Rango. A film you, dear reader, and myself know very little about. Oh, sure… we’re aware it has that guy, Johnny Depp voicing the lead character. And it finds the actor reuniting with his “Pirates of the Caribbean” director Gore Verbinski. The film has also lassoed Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina and cinema vets Ned Beatty and Harry Dean Stanton. Furthermore, it’s the esteemed ILM’s first full-length animated feature film. Digest that.
Finished? Good. ComingSoon.net was invited to Blind Wink – just a stone’s throw away from the Universal back lot and, coincidentally, where the bustling activity occurring on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides could be heard – where Verbinski and co-writer James Byrkit permitted us to nestle into their production office to gawk at four walls of impressive conceptual art and be the first to check out a number of sequences from the work-in-progress oddity of a film.
I use “odd” because Rango presents a world of grit, sweat, dust, tight corsets and gun metal. Then it swaps out humans for myriad animals to present one surreal Sergio Leone meets The Wind in the Willows mash-up. Rango, of course, is more than that and Verbinski was kind enough to fill us in.
“It’s the story of a chameleon with an identity crisis,” the director explains. “He fancies himself a hero and is thrust into a crazy set of circumstances where he becomes one and he has to ultimately come to terms with pretending and with what’s real because people start to believe him. He’s a contemporary character thrown into a backwards western genre, if you will.”
Evidence of this is all around this writer as Verbinski guides us into a room splashed with artwork – from character designs to locations and maps of Rango‘s fictional town of Dirt, where much of the film takes place. Behind me, I cannot tear my eyes off of one striking image. It’s an aerial battle and Rango is dangling high above a ravine. But get this: There are, what appear to be, weasels riding on the backs of bats and said bats are affixed with Gatling guns. The pictures is insanity, but the other pieces of concept art accompanying this on the wall are things you might hallucinate after downing a bottle of tequila. There’s a mariachi band made up of owls (the “Greek chorus,” as Verbinski describes them, who break the fourth wall on occasion throughout the film). A horny toad packing a six-shooter. An armadillo with nearly half of his midsection missing as a result of getting hit by a car. A cobra sporting bandoliers. A building whose signage reads “Proctologist and Power Tools.” And then, of course, Rango himself in various guises. In one drawing he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt, in the other, he looks intimidating with a sheriff outfit on. He looks like Don Knotts slipped into a lizard skin and tossed on cowboy outfit (Verbinski will later tell us Knotts was a source of inspiration for Depp).
“There are 85 unique [character] designs,” Byrkit reveals. Verbinski adds, “It’s a crazy mixed bag. [Rango] is a fish out of water here. It’s a journey into a strange world. He’s a thespian in search of an audience. He’s in his terrarium and he’s made friends with the inanimate objects and he’s got names for all of them. When we meet him, he’s in the process of putting on a play with various objects and things get out of hand. The production goes down, literally. Enlightened by his need for conflict, his story begins.”
Verbinski says Rango had humble beginnings that stemmed from the desire to do a western with creatures of the desert. He gathered up four of his favorite illustrators and began the design process as he worked on the screenplay with Byrkit and John Logan. “Jim and I did all of the voices, scratch voices, and cut the whole thing together on a Mac [as an animatic].”
With three massive projects under his belt (here’s lookin’ at you “Pirates”), Verbinski wanted to go “small” with his next film, however, it appears Rango looks like a massive undertaking. As a newcomer to the animated film field, the director will agree, it was much more than he anticipated. A visibly tired, but no less enthusiastic, Verbinski admits that he envisioned directing another project on the side while doing Rango, but that ambition had to be tempered.
As far as casting the picture was concerned, Depp was approached during the second “Pirates” film. “He’s very lizard-like. Very intuitive,” Verbinski stresses, a quality the director was looking for especially when it came down to recording the vocal tracks. “Just because it was an animated movie, I didn’t want to give up the techniques that were developed shooting live-action. Which is basically, you can think of it, as organized chaos. To optimize the capturing of an awkward moment, a moment where things aren’t cerebral, things are not manufactured, where the only thing left is an intuitive response. In shooting live-action, you’re encouraging that sort of chaos and you’re waiting with your butterfly net to capture that moment. Everything in animated film is manufactured, there are no accidents. So, they can get clinical. I scheduled a 20 day record. Got some video cameras to have some reference. We encouraged line overlap, encouraged a raw, kinetic spark to the audio track.”
In essence, Verbinski broke the norm for recording vocal tracks for an animated film. Rather than send out scripts to his leads and bring them in one-by-one for separate recordings, he had groups of actors in for a scene. And as ComingSoon.net witnesses in some behind-the-scenes footage – the actors are literally playing out the film, on a soundstage, surrounded by Verbinski, his small crew, boom mics and a video camera or two (again for reference, not motion capture). “Once we had Johnny’s dates locked [for recording], if you were not available in those 20 days, you were not in the film. We were very lucky to have gotten everyone we had. The story reel was constructed, the screenplay was there and we just tried to strip it down and tried to capture some fun.”
Some of the footage interspersed with the behind-the-scenes clips featured Rango on the run from a hawk and Rango smashing into the windshield of a convertible… driven by a character resembling Hunter S. Thompson (the behind-the-scenes footage showed Depp, in fact, back in his Thompson guise from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Another clip Verbinski unveils finds Rango taking his posse out for a ride. They’re a motley, gun-carrying bunch and the whole scene is supported by the mariachi band’s music. The most arresting part about the footage is the texture. The devil is in the details and you get lost studying every unique character. This is further demonstrated in another clip which finds Rango at a low point in his life and taking an immense risk on his life by crossing a busy highway. Without giving much away, again, stellar detail.
“We’re just trying to do something different,” Verbinski enthuses. “I feel like that there are a lot of animated films that have a certain aesthetic and we’re trying to stay at arm’s length from that. Besides the Western genre, there’s a spirituality to the desert that we wanted to bring to the film, not unlike [Hayao] Miyazaki or some of the surrealists. There’s something else going on. You’ll feel it in the movie. Nature has a kind of energy and that is definitely present.”
Look for Rango in theaters on March 4, 2011. Paramount Pictures ComingSoon.net with the official trailer and an alternate trailer that you can both watch below!