Lone Ranger Gore Verbinski

When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg said Hollywood would implode because of a reliance on massive blockbusters, they were probably thinking of films like those made by Gore Verbinski. The director has done small films — even winning an Oscar for the animated Rango – but he’s best known for the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies and now The Lone Ranger, which opens July 3. His latest film was a massive undertaking that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and even more to market.

When we sat down to talk to Verbinski, it seemed like the time to ask him about Lucas and Spielberg’s comments. He thinks there is a problem with Hollywood’s overspending, saying “we are on a crazy road to extinction.” Below, you can read more comments along with talk of genre conventions, the William Tell Overture, Hans Zimmer, and the struggle to get The Lone Ranger in front of cameras.

/Film: With the Pirates movies and The Weather Man, that’s four movies about water. Between Rango and this, that’s two movies in the desert. Are you done with the elements now, or will you begin a phase with a new element?

Gore Verbinski: Yeah, “Time for a sci-fi,” is that what you’re saying?

No, I meant were you conscious of the fact your last six movies have centered on either water or sand? 

I think it just happens. I don’t know. The environments are sort of tertiary to the narrative. It’s “What is the story you want to tell?” It’s coincidental with all of this other stuff.

This movie has huge action, but there many pauses that give you time to breathe. Was that one of your ways to make sure it’s grounded in the western genre? What else was important to you to make it a genre western as opposed to a big action movie?

Well, I think it starts from trying to make Tonto relevant as a character. In the original intellectual property he’s really a side kick. Early on we decided to tell it from his perspective and make him the narrator. Then it’s organically tied into issues of our connection with the earth, so the landscapes become a character. Yeah, it’s the idea that the villain is progress. It’s this train, ultimately, that we all jumped on and can’t get off.  “What did we leave behind?” To acknowledge some sense of loss, I think. Those are moments that I think it’s important to take time with, just out of respect.

This is your fourth movie with Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer. Are you guys always on the same page? What is it that keeps bringing you all back to make these movies?

Three of those movies were sequels.

Yeah, Pirates…

I mean Jerry… I talked to Jerry years ago when I was just doing commercials, and so we had talked about doing a movie together. I think Pirates was the first one that I responded to and was like “That’s something I want to do.” Then it blew up and we made a few more of those. Actually, on Pirates 2, we started talking about The Lone Ranger, so this goes way back. So I don’t know. It’s just when we find a good story, we put the band back together.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is the William Tell overture. It’s so classic “Lone Ranger,” but since you have Hans Zimmer scoring I was surprised to hear it. Was there always a plan to use it so prominently?

He hates ['William Tell' composer Gioachino] Rossini. He thinks Rossini is a hack. So it was a struggle. [Note: It was unclear if this was sarcasm.] But even before talking to Hans I had been designing this finale and trying to hold it back, hold back the William Tell, because it’s so… I mean it’s in Huggies commercials and god knows what. It’s the most overplayed tune, so trying to hold it back until the finale… We tease it, but then we hold it.

In designing the whole finale of the train sequence, it was really an operatic number that was pre-vized and put against the William Tell overture. I then went to Hans with the challenge of “Okay, this is going to be in the movie whether you like it or not. Now let’s dissect it and reinvent it and pull themes out of it.” So some of it, [hums music] is the C section of the William Tell, but it’s sometimes played solo and half time, sometimes at three-four, and it serves as some other themes. So you pull that apart to create other themes in the movie and then have it all accrue in the finale.

I assume the train sequences are the most complicated to shoot; how long would one of those take?

Well, it took several months to pre-viz and to storyboard, and the shooting of that [train finale] was drawn out throughout the entire production. It was really a case of chipping away at it. I mean it was very accurately pre-visualized and cut and recut and pre-vized and recut down to the musical phrases. Then we just chipped away at that through production.

But you have to realize you may see a shot that’s two and a half seconds long, but it’s like “Okay, get the techno crane on to the top of the train, strap it down, reset to one, get the train moving…” So you’re giving up three hours of your shoot day to get a two and a half second shot. That’s what is troublesome about those sequences and I don’t use a second unit, so it’s all first unit photography. So you just try to do them in ways that are cost-effective. You’ve got forty extras inside a train car for this particular day and you try to finish out other parts of the sequence where you might see those forty extras. It’s a painful algorithm, but you just chip away at it. So we basically shot it over the entire production.

There was a lot of talk about the budget of this movie before it was in production. Was it frustrating to get close to shooting, have to pull back, and then come back to it?

Yeah, there’s three things though. First, every big movie gets shut down. Whether you read about it in the paper or not is a different story. But I mean every time you conceive a narrative and you storyboard it and then you start the process of bidding it, it takes months to figure out how much this stuff is going to cost and how you are going to execute it. Then you present that number and it’s just a knee-jerk. The studio is going to say, “That’s great. Can we have it for thirty percent less?” I think there were three regime changes since I last made a Pirates movie at Disney, so a lot of different internal politics at Disney and people getting fired and other people coming on and other people getting hired. So there was a bit of that that I don’t have anything to do with.

Jerry was just adamant about resuscitating. This was a dead horse shot four times in the head, but he was down there breathing into its mouth. We were figuring out “Well if we did this with thirty fewer extras, we save on lunches…” It’s like “Great. Write that down.” I’m like “Well, that’s $12,400 dollars. We have a 30 million dollar…” He’s like “Keep going.” He was tireless. I mean single handedly he kept it alive.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently talked about an “imminent implosion of Hollywood,” related to blockbusters. Do you think 200 million dollar movies are the end of Hollywood?

I think it’s way more complex than that. I mean, I can’t give you the sound bite version. I have a thirty minute talking-point on that… I do think, sadly, if something isn’t done radically, it’s going the way of the record industry. I think there’s so much good television that it’s hard to get people to go to theaters without making it some kind of event. I think studios are working backwards since they lost their DVD sales, they are working backwards from “How do we get a theme park and a ride and a this and a that…”

So if you’re not making Harry Potter or you’re not making something that you can synergize and advertise across all of these huge platforms… It’s easier for me to get 150 million dollars to make a movie if I’ve got giant robots in it than it is to make a 40 million dollar drama. I mean that’s the wasteland.

I can go make the movie for 10 or 150, but you can’t make Lawrence of Arabia. You couldn’t get it made. Steven couldn’t get it made. You couldn’t try to get The English Patient made today. It’s true, everything they are saying is true. I’m not sure about the Broadway part of that. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I think it’s sad. I don’t know how you convince people to get up and go to see a movie I would love from the ’70s, when I did go to the theater and see The Friends of Eddie Coyle or whatever. Now that’s an episode of Breaking Bad and everybody’s got a widescreen TV. So there’s something… “No good will come of this.” (Laughs) We are on a crazy road to extinction.

The Lone Ranger opens July 3.

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