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Cowboy chameleon: Gore Verbinski reunites with Johnny Depp for animated Wild West adventure

by Kevin Lally
FilmJournal International
March 2011

With so many live-action films driven by computer-generated imagery, the line between live action and animation has become increasingly blurry in recent years. So it should come as no surprise that more and more animation directors, like Pixar’s Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton, are making the move to big features with flesh-and-blood actors, while A-list filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis and Wes Anderson are exploring their inner cartoonists.

The latest live-action auteur to catch the animation bug is Gore Verbinski, director of the first three multi-billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean films. Verbinski reunites with his protean Pirates star, Johnny Depp, for Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies’ Rango, the tale of a domesticated, fantasy-prone chameleon who accidentally finds himself stranded in a parched, lawless Wild West hellhole called Dirt. There, through a series of lucky accidents, he is hailed as a hero and drafted as the town’s new sheriff. The supporting cast of eccentric townsfolk and villains is voiced by Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone and Ned Beatty.

The idea for Rango, which debuts in theatres on March 4, dates back roughly eight years. Verbinski recalls discussing the concept of “a western with creatures of the desert” with producer John Carls and children’s book illustrator David Shannon over breakfast in 2003. Verbinski wrote an outline, made the first two Pirates movies, and then revisited the outline with top screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator). “We came up with this basic narrative of an identity quest mixed into the western genre.”

“I’ve always enjoyed animation,” Verbinski says of this new phase of his career. “From Tex Avery to Miyazaki to Harryhausen to Jan Svankmajer to Ralph Bakshi, what kid doesn’t grow up on animation? And in live-action directing, I do so much storyboarding and construction of shots that it seemed like a good fit.

“I think we did 2,000 visual-effects shots in the third Pirates film, so you end up dealing with animators. We have a really good relationship with a small team of guys at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] that I really enjoy, and we spent so much time discussing performance and nuance of an animated character like Davy Jones, pushing and pulling it around until it felt right, you become like a family. It’s sort of an acting troupe, your cast of animators that you work with.”

The corresponding acting troupe, of course, is the voice performers, and, like Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox, Verbinski did not isolate his actors in separate recording booths but gathered them in a room to physically perform the script together.

“It came out of not having done animation before,” the director confides. “It very quickly became apparent: Why give up techniques I’ve developed in live action? There’s a process in telling a story that you get used to, and I didn’t want to throw that away.

“Also, you’re looking for gifts, for truth or an awkward moment. You’re looking for actors to leave the page and give you something honest, and I think that only happens by having other people present and something to react to. So much of acting is reacting. I never thought about doing it a different way.

“It was orchestrated chaos. You have a plan, but you’re shoving things around and trying to get people to be in the moment, and not be reading. We tried to keep it loose.”

That playful approach wasn’t immediately embraced by the actors, even Johnny Depp. “I think he grew to love it,” Verbinski reports, “but it was tough at first. You’re doing nine pages a day, and on some of these big movies you’re lucky if you get through two-and-a-half pages. You’re in your trailer, you come out, you’re falling on a blue screen and then saying two lines, and you’re back in your trailer for two hours. This is like: There’s no relighting, there’s no camera setups, we’re just running the scene. I think a lot of actors came in going: ‘Whoa! This isn’t animation! You mean I actually have to know my lines?’ Yeah, you gotta know ten pages of dialogue a day. ’Cause we did the whole thing in 20 days.”

Verbinski, who says he and Depp have a shorthand between them (“I talk a lot in sound effects and strange noises”), developed the character of Rango with the actor during production on the first two Pirates films. “Then he was off working, and for the first story reel my storyboard artist Jim Byrkit and I did all the voices and roughed the whole thing, but always with Johnny in mind. Doing three films with Johnny, we custom-built it for what he’s so good at . . . We modeled the storyboards on Johnny’s kind of Buster Keaton abilities, both meek and grand at the same time.”

Verbinski says the “hero’s quest” of his movie stems from a wide range of influences, from literary touchstones like Homer and Joseph Conrad to western genre archetypes, in particular the films of Sergio Leone. “Aesthetically, [a major reference is] the postmodern western, but underneath is the spirituality of the desert. There’s a wonderful surreal quality when you walk in the desert alone. It’s so quiet, it feels so dead at first, and then it’s so alive. It was important to have that haunting sensibility, the ambiance of that world cast against this figure who doesn’t really know who he is.”

The character design, too, is as sun-baked and grizzled as the denizens of a Sam Peckinpah shoot-’em-up. “Pretty is boring,” Verbinski declares. “Pretty things don’t telegraph any sense of history for me. I love it when peripheral characters feel like doors you could open and there’d be a whole other movie behind them.”

For Verbinski, the biggest challenge of marshaling his first animated feature was “to not let it get clinical. It was definitely harder work than I imagined. There’s so many iterations, just endless iterations: Frame 26 he should blink before he says the line, not after. Scratching his chin should be six frames, not 12 frames long. We need a little sweat on the side of his nose in this frame, a little more sheen, let’s adjust the backlight . . . Trying to keep that stuff raw and intuitive throughout this process of micromanaging everything is a real challenge . . . You can get so inside it that you’re missing the greater good.”

Whether working in animation or visual effects, Verbinski is thrilled by the filmic possibilities. “There’s this wonderful collision between animation and gaming and film now. Everybody’s sharing. And there’s nothing you can’t do. If I want the building I’m in right now to stand up and start walking, if I want the clams in my vongole to psychoanalyze me while I’m eating . . . there’s no limit to what you can achieve now in photorealism. Now, the physics may throw you: Computer-generated helicopters still have to obey the laws of gravity or they look really phony, but in terms of how they’re rendered and the lighting and how they look, you can take what Miyazaki does with balls of fuzz and there’s a live-action equivalent to any of that. You can get quite surreal—and why not? Why does animation have to be perceived as a genre? It’s not. It’s a technique for telling a story. And that’s the thing I keep running into—executives or marketing people think, ‘Animation is this,’ because that’s what the Pixar and DreamWorks dictate has been, and they’ve been successful in doing it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a PG-13 or R-rated animated movie. Why does it have to be the domain of little kiddies and moms?”

In a sense, Verbinski’s roots are in animation; after all, in his pre-feature life as a successful director of commercials, he created the Clio and Silver Lion award-winning Budweiser frogs. His first two features, Mouse Hunt and The Mexican, did moderate business, followed by the hit 2002 remake of the Japanese horror film The Ring. One year later, the first Pirates landed as a box-office juggernaut.

A new Pirates film, directed by Rob Marshall, opens this May, without Verbinski’s involvement. “I made a decision that six years of my life in that genre was enough,” he reflects. “It stopped scaring me, it stopped making me nervous. I think if you’re no longer getting an education, then why do it? It was time to move on and let somebody else do it, and I look forward to seeing what they’re up to. It’s a lot of the same guys I worked with—same crew, same writers, and a lot of the same cast. I look forward to seeing it. When I jumped into Pirates, I had no idea what I was doing, and I think it’s important to jump into projects where you’re not quite sure you can pull it off. It was important to get back to that.”

After all the intensive visual-effects and design work of the Pirates films and Rango, is Verbinski eager to do a non-CGI movie? “I’m dying to,” he responds without hesitation. “There are some big movies on the horizon that we have in development, but there are a couple of small ones. I really feel like I’d like to go shoot a movie where you work with the actors and you cut the movie and you ship it and it’s done. And it’s not 12 months of pre-vis [pre-visualization] and storyboarding and 120 days of filming and blue screens. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but most of the films I watch were made in the ’70s and I’m constantly going: God, why we can’t make films like that anymore? I’m dying to get back to that.”

-- donated by Theresa