There was a time when Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) thought he might be able to make another film while his first animated feature “Rango” was in preproduction – but that, he admits today, seems outright fantastical. In the screening room of his Blind Wink productions at Universal Studios, Hollywood, Verbinski claims newfound respect for the work that goes into animated films. “It’s very much like we’re shooting a movie… We’re very much in production,” he says.
Sitting here seven days a week, Verbinski and his team fastidiously review and tweak daily transmissions of work from Industrial Light and Magic, with trips north to ILM studios in San Francisco every other week. In spite of what Verbinski may once have thought, directing “Rango” has definitely become a full time job.
“Rango” is “the story of a chameleon with an identity crisis, played by Johnny Depp. And that’s it…That’s all,” Verbinski says with a laugh… Though from the pages upon pages of elaborate creature designs tacked onto literally every surface here, it’s very clear that is not all. “(Rango) fancies himself a hero,” continues the director, “and is thrust into a crazy set of circumstances where he becomes one, and he has to come to terms with the difference between pretending, and what’s real…” Rango’s tale begins in the contemporary world, in a terrarium. “He’s a thespian in search of an audience, and he’s made friends with all the inanimate objects in his terrarium, he calls them all by name, and when we meet him, he’s in the process of putting on a play… Things get out of hand, the production goes down – literally.”
Thrust into the wild, Rango crosses the highway into the merciless Mojave desert, and finds himself passing through a time warp, of sorts, into a Western town called “Dirt,” populated by desert creatures – lizards, vultures, insects – all doing their best Sergio Leone. Among Rango’s posse (which Verbinski compares to the dysfunctional psych ward in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”) are Abigail Breslin as gecko ‘Priscilla,’ Bill Nighy as ‘Rattlesnake Jake,’ and Alfred Molina as ‘Roadkill,’ a Shaman-like armadillo. (Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Stephen Root, and others all appear as member’s of Dirt’s menagerie.)
Altogether, co-writer Jim Byrkit notes, there were eighty-five different character designs done for “Rango” – including a quartet of Mariachi owls, who act as their hero’s incredibly unsupportive Greek chorus. Verbinski compares them to Eric Idle’s morbidly upbeat Sir Robin of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”: “They follow him around singing of his ultimate demise…”
“This was a project I’d been banging around since 2005,” says Verbinski, “with a children’s book author named David Shannon, and producer John Carlos (“Where the Wild Things Are”) In spite of the project’s significant visual detail and scope, the design process for “Rango” had humble beginnings. For a year and a half, in a home in the Pasadena hills, Verbinski worked with some of his favorite artists, with no goal except, as he puts it, “let’s conjure, let’s go…”
“We built iconography at the same time as we were working on the script,” he continues. When the script by John Logan (“Sweeney Todd”) was finished, Gore and Byrkit performed all the voices for their rough animatic, over penciled storyboards. Then, famed creature designer Mark ‘Crash’ McCreery entered the picture, to flesh out the denizens of Dirt. With character designs in hand, “Rango” was brought to Johnny Depp during the making of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”. Why Johnny? Well, apart from the whole ‘international superstardom’ thing, Verbinski and Byrkit agree, Johnny’s very lizard-like. And the chance to have him play an actual lizard seemed a perfect fit. (Johnny also gets to embody one of his idols in “Rango”. An animated Dr. Hunter S. Thompson shows up for a brief cameo on the highway, nearly flattening Rango in a Chevy Impala convertible… One assumes it’s headed for Las Vegas.)
With Johnny on board, the rest of the cast was assembled, and gathered on an LA soundstage where Verbinski scheduled a twenty-day “record.” In a change from traditional animation voice work, the majority of Rango’s audio was captured in the same room, at the same time. “Just because it was an animated movie, I didn’t want to give up the techniques that were developed shooting live action,” Verbinski says. “To optimize the possibility of capturing the awkward moment. The intuitive response… When shooting live action, you’re encouraging that sort of chaos and you’re waiting with your butterfly net to capture that moment. Everything in an animated film is manufactured, everything is conceived, there’s no accidents. So they can get very clinical.” For his unique recording sessions, Verbinski encouraged the actors to do whatever it took to get themselves in character. He threw his cast together, mic’d them, encouraged them to explore the space, and searched for a kinetic spark on the audio track… “It’s not motion capture,” he says. “It’s emotion capture.”
So, might we one day see this live action movie-behind-the-movie one day, on a “Rango” DVD? Verbinski’s not so sure he wants to draw back that curtain. “That might be too behind the scenes.”