Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer star in pic studio hopes will attract a young demo and spawn a franchise
At a time when Hollywood is turning to comicbooks, toys, videogames and sequels to fill their film slates, Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer are looking to introduce “The Lone Ranger’s” masked man as a new kind of superhero.
Disney’s July 3 release of “The Lone Ranger,” starring Armie Hammer as the Texas Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto, will determine whether the Burbank entertainment giant can ride off into the sunset with a new franchise under its white Stetson.
Despite the film’s Old West setting, Bruckheimer draws a similarity between the titular lawman and Marvel Studio’s popular bigscreen crime fighters.
“To me, he’s a very heroic character,” says Bruckheimer. “You see all of these wonderful Marvel characters that have been around forever, and the Lone Ranger has been around forever and fights evil, too. Audiences like that.”
The producer and the studio that bankrolled the movie need auds to love it: The picture cost approximately $250 million to produce, and more than $150 million to market and distribute around the globe. The battle to get the picture made was an expensive and arduous one that involved oversight by three different studio chiefs, from the time it was announced five years ago by former chairman Dick Cook until the five-month production wrapped under the watch of current chair Alan Horn.
“The Lone Ranger” didn’t actually begin shooting until 2011, when Cook’s successor, Rich Ross, was under pressure to deliver big hits. Finding himself already saddled with two other pricey productions — “John Carter” and “Oz the Great and Powerful” — he and boss Bob Iger balked at “The Lone Ranger’s” $260 million proposed budget as being too much for a movie based on a character unknown to Disney’s core audience of kids. Pre-production was halted until the filmmakers could wrangle the cost down to a more manageable $215 million.
Bruckheimer and his longtime collaborators, director Gore Verbinski and Depp, with whom he launched “The Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, made a number of clever financial and creative concessions to get the movie made. They re-engineered the entire production plan: switching to shoot in locations with more favorable tax incentives; shrinking the crew; laying off makeup artists, visual-effects workers and extras. Some of the script’s bigger sequences were consolidated, and some plot points excised, including scenes with supernatural coyotes that would have been too expensive to digitally create. To further save money, Bruckheimer, Verbinski, Depp, Hammer, post-production vendors and other crew members agreed to defer their payments and take 20% cuts in their fees. Disney also held back producer fees from Bruckheimer, who contributed his own development funds to finish the picture.
The retrenchment process took months to work out before Disney gave the final go-ahead for production. Then, the shoot itself was hit with delays caused by rain and snowstorms, wildfires, 70-mile-per-hour winds, 100-degree-plus temperatures, an outbreak of chicken pox among the crew, and the death of a stuntman.
The string of setbacks was improbable enough for Hammer to joke on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” that the shoot was cursed. Hammer, for whom the film is seen as a potentially career-making vehicle after his dual supporting role as the Winklevoss twins in 2010’s “The Social Network,” had best hope the curse has lifted.
Despite all the strife over the budget, the ultimate cost of “The Lone Ranger” ballooned during production. Bruckheimer says he and Disney were responsible for covering the film’s overages. Studio reps say the pic cost around $225 million, but sources say it was considerably higher.
His difficult experiences with “The Lone Ranger” were nothing out of the ordinary for Bruckheimer, who readily admits to facing struggles on every big picture he’s ever made, including the “Pirates” films and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” each boasting a price tag of more than $200 million. “They’re all difficult to make,” says Bruckheimer, whose first “Pirates” movie, “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” also were shut down over budget battles with Disney.
Disney figured its risk on “Lone Ranger” was largely mitigated by the fact it was reuniting the team that had succeeded with the “Pirates” franchise, which collected close to $4 billion in box office booty around the world.
Still, says Bruckheimer, “When you’re spending other people’s money, you want to give them back a return on their investment. Every time you go out there, you have to swing for the fences.”
Filmmakers say the high price of making a studio tentpole today derives from trying to give moviegoers the kind of eye-popping visuals and elaborate action setpieces they haven’t seen before. In “Lone Ranger’s” case, that involved runaway trains and horses galloping through them, gunfights on top of moving train cars, and a visually stunning tour of Utah’s spectacular Monument Valley. Sequences also lensed in Creede, Colo., and Utah, where Disney spent $3 million and hired 100 locals.
Because Verbinski prefers to shoot practical action scenes on set rather than rely too heavily on digital effects sequences, that meant building an expansive Old West town (that doubled as two locations) from the ground up outside the undeveloped Rio Puerco Valley north of Albuquerque. There, a five-mile train track was erected in a circle around the town so that Verbinski could film action sequences inside and on top of real trains without having to stop the locomotives and turn them around. Additional rails were laid down around Moab, Utah, with other sequences shot on tracks owned by Union Pacific Railroad, which typically doesn’t work with film productions.
“It became very apparent early on that he’s very much into building the stuff,” says the film’s visual effects supervisor, Tim Alexander, of Verbinski. “He’s about getting as much as he can on camera, as much reality as he (can). Trains are really difficult to shoot on as it turns out.”
Verbinski knows today’s moviegoers can’t be easily fooled. “Gore believes the audiences can tell what’s fake,” says Bruckheimer. “He put the actors on top of the trains. That’s really them doing that.”
While the film project was swimming in negative press from the get-go, in recent weeks there has been a chorus of strong industry and public response to the movie’s trailer, posters and other promotional materials.
It’s been a long time coming from the moment in 2008 when Cook surprised audiences during a Disney show-and-tell at Hollywood’s former Kodak Theater by bringing Depp on stage to announce he would star in a Lone Ranger movie.
To honor the epic oater’s long history — from its roots as a radio show in 1933 to its various TV and film versions — the Lone Ranger’s white hat, silver bullets, trusty steed Silver and Rossini-penned theme song are all back. But Bruckheimer and Verbinski wanted to put a different spin on things the way they reinvigorated the pirate pics. “We wanted to take a genre that hasn’t been successful in a long time and create something different from what you’ve seen in the past,” says Bruckheimer.
While “Lone Ranger’s” U.S. box office prospects appear promising — the film has even tested well with teens and tweens who see it as a kind of “Pirates of the Caribbean” set in the Old West — it could face a major hurdle overseas where, despite Depp’s global appeal, audiences are less familiar with or fond of American Westerns.
Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios, doesn’t see a problem internationally.
“’The Lone Ranger’ crosses multiple genres,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s a spectacular action adventure from the team behind one of film’s most unforgettable franchises, and that is appealing on a global level.”
Of course, Disney, Bruckheimer and Depp (already gearing up for a fifth “Pirates” for summer 2015), are betting “Lone Ranger” will be a global juggernaut that has enough giddyap to spawn a new franchise.
“It’s always up to the audience,” Bruckheimer recently said at the Produced By conference in Los Angeles. “If the audience likes the movie, then Disney will come to me and we’ll make another. Or it will be a one-off.”