We’re still talking about Disney’s crazy-ass $215m Lone Ranger, to be directed by Gore Verbinski with Johnny Depp playing Tonto and Armie Hammer as the Ranger, because Disney is still planning to make the damn thing. The studio put the project on hold weeks ago, then went through quite a bit of public wrangling over budgets and fees. The movie that Gore Verbinski once described as “Don Quixote from Sancho Panza’s point of view” (with the Ranger being Quixote, making Tonto the lead) suddenly had werewolves — goddamn werewolves — and giant expensive train sequences.

But the film got a green light this week, in part because many of the above the line participants — Depp, Verbinski, Hammer and producer Jerry Bruckheimer — agreed to a pay cut. There’s even a scheduled start date: February 6, 2012, with the producing aiming for a May 31, 2013 release date. To make that happen, quite a few changes were made. We summarize those, and pass on Johnny Depp’s intentions in playing Tonto, after the break.

Variety reports that many of the changes we’d heard about — Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio‘s script being overhauled to remove supernatural elements (werewolves) and reduce other costs. Depp even says that he and Verbinski knew that the budget was going to be a problem all along — were some of those elements planned as distractions that they knew would be cut?

The big aspect of the production now is that, after the big talent took a 20% pay cut and agreed to defer some fees until after the film is released, is that any budget overrun will be charged to  Bruckheimer, not Disney. So Verbinski is on the line with his Pirates of the Caribbean producer. If he overspends, as he has done in the past, it comes out of Jerry’s pocket.

I half hope this is all some elaborate smokescreen to get a big, weird character picture — that Don Quixote variant — on screen with Depp in the lead role. That’s probably too optimistic. But Depp is at least being conscientious about Tonto. Speaking to MTV, Depp defends the project based on the potential he sees in Tonto:

I like the character… I think I have interesting plans for the character, and I think the film itself could be entertaining and very funny. But also I like the idea of having the opportunity to make fun of the idea of the Indian as a sidekick — which has always been [the case] throughout the history of Hollywood, the Native American has always been a second-class, third-class, fourth-class citizen, and I don’t see Tonto that way at all. So it’s an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.

I can’t take any issue with that later sentiment at all. The idea of making Tonto the powerful figure in the classic Ranger/Tonto relationship is a good one, and the reason this movie ever seemed like it had potential. Note, however, that one could easily make a good film featuring a solid, respectable Tonto for a fifth of what Disney is planning to spend.

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