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Rango – How Director Gore Verbinski ignored the rules

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Rango - Director/Producer Gore Verbinski with Bill Nighy
Behind the scenes, Director/Producer Gore Verbinski discusses a scene with actor Bill Nighy, who voices Rattlesnake Jake © 2011 Paramount Pictures

Rango marks the fourth movie writer/director Gore Verbinski has done with Johnny Depp – three Pirates of the Caribbean films, and now a motion capture animated feature in which Depp portrays a pet lizard who imagines himself a great performer, passing the time playacting with the toys that surround him. But when he accidentally falls out of the van he’s traveling in, and lands in the middle of the desert, he must fend for himself.

Looking for water, he arrives at the town of Dirt, a lawless outpost desperately in need of a sheriff. When Rango takes the job, he realizes that he must turn into the hero he has pretended to be for so long.

Thinking out-of-the-box, Verbinski assembled his cast on a soundstage in Los Angeles and had them act out the entire movie with a minimum of sets and costumes. At the press day for the film he spoke about his unusual way of working and his long standing relationship with Johnny Depp.

How did you come up with the concept of acting the entire movie out with your cast?

Rango - Director/Producer Gore Verbinski with Abigail Breslin
Director/Producer Gore Verbinski (center) discusses a scene with several actors, including Abigail Breslin (center left, voicing Priscilla) on the set © 2011 Paramount Pictures

When I heard people say, ‘Well, it’s an animated movie; this is how you do it. You get a microphone and an actor.’ That sounded so crazy to me. I’ve got Harry Dean Stanton and I’ve got Johnny Depp; I want to see them together. It’s acting, it’s reacting, so the whole live action recording [happened then].

So you made a whole video of the movie with the performers acting it out. When the animators take it on as a reference guide, are you an integral part of that process?

Yeah, one of the things early on is [the] animators are animating, [and they need to know things like] what about the pauses? [I would tell them] ‘Don’t be afraid to do nothing for sixteen frames,’ very early on in the discussions.

I’ve never made an animated film before. People kept saying, ‘For an animated movie [there are certain rules].’ It’s like it’s some kind of genre. And it’s just a technique to tell a story. So early on, we just felt like we’re not going to think of this as an animated movie, we’re going to think about this as a six foot tall lizard, and I’ve got a camera on my shoulder, and I’m photographing him perform this scene with these other people.

There was a great fear about multiple iterations destroying that, and things becoming clinical or homogenized by virtue of why he is blinking on frame 38; he should be blinking at frame 34. It just becomes minutiae, minutiae, minutiae.

How did you solve that problem?

Rango - Blake Clark, Isla Fisher, Johnny Depp, Stephen Root, Gil Birmingham and Gore Verbinski
Buford (Blake Clark), Beans (Isla Fisher), Rango (Johnny Depp), Doc (Stephen Root), Wounded Bird (Gil Birmingham), and Sergeant Turley (Gore Verbinski) © 2011 Paramount Pictures

By trying to get out of the animators a sense that they’re your cast, as well, and that they’re performing. And moving away from the concept of the shot, and discussing the concept of the scene. Where is Rango coming from or going to? How is Miss Bean feeling now? It’s got to be intuitive.

We had a mantra up at ILM, which was ‘fabricate anomaly whenever possible, because otherwise it’s not going to feel honest.’ So yeah, I encouraged them.

I loved the mariachis you use in this. How did you think of that?

Early on in the development process, it became apparent that the movie is very much a film within a film. The protagonist is an actor, looking for an audience. So we just felt like we needed one more layer, a kind of Greek chorus. And we just started getting some guitars out and writing a narrative, using the mariachis as an absurdist Greek chorus, with a bit of Cat Ballou.

I heard that you fought tooth and nail in order to make sure Rango wasn’t going to be in 3D.

Rango - Ryan Hurst, Harry Dean Stanton and Vincent Kartheiser
ctors Ryan Hurst, who voices Jedidiah, Harry Dean Stanton, who voices Balthazar, and Vincent Kartheiser, who voices Ezekiel, behind the scenes © 2011 Paramount Pictures

We talked about it early on and it just didn’t seem like we needed to go there. I watched the movie; I don’t think there’s a dimension missing. I don’t watch it and go, ‘It’s flat.’

This is the fourth time you’ve worked with Johnny Depp, what’s the attraction of working with him?

What’s great about Johnny is that neither of us are going to make the other one look like a ass. We’ve got this pursuit of finding the truly awkward moment and you’re only going to get there by venturing into the unknown. I just think he’s incredibly brave, on top of being incredibly talented. He has to trust that at the end of the day, we’re not going to use [the bad] stuff.

This movie appears on the surface to be a kids’ film, but then you go into existential issues and metaphors. Is this a kids’ movie, or are we blinded by the fact that it’s just beautiful animation?

Rango - Harry Dean Stanton and Ryan Hurst
Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton) and Jedidiah (Ryan Hurst) © 2011 Paramount Pictures

I think it’s a kids’ movie. My kids liked it. But my kids like The Holy Grail, so it depends on your kid. We’ve shown the movie for 500 kids and they seemed to be absolutely mesmerized and enjoying it.

When we get into the existential moments, I think they’re not seeing it; their frontal lobe doesn’t operate in that way. They know, ‘Why is he leaving now? Where is he going?’ They’re not squirming. You should watch it with a bunch of kids because it’s quite fascinating.

Kids seem to have a dream logic that we seem to not appreciate as adults; we take everything on face value. And certainly there’s stuff in there for adults, so that we get to have a good time as well. But they really stick with it. And I think people constantly underestimate what kids can handle.

Are you hoping for a sequel?

Let’s see if people like Rango. I’m not even going to call it Rango 1. Currently we’re not talking about it. If you had a kid, would people say, ‘How about twins?’ ‘We’re just still recovering [from this one!]’