HOLLYWOOD — Gore Verbinski loves a challenge — and the bigger the better. After directing the first three films in the mega-franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, and following that up with the Oscar-winning Rango, he’s taken on The Lone Ranger, based on the classic 1950’s TV series about a masked ex-Texas Ranger who fought the bad guys in the Wild West with the help of his Indian sidekick Tonto.
Disney’s big-budget (a reported $215 million) feature film reboot marks another high-profile collaboration between the studio and the team of uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Verbinski, who hope The Lone Ranger will do for the enduring western icons what their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise did for pirates.
It also reunites the team with shape-shifting Pirates star Johnny Depp (who also bonded with the director on Rango), who trades in his buccaneer outfit for a crow hat and Indian regalia as Tonto, and features Armie Hammer (The Social Network, J. Edgar) as the titular hero alongside co-stars Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, William Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson.
Behind the scenes, the film also reunites Verbinski with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, ASC, who shot the director’s thriller The Ring, longtime editor Craig Wood (the Pirates films), who teamed on this with co-editor James Haygood (Fight Club), and ILM’s VFX supervisor Tim Alexander (Rango).
Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Verbinski talks about making the film, the challenges involved and dealing with over 2,000 visual effects shots.
POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
GORE VERBINSKI: “For me, the way in was always through Tonto and telling the story through his perspective, and him as this untrustworthy narrator. It’s about the relationship between these two and the collision between the laws of nature and the laws of man.”
POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together, and what was your visual approach?
VERBINSKI: “There were so many, especially when you have horses and trains and you want to make it all as realistic as you can. Early on, we decided to shoot anamorphic, like all the great westerns, and using a combination of film for daylight and then digital for all the nighttime scenes and interiors. For the digital, we used the new Alexa Studio [from Arri], and the film was the first ever to shoot anamorphic Alexa I believe.
“We wanted to approach it as a western, but as an action-adventure film, not a drama, and to get away from that clichéd look of the old westerns that always used day-for-night for nighttime exteriors and that had these brightly-lit daytime exteriors and heavily-saturated colors. We wanted to keep it simpler, so our costumes are all dark and monochromatic and toned-down. And since we knew we’d be shooting outside nearly the whole time, we did a lot of technical scouting where we would go to the locations and then block out our scenes months ahead of the shoot. We even used GPS and various apps to determine exactly where the sun would be by the time we got back to a particular location, and we relied pretty much on natural sunlight for all our daytime scenes.”
POST: How tough was the shoot?
VERBINSKI: “It was brutal. We shot in half a dozen states, with a ton of locations in Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California, and also such iconic places as Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly National Monument. We went from snow and hail to 115-degree heat, but all the dust and the dust storms were the worst. Sometimes you couldn’t even see the actors for the dust storms, and you’d have grit in your food and everywhere on you. I’d take a shower at night and the water would just be brown, And the shoot was so complex technically, with all the train scenes and horses and extras, so after 150 days of that, it really takes a toll on everyone.”
POST: How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot to pull this off?
VERBINSKI: “Right from the start. I always start thinking about post even in the script-writing phase and all the storyboards, and then all during preproduction. It quickly became obvious that I’d have to previs the big train sequence, so we started to break that all down right away. You make decisions based on the ultimate way you want to shoot something, then you realize you can’t afford to do it that way, so you start grouping things together and you’re in this strange triage mode in pre production — budgeting and re-assessing continually.
“So it’s a case of, ideally I’d like to shoot this at this location, but I have 40 extras already in the train car on this other day, so I should just finish them out so I don’t have to bring them back again. So you say, ‘This moment’s really critical — I won’t compromise, but I’ll adapt over here.’ It’s like a giant puzzle of logistics, locations, issues, schedules — and post is always a key factor in the mix.”
POST: Where did you do the post?
VERBINSKI: “At the Blind Wink offices in Pasadena.”
POST: The film was edited by Craig Wood and James Haygood. Were they on set?
VERBINSKI: “No, they were both based at Blind Wink and we used PIX, sending files to them and reviewing cuts and sending notes back and forth while we shot. It was a great set up for us.”
POST: Talk about working with your VFX supervisor, Tim Alexander, and ILM, who did all three Pirates movies and Rango with you.
VERBINSKI: “I wanted to put a similar team back together for this, although this is a very different beast. Tim was on from the very start, tackling all the train scenes in the opening act and finale, which are probably the most complex sequences in the entire film. So I’d previs a sequence, and then we’d discuss exactly how we were going to do it. We had a mantra, which was, ‘Everything in a shot has to be 50 percent real at a minimum. So if we had two guys on the roof of a boxcar and we’re actually driving down a road, we kept the actors and entire background, and then painted out the road so that 90 percent of the frame is real, with extensions. That was our approach as opposed to creating total CG environments. That was our last resort.
“Big sequences, like the finale, were massive puzzles that were tackled throughout the shoot. There were actually shots in it from week one that had to be cut together with material we only got four months later, for a variety of reasons, and the sequence also takes you from the desert to the foothills and trees and through tunnels and so on, so there was a lot of topography changes too.
“Sometimes we had four train cars on two different rigs and we’d tow them double-wide, and keep the environments real rather than be limited by what a real train track could give us. All that had to be integrated with all the VFX and post work, so it was incredibly complex. Ultimately we had over 2,000 VFX in the movie, a huge amount, and you always wish you could do some stuff over again, but we got them all done in the end.”
POST: The post process and VFX must have progressed quite a bit since you did the first Pirates movie.
VERBINSKI: “It’s amazing how fast all the technology’s changing, especially in terms of post. I always wanted to have more of an open format in post and keep it more fluid in the way you edit and incorporate all the VFX and sound and music and so on. It’s getting more like that, which is a good thing. In the old days, post was this thing you did at the end of a movie, to finish it, but as I was saying earlier, now you really have to incorporate it from the very start — even in the writing and early design and planning stages.
“For big movies like this one, it’s becoming this mash-up of techniques and ideas, so that you can mix live action and animation with influences from gaming and so on, which I think is pretty exciting, and it’s really impacting the way movies are being made now.”
POST: The DI must have been important. Where did you do it?
VERBINSKI: “At Company 3 with colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld, who worked with me on Rango and Pirates, and it was very important because the narrative is epic and almost operatic, and we didn’t want to shoot on stages and fabricate the whole thing. I didn’t want it to look too lush, so we went with a rawer version of the bleach bypass, to keep it honest and real-looking. Stefan did a great job of blending all the film and digital footage together to give the movie a seamless look.”
POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would?
VERBINSKI: “I think so, and it really helped that we spent so much time planning it all out and on preproduction and on integrating all the post from day one. Just getting the screenplay right took about 18 months, plus all the storyboards and previs. Then we spent a lot of time — about 10 months — scouting all the locations, and you come up with this wish list of where you’d like to shoot, and then deal with the reality of where you can actually afford to shoot and where’s practical when you have a massive crew and cast to move around. So you have to make smart choices continually.”
POST: So what’s next?
VERBINSKI: “I probably need to do something much smaller after all these huge movies, because they’re so taxing and exhausting to make. But you have to remind yourself of what a privilege it is to be able to even make something like The Lone Ranger, where you have this five-mile, full-scale toy train set to play with, and all the horses and stunts and so on. It’s pretty amazing when you walk on the set and see all this stuff.
“I always loved westerns, and I always remember as a kid seeing old movies and scenes where some guy jumps from a train onto a horse, and made it look so easy. So you tend to get a bit cavalier about it, until you’re actually trying to shoot it, and then it hits you just how dangerous it is. The movie’s full of stuff like that.”