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How The West Was Almost Lost: Inside Near-Death Experience Of 'The Lone Ranger'

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist July 1, 2013 at 1:25PM

In August 2011, the unthinkable happened: "The Lone Ranger," Disney's proposed $200 million + revamp of the fabled radio serial, was canceled (the exclusive Deadline post started with the word "SHOCKER," in all caps, and described the news as a "stunning development"). The movie had a proposed December 21, 2012 release date and the participation of the team that had transformed "Pirates of the Caribbean" from a theme park staple into one of the most viable film franchises on the planet – Oscar-winning director Gore Verbinski, super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and megawatt star Johnny Depp. But the studio deemed the project too costly and risky, especially in the wake of the big budget western bomb "Cowboys & Aliens." In the final version of "The Lone Ranger," the one that opens in cinemas nationwide this week, the character is one who is brought back from the brink of death, enriched and heightened by the experience. The same could be said for the movie itself.
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The Lone Ranger
In August 2011, the unthinkable happened: "The Lone Ranger," Disney's proposed $200 million + revamp of the fabled radio serial, was canceled (the exclusive Deadline post started with the word "SHOCKER," in all caps, and described the news as a "stunning development"). The movie had a proposed December 21, 2012 release date and the participation of the team that had transformed "Pirates of the Caribbean" from a theme park staple into one of the most viable film franchises on the planet – Oscar-winning director Gore Verbinski, super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and megawatt star Johnny Depp. But the studio deemed the project too costly and risky, especially in the wake of the big budget western bomb "Cowboys & Aliens." In the final version of "The Lone Ranger," the one that opens in cinemas nationwide this week, the character is one who is brought back from the brink of death, enriched and heightened by the experience. The same could be said for the movie itself.

"Every movie gets shut down these days. And then they shut you down. So you go in and start slicing and dicing." - Gore Verbinski

It's easy to see why Disney was skittish: in addition to the colossal failure of "Cowboys & Aliens," they were also knee-deep into post-production on "John Carter," which, like "The Lone Ranger," has western overtones and is set in the tumultuous years following the Civil War. The first teaser trailer for "John Carter," a movie whose production budget (at least in the Hollywood press) was nearing $250 million, had been released a month before production on "The Lone Ranger" halted. The response was not what Disney had hoped for. Instead of the internet-equivalent of thunderous applause, the "John Carter" clip was met with an indifferent shrug. "The Lone Ranger" budget at the time was nearing $250 million, and while Bruckheimer and Verbinski eventually got the budget down to $232 million, it wasn't enough.

Disney and Verbinski had a history of sparring over budgets: famously, the original "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," which was a notorious project openly mocked by much of Hollywood for being based on a theme park ride, completed filming only four months before it was scheduled to hit theaters. In James B. Stewart's essential book "DisneyWar," he recounts that Verbinski "quit or came close to quitting at least four times, and there was talk on the set that Disney would fire him." One meeting between Verbinski, Bruckheimer, and Disney brass, ended in a screaming match. According to Stewart, "Bruckheimer told Verbinski it was the worst meeting he'd ever endured as a producer." The budget soared to $150 million and post-production was so tight that the studio only had time for a single test screening, in Anaheim, just outside of the theme park that birthed the movie.

Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End Nighy

When the sequels to 'Pirates' were launched, again with Bruckheimer and Verbinski, there was at least one moment (captured on the special features for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest") where it looked like Disney was canceling both films, due to rising costs and the unfinished nature of Ted Elliott andTerry Rossio's screenplay(s). The decision to ultimately shoot both films concurrently (sort of) proved to be nearly disastrous: the second film fell behind schedule but needed to meet its theatrical date, which required a majority of the third film to be shot after the second film premiered. This caused the third film ("Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") to go wildly over-budget, with final production costs of around $300 million which, even after adjusting for inflation and sharing some costs with the second movie, made it one of the most expensive films ever made.

Verbinski's somewhat contentious history with the studio, along with the iffy overseas prospects of a big budget western (a genre that doesn't always travel well abroad) and a huge production budget, were enough to give Disney cold feet. But those close to the project remained optimistic about its return. At the D23 Expo, a kind of Comic Con for Disney that was held later that August, Disney president Rich Ross told Deadline, “I’m hoping to do it. I’m certainly hoping. I think it’s a compelling story and no one wants to work with Jerry and Johnny more than me, so we’ll see how it works.” The statement was notable for the fact that it didn't include any mention of Verbinski, only Bruckheimer and Depp (at the time Disney had four movies in the all time Top 10 list – Depp starred in three of them). Soon after Bruckheimer and Depp got behind Verbinski, as all parties slashed their asking prices and stipulated that they would not get paid until after the movie broke even. Talks continued.

Verbinski, for his part, said that this kind of drama is par for the course in Hollywood. "Every movie gets shut down these days," he told us. He then described the back-and-forth: "You turn in your budget and they say, 'Cut 30%.' And you say, 'No.' And they say, 'You have to.' And you say, 'We can't.' And then they shut you down. So you go in and start slicing and dicing." Verbinski went on to say that the version of the movie before it got shut down and the version of the movie that returned to production were virtually identical: "It was the same story. There was a big action set piece in the middle of the movie that we had to take out."

The Lone Ranger

That big action set piece was lost in order to get the budget down from $250 million to $215 million, which was slightly lower than what Disney said would be the cost where they'd start talking about the project again ($220 million) but not their ideal number ($200 million), was described to us by Verbinski: "It was a big biblical locust storm. It was really fun. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were lynched and there was a great speech from the Lone Ranger as the storm of locusts was coming at the same time. It was a nice, chaotic sequence that served to kind of propagate the myth of this masked man and his abilities even though they're totally natural events."

Bruckheimer told us that the sequence was "really spectacular," but that they cut it for good reason. "Gore pulled it out because it was off plot and chances are it wouldn't have made it into the movie in the end because it didn't push the story forward," Bruckheimer explained.

The experience for Armie Hammer, who beat out people like Ryan Gosling for the role of The Lone Ranger, was particularly bittersweet, given the fact that he had once been cast in another iconic role, when he won the role of Batman for George Miller's proposed "Justice League" movie, a part he described as being "painfully close" to a go (yes, he got into the costume and everything). "But everything works out exactly as it's supposed to… If I had done that I probably wouldn't be sitting here now," Hammer told us. When we brought up the possibility that he signed on to the Lone Ranger because he was so close to playing another superhero, he said, "I didn't even connect the two."

Hammer was one of the last people to join the production, seemingly the last puzzle piece to snap into place before the entire puzzle was thrown away. "I was involved for a couple of days before it got shut down," Hammer told us. Not that he was ever worried. "I had the inside line. I got a phone call from somebody – Gore – who was like, 'Look, this is what's going on – you're probably going to hear that our movie is getting shut down. Don't worry about it. This is just Disney. They're playing hardball. They're negotiating. This is how they want us to do this. But we're going to make this movie. It's come too far, it's going to happen.'" Hammer didn't seem phased. "Ostensibly, yes, we were shut down but the inside track was this is just part of the negotiations."

When quizzed about whether or not his character change from before the shutdown to after, Hammer became even more defiant. "Nothing changed, at all, about the entire movie," Hammer told us. Before adding: "Checkmate, Disney."  

This article is related to: Features, The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Ruth Wilson, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Dwight Yoakam, Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer


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