When we meet Gore Verbinski, he’s a man in the throes of jetlag. One rather posh looking cup of tea later, and we settle down to chat, and find that the director of The Lone Ranger and Rango is excellent company. And it was Rango that we started with…
Can we start with a Rango question. I’ve always wanted to ask you this: did Clint Eastwood ever get in touch after the movie was released, given that he’s plainly referenced there?
No, not yet! We never asked permission, so I don’t know what’s going to happen if I ever bump into him.
Was there ever a risk in including ‘him’?
No. We had the whole legal team go over it, and the whole parody law!
The Lone Ranger, then. I liked this movie, which seems like a weird, alien thing to say.
Exactly. You could get put on a cross for saying that.
It seems as though Britain is warming to The Lone Ranger more than America is. But have you had the sense that you’ve had this big target painted on your back?
Yeah, I feel like I’m a man who has been lit on fire, and yet I’m smiling. Because I’m proud of the movie. I feel like we generally did some interesting things with an intellectual property that has been out there for a while, and is a bit dusty. And I think telling it from Tonto’s perspective allows us to turn the whole thing on its head a bit, and dimensionalise it and have fun. Kind of corrupt some of the expectations.
I watched how a lot of websites were scrutinising the movie being made, and it struck me as one of the things you were getting a battering for was committing so much to physical production. That the big moments were in the camera lens, rather than a computer hard drive.
Clearly, there are very intricate, complicate shots. Did it have to be practical for you? Because when the budget needed to come down, presumably computers could have saved you some money?
It had to be practical for me. The landscape needed to be a character in the movie. From a practical standpoint it’s probably easier to do. But if it was spaceships and giant robots, things you don’t have a sense of what they really look like, you could go there. But it would be really gummy and kind of theatrical to do it artificially.
It was all about trying to find some honesty. We know what horses look like, we know what horses look like running next to trains, and what people look like jumping from trains to horses. We know what it’s supposed to look like, and the idea of turning that into something paper, artificial or theatrical wasn’t appealing.
In lots of your work too there’s a real commitment to stillness in the midst of it all. You get very precise comedy moments in The Lone Ranger, where you stop in what looks like an intricately planned moment just to get a delightful reaction shot. That goes against trend again: that big films now apparently have to be constantly fast.
I think that it’s a choice. It’s a pursuit of something genuinely awkward. And I think when you hit too much of that contemporary vaudeville, you just steamroll right past what could be glorious, awkward moments. The awkward moment might be two beats longer than the conventional beat. I think it’s the rhythm of life, and I think life is truly weird.
Rango is full of stop-still awkward moments. Almost like they’re the hardest to put across.
I just think it’s a bit lost to people. Maybe I just watch too many movies from the 70s.
After seeing how well you’d set up a world in The Lone Ranger, I wanted to go and steal $200m so you could make Bioshock for us.
[Sad look]. Yeah. That would have been fun. That would have been really, really fun.
How far did you get in putting the movie together? Were you really within touching distance?
We started building sets. We just started building them, and pre-vizzing some sequences. I just couldn’t manage a PG-13 version of the movie, with the Little Sisters and the injections. To get an appropriate balance level. And yet it’s an art deco world, so there’s so much building of sets. We couldn’t go on location. Basically, we were constructing a space station.
Did you see the world they put into Bioshock Infinite too?
I haven’t, no. I just got so saddened by being so close to it I didn’t want to play it.
You don’t use a second unit I understand…
I have accredited second unit, which is mostly for doing plate photography. But I just find second unit action, editing and directing, I feel it. I feel like they caught a bunch of stuff, and then they went in the edit room and put it together.
But I try to design these things like elaborate puzzles, and there’s some sort of narrative thread always moving within scenes. In this movie, the narrative thread was so orchestrated early on thanks to the William Tell Overture. From the beginning, listening to it, I thought we need to have this live action The Wrong shorts sequence, where we were moving across all these things, but making it gravitationally correct. That, and a Buster Keaton feel.
You can’t hose that stuff down. You can’t get a second unit, put six cameras on it and say I’m going to figure it out later. This was storyboarded and pre-vizzed, and we needed that shot and that shot, and that one has to be exactly two and a half seconds long.
Is that the fun bit? The pre-viz? You’ve never struck me as a man who only finds his films in the edit room.
I think it is the fun bit, the blank page. And there’s a language to a construction of shots, sizes of shots, framing of shots and compositions. So I’m always doodling little storyboards, and then executing them is the labor intensive part. I try not to storyboard dialogue sequences, as you want them to be fresh. You show up on the day and block and do those things.
As we started with Rango, can we end there? It mixed for me some quite brilliant action sequences, with the stillness of some of the comedy. People don’t talk to you much about comedy, but if you go back to Mousehunt, that’s a really funny movie. You described animation as the hardest thing you’ve ever done…
Until this one!
Would you go back to animation?
I would definitely like to do animation again, but I feel like we got away with something under the radar and were left to our own. So much of Rango was done out of my house with some artists and friends, and I think it’s difficult to repeat that. I’d need the right financial partners, ultimately, and I think there are so many agendas. At that time, DreamWorks Animation left Paramount, and Paramount was going to start its own animation division. You just can’t do it with a lot of executives around. I’d rather not do it than try again.
And with that, time was called. Gore Verbinski, thank you very much.