By Drew Taylor | The Playlist February 13, 2012 at 11:59AM
If everything goes the way it should in a couple of weeks, Gore Verbinski's surreal western "Rango" will walk away with the Best Animated Feature Oscar. And it will definitely deserve it, as the film is unique, wondrous, gorgeous and deeply involving epic about a chameleon (Johnny Depp) with an existential identity crisis. We caught up with Verbinski last week (who was calling from the New Mexico set of his next western, Disney's giant-sized "The Lone Ranger") to talk about the film and his top ten inspirations for "Rango." Some of them are quite surprising, indeed.
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."
Many members of the team that Verbinski assembled for "Rango" came from his work on the 'Pirates' films, most notably creature designer Mark "Crash" McCreery, who populated the film's desert town of Dirt (and who was responsible for much of the film's overall look) and visual effects supervisor Hal Hickel from Industrial Light & Magic. Both had worked on bringing the various high seas creatures in the 'Pirates' films (Crash gave us the immortal look of Davy Jones). But it was the group's shared lack of experience in terms of creating a feature length animated film that brought them together. "None of us knew how to make an animated movie so it was very important we didn't give up," Verbinski explained. "We half-learned and stumbled across and remembered what not to do."
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."
The subject of shots is an interesting one, since the guys at Industrial Light & Magic aren't used to working on a project as long and complicated as a movie. Instead they work on moments, or flashes of moments, and so it was up to Verbinski to coax a new way of working out of them. "The thing is if you imagine yourself as a craftsman at ILM, you spend your days tumbling buses and animating shards of glass. You're doing a lot of visual effects work. And even when we got Davy Jones, you're still sitting at your station working at a shot out of context," Verbinski explained. "What I've realized is that you've got a team of guys who are starved for a holistic approach to filmmaking and storytelling. So really we had a lot of discussions where we sat down with the whole team and said, 'We're not making shots, we're making a movie.' And I think you saw a migration from abject fear to absolute joy and liberation, in terms of the animators themselves, because they got to do character animation and in terms of the whole story."
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."
Of course wanting things like camera bumps and audio glitches is something that making a movie inside a computer fights against. "The computer lends itself to perfection so easily, we were fabricating flaws and film grain and lens flair and flaws in performance and holding on a take a little longer, just to make it feel like it's occurring," Verbinski said. "Nothing's occurring in animation – you manufacture everything. So we were trying to make it feel like it was happening and we were catching it while it's happening. We try to stitch in so much anomaly and throw detail at it that it becomes sentient and alive." It's an intriguing concept and adds much to the handmade quality of "Rango," the fact that it feels authorial even though it was assembled by a vast team of talented artists, filmmakers and technicians.
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."
High on the list was Sergio Leone's "Duck, You Sucker!," a film that's seen as the bridge between "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time in America," but has largely been marginalized by film fans, notable mostly for the fact that it was Leone's last straight-up western. Still, it holds a special place in Verbinski's heart. "That's a film that, when I was really young, I snuck into a theater and saw," Verbinski said. "And it's just one of those 'Wizard of Oz'-type movies where I was age inappropriate and I was invited into this world." He took two major things from "Duck, You Sucker!" for "Rango": "I've always loved Leone's cinematic language and use of extreme close-ups, so part was one was the style and part two was the story. It was these guys who just want to rob banks but get caught up in this revolution and become revolutionary heroes. They have this arc as pretenders and there's a consequence and ulterior motives. I think there's a bit of that in there too."
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."
The "Chinatown" influence trickled down to the film's casting, in particular the duplicitous tortoise mayor played by Ned Beatty. "Since we couldn't get John Huston to play the mayor, we got Ned Beatty who's the next best thing and worked with John for years," Verbinski told us. "We wanted that kind of representation of inevitable progress. And just play it straight and be a great man. It's the end of an era, it's the end of a gunslinger. I think Huston was such an amazing actor and director and voice and he understood all of that."
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."
Another off-kilter choice was the 1947 Robert Mitchum oddity "Pursued." "I think mixed genre," Verbinski said of the choice. "I remember seeing that a long time ago. I haven't watched it in a long time actually and I don't know if I'd still be that into it but I remember thinking that was a film noir western and I just really liked that we didn't have to be a strict western. I liked that we could mix in these other ideas."
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."
Another easier-to-spot influence on "Rango" that appears in his list is Alejandro Jodorowsky's psychedelic midnight movie "El Topo." When discussing "El Topo," he just took a deep breath and said, "That thing is a trip. A mystical, spiritual allegory of western spiritualization, all of that. I think it says that you can have allegory and metaphor and things like that in a western. Alejandro, in that movie, did so much more for the western." Verbinski did a lot for the western too, throwing in his influences into a truly potent pop culture bouillabaisse that will probably inspire whole generations of kids without them even knowing it (until one of them makes a highly stylized breakthrough years from now and puts "Rango" on their list).
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