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Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski Discuss 'Rango'

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Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) in 'Rango'

Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) in 'Rango'

© Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies
The Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2, and 3 team of Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski reunite for Rango, an animated tale of a chameleon with an identity crisis. Also featuring the voices of Bill Nighy, Isla Fisher, and Abigail Breslin, Paramount Pictures' Rango distinguishes itself from the pack of animated films with gorgeous animation and writing geared more toward an adult audience. And, thankfully, Verbinski said no to 3-D, which also sets it apart from most animated movies these days. In addition, Verbinski chose to have his actors act out their parts, a major change from the way most animated film characters are brought to life by the voice cast.

Together for a press conference in LA to promote the PG film, Depp and Verbinski explained the process of making Rango.

Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski Rango Press Conference

Reports are you fought tooth and nail in order to make sure that Rango wasn’t going to be in 3D. Are you for or against 3D in general?

Johnny Depp: "I’m waiting for 5D. That’s what I want."

Gore Verbinski: "I don’t know. I just don’t feel...I watched the movie [and] I don’t think there’s a dimension missing. I don’t feel like, I don’t watch it and go, you know, 'It’s flat,' or it’s missing anything. We talked about it early on and it just didn’t seem like we needed to go there."

Johnny, can you talk about finding your Rango voice?

Johnny Depp: "You know, early on some of the talks that Gore and I had had about the character... I mean, you know - talk about two grown men, you know, middle-aged men discussing the possibility of one of them being a lizard. So it starts off on a surreal kind of note anyway. But you know, it was one of the - finding the voice or finding the character, it was like we talked about people in life, when they have a tendency to exaggerate or lie or whatever, you always sort of notice that their voice goes up quite high, you know? It goes to another, a completely different register. Whereas, if I’m talking to you and speaking and babbling non-stop, and then suddenly I’m really nervous about telling you the truth - you know, but I’m lying - so that’s kind of where it came from. You imagine the character to be just really like a nervous wreck."

Johnny and Gore, you have worked together a few times now. What is it you like so much about working with each other?

Gore Verbinski: "I like the way he smells."

Johnny Depp: "I’ve been told I smell good. I mean, I don’t look like I smell good."

Gore Verbinski: "I don’t know. Because we have shorthand, talking and sound effects and unfinished sentences and he seems to understand exactly what that means, and I get it back. And you know, a very complex direction, like, 'More fuzz...'"

Johnny Depp: "More fuzz, yeah."

Gore Verbinski: "More stink on this line, you know? Really, that’s about as intellectual as it gets."

Johnny Depp: "And it really is that, exactly, you know? ' Ah, let’s make maybe some more fuzz. Let’s put some more fuzz on it.' 'Okay. Gotcha.' No, I mean working with Gore in three Pirates films and Rango, certainly, there are no limits to what you could [do], to the possibilities. He allows you to try all kinds of things that sometimes fail miserably."

Gore Verbinski: "Yes, please."

Johnny Depp: "And other times, [he] goes into this kind of weird...you’ve just arrived at some place that you know no one’s ever been to before. And he welcomes it and he creates an atmosphere that allows you to just go essentially ape. And, yeah, it’s a blast. That’s really a fun part of the process."

Gore Verbinski: "What’s great about Johnny is the trust that neither of us are going to make the other one look like an ass. He has to trust that at the end of the day, we’re not going to use that stuff where we’ve tried something that didn’t work, but we’re going to try it because [it's an] anomaly and we’ve got this sort of pursuit of finding the truly awkward moment, which you’re only going to get there by not knowing and sort of venturing into the unknown. And so I just think he’s incredibly brave on top of being incredibly talented. It’s like you’ve got to kind of cross that threshold."

Johnny, you’ve played a lot of characters that kids love, from Edward Scissorhands to Captain Jack and Willy Wonka. What is your relationship with that audience, as opposed to the more grownup roles you’ve played?

Johnny Depp: "I think kids in general, as an audience, are the way forward because they’re not sort of sullied by intellectual expectation or this or that. It’s a very pure kind of response to the work. And the great luck that I had, for example before Pirates 1 I had a daughter. And for about four years all I watched was like cartoons - just cartoons. And I realized at that point that the parameters were far away from what we do in sort of normal, everyday movies, and that you can get away with a lot more. Kids accept a lot more, and they buy it because they’re free. So for me that was everything, in terms of coming up with what Captain Jack would be. So yeah, I trust kids far more than I do adults. Kids give you the honest opinion, you know? They tell the truth."

For Gore, is it weird to see trailers for a new Pirates movie coming out?

Gore Verbinski: "No, I want to go see it."

Johnny, there’s obviously the call back to Raoul Duke [from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas] in the film, but part of your character is also reminiscent of William Blake in Dead Man. Was that a conscious decision?

Johnny Depp: "No, it wasn’t conscious but I can see what you’re saying. Yeah, I mean, this sort of journey, this sojourn, this spiritual quest that William Blake was on, I can definitely see that. But, yeah - no, I didn’t sort of consciously connect the two, not really."

Johnny, you’re a very physical actor and this process is different than the other animated films you’ve done, where you were in a booth. You actually acted this out. Did that help you?

Johnny Depp: "Well, yeah. I mean, ultimately, it was everything. Though there were times when you didn’t feel that, when you were doing it [and] you’d rather have been [in a booth] because you know, well, we’re lazy. At least I am. And I’d sort of rather just sit in front of a microphone and do the thing. However, the process that we did, that Gore created this sort of atmosphere that was really, truly ludicrous. I mean, just ridiculous. It was like just regional theater at its worst. And somehow, because of - not the idea of 'motion' capture, but 'emotion' capture, you know? Certain gestures, body language, movement, something you might have done with your eyes - all those guys, these animators took it and put it in there. So it was very strange."

"I mean, for Harry Dean Stanton to walk up to me one afternoon - because I’ve known him for a million years - and he walks up to me and says, 'This is a weird gig, man.' And I went, 'Oh, yeah. You’ve just started. You just wait.' But ultimately it was the right thing to do. And that was his vision, and we saw it through."

Is this a kids’ movie or are we kind of blinded by the fact that it’s just beautiful animation?

Gore Verbinski: "I think it’s a kids’ movie. I mean, I know my kids like it. You know, my kids like The Holy Grail and so it depends on your kid, I suppose. We’ve shown the movie for 500 kids and they seem to be absolutely mesmerized and enjoying it. There’s hilarity and then when we get into the existential moments. I think they’re not seeing it, their frontal lobe doesn’t operate in that way, but they’re kind of the heart. And they know, 'Why is he leaving now? Why isn’t he facing Jake? Why is he...where’s he going?' And you see they’re not squirming."

You should watch it with a bunch of kids because it’s quite fascinating. They seem to have a kids’ dream - they have a dream logic that we seem to not appreciate as adults. We kind of take everything on face value. And certainly there’s stuff in there for adults so that we get to have a good time as well. But they really stick with it. I think people constantly underestimate what they can handle."

There’s a lot of references, obviously, to Westerns. What is the best Western you’ve seen?

Johnny Depp: "Oh, boy."

Gore Verbinski: "Wow, that’s a tough one."

Johnny Depp: "I was always a fan, as Gore was, of the great old spaghetti Westerns. You know, the Sergio Leone films. But the one that always sticks with me, that I just thought was brilliant and perfect is Cat Ballou. Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou..."

Gore Verbinski: "Unbelievable."

Johnny Depp: "He reinvented some form of acting there."

Gore Verbinski: "Yeah. For me, I think it’s probably Duck, You Sucker - a Leone movie when I was very young - totally age inappropriate. I snuck in and saw that movie in the theater and it felt like I was viewing some forbidden world. I entered the Western from this sort of post-modern Western - Leone and [Sam] Peckinpah and the myths are dying and the railroad’s coming and the gunfighter’s a dying breed, and progress is inevitable for us. And what do they do? Sort of the silhouette becoming less visible because of all the clutter that comes with progress. So I was always fascinated with those. I got into John Ford later. I mean, I kind of came in through those movies."

How did your kids feel about their dad playing a lizard? Were they down with it? Did it work for them?

Johnny Depp: "They actually call me the Lizard King. My children - they do. I’ve forced them to address me like that since they were tykes. Yeah...no, it was an odd sort of thing. You know, 'Where you going, daddy?' 'Ah, I gotta go to work.' 'What are you doing?' 'Well, I’m playing a lizard.' 'Okay.'”

"It’d literally be that kind of thing. You drop your kids off at school, give them a kiss and it was, 'Oh, yeah - now I’m gonna go be a lizard.' Or the things that I’ve done that my kids have been sort of privy to... I mean, Willy Wonka and all - it doesn’t register. They’re just kind of far more interested in Family Guy or Justin Bieber or..."

Are you a Belieber?

Johnny Depp: "A Belieber? Wow. I’ve actually never heard that one."

Ask your kids.

Johnny Depp: "And you know what? Yes, I am a Belieber. I am, and I shall remain so."

Gore, why the mariachis?

Gore Verbinski: "Well, early on in the development process it became apparent that we needed a...the movie is very much a film within a film. I mean, the protagonist is an actor looking for an audience. So we just felt like we needed one more layer, that kind of Greek chorus. And Crash McCreery early on was doing some character designs and he drew a mariachi owl. I saw the drawing and said, 'Okay, we need to work this into the script.' We just started getting some guitars out and writing a narrative using the mariachis as a kind of absurdist Greek chorus somewhere between a little bit of Cat Ballou, it was kind of like those guys that follow Sir Robin with the coconuts singing of adventures. And then just the idea of kind of the 'all good legends must die' - some horrific dance. So that was a key. And then talking to Hans Zimmer and trying to describe emotionally the soundtrack for the film, but babbling for 15 minutes. And then he just said, you know, 'Schadenfreude - that’s what you’re saying.' You know, it’s like this delight in this character’s pain, and only the Germans would have a word for that. But that sort of celebration of the great demise of this guy. It’s looming, following him throughout the film. It just seemed like good fun."

Rango tells lies to get through a critical situation. Could you share with us your kind of lying experience?

Johnny Depp: "I actually tell lies for a living. Exactly. I mean, that’s what acting is, really."

Gore Verbinski: "That was a lie."

Johnny Depp: "Yeah, I was lying. I’m sorry."

Your voice didn’t go up.

Johnny Depp: "No, it’s kind of stuck at the moment in this register. Yeah, there are certain... I felt having kids and stuff like that, I had horrific guilt for many years, playing along with the Santa Claus thing. Do you know what I mean? And waiting for that moment to arrive where they - because you’re never going to bring it up to them - they’re going to arrive and say, 'Hey, you’ve been telling me a lie for my entire life. What are you prepared to do about that?' I mean, it’s like that kind of thing. So, yeah, I had horrific guilt. And we’re now kind of just on the outskirts of that, so I feel okay. But, no, these are lies that society tells you. You must keep these lies going - these kind of myths. Yeah, and I feel guilt about it. I still do."

The ILM guys did a presentation and showed that you guys did the reference video on some of the sets, and then some of the animators did their own reference videos for the performances. Did you ever have to discipline the ILM guys for overacting?

Gore Verbinski: "Oh, consistently. One of the things early on is like, 'You’re an animator; you’re animating. And what about the pause? Don’t be afraid to do nothing for 16 frames,' is a very, very early on discussion. We’ve never made an animated movie before. People keep saying, you know, 'For an animated movie… this,' and, 'For an animated movie, that…' It’s like it’s some kind of genre. And it’s just a technique to tell a story. So early on we just felt like we’re not going to think of this as an animated movie; we’re going to think about this as a six foot tall lizard and I’ve got a camera on my shoulder, and I’m photographing him perform this scene with these other people. And so there was a great fear about iterations destroying that, multiple iterations and things becoming clinical or homogenized by virtue of discussions about why is he blinking on frame 38. 'It should be blinking at frame 34,' or whatever. It just becomes minutiae, minutiae, minutiae. And trying to get out of the animators a sense that they’re your cast, as well, and that they’re performing. And moving away from the concept of the shot and discussing the concept of the scene and where is Rango coming from or going to or what’s Bean’s feeling now, or the reaction shot. Sometimes we have to just get a camera out because it can’t be frontal lobe anymore; it’s got to be intuitive."

"That whole emotion capture, sort of live-action record was really - when I heard, you know, people say, 'Well, it’s an animated movie. This is how they do it. They get a microphone and an actor.' And I just thought that sounded so crazy to me. Like, 'I’ve got Harry Dean Stanton and I’ve got Johnny Depp, I want to see them together.' I mean, it’s acting, you know? It’s reacting. So all of those things were just trying to create. We had a mantra up at ILM, which was ‘fabricate anomaly wherever possible’ - You’ve got to fabricate it, because otherwise it’s not going to feel honest."

Johnny, are you planning on segueing from Rango to Emir Kusturica's Pancho Villa film? If so, are you brushing up on your Spanish?

Johnny Depp: "Well, you know, that’s really kind of a...it’s a project that I think is a little bit up in the air, you know? Kusturica is an old friend, and certainly a filmmaker that I admire greatly. From the first second that we spoke about it, I always had a bit of a problem. My dilemma is just the fact that it’s Pancho Villa. It is Pancho Villa, and it’s one of the great heroes of Mexico. And for me, I feel like it should be played by a Mexican and not some..."

Gore Verbinski: "Charlton Heston."

Johnny Depp: "Not some mutt from Kentucky, you know what I mean? I still feel very strongly about that. And so, yeah, it’s sort of floating at the moment. But it’s a great character and Kusturica is a great filmmaker. I’m sure he’s going to do something very special."

Have you had a chance to look at any of the screeners for the films for the Oscar this year, and what do you think?

Johnny Depp: "I have. You know, tI don’t do well with modern films, to be honest. I don’t know - opening credits, and I’m just gone. [making a snoring sound] People make great films, I just don’t have the eyes to watch them. But, you know, there’s a film that I was really, really impressed with, that I absolutely adored, and I’ve seen it a few times now. And it’s called Exit Through the Gift Shop by Banksy. And I thought it was a very brave film, and a very honest film. I’m all the way with that film.:

In the Rango movie storybook there's a continuing adventure where he goes to another town. Is there hope that there might be a Rango 2?

Gore Verbinski: "I don’t know. Let’s see if people like Rango I’m not even going to call it Rango I."

Johnny Depp: "Rango 1."

So there’s a possibility?

Gore Verbinski: "Currently, not talking about it. I mean, if you just had a kid, would people say, 'How about twins?' We’re just - we’re still recovering."

In the past you’ve said that you’ve always chosen characters that you had like a personal connection with. What was your connection with this character?

Johnny Depp: "I don’t know. I always had an affinity for lizards; I’ve always felt somewhat close to them. They’re reptile - feeling somewhat reptilian myself at times. Oddly, I think, Gore might disagree but I feel like when we were doing Pirates 1, 2, and 3, there was a certain... At times when Jack Sparrow had to run, there was this very specific run that I wanted. I saw this footage of a lizard running across the water, and it was like the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. And so I said, 'Gore, he’s got to be the lizard running across,' and he’s like, 'Oh, yeah, absolutely.' So that was the whole thing. And so whenever we were in that situation, 'Okay, it’s time to…you know, let’s get in touch with the lizard,' and we did it. So I actually think that Rango was somehow planted in Gore’s brain from that run, from that lizard run, you know? And when he actually called me and said, 'I want you to play a lizard,' I thought, 'Well, god, I’m halfway there. I know what I’m doing."

[At this point the press conference is interrupted by a visit from Justin Bieber]

Johnny Depp: "Hey, man. We just established that I’m a Belieber."

Justin Bieber: "You know, and I’m a big fan of you so I had to come support you."

Johnny Depp: "Bless you, man."

Justin Bieber: "Awesome."

Johnny Depp: "Good."

Justin Bieber: "I had to come say hi. I heard you were in the building."

Johnny Depp: "Bless you."

Justin Bieber: "You’re a Belieber and I’m a big fan of him."

Johnny Depp: [Introducing the Bieber to the audience] "By the way, Justin Bieber."

[applause]

Johnny Depp: "Well done, man, thank you."

Gore Verbinski: "Okay, now, who’s not a Belieber now? You know what I mean? Aren’t we all Beliebers? Bless him."

Johnny Depp: "How am I going to explain this to my daughter?"

* * * * * * *

Rango hits theaters on March 4, 2011.

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