One of my absolute favorite movie-business memories is an oldie but a goodie: the expression on the faces of Disney executives after they got their first look at Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. I will never ever forget that look. It was what the F*CK and I don’t get it and OMG he really is crazy and we’re going to lose SO MUCH MONEY rolled into one. I remember looking at the shell-shocked production execs and thinking, “They don’t get it. This is going to be GREAT.” And it was. We’ve forgotten, I think, in the decade that followed, just how good Depp was in that first Pirates movie, what a revelation he was as Jack Sparrow. This is why I don’t want to count out his take on Tonto in The Lone Ranger, which is in production now. I remember Disney when Pirates was filming—it was mess, they were a wreck, and in the end, Depp delivered.
That doesn’t mean it’s not unnerving to hear that the budget for Lone Ranger has ballooned to $250 million, and that they might be behind schedule to boot and has pushed back its release date by about a month (now July 2013 from May 2013). Of course it is. That’s a lot of money. But I won’t call The Long Ranger a nightmare—yet—because director Gore Verbinski originally asked for $250 million to make the movie and then worked to bring the price tag down, only to find once in production that yep, he needed the $250 million he originally asked for (although it bears repeating: no one actually needs that much to make a movie, they just want that much).
The main reason this isn’t a nightmare, unlike World War Z, which is a complete f*cking disaster, is down to Gore Verbinski being Gore Verbinski. This is the kind of director he is—expensive, methodical (read: slow), obsessive compulsive and controlling. That’s the kind of director that can cost you money, because he’s going to insist on a level of detail that requires a huge amount of labor hours and manpower to achieve. Like, renting antique locomotives is not good enough for Verbinski—he has to construct his own trains. At this point, after three Pirates movies, Disney knows what Verbinski is like. They shouldn’t be surprised by his excesses, or that he was unable to stick to the budget they forced on him.
I think The Lone Ranger is an uphill battle. Depp is an increasingly tough sell to an audience weary of him, and any time you spend this much money on a movie—and this is not factoring in a marketing campaign that is sure to run upwards of a $100 million—you start biting your knuckles and praying for mercy. The higher the budget, the higher the expectations. But Depp and Verbinski have pulled this off before. The Pirates budgets ran from $140 million to $225 million to $300 million, and Disney saw their earnings go from $600 million to north of $1 billion. I just don’t want to write off Verbinski because he’s a high-risk, high-reward guy. And hopefully, maybe, this isn’t just Depp being weird for weirdness’ sake, but that he’s tapped into something special and exciting with Tonto.