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How The West Was Almost Lost: Inside Near-Death Experience Of ‘The Lone Ranger’

How The West Was Almost Lost: Inside Near-Death Experience Of 'The Lone Ranger'

In August 2011, the unthinkable happened: “The Lone Ranger,” Disney‘s proposed $200 million + revamp of the fabled radio serial, was canceled (the exclusive Deadline post started with the word “SHOCKER,” in all caps, and described the news as a “stunning development”). The movie had a proposed December 21, 2012 release date and the participation of the team that had transformed “Pirates of the Caribbean” from a theme park staple into one of the most viable film franchises on the planet – Oscar-winning director Gore Verbinski, super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and megawatt star Johnny Depp. But the studio deemed the project too costly and risky, especially in the wake of the big budget western bomb “Cowboys & Aliens.” In the final version of “The Lone Ranger,” the one that opens in cinemas nationwide this week, the character is one who is brought back from the brink of death, enriched and heightened by the experience. The same could be said for the movie itself.

It’s easy to see why Disney was skittish: in addition to the colossal failure of “Cowboys & Aliens,” they were also knee-deep into post-production on “John Carter,” which, like “The Lone Ranger,” has western overtones and is set in the tumultuous years following the Civil War. The first teaser trailer for “John Carter,” a movie whose production budget (at least in the Hollywood press) was nearing $250 million, had been released a month before production on “The Lone Ranger” halted. The response was not what Disney had hoped for. Instead of the internet-equivalent of thunderous applause, the “John Carter” clip was met with an indifferent shrug. “The Lone Ranger” budget at the time was nearing $250 million, and while Bruckheimer and Verbinski eventually got the budget down to $232 million, it wasn’t enough.

Disney and Verbinski had a history of sparring over budgets: famously, the original “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” which was a notorious project openly mocked by much of Hollywood for being based on a theme park ride, completed filming only four months before it was scheduled to hit theaters. In James B. Stewart‘s essential book DisneyWar,” he recounts that Verbinski “quit or came close to quitting at least four times, and there was talk on the set that Disney would fire him.” One meeting between Verbinski, Bruckheimer, and Disney brass, ended in a screaming match. According to Stewart, “Bruckheimer told Verbinski it was the worst meeting he’d ever endured as a producer.” The budget soared to $150 million and post-production was so tight that the studio only had time for a single test screening, in Anaheim, just outside of the theme park that birthed the movie.

When the sequels to ‘Pirates’ were launched, again with Bruckheimer and Verbinski, there was at least one moment (captured on the special features for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest“) where it looked like Disney was canceling both films, due to rising costs and the unfinished nature of Ted Elliott andTerry Rossio‘s screenplay(s). The decision to ultimately shoot both films concurrently (sort of) proved to be nearly disastrous: the second film fell behind schedule but needed to meet its theatrical date, which required a majority of the third film to be shot after the second film premiered. This caused the third film (“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End“) to go wildly over-budget, with final production costs of around $300 million which, even after adjusting for inflation and sharing some costs with the second movie, made it one of the most expensive films ever made.

Verbinski’s somewhat contentious history with the studio, along with the iffy overseas prospects of a big budget western (a genre that doesn’t always travel well abroad) and a huge production budget, were enough to give Disney cold feet. But those close to the project remained optimistic about its return. At the D23 Expo, a kind of Comic Con for Disney that was held later that August, Disney president Rich Ross told Deadline, “I’m hoping to do it. I’m certainly hoping. I think it’s a compelling story and no one wants to work with Jerry and Johnny more than me, so we’ll see how it works.” The statement was notable for the fact that it didn’t include any mention of Verbinski, only Bruckheimer and Depp (at the time Disney had four movies in the all time Top 10 list – Depp starred in three of them). Soon after Bruckheimer and Depp got behind Verbinski, as all parties slashed their asking prices and stipulated that they would not get paid until after the movie broke even. Talks continued.

Verbinski, for his part, said that this kind of drama is par for the course in Hollywood. “Every movie gets shut down these days,” he told us. He then described the back-and-forth: “You turn in your budget and they say, ‘Cut 30%.’ And you say, ‘No.’ And they say, ‘You have to.’ And you say, ‘We can’t.’ And then they shut you down. So you go in and start slicing and dicing.” Verbinski went on to say that the version of the movie before it got shut down and the version of the movie that returned to production were virtually identical: “It was the same story. There was a big action set piece in the middle of the movie that we had to take out.”

That big action set piece was lost in order to get the budget down from $250 million to $215 million, which was slightly lower than what Disney said would be the cost where they’d start talking about the project again ($220 million) but not their ideal number ($200 million), was described to us by Verbinski: “It was a big biblical locust storm. It was really fun. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were lynched and there was a great speech from the Lone Ranger as the storm of locusts was coming at the same time. It was a nice, chaotic sequence that served to kind of propagate the myth of this masked man and his abilities even though they’re totally natural events.”

Bruckheimer told us that the sequence was “really spectacular,” but that they cut it for good reason. “Gore pulled it out because it was off plot and chances are it wouldn’t have made it into the movie in the end because it didn’t push the story forward,” Bruckheimer explained.

The experience for Armie Hammer, who beat out people like Ryan Gosling for the role of The Lone Ranger, was particularly bittersweet, given the fact that he had once been cast in another iconic role, when he won the role of Batman for George Miller‘s proposed “Justice League” movie, a part he described as being “painfully close” to a go (yes, he got into the costume and everything). “But everything works out exactly as it’s supposed to… If I had done that I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now,” Hammer told us. When we brought up the possibility that he signed on to the Lone Ranger because he was so close to playing another superhero, he said, “I didn’t even connect the two.”

Hammer was one of the last people to join the production, seemingly the last puzzle piece to snap into place before the entire puzzle was thrown away. “I was involved for a couple of days before it got shut down,” Hammer told us. Not that he was ever worried. “I had the inside line. I got a phone call from somebody – Gore – who was like, ‘Look, this is what’s going on – you’re probably going to hear that our movie is getting shut down. Don’t worry about it. This is just Disney. They’re playing hardball. They’re negotiating. This is how they want us to do this. But we’re going to make this movie. It’s come too far, it’s going to happen.'” Hammer didn’t seem phased. “Ostensibly, yes, we were shut down but the inside track was this is just part of the negotiations.”

When quizzed about whether or not his character change from before the shutdown to after, Hammer became even more defiant. “Nothing changed, at all, about the entire movie,” Hammer told us. Before adding: “Checkmate, Disney.”  

Hammer isn’t exactly right on that past part. As negotiations extended, from August into September of 2011, things started to get whittled away. Besides the locust sequence being removed altogether, there were at least two major losses to the creative team: musician Jack White, who was scheduled to provide the original score for the movie and Dwight Yoakam, who was set to appear in the role of formidable villain Bartholomew “Butch” Cavendish, a fiendish outlaw.

Bruckheimer blamed the shutdown on the reason that White couldn’t work on the movie (even though Disney continued to flaunt his involvement after the movie resumed). “I think that since the picture was delayed because of the budget issues, his schedule got screwed up. He got so busy that he couldn’t fit it in,” Bruckheimer said. Not that White would have survived the process of scoring a hugely budgeted action movie. “I went down to Nashville a few times and his schedule and the iteration involved in something like this was going to drive Jack nuts.” When we quizzed Verbinski on what White’s score was going to sound like, he just teased that, “It was going to be… something different.” 

Some of White’s music managed to find its way into the final film, however fleetingly, according to Bruckheimer. “He wrote just a couple of background pieces that are in Red’s that the band is playing,” Bruckheimer said, referring to a scene in the final film where the Lone Ranger and Tonto go to a whorehouse owned by Helena Bonham Carter‘s Red, looking for answers. “I think those are his.” Hans Zimmer, who had worked with Verbinski on a number of previous projects, stepped in and replaced White.

By October 2011, things were looking up for “The Lone Ranger.” Disney and the creative principles had settled on an agreed-upon budget that, while still high, was more manageable. Most of the supporting cast, like Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson and James Badge Dale, were still onboard. The proof of Disney’s optimism can be expressed in the deals Wilson and Hammer signed upon returning, which locked into a three-movie deal for more Wild West adventures. Depp, whose contract only consisted of the single film, quietly expressed interest in returning, should the opportunity arise. A May 31st, 2013 release date was tentatively penciled in, with production slated to begin (for real this time) in early February 2012.

Rumors persisted that one of the main things that was removed from “The Lone Ranger,” from before it was shut down, to after, were elements of the supernatural, including some very creepy werewolves. Bruckheimer pretty much told us the same, “We had a little more of the supernatural in it – we had supernatural coyotes that were kind of like the rabbits.” (In the final movie, there are some possessed rabbits that could be evidence of nature being out of balance due to the spread of evil in the west, or could just be some random weirdness.)

Verbinski, however, claims that this was never the case. Sounding sort of exasperated, he laid it all out for us: “In 2006 I started talking about ‘The Lone Ranger,’ with Johnny as Tonto. I had my take on it. And Ted and Terry had their take on it.” Ted and Terry, of course, are Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the team behind Verbinski’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy and the writers’ whose unfinished screenplay for the latter two films nearly caused Disney to shut those movies down. “They were the ones who first brought it up and tried to get the rights from Sony and brought it up with Jerry. I was the one who said, ‘We should get Johnny as Tonto and take it from a different perspective.’ So they wrote five drafts and I went off and did ‘Rango.’ And Johnny asked me to come back and I said, ‘The only way I’ll do it if is if I can tell it from Tonto’s perspective,’ which was not in any of those drafts. The story you’re seeing is the one I always intended to do.”

And indeed, a draft that we have that’s dated March 29, 2009 differs in these key aspects – Tonto is still very much a sidekick, and there is tons of supernatural mumbo jumbo laced throughout the script, including an encounter with those coyotes. (Tellingly, the locust sequence does not appear in this draft.) When asked if the supernatural elements were relegated to Rossio and Elliott’s screenplays and not the one that was eventually fashioned by Verbinski and “Revolutionary Road” screenwriter Justin Haythe, and the director gives the best possible answer. “Apparently. I didn’t read them.”

On the supernatural, Verbinski had a very clear point of view: “In my version of this movie, the only thing supernatural was the question of – is Tonto suffering from Alzheimer’s or is there mysticism present here or is it greed or is it Wendigo or can he turn into a bird or not… And I think those are wonderfully unanswered questions. I just wanted it to be about trains and about progress and that’s your villain.”

One of the sticking points in the negotiations during the breakdown had to do with Verbinski’s insistence that there be a wraparound included, a kind of framing device that allowed for Tonto to literally tell the story, as an old man. “That’s something that was one of the deal breakers,” Verbinski admitted. “When I was about to come in, I said that if I’m going to do it, I have to do it the way I want to do it, which is to tell it from Tonto’s point of view. That was the way to make him relevant. Otherwise, you’ve miscast. That was the problem. They’d written five scripts called ‘The Lone Ranger’ and Tonto wasn’t the hero, he was the sidekick. And that’s why it never got anywhere. It was like, ‘Let’s make this Tonto’s story. This is the solution to casting Johnny.’ Because for a while it was, ‘Yeah we’ve got Johnny as Tonto…. How do we do that?’ So this offered a solution. It also offered thematic opportunities to deal with loss and the landscape and our connection with nature, the collision of these two belief systems.”

In late February of 2012, after production had finally gotten underway, it was officially announced that Yoakam was unable to recommit to the movie. In his place was beloved character actor William Fichtner, who gave the role an almost reptilian menace. “I was the last cast member, actually,” Fichtner clarified to us. “I had a conversation with Gore on a Saturday or Sunday and my first day of shooting was that a Thursday or a Friday. Literally that short.” Verbinski said, diplomatically, about the cast switch-out: “The performance was outstanding once Fichtner became involved.”

The release date shifted once more, from May 31st to Fourth of July weekend, but even with the extra time, it was still a nightmare to complete. When introducing the film at the first public screening in New Mexico, Verbinski spoke to the scale of the production saying, “Sometimes 700 people were working on this thing.” (In the summer of 2012, an extensive Hollywood Reporter piece stated that delays due to sandstorms and other production hiccups caused the budget to creep back up to the $250 million Disney was trying to avoid.) The screening in New Mexico was the end of a very long journey for the film, one that many thought would never actually see the light of day. But just like the Lone Ranger himself, the movie rose from the dead. 

As always Jerry Bruckheimer said it best when he told us: “We trimmed back a lot of stuff that I don’t think you’ll miss, because it’s still a pretty big movie.” 

“The Lone Ranger” opens on July 3rd. Read our review here

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