Compared to fellow Oscar noms Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots, Rango is a black sheep. Pandas are cuddly, kittens have accessories but Rango is all gawky and gangly. The bumpy lizard hardly translates into plushee form, but that's the least of its differences. Mousehunt and Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski created this dark cartoon as if playing a game to see how many highbrow movie reference he could add to this story of a computer-animated lizard, a one-eared rabbit and a horny toad in the desert. Among them: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chinatown, and every western. We asked Verbinski how he concocted this fever dream universe, who he thought its audience would be, and be how he feels about being nominated for an Oscar for his first-ever animated feature.
So, your first animated feature is nominated for an Oscar.
It's been really nice, and people seem to like it. I've always been fascinated by animation. This is something that I've been kicking around since about 2003, so I worked with John Logan and David Chen on an outline in 2003, and then I went off and made a few more movies and had been retooling that outline for several years. So it was something that was gonna happen eventually. It just felt like it was the right time.
How much did the aesthetic you developed on Mousehunt, where a live mouse terrorized Nathan Lane, inform Rango?
I think I'm just a fan of the absurd. It's similarly preposterous.
I see this as a film for the children of cinephiles—there are so many references in it. When you and co-writer John Logan started working on the script, was that a goal?
People ask who the audience for Rango is, but when you make a movie there's no distance to let you think of things that way. You don't think: "I'm going to spend three and a half years on this thing I hope goes with these people's tastes. I think everybody who worked on the film started to, in a very selfish way, make the film they'd like to see. In that way it's a celebration of the process; it becomes personal to all the craftsmen who worked on it. So it's a very selfish movie. We didn't make the movie for anybody but ourselves, I don't care if you're six or you're 90, if you want to come and step into the world of Rango, come join us.
So what's the designer imposter for Rango? If you like Rango, you'll also like...?
Probably a bunch of movies that nobody went to see.
Ooh-I don't know about that! Fear and Loathing...
Well, you know, my wife saw that three times, but I think the theater was empty. I've always been a fan of movies that are a little off-kilter, and we really tried to do something different. It's funny: animation is very exacting, clinical, it's all on a computer, it's all conceived and nothing is happening by accident. So we tried to keep a pinch of uncertainty in the film, in the sense that when you watch it, hopefully, you're not quite sure if you trust it. Like, you're not sure if some character's gonna blurt something out randomly, or if it could go off the rails at any moment. We tried hard to create that feeling, as if it was an occurrence that was photographed rather than something that was manufactured.
Exactly how do you make magic in a scenario where there are no accidents?
Yeah, it's really hard. I don't know if we achieved magic, but we were certainly trying to preserve any kind of awkward moment. We had to manufacture anomaly and flaw, so whether it's a camera's work that's out of focus, or a flare, or something that you're manufacturing to make it feel like it's live action photography—or performances, like something in the character that feels like it's shooting from the hip. When we recorded the actors, we put them all in one room and tried to get reactions and people speaking on top of each other. We chased actors around a room with a boom mic, rather than having them sit at a radio mic and read. We just tried to do little things to maybe increase the sense: "The thing is alive." Ultimately you throw massive amounts of detail at it until that computerized ball of clay starts to become self-aware, until it becomes sentient. And I think that has to do with multiple iterations of a twitch in the eye, or the dilation of a pupil—it's just minutiae. You just kind of stack it, until, you know, "It's alive!"
But that also sounds like the recipe for cacophony.
It is. They're sort of a wonderful couple.
So why the film references?
Well, that wasn't intentional at first. That sort of came organically. The early idea behind Rango was to do a western with creatures of the desert. That was basically the premise, and then it sort of evolved into "Okay, well then there should be a Man With No Name who comes into town. And if it's a western, it's dry and dusty and should be about water. Maybe instead of the land grab or the cattle rustlers or the bank heist, it should be water-related, like Chinatown-lite. So for subplot: if he's the outsider, maybe he's aquatic. If he's aquatic, maybe he's a chameleon. If he's a chameleon, he should be an actor. If he's an actor, he should have identity issues. And that sort of led to, "Well, maybe he's 'the role' of the protagonist" and that's self-reflexive and lets us celebrate the form itself. That led to "Well, he's probably versed in Homer and Shakespeare and Sergio Leone." He knows he's entering this genre. He's a character that's in pursuit of a frame or a framing element that would make him stop floating around and give him purpose and identity.
A literal frame.
Right. He's looking and he's aware, so he puts it together very quickly: "Oh, I'm in one of those westerns." Ultimately through Rango, we started to celebrate the genre references and it seemed organic. But that was the chronology of it. It wasn't just, "Hey, we're making a western."
You make it sound like a chess game played by film students with identity issues. Is it a nice way to pat the backs of kids eager to pick up their family's camcorders—oh, I dated myself!
It'd be an iPhone. But, it's true and I think that was the wonderful thing about Rango. When we knew that we could break the fourth wall and we could have this sort of Mexican-Greek chorus singing at the demise of the hero—that allowed us to celebrate the wobble of the top, if you will.
The wobble of the top?
Well, that there was some uncertainty in his journey, and there should be uncertainty. I was always a fan of those westerns where Liberty Valance or Strother Martin would stumble into a scene, and I felt like there was a whole character there. That's not a walk-on, there's a whole character—at some point the camera could choose to just follow him, and forget about Jimmy Stewart. I would want to know that guy's story: Where's he from? Where's he going to? And we tried to do that with our characters. There's a rabbit with one ear—
Yeah, the doctor's got one ear! You know, at some point before this movie, he lost his ear in some incident. We wanted to impregnate the world with these characters that don't feel like they're just there to serve the story this story-the story is like a wedge of cheese that's cut out and bisecting other stories that are just as equally interesting.
Not to bring up Mousehunt again, or anything.
I was really perplexed and intrigued by the diversity of varmints in the world. They're so hyper-specific that it's actually difficult to re-identify them when they return to screen.
In some ways, we sort of had the opposite intention. Maybe that's the result of so much detail, but obviously if they were a village of pigs, they would all be pigs. The pig with the blue hat, the pig with the red hat...
Exactly. And the pigs would just stand in for people and we'd see that immediately and not think of it again.
Well, it would have been a lot easier to render and light, and to create those performances. But then it's like "Who is Waffles? Who is Bones? Who's Sgt. Tony?" Waffles feel like he should have sharp edges, and so he's gotta be a horny toad. It didn't matter what scale they were. You've got spiders the size of birds and rabbits the size of small pigs. Who are these guys, you know? And I think westerns are like this: a bunch of grimy dudes in a bar.
Indistinguishable grimy dudes.
Yeah. It gives you something to enjoy the second time, too.
I once did this series of pieces on the stop motion animators in San Francisco. One characterized himself as a "failed actor," which is obviously not true because of the way that his little characters move. So, was directing animators at all like directing actors?
Yes, very. I would never want to make a movie where somebody said, "And these are your animators!" You have to hand-pick them like you would your cast. They are performers.
What did Roger Deakins add? He came on as a supervisor, right?
Yeah. I had done thousands of shots at ILM, but I've usually brought them a photographic plate, so all of the information is in the plate: how it's lit, the lens. And then they're very good at matching that live-action field. When you're fabricating everything from scratch, there's too many ways you could go. We do so much cheating when we film something. If you are sitting in this chair and this camera's there, as soon as we go to do your close-up, we may put you on an apple box and move the table behind you and adjust the curtains, so the lamp's not coming out of your head. We change everything every time we move the camera. And on a computer to change everything is a lot trickier. It's easy to grab a chair and move it, but suddenly if every time you move the camera, you're adjusting a big cut, you're adjusting the composition. So Roger was really a great collaborator. I was bringing him in to basically work with the lighting department to say "Here's how we would do it if it were live-action." You know, "We would adjust the balance, we would bring the light a little closer, we would put some negative fill here to create a darker shadow." Just so that the parameters weren't infinite anymore, in terms of how to light a scene. They were very specific.
Kind of limiting all the elements in the cacophony.
You have to. Just so we wouldn't do too much. We needed to focus it back into a sense that we were trying to achieve not a reality, but a very particular reality. That, to me, had to do with feeling like: if I'm a lizard and you're a tortoise, then the cameraman is here trying to photograph us and I may lean to my right and block you—you know, he has to adjust. They're happening, and you have to manufacture all those things, because the computer wants to make it perfect, and it takes a lot more work to create a flaw. But I think it's the flaws that make it feel like it's just a little bit more that it's taking place. That it's not created, but that it's actually occurring. That was the big key in talking to all the animators, was to get out of the mode of, "You're executing a shot," and start getting in the mode of, "You're executing whole sequences," and reactions have to build up to something and have a meaning, as if that actor on the day on take six was actually responding to something that was happening that was unexpected. On live-action, you're trying to capture some kind of unexpected moment of truth that might occur between two actors. Everybody comes in with a plan, but it's nice when the plan evaporates, and then there's some thing that nobody expected happening.
Yeah. And it's hard to fabricate that—but in animation you have to completely fabricate it.
Which is kind of scary.