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Toonzone Interview: Gore Verbinski Talks "Rango"

Gore Verbinski is the director of a little movie trilogy called Pirates of The Caribbean. You know, the swashbuckling adventures based on the Disney ride that introduced audiences to the loveable pirate rogue, Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp? After completing the third movie in the Pirates Trilogy, At World’s End in 2007, Verbinski returns with his first feature since Cap’n Jack. Rango marks the first foray into animation for Verbinski, who has also directed such live action hit movies as Mouse Hunt, The Mexican, and The Ring. During the press tour for Rango, Toonzone News got a chance to speak with the director:

TOONZONE NEWS: Coming off the Pirates of the Carribbean trilogy, what made you want to tell the story of Rango in this style?

GORE VERBINSKI: The origin of Rango came in 2003 from a meeting with a good friend and children’s book illustrator, David Shannon. I was always talking about doing something together – never could make one of his books work for me personally. He had suggested, “What about a western with creatures in the desert?” That line was sort of the inception moment. I wrote a full page outline with the story: the outsider coming in and the community, the water crisis; the aquatic hero and his journey to deal with his – if you could be anything, who are you? The great pretender plot and all the sort of basic beats. Then I sat on it for when I went off to make two other Pirates movies. After the third Pirates film, I came back and said, “Now it’s time to slow down and try to make this a reality.”

I hired seven artists and John Logan to come to my house and we just worked for fifteen, sixteen months with storyboards, a microphone, a Macintosh, and really the humble origins of just working on the story reel which is just multiple iterations on scenes, kind of working from the outline, and putting it down with narrative forming image. Cash McCreary was one of the artists. Jim Byrkit, Head of Story. It was a really small team, no studio affiliation. We just worked it for sixteen months and at the end of that we had a playable version of the film with sketches and temporary voices, which we to took to Paramount and actually…that’s when it sort of became more real. And then we got Johnny Depp’s dates for a twenty day period where I was going to record voices. We hired all the actors to come about the same period. If you weren’t available those dates, you weren’t in the movie. It was really important we had everybody together in one place so people could react and interact with each other. After that, a year and a half up at ILM.

TZN: What always impresses me about your filmography is how you always play in many genres — be it drama, horror, or action/adventure. This is something different as well. It’s an animated art form, but it’s also a Western adventure as well. Is that something that creatively stimulates you as a storyteller and as a director — to be able to play in different genres and art forms?

GORE VERBINSKI: Yeah. The Western genre has always been in my DNA. I think that the Pirates films are Westerns in many ways. When I was very young, I would watch Sergio Leone. Probably age inappropriate at the time, but I felt like I was looking into the window of a forbidden world and that really stuck with me. And Peckinpah Westerns and sort of later getting into John Ford, my entry into the Western was always the post-modern Western if you will: The railroads are coming; the legends are dying. Progress is the enemy and there’s no place for the gun fighter anymore in this world. That certainly was a little bit of that in Pirates as well and then finally the opportunity to go full bore and do it in a Western. Only in this case, taking currency and making it water and taking progress and using the sort of Chinatown subplot, if you will, to kind of create that same energy. But I’ve always been a fan of the Western and finally getting a chance to do one — even as animation. People refer to animation as if it’s in itself a genre somehow, and I don’t see it that way.

TZN: The voice cast recording their material together doesn’t happen often for an animated feature. Usually in a movie like this, the voice actors perform their dialogue isolated in a booth. For this production, you brought the cast to record together and actually filmed them on a set. How important was that to get the results you wanted — not just with Johnny Depp, but a fantastic group of talent doing all these amazing characters? And how happy were you with how it turned out?

GORE VERBINSKI: Well, everyone said that’s not how you do it. You have to remember, none of us have made an animated movie before. So we do research and people say, “This is how you do it,” “That’s how you do it,” and we very quickly came to the conclusion: We’re not making an animated movie. We’re using animation as a technique to tell a story. I guess, to answer your question, we really fear, “Why abandon the technique we use in live action just because it’s animated?” I’ve never understood – Ned Beatty and Harry Dean Stanton, I want to see them together looking each other in the eye. All these characters, you’re hiring this great cast. I want to see them react. That process was really ultimately about the audio track. The boom man is king in this case because we’re not using anything, really. Occasionally we’ll look at the footage if there’s a reference. But the film is traditionally key-frame animated. It was all about encouraging line overlap and trying to find something authentic, trying to get actors off the page and get an honest reaction, instead of reading your lines; just keeping it alive and trying to get something raw and then trying to preserve it in the process. With animation, there are so many iterations that things can get homogenized and then get cold really quickly. So the mantra with the guys up at ILM was, fabricate anomaly where ever possible: create the twitch or the blink or the flaw and ripple across somebody’s face; whatever they can do to not have it be clean, because clean is boring.

TZN: The look of the characters and feel of the movie was very rough and rugged. The critters weren’t at all cute by any means. It was almost like an island of misfit animals with their visual quirks such as bird with an arrow through his head or the other animals missing an ear or body parts. It’s a very flawed but beautiful group of ragtag characters.

GORE VERBINSKI: Yeah, we wanted our posse to be kind of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. We wanted no symmetry in the film at all. We wanted faces to be lop-sided this way or the other. When I think of great Westerns, I think of all those peripheral characters and the studio contract players…Strother Martin and characters like that. I always felt like there’s that guy pulling the boots off the dead guys and the way he does it and his voice and the way he acts and moves…I felt like there is a whole film behind that guy. It’s very important to me that when you watch the movie, any character is a door, and I want to it to feel like if you open that door you’d see a whole movie about that character. So wrinkled hands, dust under the finger nails, they have to enter the scene and promise a history that they are coming from some place and going somewhere; they’ve been to Hell and back. So they’re dirty and grungy, but I think that makes it just more flavorful.

TZN: What characters did you voice or play on set?

GORE VERBINSKI: A couple. Sergeant Turley, the guy with the arrow through his eye. That’s me. Cesar Guyas, one of the Mariachis, and a couple of the bit players. But there are quite a few guys who did multiple voices: Stephen Root…he’s an amazing actor. So where we could, we tried to keep the troupe small. It’s not a movie where there town is filled with pinks or something. There are no characters that are the same in that town, all different species.

TZN: It really added to the theatricality of the movie. And the Mariachi band was sort of like a Greek chorus of sorts, you know?

GORE VERBINSKI: That’s the function. They are a Mexican Greek chorus. The film is very much a commentary on film: frame within a frame. They [the Mariachi band] start out and take us to the fable of this actor who is trying to play this part. That came out of a Crash McCreary drawing. He drew a Mariachi, an owl, very early on with the seven artists at this house. One of the first things I said to them, “OK. Here’s the basic outline of the story. Now I just want every possible creature of the desert adapted into a character from the Western genre.” So we saw the one-eared rabbit, the drunk, and all these things started coming in. The twelve page outline had things like the Mayor as a tortoise, Jake as a snake and things like that. But there were so many other opportunities, and it was a drawing that Crash did of a mariachi,and it occurred right at the time of working with John Logan. We were sort of debating if we need a sort of Cat Ballou type. Do we need to step back and have a narrator? And the drawing informed the text in that way, and immediately we said, “OK there’s going to be a Mariachi Greek chorus,” and we started writing to that.

TZN: Regarding the Pirates of the Carribbean trilogy, I know there were a lot of demands in filming two sequels together. The writers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Academy Award Animated writers for the CG animated movie Shrek) once mentioned on the commentary for Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, that the process of filming the sequels was Movie 101 on how not to do things. Were there plot elements or character threads that got pushed aside in the third film?

GORE VERBINSKI: Yeah. I think that the third film just…those movies are ten months apart. Going into production with outlines…I think it was something that was discussed early on as something we wanted to finish up. But that movie consumed and created more and more characters and more and more peripheral narratives that it just got too unwieldy. It was just, everybody had a story. And I think that sort of ultimately diluted the story.

TZN: Now that you’ve done Rango, would you consider doing something animated again?

GORE VERBINSKI: Yeah. I really enjoyed it, I got to say. It’s more work then I ever imagined and my respect for animation directors has gone way, way up. But I would definitely do it again. I feel like we have a really good team and we got a great family. It’s something we would love to do again. We just got to come up with a story that’s worth telling.

Thank you to Gore Verbinski for taking time out of his schedule to speak with Toonzone, and to Paramount Pictures for arranging the interview for us. Rango hits theatres on March 4, 2011.

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