They called it Rancho Rango.
A modest ranch house in the hills of La Cañada, northeast of downtown Los Angeles, it was where Gore Verbinski and a loose band of confederates and conspirators began fleshing out an idea they’d hatched over breakfast back in 2003 at a San Fernando Valley deli: an animated Sergio Leone-style Western populated with creatures of the desert, including a lizard with an identity crisis as the lead character.
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The ideas were crazy, the challenges formidable and the odds of success slim, not least because nobody involved had ever made an animated movie before.
But along the way, Verbinski and his motley crew (with the help of some heavyweights at ILM, who themselves were wading into new waters) made the year’s weirdest and best animated film, an absurdist yarn that now stands a pretty good chance of taking the journey that began at Rancho Rango and ending it in a moment of triumph on the stage of the Kodak Theater.
“I think everybody embraced that feeling of ‘we’ve never done this before, but maybe that’s what’s gonna make this different,’” said the film’s production designer, Mark “Crash” McCreery. “We thought, ‘We’re not confined by any constraints or preconceived ideas. We’re just going to do whatever the hell we want to do, make it the coolest we can make it, and be proud of it.’”
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"Rango" began as ideas kicked around during that deli breakfast. Verbinski wrote a 12-page outline, then went off to make a couple of "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. (One upside: He told the story to his "Pirates" star Johnny Depp, who said, “You had me at lizard.”)
He showed the outline to playwright/screenwriter John Logan ("The Aviator"). Logan came on board as the most linear member of the crew of artists, designers and dreamers who assembled around 2007 and spent more than a year hashing out the movie at Verbinski’s La Canada house.
“It was Crash McCreery and Jim Byrkit and Gore and these insane artists who were doing maquettes and drawings and illustrations,” remembered Logan. “It was like the Dirty Dozen that Gore assembled. And then I would come in, practically with a tweed smoking jacket on, and say, ‘Now let’s talk about narrative structure.’”
But the idea, Logan admitted, was more about fun than structure.
“All the way along, the process of Rango was the process of doing something that we thought was wildly entertaining,” he said. “So you could have Hunter S. Thompson jokes and Shakespeare jokes and Sergio Leone jokes. And we could play the Western tropes honestly and fully. We never cut down the edge of the piece trying to fit into some mythical four-quadrant ‘family market.’ We just had to be true to the story.”
The story, Verbinski said, developed seamlessly.
“You start with a Western, so there needs to be a man with no name, an outsider coming into town. What if he’s a lizard? But it’s the desert, the town is dry, and maybe he’s aquatic. If he’s aquatic, he’s a chameleon. If he’s a chameleon, he should be an actor. If he’s an actor, he should have issues. It sort of just works like that.”
Over 18 months, funded by producer Graham King’s money, Verbinski’s gang worked out the story, designed characters and put together a story-reel version.
“We just started sketching and thumbnailing,” said Verbinski. “It was things like, ‘Western, creatures of the desert, go.’ ‘What do you mean? Can we draw spiders and jackrabbits? What about scale?’ ‘Forget scale. What you’re really drawing is Strother Martin. He just happens to be a creature from the desert.’”
“We decided the characters were not going to be on all fours, they were going to wear outfits, and we weren’t going to explain anything,” said McCreery. “And as soon as we decided that, it opened the floodgates of creativity.”
The filmmakers came up with a ridiculous array of vividly drawn characters, and a style and story that drew on inspirations like Leone, "Chinatown," Don Knotts in "The Shakiest Gun in the West," Dennis Weaver in "A Touch of Evil," Clint Eastwood in anything, "Lawrence of Arabia" and the lighting in "There Will Be Blood."
“We spent Graham King’s money for the first 18 months,” said Verbinski, “and then we showed the story reel to (Paramount’s) Brad Grey, and said, ‘By the way, Johnny Depp is going to play a lizard.’ And we got the green light.”
Part of his plan to keep costs down, Verbinski said, was to “keep the front end really cost effective” and use the visual effects model rather than the animation model when he began working with ILM. “There’s a cost for every shot,” he explained. “Every shot is budgeted per frame, there’s a cost for it, and we are not rewriting at that point.”
Although ILM had never done an animated feature —there’s a separate company under the Lucasfilm umbrella that does that— it was eager to participate.
“We’d done CGI characters,” said the film’s animation director, ILM’s Hal Hickel. “We’d done scaly, furred, clothed characters. But there are things about doing an animated feature that are different. Generally on visual-effects films, even big ones, most of what’s in the frame is film, and we’re putting things into it. We may be extending an environment, or adding a dinosaur or robot or something. But on an animated film, we’re making everything in the frame: every character, every wagon wheel, chandelier, barstool, rock, cactus…”
In January 2009, while ILM was building the world, Verbinski assembled his actors and recorded their voices not in isolated studios but on a soundstage, where they all worked together.
“It was basically fear, I guess,” said Verbinski of the unorthodox animation technique. “I don’t know any other way to direct actors than to have them react to each other. And I wasn’t ready to abandon that process just because somebody was going to say that’s not how it’s done in animation. It was the only opportunity to react intuitively to what was happening in real time.”
Verbinski laid down the soundtrack in 20 days, and occasionally showed ILM video footage of things he particularly liked.
“He’d show us a hand gesture or an awkward little smile, and then the animators would take it from there,” said Hickel. “I remember one time when Isla Fisher said something and then rolled her eyes, and Gore said, ‘Look, guys, you’re never gonna beat that eye roll. Just do that.”
ILM followed his lead in those moments, but also created most of the character movement and made sure that the entire world was, in Hickel’s words, “gritty, grimy, dusty and misshapen.”
He laughed. “I wonder if Gore could sneak this kind of thing by them again. If we do another of these with him, which I dearly hope we will, I really hope he’ll still be able to sneak in under the radar with his own brand of weirdness.”