We first asked about Verbinski's transition from live action to animated films. From his very first movie, 1997's "Mouse Hunt," the director's sensibilities occasionally pointed toward an imagination that required a bigger canvas, which culminated in some truly breathtaking moments in a trio of 'Pirates of the Caribbean' films that brought Verbinksi closer to the animated realm. Verbinski admitted that he was always edging towards an animated film. "I always wanted to do an animated movie," Verbinski said. "I find it to be incredibly liberating as a way of telling a story." The unpredictability appears to Verbinski, saying, "It lends itself to more surreal concepts because you're limited by expectations of total reality and I just think you can have a conversation with a peanut butter sandwich or Miyazaki turns the parents into pigs [in 'Spirited Away']. You're limited from the conventions of live action."
Verbinski said that he chose to do "Rango" at ILM because he had already been through the trenches with them on the 'Pirates' movies. "I don't know anybody at DreamWorks or Animal Logic in terms of a creative team to work with," Verbinski. "But all the guys at ILM I knew since we had done thousands of shots together. There was a real shorthand. I didn't want to give all that up."
Another thing drove the development of "Rango": fear. Verbinski and his team were terrified of making another, typical animated movie, one with smooth lines and precise handling like some luxury sedan. "What was driving everything was a great fear of iteration equals homogenization once you pass the threshold of rewriting and improving something," Verbinski said. "Animation is so born of iteration, just thousands of iterations, and it was something that was a mantra – let's cherish and preserve the awkward moment wherever it exists." To that end Verbinski came up with a unique idea of how to frame the animation in an effort to strive for imperfection: "We wanted to maintain the sense that there's a lizard and a tortoise and there's a guy in the room and we're photographing it. And maybe we're using take one from this shot and take six of that shot and maybe the focus was a little late and there's a bump in the camera move and the audio track doesn't match perfectly." Verbinski looked at it like,"What if Hal Ashby was there directing the lizard and the tortoise and they were 6-feet tall? They would try stuff and things would happen and it would evolve."
Guiding that team were a series of films that inspired Verbinski to make "Rango," a list that he shared with us, even though he admitted it was tough to whittle down his list to ten choices. "That was really hard. I realized after I had sent it that I ended up dropping all the John Ford movies…," he said. Many of the choices on the list are easy to spot within "Rango" – the mixture of widescreen vistas and tight framing from "Once Upon A Time in the West," the existential listlessness of "Being There" and the mistaken identity of "Cat Ballou." But we wanted to ask about the selections that weren't as apparent in "Rango."
It should come as no surprise that "Chinatown" is on Verbinski's list. Many have noted the plot similarities between Roman Polanski's classic and "Rango," and we were curious as to why Verbinski chose to use the film as a template. "Very early on, we needed a plot," Verbinski said. "We had this outline and I knew he was going to come to a town and pretend to be a hero and the town was going to have some belief system that was going to be singular and odd. And as we started chucking out the cliché classic western plotlines. We said, 'Well, he's aquatic and it takes place in the desert and this is about hydration.' It seemed like we could poach a little bit of 'Chinatown' – it does take place in this Mojave desert and there's a link to California and water issues. So let's go 'Chinatown' light. It's a pretty elaborate plot so we just shattered it."
More surprising was the inclusion of "Charly," the adaptation of "Flowers for Algernon" that won Cliff Robertson an Academy Award. Verbinski summed it up simply: "Identity quest." He then elaborated: "Falling in and out and discovering who you are." It connected with another one of his picks: "That and 'The Passenger' were kind of identity narratives that I thought were important. 'The Passenger' has a little more of pretending and the puppet that can't escape the strings. People create avatars but there's blowback; you aren't completely liberated by assuming that alternate identity. And 'Charly' is things really coming into focus."
While talking about what drew him to "The Wild Bunch," Verbinski explained his fondness for the "post-modern western." "This is actually why John Ford isn't on there too much, although 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' and 'The Searchers' and all that stuff is the meat and potatoes, the groundwork, and you can't turn it on its head unless you know what it looks like standing upright," Verbinski began. "But the post-modern western, things like 'The Wild Bunch,' are the worlds getting more complicated. The silhouette of the man on the street with the gun on your hip, and then came disillusionment; the horizon got cluttered and the silhouette got harder to define." He says the mythos of the west is something people long for, long after it's gone. "I think people imagine going back to a time when they knew who they were and they knew what the circumstances were – if you screwed up it was your fault. Now it's like, 'What do you mean the stock market's crashed? I had nothing to do with that.' People are at a loss for understanding. So I like those kind of stories, the post-modern western where things have evolved and the individual is no longer in control."
We'll have more from our chat with Verbinski, but for now, here's his list of "Rango" influences:
Duck, You Sucker!
Once Upon a Time in the West
The Wild Bunch