JAMES WARD BYRKIT has the soul of a pirate. In a Hollywoodland of timid or artistically limited landlubbers — those filmmakers who cling to convention no matter the cost, or often because of the potential costs — Byrkit feels called to test more roiling waters. And that has made all the difference.
Johnny Depp was not the first person hired for 2003’s launching of the eventual “Pirates of the Caribbean” box-office leviathan — nor was an Orlando or a Keira or a Geoffrey. To help conceptualize a ride as a sprawling film of curses and cutlasses, wenches and wit, director Gore Verbinski’s first mate was Byrkit.
And when Verbinski decided to attempt his first feature animation, it was Byrkit the artist right there behind the literal drawing board, spending long months trying to determine how a shaky-gunned chameleon dropped into a “Chinatown”-parched desert could ever be visually expressive enough to become a Depp-voiced cartoon hero.
The results, of course, are written in the record books. Everything ventured, everything gained.
The “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise has so far grossed nearly $4-billion globally. And that animation, “Rango,” is one of the year’s top performers, having grossed nearly $250-million worldwide.
Today, newly out on DVD, Paramount’s “Rango” is poised to be a strong performer on the video charts, too. And Disney/Buena Vista has just announced that in October, the home-video release of “On Stranger Tides” will include the “Pirates of the Caribbean 15-Disc Collection,” a packaging that will have not only all four “POTC” feature films but also Byrkit’s new short film “Wedlocked,” featuring the “Pirates” women Scarlett and Giselle in center spotlight as a saucy, comically gifted duo — in what Byrkit calls “a chance for the wenches to have their own wacky moment.”
“Wedlocked” also allows Byrkit — a CalArts theater grad turned storyboard artist — to display his directorial gifts, as a cast and costumes and sets were speedily assembled on the California “Pirates” soundstage for this passion project, which had a window of several days. The short also permits the multi-hypenate filmmaker to engage a creative soul that is part buccaneer, part safecracker.
“In the romantic fantasy of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ‘piracy’ represents freedom and nonconformity,” Byrkit tells Comic Riffs. “A filmmaker has to have a bit of pirate in their soul if they want to break from the inertia of mediocrity. Everything seems to conspire to push films toward the safe shore of average. That’s when you have to order the ship straight over the edge.
“For me,” continues Byrkit, a 44-year-old native of Flagstaff, Ariz., “filmmaking feels more like a heist — as a director, you have the master plan, but you also have to assemble your crack team of super-specialists to pull it off before time runs out and someone realizes what you’re up to.”
With this week’s release of “Rango” and announced release of “Wedlocked,” Comic Riffs caught up with Byrkit for an in-depth talk about these two films, as well as “Rango’s” role in Paramount’s recent decision to break from DreamWorks Animation.
MICHAEL CAVNA: Amid the scores of references to other films, Rango strikes me as an utter original as a visual character. Within animation or cartooning, is there anyone quite like him?
JAMES WARD BYRKIT: He’s visually unique. When I first heard the pitch from [director] Gore [Verbinksi], I loved the premise but part of my brain warned: “Oh, no. Talking animals. What’s going to different about this?”
I started sketching possible designs for Rango along with a couple other fantastic character artists. When my friend — amazing creature-design superstar Crash McCreery — joined on, we had an early talk. He also wanted to push the limits of character design. We had both just come off the “Pirates” movies, where we had worked with [Industrial Light & Magic] on the Davy Jones barnacled pirate crew. We loved the textures and complexity they achieved on our designs there. So we said: What if start imagining the Rango characters just as textured, combining an exaggerated character design with freakishly real finished renderings? That seemed like a new combination: Photo-real renditions of highly stylized characters.
MC: In the “Rango” book, Gore says you guys are "absolutely symbiotic." How would you characterize your creative partnership with him?
JWB: We’ve worked together so long, we have a gigantic storehouse of shared references, experiences and a custom vocabulary. We create in a shared brainspace, instantly adjusting to new possibilities. He’s a mad genius. It’s a playground in there, full of imagery from a million sources.
Sometimes we talk to each in sound effects only. It probably looks rather weird. On “Rango,” we would be in the middle of acting out a scene together, decide it needed a particular kind of music, and then jump on the guitars to make up a song to record in Garage Band. Then we’d go back, draw the scene and record our voices for the rough edit.
MC: Just whose brainchild was "Rango”?
JWB: Gore had the nugget of the story, resulting from a long-ago meeting with producer John Carls (“Where the Wild Things Are”) and artist Dave Shannon (No, David). Gore and I had been talking about doing an animation project during the “Pirates” shoot. In late 2007, he and I started to develop the story into what became a script by screenwriter John Logan. Then, during voice recording of the scratch audio cut, Gore and I would improvise lines and come up with the specific jokes for the final version.
MC: You render, you write, you direct, you pluck the six-string mariachi-style. As a renaissance man of sorts, what do you think your creative strengths are — and is there anything artistically you don't do?
JWB: Really, I’m just a director who got into it by combining my love of many arts. My theater background helped develop a love of actors and drama, while my obsession with drawing led nicely to visual storytelling, culminating in film. Music was always a sideline, something I did for fun with my college band, but it turned out to be a key part of filmmaking.
The writing — I don’t pretend to be an expert, but it’s a natural outcome of studying film and trying over and over through trial and error to figure out how our brains process the world. Humans, it turns out, aren’t rational beings. We don’t learn well from dry information. We really function with a million stories in our heads, running narratives that we use to make sense of things. So storytelling becomes key to building functional realities, in film and in life.
[And] there are many arts I have little talent for. But the breakdancing will come, I can feel it.
MC: What inspires or influenes you creatively — and did you have specific inspirations for "Rango"?
JWB: Dreams are a huge influence. I have these ridiculously exhausting dreams that seem to take years and span solar systems. I reference these as if they were actual experiences.
Childhood is the well that never dries up. There is infinite material to mine there, memory fragments of Sid and Marty Krofft television, thunderstorms in the desert, or the gush of anticipation of Christmas. I learn a lot from great current artists like Joe Sorren and Hayao Miyazaki, but I also get inspiration from bad — perfect — ’80s music videos.
On “Rango.” we knew the [Sergio] Leone films had to influence the tone, but we thought we could combine the güfballessence — I’m absolutely sure that’s a real word — of Don Knotts from “Shakiest Gun in the West” for a nice contrast. Then, there was always this instinct to make it more surreal, to add dreams and a crazy local belief system and near-death hallucinations. Gore loves Ladislaw Starewicz, and I highly suggest checking out his work with stop-motion from 90 years ago. [The] Coen Brothers, John Ford’s “Wiseblood” and, yes, Hunter Thompson all added juice to the stew.
MC: Speaking of Leone films: Ennio Morricone, great composer or *greatest* composer? And what music especially moves or captivates you?
JWB: The Sixties are the best. Morricone got to some places so early that it makes you feel all you can do is imitate him sometimes. Which is a mistake.
I’m mostly drawn to music that is slightly off-center but with a fully developed personal style. Esquivel is joyous, Bow Wow Wow is underrated. Dick Dale, Beach Boys, Mr. David Bowie, Valerie Lagrange, and Boston are all playing at the same time in my head. Different volumes.
MC: Given “Rango’s” Leone references, did you have any contact with Misters Eastwood or Wallach during or after "Rango"?
JWB: None. We had to be careful there. Those guys aren’t messing around.
MC: What visual or vocal challenges did you particularly face in creating the "Rango" characters? And what was most rewarding?
JWB: We had a lot of questions regarding the expressiveness of Rango’s face. I pushed for having actual chameleon-based eyes as opposed to the typical Pixar ping-pong balls. But that was tricky. We had to invent a whole expression language without the benefit of eyebrows, eye lashes, and big eyes — all the things that traditionally provide… expression. There’s a reason other animated films have characters with huge eyes — it works. So little by little, with a lot of back and forth between Crash McCreery, me, and the artists at ILM, we got Rango to a beautifully expressive place. ...
It was actually a challenge doing the voice of “Waffles” [who is voiced by Byrkit] in the movie. He speaks in this rough whisper that causes violent hiccups after a few minutes. Very nice when you’re doing scenes with high-caliber actors you’ve always wanted to work with.
MC: Can you recount the experience of being "holed up" for years while working on this story and concept and character design and the whole enchilada supreme? When did you know you were really onto something?
JWB: It started with only four or five of us, and slowly grew to a family of almost 20. We were building the story reel, a version of the film made from thousands of black-and-white storyboards. Gore and I would record voices and do some scratch music, McCreery was in the next room creating amazing characters. Our editor Wyatt Jones was roughing in scenes. Producer Adam Cramer would sculpt characters and challenge everyone to foosball. ...
I drew a lot for the first year. We had different storyboard artists come and help, and it was great seeing the different styles on the same movie. Everyone had their own flavor, as you can see in the book.
Gore and I would meet with screenwriter John Logan to show him the latest progress and bat around ideas. Logan gave our weird, tumbling story a sense of legitimacy. He’s very disciplined, and I learned a lot working with him.
Once we had a few sequences completely edited together with our voices, sound effects and music, it became clear the idea was working. We knew that if Rango could come alive so vibrantly with just my voice and some pencil drawings, the fully rendered version with Johnny Depp was going to be fantastic.
MC: Did you write Rango with Depp in mind?
JWB: From Day One, we knew it was Johnny Depp. Had to be. On “Pirates,” he would sometimes break into his “lizard man” persona, flapping and moving like a spastic reptile. Every drawing was made with him in mind. For a year, while creating the story reel, I played Rango and tried to channel some Johnny into the voice. He was crucial. He came by the house early on to see what we were doing and seemed really open to the madness of it.
MC: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of "Rango"? And any regrets in hindsight?
JWB: We were slightly surprised by the critical success. We thought it might be hard for critics to classify it, since we weren’t really making a kids’ movie. But they overwhelmingly supported it, and for all the right reasons.
The only regret is that there is still a giant audience out there who would love “Rango” but never saw it because they assumed it was for younger audiences. They never got the message it played even better to older kids and adults.
MC: How was it working with ILM — especially as their artists themselves broke new creative ground with ILM’s first full-length feature animation?
JWB: Nothing but awesome. John Knoll, Hal Hickle and Tim Alexander are considered visual-effects gods, with capes of electric fire and elaborate jade-and-titanium headdresses ... joining forces with them was the best. ... Their team was enthusiastic and ridiculously talented.
MC: As an artist, what’s your favorite medium to work with?
JWB: I work in very quick pencil sketches, maybe with some grey marker on top. Then tweak in Photoshop.
MC: What is on your boards now? Live-action, or any more animated projects in the works?
JWB: There are several feature ideas I’d like to direct. A live-action creature love story. A heist set in a space station. There are some animated projects developing that could be exciting. As long as they’re not all talking animals.
MC: As you know, Paramount just announced that it’ll launch an in-house animation division, breaking from DreamWorks Animation. Its box-office success with “Rango” obviously must have encouraged Paramount. What’s your take on the move?
JWB: I think it’s great. Animation has so much potential [that’s] unimagined and untapped. It can only make make the medium more exciting, having another powerhouse in the game. Animationi is still the frontier, and Paramount is positioned to be a player and has the resources to crack the boundaries of expectation.
MC: So how did “Wedlocked” come to fruition? What was the genesis, the birth, the brainchild?
JWB: I had been helping conceptualize the big action scenes [in “Pirates of the Caribbean”] with Gore, so I was on set a lot. We had these amazing sets that Rick Heinrichs designed for sequels No. 2 and 3, and it seemed like we should put them to use somehow. We would be in the misty bayou set and Gore would say, “Somebody give Jim a camera so he can shoot a movie here.” I got Brigham Taylor at Disney interested in the idea for a short film. Then it was all about rounding up the writers. I envisioned something based on the Pirate Code Book, because that implied a device that could tie other stories in later. That’s a hint, by the way.
[Writers] Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were instantly on board and honed in quickly on a concept that would go back to the Pirates ride, something die-hard fans would appreciate. ... We had a deadline looming in just a few weeks — the Pirate Cove sets were all scheduled to be demolished then. So it was a mad scramble to prep. Everyone was great — Penny Rose provided new costumes, Kris Peck and the prop department totally came through for us, and we cobbled together just enough resources to pull it off.
MC: What can you tell us about "Wedlocked" and how it exists separately from the “Pirates” films?
JWB: I heard the characters of Giselle and Scarlett were originally not supposed to have speaking parts in the first feature, until someone noticed that Lauren [Maher] and Vanessa [Branch] were actually quite capable actors. Then a sort of cult following grew up around them. This is a chance for the wenches to have their own wacky moment, and it hints at a whole world of possibility between them. ...
Those two could have their own series — sort of a Lucy-and-Ethel on the high seas. Always getting into absurd situations. The best thing about the short was working with those two. I had done several projects previously that called for leading women that were both beautiful and funny — it’s very, very rare. Vanessa and Lauren turned out to be great actresses, hilarious, totally committed and game for anything. They show they can be cast as leading women in anything.
MC: How was it, directing “Wedlocked” in a matter of days?
JWB: We had three days to shoot, and that was it because the set was destroyed the next day. I think I was still standing a piece of it as it was hauled off. ... I’m pretty comfortable with big, sprawling sets and mayhem, but this had so little time it was a race from Day One. We had to cast it in a matter of days, build costumes, build custom set pieces, work out blocking for forty actors. So basically, it was a blast.
MC: You say "Wedlocked" is for the Pirates "superfans" Is this not intended for the general audience then — and why is this a rummy dessert for the die-hards?
JWB: The general audience will still have great fun watching the short, but there was a conscious effort to include lots of details and inside jokes for the truly obsessed fan, yes. It’s a bit of dessert for those who couldn’t get enough of the main course — or were too drunk to notice dinner ended.
MC: What do you hope for this film — and how would you define its "success"?
JWB: I always love when an invented cinematic world seems big enough to follow other stories outside the main film. I love what “Troops” did for the Star Wars universe. DVD bonus features always seem to have so much content that shows how the trick was done, what’s behind the curtain. This short continues the world, rather than revealing how we built it. I hope it succeeds in keeping the fun of the very first “POTC” alive.
MC: Is there anything about these seafaring stories that calls to you personally, creatively, Jim — like a streamside Siren under the moonlight?
JWB: In the romantic fantasy of Pirates of the Caribbean, “piracy” represents freedom and nonconformity. A filmmaker has to have a bit of pirate in their soul if they want to break from of the inertia of mediocrity. Everything seems to conspire to push films toward the safe shore of average.
That’s when you have to order the ship straight over the edge.