Terry Rossio and The Lone Ranger
To boundless optimism and an entrepreneurial spirit
by Carlos Aguilar
Anybody who has gone to the movies in the past two decades and experienced some of the most iconic animated and family films from Aladdin to The Pirates of The Caribbean trilogy has most likely enjoyed the work of legendary screenwriter Terry Rossio. His impressive filmography contains some the most successful films put on the screen by giants like Disney and DreamWorks. He clearly knows a thing or two about the art of writing unforgettable characters and stories for the big screen.
The fantastic adventures translated from Rossio’s imagination into the collective memories of moviegoers across the globe have earned him great recognition, including an Academy Award nomination for his work on the beloved animated film Shrek. Yet, even with all the great achievements the screenwriter has experienced during his career, his writing still feels fresh and inspired. He is a writer always looking for new ways to elate audiences and allow them to enjoy worlds in which everything is possible.
His most recent project, The Lone Ranger, reunites him Ted Elliot, Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer, with whom he has worked in several occasions creating greatly successful films. Rossio talked to Creative Screenwriting about his process to create his version of the Lone Ranger, the changes made to it by fellow screenwriter Justin Haythe and the challenges of bringing iconic characters back to the screen.
CARLOS AGUILAR: What was the biggest challenge of working with two other writers on the screenplay for The Lone Ranger?
TERRY ROSSIO: Well you know one of the writers, Ted Elliott, has been my writing partner for years, and then our screenplay was rewritten by Justin Haythe once the film went into production. So I can’t really say there were challenges in working with writers, other than handing off the baton.
AGUILAR: How influential was the original material when writing the screenplay? And did you go back and watch any of the old shows or films based on the characters?
ROSSIO: The original material was hugely influential. The Lone Ranger has high name recognition, but not many people knew the details of his origin. So we chose to tell the story of the Cavendish Gang, the ambush, where seven Rangers go in to Bryan’s Gap and only one comes out alive. But a revenge plot wasn’t sufficient, so playing off the silver bullet, we invented the Latham Cole character, building a railroad into Indian territory, having discovered a secret, sacred silver mine.
We reviewed episodes from both television and radio. One of the highlights of research for me was meeting with radio legend Fred Foy, and discussing with him aspects of the Lone Ranger character and the shape of the film.
AGUILAR: Which of the Lone Ranger’s qualities was the most important for you to be portrayed on the film, and did you see this translated in Armie Hammer’s performance?
ROSSIO: Honestly, I didn’t get to see The Lone Ranger on screen that we intended in the initial drafts. Gore was adamant that John Reid should be a newbie to the west and initially inept, for comedic purposes. In our approach, John Reid was a feared lawman, and the issue was whether he could leave that behind, wear a mask, and live as a lawman outside the law. In the finished film, John Reid was a deputy for just a few hours, so the issue became more whether he could rise to the occasion, and you witness his transformation from east coast pacifist to feared lawman.
The telling scene is the scene at the train station. In our version, John Reid was on the platform with the other Rangers when the train blew past. Gore put John Reid on the train, with his brother Dan on the platform. We had John Reid stopping the train and then going to recruit Dan, increasing his guilt for when Dan later is killed. Gore had Dan stopping the train, and then recruiting John. I can see the logic of the change.
AGUILAR: Given that this is a big budget studio film, how does that affect your process as a writer and your creative freedom?
ROSSIO: Keep in mind; it wasn’t always a big budget film. Even with Bruckheimer as producer, and Disney as the studio, that didn’t necessarily push the budget. Jerry and Executive Producers Chad Oman and Mike Stenson have done smaller films quite successfully, such as Glory Road and Veronica Guren. The key moment was casting Johnny Depp. It wasn’t an easy choice. Once Johnny is on board playing Tonto, you need an A-list director, A-list co-stars, A-list effects, A-list stunts, eventually A-list everything, and the budget blossoms. Go too high and the financials on a Western don’t work. There was a version of the movie that could have been done for $75 million. But then again, if you don’t have Depp, you probably don’t have a movie at all. Those are tough choices, but ultimately the producers have to do their job, which is to get a movie made. That group moved heaven and earth to get the film into production, quite likely the most difficult greenlight they will ever achieve.
AGUILAR: How difficult was to reinvent such beloved characters and bring them to a new generation?
ROSSIO: I don’t believe there is a need to “reinvent” the Lone Ranger character. Iconic characters such as the Lone Ranger are iconic for a reason; they embody some key aspect of humanity. Updating the character leads to a scene where the Lone Ranger is dragged through horse shit, or later says, “Let’s do this.” Leave the character alone; what needs updating are the storytelling skills, to match modern audience sensibilities and filmmaking techniques.
Tonto’s character was different. I believe a cultural bias at the time in history the series was created resulted in a character that was, while intelligent, loyal and brave, too often pushed to the side in the role of sidekick. There was more to be found there. Tonto’s tribe was somewhat ambiguous, so Ted and I wondered, what if Tonto moved between various tribes as a mystic? Shading Tonto as a shaman led to his belief in Silver as a spirit horse, and that Cavendish was possessed by a Wendigo, an evil spirit of the open plains. Having Tonto believe that John Reid was a warrior unable to be killed in battle filled a gap, answering the question, why would Tonto team up with him in the first place?
AGUILAR: How visual is your approach when writing complex action sequences for films like this?
ROSSIO: Keep in mind I’m answering this question in the context that the vast majority of visuals, the vast majority of the effort put into the choreography and final look of the film was accomplished by Gore and Justin, most of that work done on location under trying circumstances. That said, if Gore chooses to go with a visual from your screenplay, you know you’ve done well and it’s pretty satisfying. Train tracks in the middle of a desert. Lone Ranger’s mask made of bullet holes from his brother’s vest. Silver, appearing before the massacre as a sort of warning. Silver choosing John Reid’s grave. Silver looking down the chimney of a building, etc. I’m proud of those. But credit for those involved, jaw-dropping action sequences go to Gore, Justin and the hugely talented storyboard and pre-vis crew.
AGUILAR: Did the fact that this is a Disney film affect the tone of film given that it needed to be family friendly?
ROSSIO: Much of the tone of our drafts didn’t survive into the final film. The initial inspiration for the project—for us, the grand experiment of the film—was to return audiences back to the days where there was a genuine fear of open places.When Westerns were popular, it was when audiences were not that far removed from a time when leaving the town was dangerous, life-threatening.
We thought we could recapture that by introducing the mystical element—Silver as a spirit horse, Tonto’s belief in the Wendigo, an evil spirit that roamed the land and possessed men of weak character and made them ruthless and evil, etc. Tonto chasing a spirit across the land, which he believes now resides in Latham Cole seemed mysterious and potentially powerful. And perhaps, if the west seemed genuinely frightening again, the western genre would again be effective. In our campfire scene, for example, the creatures of the desert were fleeing a (never seen) roaming spirit. But Gore was more interested in the theme of progress, and the evils of the corporation. Instead of taking a modern audience back to a mysterious Old West, he wanted to explore the Old West becoming modern.
AGUILAR: How much did the fact that Johnny Depp was attached to the project influence your creation of the character for the screen?
ROSSIO: The film was always designed to be a buddy film, where Tonto helps Reid catch Cavendish and Reid helps Tonto catch Cole. But Depp is a gravitational force. His interest had a huge impact on the shape of the film. Just one example, knowing Depp was interested, the producers were very keen to ask, on what page does Tonto show up in the movie? Gore moved Tonto onto the train, pushing his entrance up ten pages. Gore invented the framing sequence, seeing the story through Tonto’s eyes, which he might have done with any actor, but I suspect knowing that Depp was involved made the choice more certain. Depp himself designed the look of the character, including (famously) the crow headdress.
AGUILAR: What has been your most rewarding experience as a screenwriter over the years?
ROSSIO: That’s easy—collaborating with Gore Verbinski and Ted Elliott on the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
AGUILAR: Given that the majority of the films you’ve worked on have been major productions, what do you think is the main difference between writing big studio films and smaller, more intimate ones?
ROSSIO: What happens on a big budget film is the story content is defined by the most powerful people on the production. This has become part and parcel of getting a film made. We like to think that there is a screenplay that has been approved, the director interprets it visually, and the actor interprets the role with their performance, the producer produces, the studio distributes, etc. But on a large film, everyone is pushed outside their area of expertise. Studios are forced to cede power to the director, including the right to shape the story as desired. The director is often forced to cede power, including the right to shape the story as desired, to the movie star. On a lower-budgeted film, the path to production is not so tied to ceding the power to change content.
AGUILAR: In terms of screenwriting, what advice do you have for new writers to break into Hollywood and keep working there?
ROSSIO: It’s virtually impossible to sustain a screenwriting career in the feature world. Even if you do get a film produced, you may be re-written, or you might not be granted credit by the WGA, or the success might not lead to another assignment or produced film. So my advice is to be a director, or work in series format, either network or cable.
AGUILAR: What do you think is the biggest challenge for screenwriters today?
ROSSIO: Technically, the same as always—to write a great screenplay. There are too few opportunities being chased by too many talented people. While that’s always been a problem, as the number of produced films shrink, the issue has become critical for many working writers.
AGUILAR: Which other screenwriters do you admire or look up to?
ROSSIO: Justin Haythe. I have never met a writer who was more impressive in person, pitching or in story meetings. He could be the next superstar of this industry. I must also mention John Logan, whom I’ve never met, but whose work is consistently brilliant.
AGUILAR: According to you, what qualities does a screenwriter need to be successful?
ROSSIO: The ability to write well coupled with boundless optimism and an entrepreneurial spirit.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before The Lone Ranger was released.]
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