Riding with 'The Lone Ranger': Gore Verbinski and Armie Hammer revive a western legend
One of the ironies of the Lone Ranger is that he was never really "lone": Virtually from the beginning of the original radio series, just 11 episodes into it in 1933, he was accompanied by the Native American named Tonto. Yet through incarnations in radio, TV, cliffhanger serials, feature films, comics and other media, their partnership has never been as equal as it is in Walt Disney Pictures' rambunctious new movie The Lone Ranger.
Credit much of that to Johnny Depp, the greenlight-capable star who chose to take what normally would have been a supporting role and make it one of two buddies in a buddy movie. Indeed, as director Gore Verbinski explains, Depp was the impetus for getting the movie made with his Pirates of the Caribbean team, primarily Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
In what is essentially a 19th-century superhero movie, blending recognizable reality with a grounded but larger-than-life sense of mythmaking, the new film stars Armie Hammer (The Social Network) as John Reid, newly come home to Colby, Texas. There his brother, Texas Ranger Captain Dan Reid (James Badge Dale, just seen as the villainous Savin in Iron Man 3), deputizes him in a desperate chase for the vicious escaped outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). How vicious? In one scene—thankfully rendered only in shadow—he cuts out the heart of a downed Ranger and eats it. As the Lone Ranger's long-familiar origin story continues forward, Tonto rescues the near-dead John Reid and together they seek justice for their fallen comrade.
Or, well, the newly minted Lone Ranger does. Tonto's only along for the ride because the spirit world seems to be telling him to be. Or so it seems: The Native American tribe that's ostracized him has their own opinion on that. With a take on the fabled subject that's both serious and irreverent—and respectful without being gloomy and plodding like another recent heroic-adventure film we could name—The Lone Ranger could do for western pulp drama what the Pirates of the Caribbean international hit franchise did for pirate movies.
We spoke individually with Verbinski and Hammer about how the film was put together, stars doing some of their own stunts, auditions for the lead role, and Buster Keaton.
Film Journal International: You mentioned to our sister publication The Hollywood Reporter that in 2010—with The Lone Ranger having been an off-again/on-again project for Jerry Bruckheimer and others for almost a decade—Johnny Depp sent you a photo of himself dressed as Tonto and you subsequently wrote a story outline. Is that what your Pirates of the Caribbean collaborators Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio worked from [as the original Lone Ranger screenwriters; the screen story and screenplay are credited both to that duo and to Revolutionary Road's Justin Haythe]?
Gore Verbinski: No. So here's how it went. In 2006, Rossio and Elliott and I were making Pirates 2 [Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest] and they were interested in writing The Lone Ranger. Sony had the rights. They talked to Jerry, Jerry talked to me, I talked to Ted and Terry. I pitched it to Johnny as a way of playing Tonto and doing a kind of Sancho Panza take on the Don Quixote story. And Ted and Terry were like, "No, no, that's not the version we wanted. That's not what we were talking about. We want to do something different." So we kind of went our separate ways and I went off to do Rango and they did some more "Pirate" movies. And they wrote a few drafts and I think that's where the werewolf stuff came from and all these other things that people talked about. [Bruckheimer told THR in 2011, "We cut a sequence involving a coyote attack—supernatural coyotes…"]
Armie Hammer: [Those supernatural elements were] before I came in, so for me it's always been Justin's script.
Verbinski: In 2010, Johnny showed me an image of himself dressed up with a bird on his head and said, "Will you come back? We have no story." And I said, "Yeah, but the only version I want to do is if you're the storyteller. I'm sure what everybody's struggling with is that this is probably incredibly miscast because you've got Johnny Depp playing the sidekick, and to me the way to make him relevant and frankly to make a more interesting story is to have [Tonto] tell it."
So when I started again officially, I went back to what I had originally conceived, which was to tell it from Tonto's perspective, and then hired Justin Haythe. I came in in 2010 with Justin and started from scratch. Rossio and Elliott were only involved in that sort of early phase that we didn't use anything from.
FJI: They still have writing credit on the film, so I imagine something was used.
Verbinski: I think that's the [Writers] Guild. I mean, they always protect the first writers. To their own credit, Rossio and Elliott have to share credit on Pirates [of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first film in the series]… There wasn't really, in my opinion, anything left.
FJI: Well, your opinion is the opinion when it comes to the "Pirates" movies. Now the actors here did some of the precarious stunt-work themselves, we're told, such as standing on top of trains going up to 40 miles an hour. And I'm thinking, if they're saying it I believe it, and yet how did the insurance company go along with this?
Verbinski: Well, we have platforms built on the sides of things and the whole crew's up there at 40 miles an hour… So we build it as safe as we can. Just off-camera there are stuntmen standing by and people are on wires and things like that in case somebody falls—and people have fallen off while we've been driving. And sometimes we're on roads and sometimes we're on train track, and sometimes we're two trailers deep driving through the mountains. It's a big, messy puzzle.
Hammer: You know, you can always tell if it's green-screen. It never feels as grand. You never, as the audience, get the feeling that you're there as much as you do as when they actually put the camera there. That was our whole attitude with the entire movie, which is why we built the sets and built the railroads and did all that stuff. We wanted it to feel like the audience was there going through the ride, and that was all part of it.
Verbinski: Armie, he's young, he's enthusiastic. Johnny will look at me and go, "Really?" But Armie's like, "Sure, what am I doing?"
FJI: Armie, do you remember the day they told you they wanted you to do the "Spirit Platform" scene [in which he stands atop an 18-foot-high platform on a butte overlooking a 2,000-foot drop]?
Hammer: Yeah. It was that [same] day, pretty much, because I knew we had the Spirit Platform that day and I knew the schedule, but had no idea what they had planned and had no idea how extreme the entire thing would be. We were on the platform for five, six hours or something like that, and it was just a constant adrenaline rush the entire time. So when I got home I think I was asleep before I even hit my pillow.
Verbinski: We just put him up there. We built a Spirit Platform and put him up there and tied him to a wire and flew a [camera] helicopter around.
Hammer: There was a ladder at the bottom of it and we just kind of climbed up there and tied ourselves off. The actual stone was wider [than the sliver of rock depicted onscreen]. It was a more of a butte. So the crew and all that could fit up there. The drop and all that is there, but they did make [the butte] narrower [in post-production].
Verbinski: We painted out the right side.
FJI: Armie, tell me about the day you got the role. I'm assuming your agent called you. Do you remember where you were?
Hammer: It was a long time ago so it's a little blurry now, but I feel like I had just gone in for my fifth or sixth audition for the project and I was sitting outside with Gore at his office talking with him. We were just smoking cigars out on his balcony and discussing the movie and he kind of said, "Hey, do you want to make this movie?" And I was like "Yeah, most definitely. Wait, is this legally binding? Are we doing this now?" I wasn't sure, and then I got a call a couple days later and was equally excited then as well.
FJI: Did you do a screen test?
Hammer: There was never really a screen test, like a full scene or anything like that, but I did go in at least four, five, maybe six times. Once with the casting director, then with the casting director and Gore, then with Gore and Justin Haythe, the writer, then with Gore, Justin and Jerry. Just kind of jumping through the hoops.
FJI: Now, this is a western but there are so many larger-than-life things that you don't see in a Clint Eastwood movie, say. Did you approach it more like a superhero movie?
Verbinski: I think you're going back to a sort of Disney brand question. I don't think Disney is interested in making True Grit. I think they want a theme-park ride and they want some characters walking down Main Street dressed up as the Lone Ranger, and they want all that stuff that they get to synergize. So, yeah, we have to kind of open it up, and once you get close to a $200 million negative cost you're in the summer movie ballgame and it has to be an event.
FJI: Finally, the scene of the exploding bridge and the train falling from it, which we've seen in the trailer and in TV spots so it's not a spoiler to mention: Was that an hommage to Buster Keaton [and the legendary climactic scene of his 1926 masterpiece The General]?
Verbinski: Well, I don't think it's an hommage, but certainly when you put the transcontinental railroad in your script, you've got to have a pretty amazing train chase in the third act. And certainly if you're going to look at train chases, [the one in] The General is pretty insane. It's a high bar to beat. It was definitely looked at…a bit of that and a bit of a lot of other train movies. [Such train scenes] are hard to shoot. I mean, you look at a lot of contemporary train sequences and you go back [to The General] and you go, "Geez, some of the stuff doesn't hold a candle to what Buster did."