up around them,” explains Orci of the functional backlot. In fact, as the actor who plays Sheriff Taggart can attest, Westerns have found a home for years in this part of New Mexico. Keith Carradine made one of his first movies—a Western called A Gunfight that starred Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash—just a mile from Bonanza Creek back in 1970.

It was at Bonanza Creek Ranch that the company shot the opening scenes of Cowboys & Aliens, including the attack on the town. Favreau's crew worked at night, six days a week, to create the footage they would screen for an enthusiastic crowd at July 2010's Comic-Con. The production headquartered in the capital city of Santa Fe, while the company shot for three months across tens of thousands of acres of land in northern New Mexico. The crew took advantage of a dramatic and diverse landscape, from narrow arroyos in box canyons with 300-foot basalt cliffs on either side, to large swaths of sagebrush- and saltbush-covered open terrain.

With its large tracts of gently rolling high-desert grasslands, San Cristobal Ranch, just 35 miles south of Santa Fe, was home to several key scenes for the film. There, the crew shot the gang camp where Jake has an unwelcome reunion with his old posse, and the Apache camp where Jake, Dolarhyde, Ella, Doc, Nat and Emmett are taken hostage by the Indians. Its vast open space also provided the backdrop for parts of the high-speed chase between our heroes on horseback and the alien speeders flying just above.

In addition to the stunning landscapes of San Cristobal, the Santa Clara Pueblo, the banks of the Rio Grande, Abiquiu Lake and the red sandstone cliffs along the Kitchen Mesa trail at Ghost Ranch, there were locales in New Mexico that seemed tailor-made for a Western in which alien marauders attack. With its oddly beautiful rock formations, Plaza Blanca was one such place that provided the ideal backdrop for the story's climactic confrontation.

Plaza Blanca sits in a small valley on private land in the hills of the Rio Chama Valley in the northern part of the state. For thousands of years, the elements have carved the white sandstone cliffs into unearthly spires that rise hundreds of feet on either side of the arroyo below. It is here that our heroes come across a strange metal structure that towers 80 feet in the air, the temporary home of the alien creatures whom they've come to destroy.

Shooting in the narrow valley required strict coordination for a company of more than 200…not to mention more than 50 trailers, trucks and vans. In addition to tucking every vehicle and piece of equipment out of the sweeping views of DP Libatique's cameras, the company was required to prepare a detailed evacuation plan that would move everyone out of the area in minutes in case of a flash flood.

The incident planning was no exercise in futility. Just weeks before the company arrived to shoot in Plaza Blanca, the greens department was preparing the location by bringing in temporary trees and native bushes to dress the sandy valley. Within minutes, a storm front moved in. The greens men had been instructed to get to higher ground immediately in the event of a storm. It was fortunate, as within 10 minutes the valley floor was literally a rushing river, carrying away all the company's set dressing along a torrent of water. After the company wrapped its shoot in New Mexico, it moved back to Los Angeles. There, stage work continued across the Universal Studios backlot, utilizing multiple stages for the subterranean world of the aliens and for the riverboat set, as well as for the acres of lands that would mimic the Southwestern territory.

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