Gore Verbinski’s Rango is not a spoof or satire of westerns. It is, in fact, a genuine western. Keeping that in mind, Verbinski hasn’t made an animated film with modern “of-the-moment” pop-culture references and a wacky hip soundtrack. Rango is no Shrek or Madagascar. The archetypes, the story, the score (courtesy of Hans Zimmer) and style is done in an old-school fashion, but with a slight twist.
This isn’t Verbinski’s first western outing. The Pirates of the Caribbean films are total odes to the western and even some of Verbinski’s smaller-scale films – such as The Weather Man and The Mexican - feature the stampings of the genre. As for the realism, Verbinski wanted to keep his animated feature as grounded in live-action filmmaking as much as possible.
Here’s what the soft-spoken eclectic director had to say about not making a western spoof, avoiding perfection in animation, and the meta aspect of Rango:
Rango never comes off as spoof or a satire of westerns, but instead a genuine western. Can you talk about your collaboration with John Logan on getting that specific tone?
Well, it was a really open format process. We had no studio affiliation for about a year and a half, so basically 16 months we were working out of a little house on the hills of Pasadena. It was myself, John, and James Byrkit and a couple of artists.
We would have cards on the wall of the plot of the movie, character designs, text informing the illustrations, and illustrations informing the text. It was a different approach from what John would normally do, which is just [him] on his own writing the script. He kept us dramaturgically sound, because he’s very illiterate in his Shakespeare and Homer.
Was it tricky finding a balance between keeping in touch with classical western tropes, while also trying modernize it?
I think a classic example is when we got to our shootout in the rocks, if you will. Immediately we knew no kid was going to want to sit and watch [makes old sounding gun noises] and the old, “Quick, sneak around the back,” so we went for aerial combat. The bones are basically the same. There’s still the bad guys’ hideout and the confrontation. It’s constantly a tonal discussion trying to slow things down, but finding that balance.
With the Pirates of the Caribbean films and The Mexican, would you say Rango isn’t your first western?
Yeah, The Pirates of Caribbean films were westerns just like how Star Wars was a western. I think the genre has been hiding and disguising itself in different environments for many years. It’s just in my DNA. I grew up watching Leone and Sam Peckinpah‘s films. I came in the back way of John Ford‘s films later on when I was a kid. I was really influenced by these postmodern westerns.
I’d say even The Weather Man has a western stamping here and there, like with the bow and arrow and the idea of modernization.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. I mean, there’s something about the silhouette of the individual in a world that’s cluttered and modernized. The end of the era, and things like that, I continually find in themes about progress. The Weather Man gives himself up in the algorithm of growth and progress. What happens when that silhouette becomes blurred? There’s identity issues for a lot of my characters.
Some directors consider animation as a way to do anything they want, but did you look at that as more of a disadvantage?
Yeah, there’s a real fear in executing only what you imagined. I always think when you orchestrate with a little chaos, then sometimes you get more. You just have to be careful, because there’s a lot of abortions along the way. It’s nice when something happens that is unexpected. You don’t get that in animation, so have to try to create the feeling as if you did. It’s all a lie, though.
I remember hearing you speak at the 5D conference about wanting to make sure you capture imperfections on film, and how important that was. Working in animation, how do you still capture those flaws?
It was real important at ILM to preserve these awkward moments that were created in the audio recordings. It was important to preserve, and whenever possible, get lens flares and bumps in the camera and mismatched skies. In live-action, we might be using take three and that other close-up from take seven, and the sky has changed behind the actor in that amount of time.
It’s so easy to make everything match perfectly in a computer. If you spent 30-percent of your time making sure it doesn’t, then the biproduct starts to feel like you’ve photographed something occurring, rather than you artificially created everything with it. We had a lot of discussions about creating the flaws and the fabric in the digital realm, especially because it can get cold and clinical so quickly.
So when it comes to the action, do you still think and compose those sequences in live-action terms?
Yeah. For the camera, I’m always saying it feels too linear, or I don’t feel the arc of the crane, or I don’t feel the weight of the dolly. I mean, we cheat sometimes because we have to, but we really tried to make you feel where is the camera and the weight of it and the limitations of it. We tried to make sure our digital cameras were accelerating and decelerating in terms of the weight and what type of rigs you’d be using.
Did you shoot the actors on a stage as a way to still get realism?
Yeah, that was sort of our audio recordings, which we jokingly called “emotion capture.” The film is traditionally keyframe animated, but that 20-day period was the only time we could get something intuitive. Having Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty and all these guys made it so important to see them interact with one another. I didn’t know any other way of directing.
Did anyone ever question that method? It’s an unorthodox process for animation.
Well, early on we just ran into a tremendous amount of, “This is how it’s done in animation,” and I had never made an animated movie. The guys at Blink Wink had never made an animated movie. And the people at ILM had never made an animated movie too.
We just didn’t approach it like an animated movie. We’ve done thousands of shots in live-action films, so we just approached it from a live-action standpoint whenever possible. We were constantly told, “In animation, they do this,” and we just thought it didn’t make any sense to abandon techniques we felt comfortable with.
What’s your pre-visualization process like? Do you storyboard a lot?
Yep, pencil and paper. Sometimes you have a script and sometimes you don’t, but we usually have photos, storyboards, and location photos on a wall. It’s all sorts of things that are influenced by the script. Sometimes after reading a rough draft, I just cant help but to immediately draw. The construction of shots and the sizes of shots is a language. Some movies, like The Weather Man, are not storyboarded, but immediately when we rehearse I’ll take pictures or draw a shot-list for the day.
I don’t like coverage. I like to think of a sequence as how it’s going to be cut, you know. Seeing the close-up for that reaction and building the hour glass where it gets tighter, and just goes bam. Or starting a scene on a close-up where you don’t know where you are. Just knowing the push and pull is the language of shots.
Can you talk about the idea behind having the film being very self-referential and all the storytelling homages?
It was very clear early on that the film was going to be a film within a film. You got your Mexican Greek chorus singing about the demise of the protagonist. Your protagonist himself is an actor, who is very literate in stage, Shakespeare, the role of the hero, and even Leone. I think he’s very aware he’s entered a western genre, so you’re already within that frame within a frame. It just seemed like everything became a celebration of this guy’s world. He’s visited by western heroes. He makes a connection with this spirit, who’s an Elvis Presley fan.
The film’s references came out of — they’re always there. As soon as you setup the camera it becomes very hard to compose a shot that hasn’t been composed before, especially with the western genre. You got gunslingers in the street, and all the best angles for that have been taken. You’d either have to use the crappy angles or celebrate the shots. I think it made sense and felt right to be referential. It doesn’t feel like a filmmaker is putting himself in to it, but it was organic to Rango and his journey.
Rango is now in theaters.