The following post and interview was conducted by guest contributor Ed Douglas:
Director Gore Verbinski has dabbled in all sorts of genres in the fifteen years he’s been making movies from the family comedy Mousehunt to the horrors of The Ring, character drama with The Weather Man and the swashbuckling high seas adventures of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. With his latest film Rango, he kills two birds with one stone, making his first Western and his first fully animated film, reuniting with Johnny Depp as the voice of the title character, a domesticated chameleon who finds himself stranded in the middle of the desert where he’s recruited as the sheriff of a wayward town. As might be expected from the duo who created the outlandish Captain Jack Sparrow, the resulting movie is likely to be the crazies animated movie you’ll see this year, because like with the “Pirates” movies, it’s all about how Depp’s eclectic character interacts with the equally quirky characters he meets.
/Film got on the phone with Verbinski earlier this week for a quick chat about the movie:
Question: I really enjoyed the movie and got a lot out of it that I was hoping for when I saw “True Grit.”
Gore Verbinski: (laughs) That was a good movie, too.
Q: I got the impression this wasn’t necessarily meant as a kiddie film when you started out, so was that the case, or was it always going to be an animated movie with a lizard?
Verbinski: Well, it was sort of made for the kid inside me, and it’s nice now seeing it with adults and with kids and seeing it sort of oscillate and work in both areas. Kids are sort of constantly underestimated and they’re really reaching for it and the adults are having a good time. I dunno, you tell me.
Q: I saw it with a theater full of kids but I think I may have been laughing more than anyone else in the theater at some of the movie’s odder moments.
Verbinski: Yeah, I dunno. I don’t think you can set out to make a film for a particular audience. You have to make it for yourself and then hope (that others like it).
Q: One of the things I like about the “Pirates” movies is that you and Johnny make these movies that appeal to huge mass audiences, but they’re able to include lots of odd, quirky things you don’t often see in movies made in Hollywood.
Verbinski: Well, yeah, we try. We try to come up whenever possible with different ways of (doing that).
Q: You have a lot of the same team from “Pirates” including your editor Craig Wood, who has edited all your movies, but you have them doing full animation and not a lot of them have done that. How did you port them into that world?
Verbinski: I think when you get people who are really talented and you take them out of their comfort zone, you get a lot more out of them. I think with these people, when you wake up in a cold sweat at 3 in the morning and we’re all scared whether we’re going to pull this off or not, it sort of drives everybody together I think. You don’t want the journeyman approach where it’s like, “Yup, we’re doing another one, here’s how you do it.” We really wanted to create our own path in the animation space. There are so many other people doing great work, I just didn’t want to follow that path, so we all just decided let’s not treat it like an animated movie, let’s just try to make it feel like a live action movie, as if I got a camera on my shoulder and there’s a 5 foot 8 lizard talking to a tortoise and photographing it. So it’s really trying to make it feel like it was something that was occurring rather than something we were fabricating even though we were fabricating every frame.
Q: In that sense, you didn’t do the normal thing of having actors coming in and doing voices, you had them on a stage pretty much performing everything or specific scenes, so why did you decide to go that route?
Verbinski: When we were recording the audio, I just didn’t know how else to direct actors. You want them to react, so it was really about getting a lively audio track, and also the fear of not wanting to abandon a technique I’ve used in live action. It’s so funny when you ask the question, the inverse of that is, “Why wouldn’t you do this?” I’ve got Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty and I want them together and I want them bouncing off each other, colliding, and seeing what happens. We go in with a real defined plan, and then we try to get a little extra, and you get that extra from actors reacting.
Q: I assume you filmed all that for reference but you didn’t do any motion or performance capture, right?
Verbinski: Yeah, but the audio was really the important thing. We shot on some video cameras and we had some references so from time to time, we might show the animators, “Look what Johnny is doing with his face here, look what happened here.” There were some useful moments, but for something that’s traditionally key frame animated, we jokingly called that process, “The 20-Day Audio Record Emotion Capture” because we were just trying to have fun with the idea that this is definitely not a motion capture picture.
Q: You mentioned before that there are a lot of animation houses doing great work, and I was surprised this wasn’t done by one of them, because they’ve gotten to the point where they are because they’ve made so many movies. Many live action filmmakers are intimidated by animation because other than working with actors, there are a lot more factors and teams involved…
Verbinski: Yeah, well it took forever, first creating a story reel that took a year and a half, then recording the actors for 20 days and then going to ILM for another year and a half, directing the animators. I mean, it’s really about casting. These are guys at ILM that I’ve worked with also, we’ve done Davey Jones and thousands of jobs together, so there’s a shorthand, and you’re directing technicians in the same way you would direct actors on set. Every inch, every frame is a discussion.
Q: Well, it certainly worked out, since one of the best compliments I can give is that you forget you’re watching an animated movie about talking animals.
Verbinski: Oh, thanks, Ed. We tried to create the creatures based on characters first and then creatures second, so you have your wired rabbit Doc is the town drunk, those sorts of archetypes of the genre were first and foremost.
Q: That’s another thing I enjoyed is that you have your leads but they’re surrounded by equally entertaining side characters—I know you did the voice for one of them—but they’re the kind of things that makes the movie worth repeat viewings.
Verbinski: Yeah, in those old Westerns, Strother Martin would come on and pull the boots off a dead guy in “The Wild Bunch” and I always felt that if the camera decided to follow him, there would be a whole movie behind those guys. In animated movies, sometimes characters show up on screen to say two lines and I don’t feel like that they have a movie behind them. The spaghetti Westerns from (Sergio) Leone and (Sam) Peckinpah, there’s a sense that every character has a history to them. If you opened any one of the doors of any tertiary character, you could feel a little infidelity and some issues with their lives and a sense that they were coming from somewhere and going someplace that was bisected by the film. That was really important.
Q: You did that in the “Pirates” movies where you had characters in the first movie who were small characters who became popular major characters in the later movies. Do you feel like you might want to do more with these other characters later or do you really this is a singular done-in-one type film?
Verbinski: Yeah, it’s just more of an approach. Even if you don’t intend to make other films, it’s the by-product of world creation. You’re creating something with depth. We never tell you why Doc is missing an ear, but just the fact that you have the rabbit with one ear I think makes you feel like when you’re watching the movie subconsciously, you go, “At some point in his life, he lost that ear.” He wasn’t just created for the film, he came from someplace in his own life. It’s really just to create a sense of depth.
Q: I’m a big fan of 3D in general but I appreciated the fact you didn’t convert this to 3D, because the colors are so vivid and bright in this from the desert sun and what it brings out.
Verbinski: To convert a movie that exists on a computer would have just been the greatest crime because it’s 3D when it exists on the computer, and there’s a way to do it pixel perfect, to sort of output it as 2D and then rotoscope it and match it together. I think conversions hurt your eyes, because pixels don’t line up accurately and in real life, we know that on a 27 millimeter lens that in five steps I can get to that chair if I walk across the room. As soon as it’s a little out, just slightly off, I get throbbing headaches, just because we have an intuitive understanding from real life as to what depth is and where things should be in a space, and when you convert, it’s guesswork as to where things are.
Q: You’re signed to do “The Lone Ranger” with Johnny Depp even though you both have just finished doing a Western with this, so do you hope to do something in between the two movies?
Verbinski: Yeah, I’d like to. We’re still working on “The Lone Ranger” script, we’re trying to work on a schedule. I’ve spent three and a half years staring at a computer screen, so I hope to get behind and do something akin to “The Weather Man” or something, a littler movie, but there’s a lot of moving parts right now.
Q: Was “The Weather Man” something that came together pretty fast after the first “Pirates” or was it something you had been developing for many years?
Verbinski: No, it came really pretty quick. We were just looking for something small, knowing that I was going to do 2 and 3, and read a draft of the screenplay and said, “Yeah, let’s work on this.”
At this point, we were told we were out of time so we weren’t able to find out any more about what sort of projects Verbinski might be looking at, but his new movie Rango comes out this Friday, March 4th 2011.