A few minutes with H'wood's lizard wizard

Gore Verbinski’s leap into feature animation directing with “Rango” has garnered the film a Golden Globe nom and multiple critics awards. The helmer recently spoke with Variety’s Christy Grosz about the learning curve in moving from live-action to toon helming.

Grosz: Was 3D ever part of the conversation when you started working on “Rango?”

Verbinski: Not at the beginning. I think we were midpoint when “Alice in Wonderland” came out. There was a bit of a discussion at that point. We actually did a few tests, but we kind of felt like the film wasn’t missing a dimension. It was late in the game and cost too much at that point to go back.

CG: I’m assuming you were opposed to converting the film to 3D?

GV: That was not going to happen. That was the battle that we had to win.

CG: Was it difficult to adjust to the pace of working in animation vs. live action?

GV: It wasn’t so much a pace issue. We sort of broke the movie into three sections. There were 18 months of story reel, which is working out of my house with seven artists and a Mac computer and a microphone. It’s just really lo-fi — hot dogs on a grill, long walks, just figuring out the story.

Every line was written, and every character was designed. We needed a really tight blueprint — we’re not an animation house. It’s really about execution. Eighteen months, a methodical but not crazy pace and 20 days with the actors recording every line. That was pretty frenetic because everybody had to do about 10 pages a day — on a live-action movie they’re doing two pages a day. We wanted that to be frenetic because they only had time to respond intuitively to anything happening to real time.

Then the rest is another 18 months up at ILM, trying to protect that liveliness and not let animation destroy it because the computer loves perfection. We really wanted to artificially create a sense of uncertainty, as if things were occurring and there was a camera in there filming a lizard and a tortoise talking to each other.

CG: Did you feel you had any more control over the performances?

GV: The entire film was key-frame animated. There was no motion capture in the movie. When we recorded the actors, we rolled some video cameras for reference, but basically we were mostly concerned with a lively audio track. The key-frame animation, yeah, there are no gifts. You are spending days talking about an involuntary twitch under the eye, so you do have ultimate control, but it’s sort of missing that live-action thing — something happened and you were poised to capture it and it’s done. This is frame-by-frame discussions about trying to create a chameleon interpretation of what that moment might be.

CG: Did you enjoy working in animation?

GV: It’s funny because we’re in active prep on “The Lone Ranger,” and there’s this pesky little thing called gravity, which is really a bitch. We have trains and horses, and there’s so much, “Well, you can’t do that, and the camera won’t do that.” In many ways, it’s liberating to do an animated film because the only limitation is your imagination. But at the same time, when you’re making a live-action movie, you’re sort of orchestrating chaos. You have a plan, but you’re also really taking advantage of gifts that occur because an actor does something that he didn’t even expect.

CG: Speaking of “The Lone Ranger,” there were a lot of reports about the budget of the film …

GV: Oh my god, ridiculous. We hadn’t even shot a frame of film. I’m not quite sure why it was news. There were probably three other films at the same time that were going through exactly the same thing that weren’t reported on. It was kind of odd to have your budget battles publicly displayed.

It’s a $209 million (film) — once you get in that range, (the film) has to be an event. We needed the tools to complete that, and we struggled. It’s happened on almost every movie I’ve made, and certainly other directors I know go through it all the time. But I sort of feel like that movie’s been talked about so much, so it’s nice to go off the radar, make it and maybe we’ll have something we can talk about again. Every movie has the same basic percentage of the number that they have to grind down. That’s what we were doing. That’s what we’re continuing to do.

CG: “Lone Ranger” marks another collaboration for you and Johnny Depp. What works well in that relationship?

GV: I don’t have a soundbite answer for that. I think it comes down to trust. We had just started shooting the second “Pirates,” and I was talking to him about this lizard project, this chameleon with an identity crisis in the West, and he was just like, “I’ll do that!” Never read a script. We didn’t talk much more about it. From time to time, I’d say, “Here’s what I’m doing on the lizard project.” We obviously wouldn’t have gotten the film made if he wasn’t on board.

He’s very much a two- or three-take actor and really knows where the camera is. He isn’t sort of improvising in a way that is unusable when you get into the edit room. (He gives) seemingly wild performances, but they’re actually in a frame, and that’s really wonderful for a director. He’s very in control of his instrument. (Having that) relationship with an actor where he’s willing to throw those eggs against a wall, that’s where the joy comes in. We’re both fans of the awkward moment. The pursuit of that awkward moment is where (the relationship) becomes symbiotic.

CG: Do you generally rehearse before you start shooting?

GV: It’s a funny question because I miss rehearsing desperately. I think the last time I had real proper rehearsal was probably on “The Weather Man.” These big movies, actors come in from London the day before you shoot the scene. We’ll block it, chalk mark out all the camera moves. Actors will go to makeup, and we’ll start lighting and prepare the work for the day. If it’s an elaborate action set piece, I have storyboards. If it’s a dialogue scene, we rehearse it the day of. But that a month of rehearsals prior to shooting with all your actors in one place, that is so hard to get these days.

CG: How important do you think the role of franchises is to the studios right now?

GV: They’re a form of alleviating risk because you have data. Before you have a franchise, there’s no data so it’s kind of horrifying. But I think data is the enemy of creativity, too. Four-quadrant movies used to be an accident, and now people talk about it as if we’re going to make a four-quadrant movie. If all we made were sequels and nothing new is coming out of the pipe, there are no new franchises being created.

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