By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
You'd be hard-pressed to name any blockbusting director more unknown than Gore Verbinski. It's easier to believe Johnny Depp is the only reason why three Pirates of the Caribbean movies made fortunes.
Verbinski, 36, doesn't mind, preferring to avoid spotlights when possible. He's notably soft-spoken, almost academic, for such a frantic visionary. You wouldn't guess he's the eccentric mind behind Rango, a genially bizarre animated comedy. And he won't get as much credit as he deserves this time, either. Not with Depp voicing the title hero and serving as the photogenic face of the movie.
Verbinski spent a few minutes on the telephone discussing animation rules to be broken, his relationship with Depp and a Rango celebrity cameo that really isn't:
No spoilers, but the Spirit of the West character is a brilliant touch. How did you know Timothy Olyphant could mimic that famous voice?
I don't know what movie it was, but I heard him on my television. We always knew that (the Spirit) was going to be a parody. Rango is so versed in heroes, in the sense of Shakespeare, but also (Sergio) Leone and (Sam) Peckinpah, that once he realizes he's in a Western, his dream is going to be with the iconic hero of postmodern Westerns.
We kept thinking about how we were going to do that. One day I heard Timothy and said, "Oh, my God, he sounds just like him." Timothy told me he gets that all the time.
Vocal performances in animated films are typically solo work. What made you decide to record your actors in ensemble?
None of us had made an animated film before. Somebody said, "Well, this is how they do it," and I was, like: "Whoa, wait a minute, you mean the actors aren't in the same room together?" I'm not doing that. That's crazy. I'm not going to give up a technique we use in live action just because somebody says that's how animation is done.
Very early on we said we're not making an animated movie; we're making a movie with animation. We went in with a really defined script, (and) I wanted to hire actors to act and react. It was essential to have them there together. That's when the gifts come. It's the only place in animation when anything happens in real time that you can intuitively respond to.
Lone Ranger (coming in 2012) will mark your fifth collaboration with Johnny Depp. What's the key to working with him?
Every director-actor relationship is unique, and we've developed our own language, our code words. Between takes I'll come up and circle lines in the script and say: "More fuzz here, more stink there," and he totally gets it. His Tonto character is off the hook, and we're working on the screenplay. But he's off to do Dark Shadows with Tim (Burton) next, so Lone Ranger will be sometime after that.
Do you worry that Burton thinks you're swiping his favorite actor?
(Laughs) That's so interesting. But you know, Johnny can make three movies a year, and it takes us two years to make one film. Johnny's got to work.
I know Tim really well. I don't think he's at all jealous.