The saga of Disney's big screen "The Lone Ranger" movie has been a tortured one indeed – after informally announcing in 2008 that Johnny Depp would star as steadfast sidekick Tonto, the movie was put on pause so that the studio and star (as well as producer Jerry Bruckheimer) could concentrate on the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" film. After that 'Pirates' entry wrapped up, "The Lone Ranger" was officially on again, with original 'Pirates' trilogy helmer Gore Verbinski in the director's chair. But abruptly in August, Disney shut down pre-production, citing an out-of-control budget and uneasiness due to the recent failure of big budget western "Cowboys & Aliens."
Of course, it was announced recently that the movie was back on, with a significantly trimmed budget and all the creative principles intact (it was theorized that Verbinski, who has a penchant for budgets-be-damned spectacle – "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" went ridiculously over budget -- would be the first one to go), including Depp and Armie Hammer, who was set to play the title role. What exactly happened in between the shutdown and the start-up (and what was lost in the process) has remained something of a mystery. Until now. Jerry Bruckheimer sat down with the Hollywood Reporter to talk about the "compromises" the production had to endure and what's up with the next 'Pirates' movie.
The mega-producer made it sound like halting a big time production like "The Lone Ranger" is par for the course (especially during his time at Disney) noting that, "I've had so many movies shut down. The first 'Pirates' was shut down. 'Pearl Harbor' was stopped. So was 'Armageddon.' For me, this is normal. This is: 'Get real. Let's get the budget where we can make it.' "
Bruckheimer then explained the shutdown matter-of-factly as such: "We had a script that we kept working on. It was evolving. You start looking at locations, you look at the menu and say: 'I like all these desserts. I want 'em all.' And you hit a number and they say, 'We can't afford that.' Then you start cutting it back. Disney wanted to stop the spending unless they felt the budget corresponded to the number that the boss [Disney chief Bob Iger] wanted. They had set a deadline [Aug. 12] for us to submit a budget, and we didn't hit their number. They said, 'Can you hit it?' We didn't have enough time to really vet the budget, and we said we couldn't hit it right away. And they said, 'We have to stop the bleeding.' We understood what they were doing, but we wanted to keep working."
What Bruckheimer might not have understood was how deeply all facets of the company were into "The Lone Ranger" prep – including preliminary plans for a kind of live show in the stateside Disney theme parks' Frontierland sections featuring characters from the movie.
Bruckheimer explains what they did in the six weeks of their break as something that sounds like it should have been done in the first place. "We redid the production plan," he says. "If we had a big crowd scene and then the next day we were shooting just Tonto and the Lone Ranger, we still had the crew 'on' because you have them weekly. So we bunched the sequences that were big together, and for the smaller scenes [we] laid off the extras, the effects people, the makeup people. It costs an enormous amount with 150 extras on the set. It's not the extras, it's the people that support the extras. You're still carrying all the wardrobe, makeup and hair people. We bunched together scenes with Tonto and the Lone Ranger, so we had a much smaller crew. We saved about $10 million just by doing that."
He also says costs were cut by changing locations (moving from New Mexico to Louisiana saved them $8 million and they also dropped some sequences set to be shot in California because "it was another production office that we had to open. Every time you have a new location, you have to use crew time setting it up for you. There are a lot of expenses"). Bruckheimer also answered the question everyone was wondering when the negotiations were going on – would the biggies reduce their fees or take a deferment?
"Disney held back fees, and I put up some of my development money," Bruckheimer explained. "I've done that before. [Director] Gore and myself and Johnny and some vendors and creative people agreed to deferments. They will get paid at a certain point that Disney negotiated with them, as I will. It's a 'favored nation' deal, so we all get paid at the same point when Disney recoups." So Johnny Depp will still make his promised bah-zillion dollars, it just might take a little longer. Thankfully, the little people cut their fees. "Some below-the-line people gave us reductions," he said.
What did the movie lose, content-wise, though? We noted that the original version of the script (written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio with rewrites by Justin Haythe) was bursting at the seams with complicated supernatural elements, including wolves, coyotes and the mythical Wendigo. Later it was revealed that the movie was supposed to contain "the biggest train sequence in film history."
While he makes it seem relatively straightforward, Bruckheimer did admit to some cuts that could cut down on the oversized spectacle of the film. "We cut a sequence involving a coyote attack -- supernatural coyotes -- and a small animated segment. The train [scenes] are intact. We trimmed it a little bit. Gore made some sacrifices creatively, but nothing that would hurt the film." He seemed defiant that the movie did have to be really big, noting that making it less overwhelming would have made it pale in comparison with some other forthcoming blockbusters. "The competition is fierce. You can't compete with 'The Hobbit,' you can't compete with 'Transformers' if you do that. The audience will stay home."
He also seems happy with the release date shift – from Christmas 2012 to May 31st, 2013. "It's a better date. Before, we were up against 'The Hobbit' and 'World War Z.' Now we're a week after 'Fast and Furious' and a couple weeks before 'Superman.' The competition is not as bad. There are a lot of movies jammed in at Christmas. In the summer, you have a longer run. You're cut off after the first of the year on a Christmas release."
Oh, and what about the next "Pirates of the Caribbean"? That's not exactly going swimmingly, either. "We're in the outline phase. We will lay out a story. We have a script, but we decided we could do better," Bruckheimer explained. It was revealed that earlier this summer, Terry Rossio (on his first solo outing), had turned in a draft to Bruckheimer and Disney. For those of us who sat through "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," we can attest that bringing in new blood to the franchise might be a good idea. By the fourth time it was starting to feel like the franchise was treading water. Whatever happens, Captain Jack Sparrow won't be arriving for a while just yet so Depp can try on a new franchise character hopeful in Tonto.