If you love Westerns, as filmmaker Gore Verbinski does, then the landscapes of Monument Valley are as familiar as Clint Eastwood's squint and John Wayne's walk.
“You couldn't pan a camera and not go, ' That's from this movie,'' ' Verbinski said of shooting in the landmark location that straddles Utah's southern border with Arizona.
The land where John Ford shot “Stagecoach' and countless other redrock Westerns returns to the big screen next week, featured prominently in “The Lone Ranger,' Disney's big-budget reboot of the classic Western story that has been told since 1933 in radio, television and movies.
“The Lone Ranger' (which opens nationwide on WednesdayJuly 3) tells of a young lawman, John Reid (played in the new film by Armie Hammer), who is the sole survivor when a group of Texas Rangers — including John's brother Dan (James Badge Dale) — is ambushed by the notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Reid is found by a passing Indian, Tonto (played in the film by Johnny Depp), who creates Reid's signature mask and rides with him to seek justice against Cavendish and his cohorts.
The movie, with a budget reported to exceed $200 million, shot 80 percent of its principal photography in New Mexico, according to Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission. The production also filmed in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and California.
The production shot about 25 days in Utah, primarily in Monument Valley and around Moab. “I know Gore wanted to be here more days than he was,' Moore said.
“It's sort of the most overly photographed landscape ever,' Verbinski said of Monument Valley. “It moved from all those John Ford Westerns, then it migrated to Marlboro commercials, and then it disappeared for a while.'
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who worked with Verbinski on the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean' films, called Monument Valley “great.'
“Gore has his own creative vision of what he wants, and he found places that excited him,' Bruckheimer said.
Bruckheimer praised the Navajo Nation, which owns the Monument Valley area, because “they kept it pristine and didn't let developers come in. ... They could have made a fortune, but they didn't.'
The sensitivities of American Indians were an issue before filming began because of the role of Tonto. Indians historically have had a complicated attitude toward the character since he first appeared on the radio in the 1930s. Some were rankled that Tonto, an Indian, was deemed a sidekick, subservient to the white hero. Others, though, appreciated that any American Indian was shown as a heroic character — particularly when portrayed by Jay Silverheels, a Canadian Mohawk, in the 1950s TV show.
There were complaints when Depp was cast as Tonto, though in interviews Depp defended the choice by saying that he has American Indian ancestry and that he and the filmmakers worked to make Tonto a co-equal character to Hammer's Lone Ranger.
Bruckheimer noted that the production hired advisers from the Comanche Nation to comment on the script and to be on the set during any scene that featured American Indian characters.
Verbinski said the depiction of Tonto aims to acknowledge what American Indians lost during the expansion into the West.
“Our character of Tonto has been kicked out of his own tribe,' Verbinski said. “He's a bit warped. He's picked up his own way of thinking, and he's dealing with his guilt.'
Shooting a Western on location — with the horses, train engines, period costumes and other details — has its challenges, Verbinski said.
“Working on boats was a lot easier,' Verbinski said, comparing the experience to shooting the “Pirates of the Caribbean' films.
“If it's not the snow and the wind and rain and the 115-degree heat, it's the dust,' Verbinski said. “You get home, take a shower, and the bottom of the shower is just brown.'
But it's worth it to get the places on film, Bruckheimer said. “Gore believes, and he's not wrong, that audiences known when you're faking it,' he said.
The reason “The Lone Ranger' didn't shoot more in Utah comes down to money. Moore said Utah offered Disney a 20 percent tax credit to bring the production here. (It would have been 25 percent if 85 percent of the crew had been hired locally.) By giving up that tax revenue, the state draws more money into the economy — some $3.7 million spent in Utah by “The Lone Ranger' production, Moore said.
In the escalating arms race between states to lure film production, Utah is hard-pressed to keep up with New Mexico, which had a 25 percent tax credit when “The Lone Ranger' was shot that has since been raised to 30 percent.
But where Utah didn't triumph over New Mexico on quantity, Moore said, it did well in terms of quality. In addition to the scenes shot at Monument Valley, Utahns will be able to identify Moab-area locations at Dead Horse Point, Fossil Point (also known as “Thelma & Louise Point') and Professor Valley. Moore said there are scenes shot in New Mexico that, thanks to computer-aided post-production, have Utah backgrounds.
The Western vistas of “The Lone Ranger' benefit Utah in ways other film productions do not, Moore said. “Not every film will give you the wild expanse, the visual images that ' The Lone Ranger' will give you,' Moore said.
Moore cited the Will Smith science-fiction drama “After Earth,' which shot location footage in the same red-rock areas of southern Utah just weeks before “The Lone Ranger' came through the state. But the footage, showing the colonized planet where Smith and the other earthlings live, didn't have the same impact.
“In ' After Earth,' [Utah] made a cameo. In ' The Lone Ranger,' we have a starring role,' Moore said.
Film production incentives
Many states offer tax credits, rebates and other incentives to Hollywood film productions. Here's a list of the major tax credit and rebate programs (eligibility requirements differ from state to state; some states cap their incentives; where rates vary, the maximum available rate is listed):
42 percent: Michigan
37 percent: Oklahoma
35 percent: Missouri
32 percent: Tennessee
31 percent: West Virginia
30 percent: Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, Washington
25 percent: Alabama, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Wisconsin
22 percent: Florida
20 percent: Hawaii, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina
17 percent: Texas
15 percent: Arkansas, Wyoming
14 percent: Montana
12 percent: Maine
10 percent: Colorado
None: Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont
Source: Motion Picture Association of America