Director trades swashbucklers for vermin in newest film

By Drew Hunt

Filmmaker Gore Verbinski is best known as the director behind one of the most financially successful movie franchises in recent history, Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.” For his newest project, the Western-influenced “Rango,” Verbinski tried his hand at animation.

Joined by actress Abigail Breslin—who lends her voice to the character of Priscilla, a loveable, precocious rodent—Verbinski gave The Chronicle a chance to dig up some dirt on the film, including the casting process, nailing down a unique tone and Verbinski’s growing partnership with actor Johnny Depp.

The Chronicle: The making of “Rango” differed from other animated films because you actually shot a live action version before the animating began. Describe that process.

Abigail Breslin: We were all [in] the same room together, so we all were actually playing off each other, and we all had a little bit of our costume on. It was better than just being behind a booth. It was a lot more fun than just being by yourself, where they chose the best take from each scene from another actor. But we were actually with each other, so if we wanted to change something we could. I actually forgot midway through filming we were doing an animated movie.

The Chronicle: How does that method affect the filmmaking process? It seems like something so unconventional would create some difficulties.

Gore Verbinski: Thinking about this film holistically was a major challenge. But to see this team of 40 animators bond together, I could ask questions and they could describe and define the emotional state of the character prior to having mechanical discussions. I have immense respect for animation directors. It’s a lot harder than I ever imagined. There are no gifts. Everything is manufactured and created.

AB: Even though [Verbinski] took our emotions and put them in animated form, you have to rely on your voice to tell the story. In live action, you can rely on facial expressions, or you can raise an eyebrow or something like that. In this, you don’t really have that opportunity, so you really have to make sure your voice is something you use prominently. It takes a long time to get it perfect. I made this movie when I was 12, and I’m 15 now. But it’s been great to see it go from each stage.

The Chronicle: Did you take a look at any other Western films to find inspiration?

GV: I’m a fan of Westerns but really the most modern Westerns, like the “Wild Bunch,” [where] the myths are dying and it’s the end of an era. Progress is inevitable for us. The railroad is coming. When I was very young, I found Sergio Leone movies [like] “Duck, You Sucker” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.” I saw them probably at an age-inappropriate period and felt like I was sneaking into a forbidden world.

AB: That’s what’s so great about [“Rango”]. There are references to movies kids wouldn’t necessarily know but their parents would. It can appeal to a broader audience.

The Chronicle: How did you go about casting the film? Did you choose actors based on the characters, or did the characters change once the actors were in place?

AB: These were the characters from the start. But that was what was so great about it. You know, these are lizards and rats. They’re not puppies and kittens and bunnies. But they made them very endearing. They’re the opposite of what you’d want to see. I’m from New York City, and if you see a mouse, you walk across the street and go the opposite direction. But if you saw Priscilla, you’d be like, “Oh, hey girl, what’s up?” [laughs]. I loved seeing the drawings of her.

GV: Well, Rango was always going to be Johnny [Depp]. From the very first sketch of Rango—from even before that first drawing—I knew he was in. With Johnny, [we’ve done] so much work together, we developed a shorthand—I mean, a lot of times I’ll speak almost in sound effects and nonsensical words. I’ll go up between takes and underline one line [of] dialogue and say, “More fuzz here, more spank on this one.” He knows what I’m asking him.

On “Rango,” there was a tremendous amount of trust. I said, “I’m going to [make] this animated movie about a lizard with an identity crisis,” and he just went, “Fantastic! Let’s do that.” He was in without reading a script or anything.

The Chronicle: “Lizard with an identity crisis” is pretty deep for an animated kid’s film. Was it your intention to make a film that was perhaps a bit smarter than a run-of-the-mill family movie?

AB: There’s stuff for every age in [the film]. It can appeal to a broader audience. It doesn’t talk down to kids; it doesn’t dumb down anything for kids. Animated movies just keep getting better. Two of my favorite movies last year were animated movies. I think the message of this movie is all about working together, and also to be who you are, and [don’t]

judge people.

GV: I never really set out to make a movie for an audience. [I try] to make a movie I like and I would like to see. I hope there are enough people [who] agree. Certainly, the “Pirate” movies were intended to be family movies. [But] I never really articulated or even had discussions [about] that. I took the same approach to “Rango.”

I think it’s great for kids. My kids love it, but my kids like “[Monty] Python and the Holy Grail.” I think animation is constantly referred to as a genre for kids and moms. And I don’t know where that comes from. Why does animation have to be linked with Happy Meals?

“Rango” opens in theaters nationwide on March 4. Check local listings for showtimes.