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Silver bullets. Big white hats. Leather masks. A white steed. The William Tell Overture. When all of these elements are combined they create an image of one of the longest lasting pop culture icons of the 20th century: The Lone Ranger. But as important as all of these individual details are to the legacy of the character, they weren’t the first things that director Gore Verbinski was thinking about when he began working on bringing the character to the big screen. Rather, all of that was secondary to the most important element of the Lone Ranger legend: his partnership with Tonto.
A few weeks ago I took a flight out to Santa Fe, New Mexico as part of a press event for The Lone Ranger, and during the trip had the terrific opportunity to once again sit down one-on-one with Verbinski, this time to talk with him about his second adventure in the old west. Check out or conversation below in which the director not only links the relationship between the Lone Ranger and Tonto to both Don Quixote and Midnight Run, but also talks about the importance of showing the truth of the Native American experience, his apprehension about taking on the project initially, and his hopes to do something small as his next film.
Is it good to be back in New Mexico?
I got off the plane and it was like, it all came back.
As soon as that dry air hit my olfactories, I was like, “Oh my God.”
Not a desert guy?
No, I love it, but it’s just 150 days of dust. It comes back in an instant.
I get ya. To start, over the course of your career you’ve made a point of always doing something different. Coming off of Rango, which obviously is very different stylistically was there ever any hesitation about tackling another western?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think what’s weird about this one is actually, I was talking about potentially doing The Lone Ranger in 2006. I kind of had my way of doing it and some disagreements with [Terry] Rossio and [Ted] Elliot. So, they went off to write drafts and I went off to make Rango, and sort of, that was a kind of, its own journey, animation and everything, and then, Johnny came back and said, “Will you reconsider and come back?” and I said, “The only way I want to do this is to tell it from Tonto’s point of view. So, that was sort of my, kind of, the ground rules of coming back into the project and that was a page one rewrite and Justin Haythe came in and we kind of, we set sail.
So, was the first project straight from the Lone Ranger’s point of view?
I don’t know. They had their own version. They, rightfully enough, they were the ones who found the rights. They were at Sony. Sony had tried to make it a few times and didn’t get anywhere with it. Rossio and Elliot were championing it and I was dabbling with the idea of Tonto being played by Johnny and talked to Johnny about it a little bit, but I was really kind of keen on this sort of, Sancho Panza telling this story of Don Quixote and Ted and Terry were like, “No, no, no. It’s the Lone Ranger. We have to do this, this, and this.” So, five drafts later, and then, you know, Johnny sort of had done, put himself in makeup and he said, “There’s no story, but I got this guy that I like,” you know, then we sort of set through the task of 18 months working on the screenplay.
When you’re dealing with a pop culture figure as big as the Long Ranger, there are elements of this character that are important and must be kept. Is there a point where you’re breaking it down and trying to figure what you should include and what you don’t need to?
The process is so convoluted and weird. I mean, it really starts with, again, this idea of sort of Sancho Panza/Don Quixote thing, then how to make Johnny Depp relevant, so it’s not tipping, you don’t cast him as the sidekick, the whole thing’s out of proportion. It needs to be a two-hander. Then telling the story from his perspective. Then, he’s a character we can do a lot of different things with and then you go, “Ok, if we’re going to do that, then I need the Lone Ranger that’s sort of Jimmy Stewart from Liberty Valance, who’s going to believe in right and wrong and come in on the train and kind of crash into this sort of [Sam] Peckinpah world where justice can be purchased now.” There’s no place for all these notions that are just arcane and so it sort of works like that. You kind of work through it in that process and then sure, yeah, you’ve got to go, “It is the Lone Ranger, so we need to have the Silver Bullet, gotta have the mask, gotta have the horse,” and then you sort of work that stuff in. But you kind of get to play with it a little bit because we’re saying this is Tonto who kind of created all this stuff and you don’t entirely trust the narrator.
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