Why Pirates director Gore Verbinski disappeared (and why he's back)

Gore Verbinski made some of the biggest movies of the last decade, such as the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films and even The Ring. Then, after 2007, he just sort of ... disappeared. Now we're starting to see what he's been up to. He's been directing Rango, an animated film with the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fischer, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy and more.

Verbinski invited us to his offices at Blind Wink productions on the Universal Studios lot. He showed off some sketches of the characters and world of Rango, including a building labeled "Proctologist and Power Tools." That's the world Rango (Depp) winds up in when he gets lost, but first Verbinski explained why he took a step back.

"From The Ring to Pirates to Weather Man to two more Pirates movies, it was really an opportunity to take a pause and to sit back and go 'Okay, let's get small,' basically," Verbinski said in a group interview on June 28 in Universal City. "I didn't really set out to do an animated movie. I think it scares me. It's something I don't know how to do, so I tend to be drawn to that, I guess. Ultimately, it just was a story. It seemed right. It was the right time. If there's an interesting story and you want to tell it, you figure out a way to tell it."

He describes Rango as "a chameleon with an identity crisis," and that's how he sold Depp on it. "We brought it up to Johnny during Pirates 2, because that's when we had the basic outline," Verbinski continued. "We always just felt like he's very lizard-like, referred to his lizard run, lizard on ice. Some of his physicalities are very lizard-like, so he was really into it. A year and a half later we showed him a story reel, and he loved it."

Rango winds up in the town of Dirt, an old western-inspired habitat in the middle of the Mojave desert. He accepts the role of the sheriff. Problem is, he actually has to become a hero to these weird western animals.

"Basically, all we had [was] identity crisis, outsider coming into this world, and we just sort of built it from scratch," Verbinski said. "It really started with this concept of first just creating a sort of western genre based on creatures of the desert. From there, I sat down with four of my favorite illustrators and just said, 'Let's conjure. Let's go. That's the only rule.' So snakes and tortoises and lizards and everything. Out of that we started to build iconography."

Here's where Rango starts to sound a step above the usual computer-animated knock-off. Verbinski's not just talking about teaching Rango a lesson about his identity. He's going way out there with grown-up movie references.

"He's an aquatic creature, so he's in desperate search of hydration, and he ends up in a sort of Chinatown-like subplot," Verbinski said. "Our posse is kind of Cuckoo's Nest. They're just the most dysfunctional group of oddballs, and he's their leader, so they go on this strange and bizarre quest."

Animation directors always SAY there's something for everyone in their movies, but Verbinski actually has everything, from slapstick to obscure philosophers. "I think if you're 9 years old, you hit somebody on the head with a frying pan, it's funny. If you're 60 years old, then you'll get a little bit of Jean-Paul Sartre reference in there. It's just about keeping those things hopscotching so it plays for both worlds."

He's also not afraid to scare kids or make them cry. That's what the original Disney movies did. "Walt, before the brand, before Happy Meals, he wasn't so concerned about soccer moms. He killed Old Yeller and Bambi's mom and definitely understood the consequences. I think it's something that they call a four-quadrant movie. It's just not filet mignon. It's like a really spicy pozole, and it's really delicious. It's going to have some chiles in there. You're going to burn your tongue a little bit. There'll be a couple gently placed [comments of], 'Ugh, do they have to do that?' Yeah, we had to do that."

People who have seen the teaser trailer have already caught a reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The movie based on Hunter S. Thompson's book also starred Depp. "That came out of a story meeting early, early on. We just said, 'Can we push this even farther?' But Johnny was totally on board. He gets to play both sides of that encounter."

Rango opens March 4, 2011.

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