Gore Verbinski on ‘Rango’ and Its ‘Lizard-Like’ Star, Johnny Depp

7765425.jpgRango marks Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski‘s first foray into animated features and his fourth collaboration with Johnny Depp, who lends his voice to the film’s title character, a chameleon in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s an idea Verbinski’s been developing since he finished the first Pirates film, in 2003, and it’s inspired at least in part by the chameleon-like actor whose second, megastar career phase he helped launch.

In a recent interview, I spoke with Verbinski about his ambitious and thoroughly unconventional animated western:

How exactly did Rango originate?

In 2003 I had a meeting with [Rango producers] David Shannon and John Carls and we talked about doing an animated western with creatures of the desert. I wrote up a 12-page outline that had to do with a chameleon coming in as an outsider from an aquatic species. It had the basic beats of the entire narrative. And then I went off to make two more Pirates movies. I came back and said I wanna do this now … we worked for 16 months, without studio affiliation, at a little house in the hills above Pasadena. It was really small, and just joyous. We had a microphone, a Macintosh, and a couple guitars. We built storyboards and worked on character design and the whole thing started to take shape. Then we did a 20-day record with the actors and then a year and a half with ILM.

In previous interviews you’ve described your star, Johnny Depp, as “lizard-like.” Did you always have him in mind for the role?

Yes, I think, from the beginning. When I first started to write the 12-page outline, I told Johnny about it. We’d finished the first Pirates film and I said, “I think I want to do this animated movie about this chameleon with an identity crisis and it’s a western.” And he just said, “I’ll do that.” We had sort of always talked about how Jack [Sparrow] has very lizard-like qualities – his lizard eyes, how he runs with his arms out, and so on. But also, I think, as the discussion became more real, [we talked about] the concept of hey, you have a little bit of Jack Sparrow, a little bit of Ed Wood, a little bit of Scissorhands, a little bit of all these characters in you. There’s not a lot of room left. If those guys are all taking up a piece of who you are, who’s left? And there was this little flicker on Johnny’s face, and I knew that’s the moment we’re after with this film. That’s his existential crisis: I could be anything, but who am I? And that’s really the journey. We always felt like that’s the film.

Part of the appeal of casting someone like Depp in a film is the spontaneity that he brings to each scene. Animated films are so precisely engineered — right down to forming lines of dialogue with words pulled from several different takes — how do you translate that spontaneity from the live-action to the digital realm?

We did a tremendous amount of that [dialogue editing]. Even though we got everybody in the room with the purpose of “let’s get something immediate, let’s get something raw and primitive, let’s encourage line overlap, let’s get a reaction.” We have all these great actors; I don’t want to just hear their voices – I want them to perform. Why give up the technique of using live-action just because it’s animated? I didn’t want to throw that in the trash. There are some gifts that occur in that chaos that you get.

I would think it’s one of the primary gifts.

Yeah. Working with just one actor in a booth, you’re imagining the other performance you’re going to get later in the other recording. You don’t see them together. You don’t see that that person’s reacted to what this other person did, or that this person’s interrupting. You get much more of an intuitive response, you know? Nothing’s intuitive about this process; everything’s iterations … but still, even with all of that, we still did a tremendous amount of dialogue editing.

Rango is different from other mainstream animated releases in a number of ways. It’s certainly the only one I know of that heavily references Chinatown. How did that evolve?

Well, that just came out of a need for a plot. We [started with] this journey, this quest for identity. What’s the currency? What’s the belief system of this town? How can this be singular and not just a traditional western town? The currency could be hydration. Out of that we know that we wanted … I’m a fan of the sort of post-modern western – the myths are dying, the train’s coming, there’s no place for the gunslinger anymore. I was a fan of the genre more through Leone and Peckinpah than through John Ford originally, when I was a kid, so that may have skewed my understanding. Out of all that you kind of go, well, who’s taken the water? And immediately, you’re basically going the Chinatown way.

You’re about to partner with Depp on an update of The Lone Ranger. I was surprised to notice on a few message boards that some commenters resented the casting of Depp as Tonto, on the grounds that Depp, who is part Cherokee, isn’t sufficiently Native American to play the role. I was wondering if you were aware of the criticism and what you made of it.

I’m not familiar with those criticisms. For me, the only version of The Lone Ranger that I’m interested in doing is sort of a … I guess the nearest model I can think of is Don Quixote told from Sancho Panza’s point of view. We’ve all heard the story of the Lone Ranger, but we’ve never heard it from Tonto’s perspective. And that’s what makes it enjoyable to me, reinventing the legend. I don’t see it as earnest, the piece. I see it as quite absurd.

Rango opens everywhere Friday, March 4, 2011.