New 'Lone Ranger' saddled with expectations, but its stars are creative cowboys

I usually duck meetings whenever possible, but I would nonetheless like to be a fly on the wall this week in New Mexico when Johnny Depp explains his take on Tonto to Gore Verbinski.

The quirky star, who’s played everyone from Edward Scissorhands to Captain Jack Sparrow, is determined to bring the Lone Ranger back to life. The towering Armie Hammer, having memorably kissed Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar,” will hopefully now embrace Depp’s Tonto, at least in terms of loyalty. And Tonto, in turn, will now have to tolerate this lunatic masked man from Boston who keeps yelling “Hi-yo, Silver” every time he climbs on a horse.

The movie itself will be either lauded or condemned by the legions of Lone Ranger worshippers who have clung to its many radio, TV and comicbook iterations (and we will see how Native Americans react to Depp).

Disney’s production chieftains withdrew their greenlight for “Lone Ranger” last year when another Western, “Cowboys & Aliens,” capsized and Verbinski’s budget soared past $200 million. Still, it’s hard to block the team that delivered the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise (Jerry Bruckheimer is aboard, too) so a somewhat honed-down production is slated to start in February.

The studio is mum on Tonto’s characterization and won’t disclose the backstory it has developed for the Lone Ranger. In the most recent TV version, the protagonist was a twentysomething law student from Boston who witnessed the murder of his brother, a Texas Ranger, and vowed revenge, as characters always do in scripts. Our hero, in turn, was rescued by an Apache warrior with the handy name of Tonto and a kindly disposition toward law students. Happily, the horse, Silver, soon wandered by. (Law students always name their horses after valuable commodities, and “gold” seemed too ostentatious.)

Tonto never developed a distinct personality in the last TV series, but we can assume Depp has big plans to solve that.

And if the Lone Ranger would seem to have a charmed life, that would be perfect casting for Armie Hammer, who has himself had a charmed life. The grandson of Armand Hammer, a billionaire oil titan, the 25-year-old actor played both Winklevoss twins for David Fincher in “The Social Network” and then J. Edgar’s buddy for Clint Eastwood. Rival young actors envy Hammer’s emergence as a new prince charming, especially since he plays Prince Charming opposite Julia Roberts in the newly retitled “Mirror Mirror.”

Thoughtful and self-deprecating, Hammer himself readily acknowledges his good fortune. He’d originally tried to back away from depicting the Winklevosses. “Not only was I scared of playing two characters, but I am nothing close to a Harvard man — I never finished high school,” he says.

He also turned down “J. Edgar” because “I just couldn’t figure out why a stalwart FBI man like Clyde Tolson would hang out with Hoover when he got absolutely nothing in return emotionally.”

A gay friend helped Hammer come to terms with the Tolson character (Hammer is both straight and married) and, of course, Eastwood is a persuasive director.

Though rival actors assume Hammer is a shrewd Hollywood insider, the young actor in fact grew up in the Cayman Islands (a great tax haven as well as a great beach) and his parents firmly resisted his entry into show business. Hammer, in fact, senses he has yet to develop his Hollywood savvy.

“I was even reluctant to tackle the Lone Ranger,” he points out. “I love the idea of riding horses and shooting guns, but a masked man? In a Western? Today?”

Verbinski, to be sure, made Hammer see the light, and the prospect of playing opposite Johnny Depp is consistent with Hammer’s spectacularly good luck in the movie business.

“I’m a beach kid, I know how to slice open a coconut,” says Hammer, who, even now, is rehearsing his first “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!”

The Woody & Letty way

I always knew Woody Allen had his own way of doing things, but his precise formula for getting movies made had remained obscure to me until it was candidly explained the other day by Letty Aronson, his sister and longtime producer. Speaking at a panel organized by the Producers Guild recently, Aronson explained that Woody never writes a script until she has secured the money to produce it.

Their process is well honed: He comes up with a basic idea — “Midnight in Paris,” for example. Aronson lines up the financing and then notifies Woody, who promptly starts writing the script in longhand. In a month’s time, says Aronson, he asks a typist to type it and, when learning that no one can read his scrawl, Woody types it himself. A team then comes in to format the material and input it into a computer. The backers then write the checks and Woody starts shooting.

“Midnight in Paris,” distributed by Sony Classics in the U.S., has grossed more than $155 million worldwide, but Woody and his producer still believe that the major studios would never back another Woody Allen film. Besides, his present modus operandi is working too well.

After all, Woody last week won an Oscar nomination for directing and writing “Midnight in Paris,” and the film itself made the best-pic noms list — his best results ever.

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