Carlos Aguilar

Justin Haythe on The Lone Ranger

Justin Haythe on <i>The Lone Ranger</i>
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It’s all about the characters

by Carlos Aguilar

Reinventing a beloved classic for a demanding modern audience is a task that is sure to be paved with doubt and skepticism, even more so when the screenplay becomes a $200 million dollar Disney production. Those stakes could certainly translate into incredible pressure to deliver for the designated writer, yet, for British screenwriter Justin Haythe this was simply a great, and bigger, opportunity to showcase his craft.

Click here to read Justin Haythe’s interview on breaking in and working in Hollywood.

Although not a stranger to adapting previously existing material (having adapting Richard Yates novel for Revolutionary Road), Haythe definitely dove into unknown territory with The Lone Ranger, having only worked on much smaller projects before (writing The Clearing with Pieter Jan Brugge and Snitch with Ric Roman Waugh). Under the direction of Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer Haythe worked from a version of the film written by Disney staples Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot (The Pirates of the Caribbean movies among many others), to fine tune a story that would highlight the iconic sidekick, Tonto, as the person responsible for the Lone Ranger’s origin.

Haythe talked to Creative Screenwriting about his approach to the story, the importance of infusing every work, even big budget extravaganzas, with relatable characters and his own experience with the Western genre.

Justin Haythe

Justin Haythe

CARLOS AGUILAR: What was the biggest challenge in writing The Lone Ranger?

JUSTIN HAYTHE: The greatest challenge for the script was to serve as the creation myth of the title character, the Lone Ranger, but at the same time, having Jonny Depp play Tonto, the challenge was to find a way for Tonto to be integral to that creation. The simple solution was to put them on the trail of the same bad guy, but more importantly, and perhaps this is the real reinvention of the material, was to have Tonto be the one who really creates the Lone Ranger in terms of the iconic pieces: the horse, the bullets the mask. They all come via Tonto, which is of course a complete departure from the television/radio show.

The Lone Ranger TV Show (1949-1957)

The Lone Ranger TV Show (1949-1957)

AGUILAR: How influential was the original material in writing the script?

HAYTHE: I didn’t watch the previous films; I watched the television show because I was familiar with it from having seen it as a kid. It was both a point of departure, this is an iconic character for a reason and you want to honor all these pieces of the icon that are in that original series, but you also want to use it as a jumping off point to see where you can depart from the material and where you can reinvent it.

AGUILAR: Given that this is the biggest studio film you’ve worked on how does this affect your creative freedom and writing process?

HAYTHE: This is a huge movie. I come from a background of writing novels and smaller films, and this is a huge opportunity and a huge pleasure. The best part about writing films is that is collaborative. It’s a deeply collaborative process, and when you collaborate with wonderfully creative people it’s a pleasure. Gore Verbinski is an incredible talent, Johnny Depp is obviously singular, and also Jerry Bruckheimer—these are people who operate at the top of the field and have huge ambition.

I think there is a misconception that when one goes into a movie of this size, that it’s purely commercial or, in a way, cynical. But the first thing Gore Verbinski said to me was, “Listen, you are entering this world of enormous films, and they are a big business, but the way to do it right is to treat it as your most personal film.” You cant really think about it from that corporate side, about the amount of money it has to make back, from the marketing and promotion that is going to come, because you have to start from a character. That’s the same for a small movie or a big movie.

Characters in The Lone Ranger

Characters in The Lone Ranger

AGUILAR: How do you make these characters relevant to today’s audiences?

HAYTHE: I think you try to make them truthful, you try to make them relatable. I think that in terms of the Lone Ranger character, it was the relationship with his brother and his relationship with the Rebecca Reid character. James Badge Dale played the brother. He is a wonderful actor. Ruth Wilson is a brilliant English actress that played the love interest. Both these characters are as relatable today as in the radio serials of the ’30s. You try not to make anything iconic. No matter who you are writing or in what time period you are writing, you make it about the characters. That’s how you access a modern audience.

AGUILAR: Did the fact that this is a Disney family film affect your writing?

HAYTHE: Well, we have pushed the envelope in this film, in the sense that we wanted to honor the genre, and you want it to have danger and stakes, and to have bad guys you really hate, at the same time you want to make a film that’s for everybody. You don’t want to make a film that is so aggressively violent or dark that is not going to be for kids. My children, who are seven and nine, watched the television series and it really works—the white horse and the mask out there to do justice. Even though I think modern audiences have become more sophisticated, you have in mind that you are writing for a big group of people, it’s a big canvas, and you don’t want to exclude anyone.

AGUILAR: How difficult was to write a Western?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

HAYTHE: I love the genre, and there are a lot of films that I reference, Liberty Valance is one of my favorite movies that’s my direct cross-connection to the Lone Ranger character—a purely good man who wanders into a more complicated world, a world of shades, of grays and corruption. You approach it the same way you would approach anything, you go into it through a character, and without that you are lost.

AGUILAR: How much Johnny Depp’s attachment to film influence your creation of the characters?

New mythology put Tonto at the center of Silver and the Ranger's mask

New mythology put Tonto at the center of Silver and the Ranger’s mask

HAYTHE: Johnny was attached. I knew what Johnny wanted to do visually with the character and that was a great asset because one of the first things I saw was a photograph of Johnny in a rough version of the costume that ended up on the screen. My task was to make the pieces mean something, like the bird on his head, and to really give them resonance, to explain them over the course of the movie. Armie Hammer was not attached during the writing of the script, what was essential for the actor in that role was to not have vanity and not to have cynicism. And be willing to play a straight guy to Johnny’s Tonto without winking at the camera in any way. I think that’s what Armie has done.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before The Lone Ranger was released.]

Click here to read Justin Haythe’s interview on breaking in and working in Hollywood.

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