A Conversation with JAMES WARD BYRKIT, One of the Filmmakers behind the Oscar-Nominated Animated Film RANGO
By Tyler Malone
Rango was undeniably one of the year’s weirdest and most idiosyncratic films, but it also happens to be one of the year’s best. It’s an animated film about a thespian lizard adrift in the harsh desert, but it’s an animated film that’s not really made for youngsters–not that you can’t take kids, or that they won’t find plenty to love in it, but the aspects of the movie that make it so great will likely go over the heads of the children watching. Reference after reference is lost on anyone not old enough to have seen films by Hitchcock or Leone or Polanski. For example, at one point, Rango asks a character called “The Spirit of the West” (who is quite clearly Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy) whether where they are is heaven, to which the spirit replies: “If it were, we’d be eating strawberry Pop-Tarts with Kim Novak.” Children certainly know what Pop-Tarts are, but I don’t think any kid is supposed to know who Kim Novak is. In fact, I’m sure there are plenty of adults who don’t remember who Kim Novak is (though coincidentally the Vertigo actress was in the news recently claiming that another Oscar-nominated film “raped” her, but alas, I digress…)
Though perhaps digression is appropriate here, after all, since Rango itself feels like a series of inspired digressions. In a way, all stories are digressions, and the storytellers behind Rango know that. Knowingly meandering like all great tales, surreal to the nth degree, and with comic wit to spare, Rango is a film about that most important of subjects: our human (and apparently lizard?) need to create myths and stories. I chatted with one of the creators of Rango’s story, James Ward Byrkit, about how the film came about and the critical praise and Oscar nod that have followed.
Tyler Malone: I’m curious how the idea for Rango came about? How did the film get off the ground and come to fruition?
James Ward Byrkit: Gore [Verbinski] and I had been talking about doing an animated movie during our days on the Pirates movies. It seemed like a way to fully dive into the depths of visual storytelling, and make use of everything live action had taught us. The lizard-in-the-West idea was hatched by Gore with producer John Carls and author Dave Shannon years ago. Gore called me a few months after we finished the third Pirates film and said, “Remember that animation thing? Let’s do it!”
We had some development money from Graham King and four of us started working at Gore’s house every day–Gore, myself, producer Adam Cramer and designer Crash McCreery. Over the next year, we added an editor, some assistants, some storyboard artists and others, but it all stayed in the house, very low-fi. Gore and I recorded all the temporary voices, wrote the story, and met with screenwriter John Logan for guidance. It was an incredible creative time for all of us.
After we had a decent storyreel, with black and white storyboards and music and sound effects and voices, we started showing it to studios. They would come over to the house and look at the madness–sculptures on the kitchen table, thousands of drawings hanging in every room, and pizza boxes strewn about.
TM: You say the idea developed from your time on the Pirates films. I’m curious, was Johnny Depp always the one envisioned to give life to Rango? Or was there some other actor’s voice and character you and the other creators were thinking of while writing?
JWB: We knew we wanted ILM to do the animation and Johnny to be Rango from the very beginning. Every drawing was done with Johnny in mind. For the first year, I was the voice of Rango and I tried to use inflections that seemed like Johnny’s. Crash McCreery and I designed Rango with a mix of Johnny, Hunter S. Thompson, and Don Knotts, with just a bit of Clint Eastwood for grit.
TM: Since this is PMc Mag‘s Creative Issue, tell me a little about your creative process, your writing process, your artistic process, etc.
JWB: For me, creativity is an automatic component of any activity. Music and art and writing all seem like one huge gushing river that I have the privilege to swim in and see where it takes me. There is a quest, which is to get to the place where the thing seems right. Whatever that takes. Sometimes it may need more guitar, or more blue, or a better opening act. I think perhaps being very connected to childhood dreams, impulses and wonder feeds the creative spirit greatly.
Drawing allows me the easiest way to have pure, unbridled access to the infinite possibilities of the childhood mind. There is a creative space that is thrilling, and it seems like a real place I visit, entering the page much like in Harold and the Purple Crayon. The pencil or crayon on the blank page creates a portal, and you travel through it to another world.
Writing is much more disciplined and the trick for me is to access the well of unfiltered creativity while being aware of how it will translate into structured form. Sometimes it pours out and I can’t write fast enough to keep up with the ideas and sometimes it’s painful word-by-word bricklaying.
TM: Rango is definitely one of those films for both kids and adults. I personally appreciated all the film references that I imagine would go over most kids’ heads. Was this something you always saw as central to the story–the metatextual referential aspect of the movie? Or when did that enter into the fabric of the movie?
JWB: The “meta” layers of Rango were there from the start. We knew we were making an adult animated movie that kids might appreciate as well. But we were drawn toward the idea of the story being aware of itself, commenting on how the movie was unfolding. The owls were supposed to just sing at first, like the Cat Ballou balladeers, but then one day I started narrating as one of the owls: “Here in the Mojave desert, animals have had millions of years to adapt to the harsh environment. But the lizard? He is going to die.” Gore laughed and it fit in with his instincts to bump up against the fourth wall. We just found a balance that felt right. It was all very deliberate, but instinctive rather than mandated.
TM: I know this was Gore Verbinski’s first time directing an animated film. Do you think he’ll do any others? Could there be a sequel to Rango on the horizon?
JWB: I would love to see more adventures from Rango, but to be honest, there is absolutely no plan right now. I have a secret Rango story in my head, but I have to wait until the time is right….
TM: How does it feel to have a movie that began years ago with mere conversations between Gore Verbinski and yourself to now be up for an Academy Award and have this much critical acclaim?
JWB: It’s so weird. We knew we loved the movie, but we were bracing ourselves to be rejected by the mainstream. All of the critical success has knocked us for a loop. The movie is so idiosyncratic, we were a bit surprised that so many people responded in such an appreciative way. We just hoped that word would get around that it was really for adult movie lovers, and that there was no intention to make a little kids’ cartoon.
TM: And finally, I’ve been asking this of all the film people I’ve interviewed in the run-up to the Oscars: Besides your own film, what was your favorite film of 2011?
JWB: My favorites for 2011: I was a sucker for The Artist. That’s my favorite. Pure joy. I also liked Drive, The Tree of Life, and I have a feeling Transformers III would play great if you turned off the sound and played Beethoven.
TM: Well, good luck at the Oscars! And thanks so much for the interview.
JWB: Thank you.
James Ward Byrkit is a director, writer, artist, and filmmaker, who worked on the film Rango since its inception, which is now nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
James Ward Byrkit interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Peter Konerko
Design by Marie Havens
James Ward Byrkit, Photography by Peter Konerko