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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.

Yeah?

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.

Just in terms of approaching it from a modern sensibility standpoint, there are classic elements of the character in the film that actually get flipped and it becomes a kind of deconstruction. Where is the perspective when you’re doing that for certain things versus not doing it for other things?

You just start at the beginning and you start working through it. Some of that stuff is in your DNA, you know, from watching a thousand westerns, understanding superheroes and masked characters. So, it’s kind of less the plotting it out from, the intention isn’t in that. The intention is sort of how do we make the story relevant? How do we take this cop and this Native American and shackle them together and then put them on this quest where their worlds are colliding and they’re the only two people who know the truth and nobody else believes them and how they unravel that truth. So you get into a buddy movie. This is going to have to work, two guys that sort of don’t get along, but it’s Midnight Run, and that’s kind of the engine underneath this thing and then you deal with the bigger issues, the bigger subtext, of the train and progress and this sort post-modern western.

And that’s actually something else I wanted to talk about, because you do, I mean the relationship between Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger and Tonto, it’s very light-hearted. It’s very silly at times, but at the same time, this film, as a Disney movie, probably has one of the higher body counts we’ve seen. From the tonal perspective, when you were kind of looking at the big picture, how did you find that balance?

Well, I think once you put Johnny Depp as Tonto you make Tonto relevant, and once you make Tonto relevant, you have to deal with the Native American issues and you have the deal with kind of loss and you have to acknowledge, you know, and those open up these wonderful kind of themes, which are the truths of dealing with. We all got on this train, and we all got to this place, and none of us ever looked back. “It’s like, “Hey, wait a minute,” you know? What did we leave behind? There was some sort of understanding of, you’ve got the laws of nature and the laws of man and you’re kind of, that’s the yin and yang of these two characters, so if you can expand from that and say... That’s why the landscapes are important. That’s why they’re a character in the movie and that’s why this train track in this line, kind of quantifying and dividing land, that’s a foreign concept to the Native Americans. The train becomes a character, those are sort of wonderful things to play with.

To kind of go back to my first question, when you are considering a new project, what exactly are you considering? Are you thinking about genre or are you just looking at the story and the characters and with the genre being secondary?

It’s different in each case. Honestly, you know, I don’t approach it... What you do, as soon as you read something or conceive something or are playing with something, I think you have to stop yourself and go, “Why do I have to tell this story?” you know, and before you get too far in, because the worst thing in the world is to be in a three year project and go, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” So, if you can’t answer the question. If any director can’t answer the question, “Why do I have to tell this story,” and I think that’s the key to, you know, if you can’t, because nothing is going to get you up in the morning if you’re not driven.

So, what kind of ideas are you thinking about now?

You know, a lot of different things, nothing even remotely close to, you know, I’d like to try and make a smaller movie, but I know talking to my friends who are trying to raise funds, it’s like even just as hard as making one of these big ones, but for different reasons. It’s crazy out there right now.