In "Lone Ranger," director Gore Verbinski reteams with one of his favorite leading men, Johnny Depp, for another comic romp through the past -- only this time they're playing cowboys instead of pirates.
Moviefone chatted with the director about the difficulties of having a super straight-arrow lead (squared-jawed Armie Hammer of "The Social Network" and "J. Edgar") as well as doing justice to the way things really were for Native Americans. Verbinski admitted that keeping a balance is "tricky," and that dealing with Disney executives can be a "bloodbath" but laughed, "It's our job to make executives nervous."
WARNING: Mild spoilers ahead
Moviefone: So what made you want to tackle "Lone Ranger?"
Verbinski: I was just fascinated with the concept of this Native American and, basically, this cop handcuffed together on this quest where their worlds collide around them. I thought, there's a story there to be told. The opportunity to reinvent this thing seemed like a challenge.
How hard do you think it is to sell people these days on a hero who's, historically, been so squeaky clean?
I think our version is taking that and shackling it to Tonto and kind of sending him out into the West where a squeaky clean guy's concept of justice -- his belief system -- becomes challenged. His black-and-white, bookish understanding of right and wrong doesn't really gibe with this world. And that's what's fun, to see him question his own beliefs and struggle with them, unlike a cardboard version.
And how hard was it to find the right guy to play the Lone Ranger?
It was very hard. I think Armie, when he came in and read and we talked... I couldn't get Jimmy Stewart, so he's the next best thing. He's got this wonderful optimism and he is a little out of time. He's a tall, good-looking leading man and what director doesn't want to put that in a meat grinder and chew it up?
WIth some of the film stunts, you seemed to be paying homage to early film classics with Buster Keaton.
I think once you put the Transcontinental Railroad as the backdrop of your movie, you have to have a pretty amazing train sequence, and there's a lot of great train sequences that have been filmed over the years. Certainly, "The General" with Buster Keaton is up there. [Our stunts] just came out of trying to take a train chase and really create something memorable.
You're trying to create a sense of the past but also satisfy audiences who expect spectacular stunts. Is that a tough balance to keep?
Yeah. We're in the summer movie landscape. We have to deliver, on the one hand, the spectacle that you expect in a summer movie. At the same time, you've got a story to tell and the story has to be compelling on many levels. By telling it through Tonto's perspective, you're dealing with the Native American issues and you have to be honest with issues of loss and progress. I think the tonal balance is always tricky, but that's the wonderful thing about movies.
Johnny is a producer on this and you've obviously worked with him a lot through the "Pirates" series and "Rango." How much of the characterization do you leave up to him?
We have a very good shorthand -- a lot of late night dinners, where we talk about all aspects of the character. Johnny's very involved in the look of the characters that he portrays. In this case, he was very concerned with the integrity of portraying a Native American and what that means. He's very serious about that. We have very similar tastes, so he contributes a tremendous amount. It's hard to describe in a sound bite that relationship, but it goes back many, many movies. It's just a good friendship.
Even though you had some Native American advisors on this, early on, there was some concern you'd be disrespectful or offensive in some way to the depiction of Tonto. Are you still worried that some people won't be happy with the way you portray him?
I think we're in pretty good shape. You can't please everybody. But remember in our narrative, Tonto is a band apart. He was kicked out of his own tribe. His own leaders think he's a bit warped. He's adapted and kind of created his own mythology as well. But I think what they're most pleased with is that we take very seriously the concept of loss and that this was their land. I think those themes of respect for the land and nature being out of balance are treated with reverence. The land is a character in the movie and the train is a character. The movie has action and humor and romance, but also there's a sadness in there too that we take seriously.
You have a villain who's (MILD SPOILER) a cannibal. How does that end up being in a movie released under the Disney banner?
It's sort of our job to make executives nervous. We did the first "Pirates" movie, and I think as soon as soon as Disney decided to make its first PG-13 movie, they're always going to jump a little bit every time. I'm still suffering from watching a kid kill his dog in "Old Yeller." Walt Disney was a brave guy, so when I think of the Disney brand, I think of him.
Do you get a lot of notes? Or are you allowed to do what you want?
Oh no, it's a bloodbath. It is. But that's how it always is.
The production got shut down at first because of budget issues and there was talk that the original script had a supernatural element, including werewolves. So is this the version you wanted to make?
I started on the project in 2006. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio had been working on the screenplay. At that time, I think the rights were at Sony. They had their approach and we sort of had a disagreement. I was never interested in that version. I went off to do "Rango" and then five drafts later they still didn't have a movie they were happy with. That's when Johnny said, "Will you come back to the project?" and I said, "Yeah, but here's the way I want to do it." I was very specific about my approach and there was never anything supernatural other than, "'Is this narrator suffering from dementia or does he actually have some mystical qualities?"
What are you hoping people are thinking when they leave the theater?
If you want to just go to a movie and have a good time, you're allowed to do that, and if you want, three days later, kind of go, "Wow, was there medicine in that cake?' then I think that's good too.