THE OTHER GORE - by Michael Fleming

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.

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 ever 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 Dream Works. 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 three-character 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 (Gandolfini) kidnaps Roberts and attempts to retrieve the 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 Dream Works 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 Julia's 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 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. The, the Julia factor kicked in.

Q: What happens when the Julia facto 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 calibre can be a blessing and a curse. The film wins, because their performances take the movie to a completely different level. 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. 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 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 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 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 James 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 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.

Q: So if you were doing something with Brad, you'd do more takes to get the right one, as opposed to Julia?
A: Brad's very ambitious. He comes to the set with an idea of what he wants to do, and while storyboarding can be productive, you've got to be prepared to throw it in the trash because he shows up and says, I don't want to sit in that chair. Suddenly, you're saying, OK, now we've got to do this hand-held. That shot you thought of last night, where you're going to come through the window and focus on him in a chair? Chuck it. He might end up back in the chair, but try it his way, respect his process.

Q: Director Roger Michell told Movieline that while he was making Notting Hill, he was impressed that when Julia got in front of the camera, she'd do something that just made his jaw drop, reminding him why she was the biggest female star in the world. When did you first notice that?
A: Day one, and then it continued. The first day, we had a scene where we locked her in the trunk of a car. When the trunk was opened, she had to be in a state. I don't know what has happened in this woman's life, but she conjured up some wicked voodoo. The trunk opened and it was game time.

Q: You shot The Mexican in a remote location in Mexico. Was that helpful with a cast that usually gets mobbed by fans and tabloids?
A: it helped de-emphasize the star factor. We were in the middle of a Mexican desert and there were only two hotels in the whole town, so they stayed in people's houses and ended up knowing the person who makes the tortillas. It was surreal. We tried to bring out the juxtaposition of coming from the artificial landscape of Las Vegas, where the story begins, to this romantic, harsh landscape. Brad was there during preproduction, so when he first arrived, we walked around the town and went into the local bar, drank tequila, hung out, saw people on the street. Eventually, the movie started to draw attention and security tightened, but brad got a flavour of the town a little more by having the chance to take hikes in the desert and absorb the scenery. Julia came for a shorter period while we were already shooting, at a time when we were confined.

Q: How was the chemistry between Julia and Brad?
A: At the beginning we did a read-through on the script and when you see them in the room together, you just know. Julia and Brad really do look like they belong together. There's familiarity between them. They did a lot of stuff together, during preproduction, played music for each other, saying, "This should be our song." Both of them have enough real-life relationship history to draw upon-and getting them talking about that history was fun. Now that we're previewing the movie, people are responding to how real their relationship feels, even though they're in so few scenes together. They've got rhythm.

Q: The Mexican is just your second film. With respect to your first film, Mouse Hunt, is it true that Steven Spielberg himself had seen your commercial work and championed you?
A: Basically. I'd written and directed a short film, and I had a commercial reel. They called me. That's a pretty great phone call.

Q: Did you spark immediately to Mouse Hunt?
A: I said I'd make it, but only if it had a particular tone. I wasn't a big fan of Home Alone. It wasn't black enough.

Q: What was the biggest thing you learned by making your debut on a high-concept project?
A: The biggest education came after I'd convinced myself I was telling a story about family, about brothers, about strength, a story that happened to have a mouse in it. The lesson was: No, you're making a mouse movie.

Q: When did you come to that stark realization?
A: During the preview process. Previewing your first movie is like showing it to 500 people you hated in high school. The crowd goes nuts because somebody hits someone on the head with a frying pan. But you could hear a pin drop during a Chris Walken speech that's the funniest thing I've ever heard in my life. I wanted to get up and lecture the audience for 30 minutes on what is funny. But I can't, and that's my education. You just realize, OK, you've made a mouse movie.

Q: I understand you tried to give Walken a scene comparable to his Pulp Fiction wristwatch speech.
A: Talk about funny. When I met Chris, he'd say, "I've been thinking a lot about what it'd be like to be a mouse," and he was serious. He'd made a psychic connection and walked around wardrobe for two weeks thinking about this. We rewrote just for Chris when he came in. And he made the most incredible speech. It was an amazing scene-and it got cut out of the movie after the previewing.

Q: Your star was Nathan Lane, an accomplished stage actor. Did he take a while to get used to you, given you'd never done a feature before?
A: Nathan made me work for it. He didn't show any cards. Well, sometimes he did. When we were, doing take nine of a scene where he was underwater, he'd say, "What do you think this is, Citizen Kane? This is Mouse Hunt!" He'd bash me in front of the crew and extras. It was kind of funny.

Q: Wasn't that a bit demeaning?
A: I respected his process. What am I going to do, get weird about that and not make as good a movie as I can? I'll take 100 bullets, except for one that makes the movie suck.

Q: So you'll endure a bit of abuse if it helps Nathan be funnier?
A: I think it's just the appearance of enduring something. Sometimes the best move is not taking shit, but when you're quite willing to take shit, you might be able to get something special from that individual. Actors are smart and they play mind games. You must realize who your opponent is, respect them, but just don't let down your guard and never let them run wild.

Q: What was the biggest learning experience in going from commercials to features?
A: Studio manipulation. In advertising, it's agency manipulation. You say, How do I make them think my idea is something they came up with, so that by the time we go around the table and get 27 opinions. I've planned a seed, let somebody else put the water on it, let somebody else trim it, and when it comes back, it's bearing the fruit I want it to bear? You learn how to do that. Going to the studio is like moving from high school to college. You're A average is suddenly a C because all the A students are there. Also, there's an urgency in making commercials because you've got to start shooting tomorrow. The lack of urgency from a studio perspective gives them the ability to peel you like an onion. They'll say, We'll take away two layers, we can live with that; so can you. They try to take away the third layer and you say, Ow, I'm not doing that, I quit. They say, OK, we're not going to touch that layer. But two weeks later it comes off a little easier. By the end, you're holding this little heart of an onion, and going, This is the movie I always imagined it would be. It's not at all what you first started out making. That process is an education, a Hollywood bris.

Q: What did Mouse Hunt teach you that you took to The Mexican?
A: The lesson was this: Take the stuff that you love and impregnate it with critical information the movie can't live without, and it will survive. Anything that can be cut will be cut, by nature of the preview process. Make sure the great scenes can't be cut out of the movie within ruining its ability to make sense. And remember you can get away with a lot more in the first 15 minutes. I read scripts differently because of those lessons.

Q: Your streak of good fortune looked like it might come to a halt when your plans to make Catch Me If You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio got stalled because he couldn't break away in time from Gangs of New York. But then you replaced that with Project 3, another movie with Julia by the writer of The Mexican, Joel Wyman. How'd you do that?
A: When the Leo delay happened, I called my agent and said, "Give me every script that doesn't have a director." When I was about to go home for the weekend with three boxes of scripts, I had one long-shot phone call with Joe Roth and Julia Roberts. We asked her to commit to this movie even though there was no finished script yet. She said yes. Like that. I'm not at liberty to discuss the movie, but it's a psychological thriller, a really great and unique premise. Hopefully, I'll go back and work with Leonardo after that.

Q: What's the appeal of Catch Me If You Can?
A: The piece has a wonderful sense of humor. It's the true story of a guy who essentially cons himself out of his own youth by impersonating everyone from an assistant attorney general to a pilot. He becomes a target of the FBI as a teenager while writing $2.5 million in bad checks. In the process he loses himself. The real person ultimately went to jail in France, Sweden and the US before going to work for the FBI to prevent someone like himself from happening again. It's perfect for Leo, who has to play between the ages of 17 and 28.

Q: What's your assessment of DiCaprio based on your meeting with him?
A: He's extremely talented, very smart. We've had six meetings at least, and that many phone calls. The relationship just started, but it's gone nicely so far. I hope we get to make the movie soon, because he's growing so well into a leading man.

Q: If you had to pinpoint a few breaks that allow a guy born in Tennessee who grew up in San Diego to have gotten this far at age 36, would anything come to mind?
A: I don't know. I feel very blessed. I have a lot of friends who've worked just as hard as I have and the ball bounced a different way. You try to counter that with some understanding of what's important and make sure you're appreciative.