I have no problem saying that I'm an admirer of nearly all of the films of director Gore Verbinski, and hell, I'll even include THE MEXICAN in that list (but probably not his first feature, MOUSEHUNT, although I haven't seen that one in ages). Without relying on an identifiable visual style, Verbinski instead adapts to each new project and creates an atmosphere that suits the material, rather than cram the material into a set look.
His take on the Japanese horror film THE RING was an incredible achievement for many reason. First, he made "PG-13" less of a dirty word in American horror by keeping the scares coming without relying on heavy gore effects. Second, for better and worse, he set the stage for many J-horror remakes in the years that followed. Verbinski's between-blockbusters character study, THE WEATHER MAN, features one of my favorite dialed-back Nicolas Cage performances in a story of a man losing hold of his life. Many of you probably haven't seen it, and I'd strongly recommend remedying that.
Then we have the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films, which made more money than you can count, and also finally made Johnny Depp a commodity--and not just a fan favorite--as an actor. Say what you will about the franchise now, but as busy and over-the-top as these first three films were, they were also highly amusing, made use of an army of great actors, and introduced a generation or two to the rousing good time that is the pirate movie.
All of that being said, I still think the animated desert adventure RANGO is my favorite film from Verbinski, due in large part a great screenplay by John Logan and Depp being in top voice-actor form as the title character. But it's the photo-realistic visuals of the film that absolutely floored me; the heat and grit of the environment absolutely radiated off the screen.
And now Depp and Verbinski have teamed up again for a new adventure, or more precisely, a new take on a 75-year-old adventure known as THE LONE RANGER, which features Armie Hammer as the Ranger and Depp as his Native American partner in peacekeeping, Tonto. As much as Depp and Verbinski have been pushing THE LONE RANGER as a take on the classic tales shown from Tonto's perspective, that's not entirely accurate. We certain get more of Tonto's history than we ever have before, but the real achievement with the film is illustrating what an equal partnership the two had and how the complemented each other's abilities.
I sat down with Verbinski recently in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where much of THE LONE RANGER was shot, and we talked about his goals for this story and the changing ideas about movie heroes in the modern era. I'd always hoped that if I got a chance to chat with Verbinski, it would be for longer and perhaps we could dive into this career a bit, but I think I did alright focusing on his take on THE LONE RANGER. Enjoy…
Gore Verbinski: Hello!
Capone: Hi. I’m from Chicago, and I have very distinct memories of when you guys were shooting THE WEATHER MAN there. I ran into your shoot a few times, and I remember seeing all the fake snow all over the ground. That was kind of amusing seeing that in the summer.
GV: Yes. I remember having to pay for that snow. We ran out of snow, and Paramount was like, “We don’t care.” I’m like, “We’ve shot half the scene, and it’s snowing, and now we've got the second half of the scene.” They were like, “We don’t care.” So I had to write a check for a snow blanket. [laughs]
Capone: So when you’re dealing with characters like this, that are so deeply engrained in, not just pop culture, but the American mythology, are your instincts more to preserve the legacy and keep what made it popular in the first place? Or did you feel more like, “If we are going to do it, we should do something different. We should deconstruct it,” because there is some of that here. What were your instincts regarding that?
GV: I think you have to reinvent. When I was a teenager or 11 years old, I would sneak in and see Sergio Leone and Peckinpah movies, so the Lone Ranger was on TV with reruns. It was kind of my parent’s thing. It was kind of square, very “squaresville” with the “Hi Ho Silver,” and this man and this code. I found him to be very two dimensional and never got a sense that he was struggling with and deeper issue, and those Leone and Peckinpah Westerns were very much post-modern Westerns, where the gunfighter found no place for him anymore in this world, because there’s an automobile, and then don't know what the hell that is, and it’s coming, and corruption along with it.
So that whole disillusionment of the gunfighter was powerful stuff, and it just seemed like the Lone Ranger was so old fashioned, 2-D. So, I think reinventing it was essential, and then as I did more research, I’m like, “Oh, there’s stuff here that’s actually really interesting to collide into.” If you took Jimmy Stewart out of LIBERTY VALANCE and you threw him in THE WILD BUNCH or DUCK, YOU SUCKER! or one of these movies, he would feel completely weird and out of place. That’s a great energy, to take him arriving on this train with this belief system and throw him into a world where it doesn’t work, and he has to question that and struggle with it.
Capone: It’s an interesting question, because the Lone Ranger was a pure hero. He had this code about not killing people and equal justice for everyone; even having Tonto as a sidekick was such a groundbreaking thing with the TV show and certainly the radio show. He was the guy that kids would look up to, as opposed to what you’re talking about, which is “Oh, he’s more like us. He’s more troubled and broken like we are.” How do you balance that shift?
GV: I just look at it from a different perspective, which is, I was fascinated immediately by the opportunity to have this Native American and this cop shackled together as their worlds collide around them, and have the laws of man and the laws of nature, and how do they reconcile? How do they fill each other’s yin and yang?” So you have essentially a buddy movie, but told from Tonto’s perspective and then suddenly the landscape becomes a character in the movie, and the train becomes this violation, this line where progress is the villain really, the inevitable thing. I think it’s a very contemporary issue for us. We all jump on the train and we’ve got our iPods and our phones and recording devices and all of this stuff, but we never ask the question “At what cost?” To me, that’s the narrative.
Capone: It is really about them getting thrust into a new world. The Indian chief even says something about being obsolete.
GV: “We’re ghosts.”
Capone: That’s a hard thing to hear, especially where the story is set in a time where maybe that’s wasn't the case, but they probably did think that was the case back then.
GV: Once you cast Johnny Depp and have him be Tonto, you can’t have him be irrelevant or you’ve miscast the movie, and it’s proportionally out of balance. Once you start trying to make him relevant, and certainly the idea of him telling the story. We’ve all heard the story of the Lone Ranger, but you’ve never heard it from the guy who was there. It’s much more a sort of a LITTLE BIG MAN way in.
Capone: He looks like Little Big Man in those wraparound scenes.
GV: I think once you make him narrator, to solve all of these other problems and to balance the movie and make it a two hander, all of these wonderful opportunities present themselves You may move from absurdity or action to real reference for loss, and I think that’s a nice opportunity when you’re going out to make this. You’re going to go set sail and you’re going to endeavor to make this big summer movie; you might as well work a little harder and make it be about something.
Capone: They don’t make that many Westerns anymore, certainly not on this scale. This combination of people managed to make the pirate movie relevant again. Is there a similar ambition here to say, “We would love to see this kick start a bigger movement and bring Westerns into the foreground again?”
GV: I think that’s an executive’s job; I just try to think about it from the standpoint of, you’ve got people gathered around a campfire and you’re trying to tell a story and you’re trying to tell a good story. Sure, I'd be great if it blows up again. The only intention is to get back to tinkering, because tinkering is what created the pirate thing to blow up. You have to return to the unknown and embrace that.
Capone: In terms of the pacing of the film, I know you tease it a little bit in the beginning, but did you always intend to save the William Tell Overture for the big action set piece at the end? Really, it’s like an extended remix version of it.
GV: [laughs] That’s funny because Hans [Zimmer, the film's composer] hates that piece of music.
GV: Yeah, he thinks [composer Gioachino] Rossini is a hack, but even before talking to Hans, I had designed that whole sequence based around the William Tell Overture. It’s the most shop-worn piece of music ever. It’s on Huggies commercials, so you don’t want to break it out early, and we deconstructed it, and there are fragments of it that are used as themes in other places. It was really about trying to make it accrue at the end. And he was not comfortable wearing the mask throughout the movie, and that’s who he is at the end.
Capone: You saved it for that moment where he begins to own the mask? That’s the commitment to being the Lone Ranger.
GV: Yeah, that’s his fate now.
Capone: That makes sense. Was there anything different this time around collaborating with [Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer]? Was there a different feel to it than with the PIRATES films?
GV: It was much more in collaboration with [screenwriter] Justin Haythe on this one. [Original screenwriters and PIRATES screenwriters] Ted [Elliott] and Terry [Rossio], we talked about this briefly in 1996, and I had my version and they had their version. They were the ones who initially brought it to Bruckheimer and said, “We want to make THE LONE RANGER,” and I was the one saying, “We should get Johnny to play Tonto.” They had a different view and out of respect it was like, “Fine, do your thing. I’m going to do something else,” and I went off to do RANGO. Then in 2010, Johnny came back and showed me this picture of him dressed up as Tonto and was like, “I love this character. We have no story, but I love this character.” I said I would only do it if it was the way that I originally said, which was tell it from Tonto’s perspective and not have werewolves or whatever it was going to be in those other drafts.
Capone: I was going to ask you about those werewolves.
GV: [laughs] So I just started from scratch with Justin. So Justin and I worked for 18 months on this draft, based on the image that Johnny had put forth of Tonto with a bird on his head. I was like, “Oh, we have to have the backstory with the boy Tonto and the village and the bird. How do we make it all a narrative?” So Justin was key as a partner in terms of the creation of this thing.
Capone: Alright, it was great to meet you. Thank you so much.