From the swashbuckling adventures of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies to the nightmares of The Ring, Gore Verbinski has proven he knows how to make a Hollywood blockbuster. Now, he's hoping that he can translate that success to animated features. Rango, staring Verbinski's Pirates partner Johnny Depp, is about a pet chameleon struggling to find his identity. Accidentally tossed out on a desert highway, Rango comes across a motley gang of creatures with a dwindling water supply desperately trying to survive in the harsh environment. Instead of saying who he really is, the lizard reinvents himself to be a tough outlaw. TIME talked to Verbinski about bringing his live action sensibilities to the animated world and why he thinks viewers are still fascinated by the western.
How did you develop the Rango project?
We just created it from scratch. I wanted to make an animated western. And so I got together with some artist friends and John Logan (writer of The Last Samurai), and we worked on it no studio affiliation. We worked out of a house for a year and a half, just drawing storyboards and doing the voices ourselves and playing guitar and cooking hot dogs on the Webber grill.
Did you always see Johnny Depp as the lead?
Yeah, I had talked to Johnny about the basic premise, about this chameleon with an identity crisis and he agreed to do it. The original idea was kicking around since 2003. When you work with somebody on three Pirates movies, you kind of get a sense of where they shine. It was like a vehicle built for Johnny to drive.
I read somewhere that this is the first Industrial Light and Magic animated feature. Pixar was born out of ILM. Do you feel a rivalry with them?
I think they do an amazing job. I've never thought of animation as a genre. I think of it as a technique to tell a story. I just don't know when we all decided that if it doesn't fit in a Happy Meal box it's not for kids. I remember flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz and I grew up watching Monty Python. I think that kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for, especially when it comes to the absurd.
Even though it's a 2D movie, it felt like the picture was in 3D without having to wear the glasses. Was this the kind of the effect you were going for, getting this crisp, clear image?
It's more of a creature animation movie than a straight up animation movie, so we were focused on a kind of hyper detail particularly in terms of the faces to convey some sort of emotional nuance that you don't get in a talking potato or whatever. We're trying to get involuntary muscle spasms and sweat on the upper lip and hair follicles and a lot of details. With detail comes a particular sharpness.
When we had discussions about doing a 3D version of the film, they were long and particularly complicated, but sitting back and looking at the shots as they were coming out I ultimately felt we weren't missing that dimension that you need to put glasses on to find. That would just be a gimmick to charge more at the theater.
So, it was a conscious decision not to do it in 3D?
Yeah, we were halfway through when the discussion came up again, and we actually did a few tests. Ultimately, we just said it doesn't feel right to chase it. It didn't feel right; it didn't feel like we were doing 3D for the right reasons.
Explain to me this concept of "emotion capture" that you used.
We didn't now what else to call it because it's not motion capture, which is when your actors' physical performance is driving the computer. We were just recording their sound only, so we jokingly called it emotion capture because we had all the actors in this one space at one time wearing flip flops and hats and side arms, jumping off apple boxes. It gave it a theater of the absurd feeling. We were just trying to get a really lively soundtrack, get any sort of anomalies we could hold onto and cherish.
Everything that we were trying to do was to make it feel like there actually is a lizard talking to a tortoise. We're trying to fabricate this sense that it happened. It wasn't manufactured. The term "emotion capture" was just a poke at motion capture to say, "Look, we're doing something different." The actors were all saying this isn't how you do animation. A lot of them worked on animated films and they never wore hats and jumped around and shot guns and running around while doing them.
What's an example of something you were able to change because all the actors were together in the same room?
I would say when Rango and Beans (Isla Fisher) are together, when she freezes for the first time, and he's got her arm around her, and he's doing, "What are you doing?" "I was not," that sort of thing. If you had one person in the room and then a few months later another person in the room, and you were cutting the different audio together you would never get that sort of awkwardness.
The Western is typically considered a very American genre. But there are movies like The Good, the Bad and the Weird, which is a Korean Western. What do you think it is about the genre that gives it a universal appeal?
I think the western has been hiding a bit. The Pirates movies were Westerns, Star Wars is a Western. It's nice to see it in the West again. To me there's something about the silhouette of the [gunslinger], life and death exists right there on your hip. There's a sense of control. There's a sense of a simpler time when things were black and white. Things [eventually] got more complicated. Today we're just growing and consuming, and I think maybe there's a sadness in that. People are longing for a time when there was a black and white and good and bad.