Gore Verbinski: The Other Gore

One minute he's an unknown director leaping from a Budweiser commercial to the feature Mouse Hunt, the next he's directing the high-wattage pairing of Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt in The Mexican. Here's how Gore Verbinski did it.

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A few years ago, Gore Verbinski was best known for directing the Budweiser commercial in which three animatronic bullfrogs each croaked a syllable of the beer brand. Then he made his feature debut with the DreamWorks comedy Mouse Hunt. Directing frogs and rodents should hardly have made Verbinski the choice for a movie starring Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, but that is exactly what happened when Verbinski landed The Mexican for DreamWorks. Written by J.H. (Joel) Wyman, the film is no glossy, megabudget operation, despite its starpower; its entire budget (aside from the unspecified star tabs) is only around $15 million. It's a quirky, funny threecharacter piece about a thief (Pitt) who gets dumped by his girlfriend (Roberts) after taking on the unrefusable mob job of heading to Mexico to pick up a fabled stolen pistol. Meanwhile, a charming but deadly hit man (James Gandolfini) kidnaps Roberts and attempts to retrieve tie weapon himself. So how did Verbinski, a mild-mannered, affable 36-year-old father of two who was born in Tennessee and raised in San Diego, come to direct such a project? He obviously backed up his selling skills with filmmaking finesse, because Roberts proceeded to sign on immediately for another Verbinski film, with the working title Project 3. And in the meantime, he set up Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. There are as few true overnight sensations behind the camera as in front of it, but Gore Verbinski comes about as close as anyone can get.

MICHAEL FLEMING: How exactly did the amazing cast you have on The Mexican fall into place?

GORE VERBINSKI: It started with Brad Pitt. There had been many different scenarios, involving Ben Stiller, among others, when I came in as director after Kevin Reynolds had fallen out. This was a little movie we were prepared to make on a very low budget regardless of cast. We'd taken a shot at Brad, and then we got a break. David Fincher, who's been very supportive of me and was going to do The Mexican at one point himself, called Brad. He said, "You should do this with Gore." Brad and I had a great meeting. This was at a time when nobody had even thought about Julia for the role, because she was so out of reach.

Q: What's a meeting with Brad Pitt like?

A: Unglamorous. We had coffee. At that stage Brad wasn't sure about what movie to make next. The people who respected what I'd done were filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, as well as DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg, who sensed some confidence and craftsmanship. It's much different for actors because what they do is call other actors and say, How was he to work with? When we got together, Brad and I had a lot to talk about. You get down to it quickly, the character, my point of view on the movie. We had a good meeting, and then we had a bit of luck when Brad's manager gave the script to Julias agent. Julia read it and really liked it. She was the one who really made it happen, because her presence in the movie made it a lot easier for Brad to do it.

Q: Your producer John Baldecchi told me, "The defining moment for Gore came when he went to New York with Jeffrey Katzenberg to meet Julia. Jeffrey had a trust factor with Julia that went back to Pretty Woman, and that got Gore in the door. He went to sell Julia on the movie, but especially to sell himself."

A: Yes, with Julia, it was the endorsement of Jeffrey Katzenberg that helped. She was understandably saying, Who is this Gore Verbinski? Why do I want to be making a movie with him?

Q: Before Brad and Julia signed on, who exactly were you thinking of?

A: I'm not going to say, but remember, this was an $8 million film. DreamWorks had committed to making the movie regardless, and that put me at ease. Jeffrey Katzenberg had said, "Give me two weeks before you go to the cast you're thinking of." We were at the end of our two weeks, and it had been hard for him to get an answer from people being asked to do the movie at reduced rate. Then, the Julia Factor kicked in.

Q: What happens when the Julia Factor kicks in?

A: Suddenly I'm told, Julia's interested. Then I'm on a plane. There were no promises. She'd immediately called Joe Roth [the head of Revolution Studios, where Julia has a movie deal] and said, "Tell me about the Mousetrap guy." I'd prepped a movie with Joe, Mission to Mars, and walked off it when it didn't go right, so he had a reason to give me a bad rap. But he's a filmmaker at heart, and he was very supportive, just like Jeffrey. That made it possible to have a meeting in New York. Ultimately, Julia makes her decision based on meeting somebody. Jeffrey made the introductions and left us to get to know each other. The best thing you can do as a director in that situation is show your passion, be honest and live or die by that. I know that if I came back and said, "Well, we didn't get Julia," I was still making the movie--although I'm a realist, and also knew that if she'd said, "I love the movie, but I want to do it with a different director," I'd be packing my bags. But it didn't come to that.

Q: Did she commit to you at the end of that meeting?

A: No, but we knew it had gone well. What took time was making the deal, because there was a fiscal responsibility for taking on this kind of subject matter with these movie stars. That's why most movies have Julia Roberts and somebody, or Brad Pitt and somebody, not Julia and Brad. I thank God we got this cast, but when you're doing a movie like this, which has such an indie feel to it, casting movie stars of this caliber can be a blessing and a curse. The film wins, because their performances take the movie to a completely different level. The problem is the expectation of the audience. We were not making Notting Hill Brad and Julia may be paid less to do this movie, but the audience is not paying less to see Brad and Julia.

Q: Does your vision of the movie change when you get Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts?

A: No, not at all. They just take what is there and bring it to a higher level. We didn't mess with the writing at all. I know there are a lot of movies where you get a big star and suddenly you're hiring a guy to rewrite all his dialogue. This was not that kind of movie.

Q: What was the appeal of this kind of movie for Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts?

A: Julia and Brad did this movie because it was different. Brad, coming from Fight Club, plays a lovable loser. He's a more regular guy than I've ever seen him be in a movie before. She's gone to a place she's never been before. Her character is ballsier and tougher than her audience has ever seen her. It's almost like she and Brad have traded places.

Q: OK. Now you have Brad and Julia. How did you get James Gandolfini, the Emmy-winning star of TV's most celebrated series in years, who's doing his first big film role since becoming Tony Soprano?

A: That was Julia's doing. The writer, Joel Wyman, and I had both been very keen on Jean Reno, to the point where we'd had blinders on. But when Julia mentioned James, I went, Oh, yeah, why didn't we think of that? I had a couple of great meetings with Jim, who is just profound. He's smart, and can give this immensely physical performance without even moving an eyebrow. He can say one word and stop the world. And the two of them together, Julia and Jim--just great. Julia has more scenes with Jim than with Brad.

Q: Why did he trust you?

A: If you're a director trying to get an actor to do your movie, where you will fail is if the character is not interesting. I stay away from what a lot of directors in that situation will say: "Well, you'll look really cool." Especially directors from my generation whose emphasis is on style over content.

Q: Your producer told me that Gandolfini surprised you after a few days of shooting by telling you to replace him because he was terrible. Was that a crisis?

A: Nah. You just say, "Shut the fuck up." You cannot take him seriously because you're seeing his performance. Jim was so profoundly good that all you can do is say, "Shut up," and walk away.

Q: You didn't feel you needed to reassure him?

A: That's essentially what you're doing when you blow him off like that. He's not searching for a compliment. He's a perfectionist. It's kind of humorous that he's that good an actor and isn't aware of it. I'd want Jim Gandolfini in any movie I ever made. It's almost like he's able to perform to 500 people while absolutely still with the camera in extreme close-up. He's like Marlon Brando.

Q: Julia had come off Erin Brockovich, where she'd had a great time working with Steven Soderbergh. How did you handle her?

A: My take on Julia is, if you've got something to say, you'd better be right. She's really fucking smart, and she's done a lot of homework and is way inside her character, so your emotional logic as to why she should do something different had better track.

Q: How long did it take you to figure out her psychology?

A: Well, I'm no fool. I called Steven Soderbergh and said, I've got to talk to you about the Julia Factor. We had a great lunch and I got the Julia Roberts codebook. He was very helpful.

Q: What was the most instructive thing in the codebook?

A: Most of it was a practical discussion. There's a vast difference between Julia's working philosophy and Brad's. Brad is a natural talent and there's this intuitive thing that happens, something he nurtures, which is an enjoyable thing to watch blossom. He's willing to try anything. Julia is like the female Gene Hackman. She gets it right in two takes and if you want something different, you'd better talk about it with her right then. She comes to play, she's on time. Don't call her to the set if you're not ready.

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