This article appeared in the January 2012 Awards issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski have made $2.7 billion worth of Pirates of the Caribbean movies together, but that doesn’t mean it was smooth sailing when, after their last pirate romp wrapped in 2007, Depp agreed to star as the eponymous chameleon in Rango, Verbinski’s first animated feature. Two years later, Depp, normally preternaturally facile, found himself in a silly cowboy hat on a primitive Universal Studios soundstage, getting stuck one page into a tongue-twisting, mind-bending, multipage monologue by co-writer John Logan. “Johnny went off,” recalls Ned Beatty, who voices the tortoise mayor of Dirt, the desert town that Rango rescues in the film. “He said, ‘I can’t DOOOOO this!’ “
Of course, Depp could do it — Rango’s rousing speech to the animal citizens of Dirt plays great. “Johnny Depp is the real-world chameleon,” says Verbinski. “He’s part lizard, and we caged him and poked him and prodded him and extracted the reptilian juice that is the lifeblood of the whole endeavor.” Rango won top animation prizes from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle and nominations from the Golden Globes, PGA and Critics’ Choice Awards. Paramount is rereleasing the rave-reviewed film on Jan. 27 to spur its chances to capture this year’s best animated feature Oscar, stronger now that potential rivals have failed to make the nominee list: The omission of The Adventures of Tintin, which beat Rango at the Globes, surprised many, and Cars 2′s absence means Pixar’s long Oscar-winning streak is over.
Helping Depp to connect with his inner chameleon was the least of the risks Verbinski took to make this major departure in animated film. The daredevil director created Rango with Industrial Light Magic, which handled the effects for the Pirates films but had never worked on a full animated feature before. ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll was skeptical when Verbinski pitched the idea in August 2007, but he and ILM animation director Hal Hickel agreed to watch the first Rango story reel in 2008 to please their big client. “What intrigued me,” says Knoll, “was when he said, ‘There’s Pixar and there’s everybody who’s imitating Pixar, doing me-too movies.’ He didn’t want to follow in their footsteps.”
Conventional animation is, essentially, illustrations that move. Rango’s roots are in live action. “We treated it like any of our previous live-action collaborations with Gore,” says Knoll. Instead of reading lines to match animated characters, Depp and the cast were first filmed to give ILM animators reference points to inform the characters. “It’s not just a drawing, it’s a guy reacting as another guy gets thrown through the window,” says Verbinski. The sensor motion-capture camera ILM developed in 2006 for Avatar enabled Verbinski to tour a virtual environment of Dirt and choose camera angles and change set elements. “He’d say, ‘The clock tower is hidden, push that building back three feet and make the road six feet wider,’ ” says Knoll. “It played to his strengths with walking live-action sets.”
When Verbinski surveys a landscape, he envisions a particular offbeat, authentic aesthetic. “On Pirates,” says Hickel, “his mantra for comedy was, ‘Odd but not broad.’ On Rango, he’d say, ‘It’s 98 percent there, but sprinkle a little fuzz on it,’ make it feel spontaneous by introducing imperfections and surprises.” While computer animation wants to be sterile and clinical, says Verbinski, “I look for a flaw, the awkward flicker in the eyes or something that feels accidental.”
At first, Verbinski says he underestimated the challenges of animating Rango, which sprang from an idea that came up over breakfast with illustrator David Shannon and character designer Crash McCreery early in the making of the Pirates films. “I had never made an animated film, but I came close to doing 2,000 animated shots [like the squid face of Bill Nighy's Davy Jones] for Pirates,” says Verbinski. “Originally, I thought I was going to do this animated movie and maybe direct another film at the same time.”
Wisely, Verbinski instead devoted 18 months to developing the story and characters with Logan, McCreery, artist James Ward Byrkit and others at his home in Pasadena. The team started with a 12-page outline in 2007. “Right from the beginning, the idiosyncratic charm of the movie was reflected in the way we did it,” says Logan. “It was a madcap endeavor — we didn’t want to develop it with a studio. We went to [independent producer] Graham King, a man every bit as outside the box as Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp.” King’s seed money amounted to 3 percent of the final budget [estimated at $135 million]. “I wasn’t getting paid and John took a big cut,” says Verbinski. “We were seven guys, then by the end 12 guys, cooking hot dogs for lunch.”
Those guys acted out the roles, sketched out a storyboard, cut it into story reels and created a crude animatic with black-and-white drawings and temporary dialog. Verbinski electronically altered his voice for the female roles, and Byrkit voiced Rango.
While taking every opportunity to have fun — for example, playing croquet to flesh out a golf scene — Verbinski made a discovery about animation: “It’s not easy at all! We wrote the first scene with Rango in the terrarium 30 times,” he says. For inspiration, the team watched a constant loop of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Japanese film Howl’s Moving Castle. For reference (and later homage material), the writers took their guidance from Bob Hope‘s Son of Paleface, Don Knotts’ The Shakiest Gun in the West and Sergio Leone‘s spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood. (The character Spirit of the West in the film was done by Timothy Olyphant who, to get into character, mimicked Eastwood by saying, “Welcome to hell, asshole,” before every take.)
While the skimpy initial budget slowly drained like water into the desert, Verbinski courted a studio. “That was a scary moment when no one wanted to finance it,” says Logan. Happily, Paramount rode a white horse into town — after some initial trepidation. “Brad gray drove out to the house in Pasadena and wandered through the stale pizza crusts and coffee cups and into the laundry room that was converted into an edit bay, and he was like, ‘Where am I, a college dorm? What the f– is this?’ One of the weirdest pitch moments ever,” recalls Verbinski. “And then we showed him the story reel, and we had Johnny committed, and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ “
Spoken like a true gunslinger. But there were still rough patches ahead. “If you looked between the lines, there are drug references and guns and a fair amount of violence,” says Logan. “There’s this counterculture, provocative sensibility that made the studio nervous.” Even while meeting studio needs, the team strived to keep Rango unformulaic — some might even say trippy. “We never talked about it as a kids movie,” adds Logan. “When we needed an action sequence, I said, ‘A bat attack! Gophers riding on bats!’ ” Like much of the film, it’s a hallucination worthy of Depp’s frequent role model, Hunter S. Thompson.
Animation is not often associated with acting challenges. But that’s what took place with Verbinski in the saddle: on a set, bare except for a swinging saloon door and a few paltry props, sweating it out as HD cameras rolled. “Nobody was happy for those 20 days,” says Verbinski. “Here’s your stupid hat and your rubber gun in this carpeted area like some bizarre rehearsal for a school play, and we’re recording you. And you have to do 10 pages a day.” Two pages are more typical in live action, says Verbinski: “On movies, they do one line as the train blows up in the background, then go back to their trailer. By the end of this shoot, everybody was like, ‘Oh shit, I remember acting.’ “
Beatty, who’d just voiced the bully bear Lotso in Toy Story 3, found Verbinski’s process the diametric opposite of Pixar’s system. Beatty’s request at Pixar to improvise a character-sweetening line (“My owner says I still smell like strawberries”) was vetoed. But on Rango, it was so spontaneous that, Beatty confesses, it was hard to know where their characters were going. “Abigail Breslin [who plays Priscilla the cactus mouse] asked me, ‘Tell me something — do you have a script?’ I said no. She said, ‘Neither do I. How do they expect us to do our jobs?’ “
They did their jobs and, in 2009, ILM transformed the performances into animation. “I was up [at ILM's San Francisco office] every other week,” says Verbinski, who spent up to six hours a day in L.A. video-conferencing with ILM, comparing what was onscreen with performances on video, circling changes and tweaking body language. Cinematographer consultant Roger Deakins helped ILM and Verbinski replicate the look of the Leone films and There Will Be Blood, right down to lens defects like chromatic aberration and barrel distortion.
Unlike many studio animation projects produced since Avatar, Rango was shot in 2D, not 3D. At Paramount’s last-minute request in January 2010, ILM did 3D layouts of three scenes. “It was beautiful,” says Verbinski, “but I said, ‘If you want to do 3D, pony up, because I’m not going to do a half-assed 3D.’ ” Paramount passed on ILM’s bid to make the 3D conversion. “To do it in 3D would have been $22 million,” says Verbinski. “Would Rango 3D have made a little more money? Probably. But in terms of the value of the narrative and the characters and the enjoyment, it wouldn’t have been better.”
Despite its excellence and improved Oscar odds, Rango most likely won’t get a sequel — at least with this team. “We’re not doing one,” says Verbinski. “Why spend three and a half years doing another animated film? Let’s do something completely different.”