In a continuing saga befitting of its resilient 78-year-old subject, The Lone Ranger will ride again at Disney, after another round of delays and negotiations that scaled the movie’s budget down to a measly $215 million. Johnny Depp is still on board as Tonto, the masked hero’s Native American sidekick, three years after his role was officially announced, while emerging “it” actor Armie Hammer will contribute his all-American looks and Winklevii charms as the titular character when cameras start rolling in New Mexico next year.
But Hammer’s leading status underscores just how long this project has been in development. When former chairman Dick Cook unveiled his plan on “Disney Day” at the Kodak theater in September ’08 (following a performance of the theme song by the USC marching band), the Mouse House was only just confirming Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Pirates 4 was only a green twinkle in Jerry Bruckheimer’s eye, and next to no one in Hollywood knew about “The Hammer.” He was a bit television actor whose only “buzz” stemmed from the Web’s collective “who?” when Warner Bros. named him Batman in their doomed Justice League movie. The now 25-year-old actor wouldn’t gain recognition until he played those jilted twins in 2010′s The Social Network and his management parlayed his dual supporting roles into a major part in Clint Eastwood’s upcoming J. Edgar, the dashing prince in Tarsem’s untitled Snow White, and by April 2011, The Lone Ranger.
Hammer, who dropped out of UCLA to pursue an acting career, hadn’t even started in 2002, when Columbia Pictures scooped up the rights to bring The Lone Ranger to the big screen. That was a curious $70 million project, a take in the vein of The Mask of Zorro (another returning masked avenger) that wanted to try Tonto as a “lithe, buxom” female love interest. Columbia’s attempt languished in the scripting stage for years, though Terminator 3 director Jonathan Mostow was attached for a time.
Super producer Jerry Bruckheimer revived the property at Disney by May 2007 and Pirates of the Caribbean writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were hired to work their magic again. Only their script introduced supernatural elements — his trusty white steed Silver is a “spirit horse” and the villain is possessed by a Wendigo — and gunslinging set pieces full of not-so-family-friendly violence, starting with Tonto robbing graves and John Reid (before he is the last remaining ranger) surveying a train full of slaughtered people. Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) has since turned in a more Tonto-focused rewrite.
Mike Newell, who was directing Disney’s Prince of Persia at the time, was in negotiations to direct The Lone Ranger by May 2009. But Newell and Bruckheimer clashed in post-production on the eventual flop, as the latter locked the filmmaker out of the editing room for weeks (LA Times). By September of last year, Disney hired Gore Verbinski to direct, which basically brought the old Pirates of the Caribbean band back together for one more show.
Casting was underway this summer, including “Luther” actress Ruth Wilson as the female lead, Dwight Yoakam as the villainous Butch Cavendish, and potentially Helena Bonham Carter. But Disney, now under the eye of chairman Rich Ross, slammed the brakes on the expensive movie, said to have ballooned to a $250 million production. Partially because Depp was asking $20 million just to step on set. And why shouldn’t he? Depp has been Disney’s golden goose since the Pirates franchise started laying billion-dollar eggs during the Cook era and the studio started paying him “stupid money,” as he calls it in Vanity Fair this month. ”It’s ridiculous, yeah, yeah. But ultimately is it for me? No. No. It’s for the kids.”
But the Ranger’s revival came only when Depp was willing to reduce his “stupid” salary, while Bruckheimer and Verbinski were forced to settle for less than the expected $10 million. (It certainly didn’t help that Bruckheimer’s non-Johnny Depp movies at Disney failed, specifically The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Prince of Persia.) The production will need to come in under budget or the filmmakers sacrifice their backend percentages (THR).
But, as The Lone Ranger hops back in the saddle again, many outside observers are wondering why Disney seems so eager to spend $215 million on a Western, regardless of its scope, at a time when the genre is struggling in theaters. Does a $45 million reduction really erase the risk? WB’s Jonah Hex was an unmitigated disaster. Universal’s sci-fi hybrid Cowboys & Aliens disappointed, short of $100 million domestic (which contributed to their cancellation of Ron Howard’s ambitious adaptation of The Dark Tower series). Paramount’s True Grit rode Oscar buzz and name recognition to victory, but that only amounted to $171 million at the box office and its the second-highest grossing Western in genre history (behind Costner’s epic Dances with Wolves).
Can the Pirates crew revive the Western too? Will Armie Hammer’s rising star be enough to lead this once sinking ship? How will audiences react to Depp as Tonto and Verbinski’s “Don Quixote from Sancho Panza’s point of view?” These are the burning questions as Disney’s The Lone Ranger shows signs of life after all these years.