On board The Flying Dutchman, Hollywood’s wonderfully exotic version of an early 18th-century pirate galleon-cum-ghostship, in the calm, azure waters off the Bahamas, Bill Nighy and Jonathan Pryce enjoyed a reunion which is perhaps best summed up as one of those “if they could see me now” moments.Nighy was dressed, as he puts it, “like a reject from the band Devo”, opposite Pryce’s relatively more sober outfit—knee-length boots, frock coat, ruffled shirt, three-cornered hat, just the sort of costume for a colonial British governor, the impressively named Weatherby Swann.
For those whose musical memories don’t stretch back far enough to include the post-punk rockers with a rather bizarre dress sense (think bin-liners and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men hats), Nighy offers a vivid description of his attire while on duty for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, in which he plays Davy Jones, the mythical spook with a locker at the bottom of the ocean full of lost seafaring souls.
“I was wearing these silly grey computer trousers with dots all over them and a skull cap and I also had dots all over my face,” he says. “I looked quite ridiculous. It took me a couple of days not to collapse into giggles every time I saw myself, so I can imagine how Jonathan felt.”
Nighy’s strange ensemble enabled the computer wizards to complete Davy Jones’s distinctive look in the editing suite. Basically, his face—the version we’ll see on screen—looks like a Rastafarian squid with tentacles for dreadlocks. The actor himself is unrecognizable beneath a particularly unappetizing seafood platter. “My beard is half crab, half squid,” says Nighy. “And it’s moving all the time. It’s rather wonderful.”
Pryce and Nighy go way back, to the Liverpool Everyman to be exact, some 30 years ago when the former directed the latter in The Taming of the Shrew. Although they had stayed in touch over the years, they had not worked together since, and this was clearly a world away from Shakespeare on Merseyside. “So there we are on this bloody boat in the middle of the Caribbean with me pirating around, with dots all over my face and speaking in a violent Scottish accent, and Jonathan couldn’t deal with it,” recalls Nighy. “He just cracked up. The pair of us couldn’t stop laughing.”
“In the end, one of the writers said, ‘Look, is there anything I can do? Is there something wrong with the script?’ Jonathan just pointed at me and said, ‘I’ve known Bill for 30 years and he just looks so, so . . . silly.’ And then he started laughing again.”
Even Pryce is probably not laughing quite as long and as hard as the three men who staked their reputations on the success of the first film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, namely producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and, most of all, star Johnny Depp.
When news first leaked that Bruckheimer had persuaded the King of Cool to play a pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow, in a family film based on a Disney theme-park ride, there were plenty who predicted that it would be an embarrassing flop. Depp, however, says he took the job for the same reasons he takes any other. “I did it because I loved the script and it was fun,” he says. “It wasn’t my intention to sell out and I don’t believe I have. If they want me to, I’ll play him in another three films. I love playing Jack.”
That much is clear. The Curse of the Black Pearl was a near perfect blend of action-adventure, ghost story, romance and comedy, with Depp’s performance holding it all together. His Captain Jack is a rock’n’roll pirate, based on his friend, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards—hence the trinkets, beads and bangles, bits of bone and silver keepsakes, hanging from his dreadlocks and goatee. Apparently, that’s pure Keith.
“Keith was definitely one of the main ingredients to the soup that is Captain Jack,” says Depp. “I spent a little time with him and each time I’d see him he’d have a new thing tied in his hair and he’d be, ‘Ah yeah, I got that in Bermuda’, or wherever. So I kept thinking about that. It seemed to me that Jack on his travels and adventures would see something and go, ‘Oh, I’ll keep that’, and you know, tie it in. So each little trinket would have a story.”
When it was released in 2003, The Curse of the Black Pearl not only seduced skeptical critics, but found success at the box office, too. It was nominated for five Oscars (including Best Actor for Depp) and made more than $600 million—a combination guaranteed to ensure studio executives beg for more.
Pirates has also transformed Depp from indie outsider into a mainstream star who is headlining one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year. He still can’t quite believe it. “It’s beyond me how such a character has taken root in some people’s hearts,” says Depp. “It’s still shocking for me because I was handed this opportunity to make something of this character and I had pretty solid ideas about who he was and what he should be like. But there were a number of people who thought I was nuts.”
The big question now is, can they do it again? The stakes this time are even higher. Depp has been paid a reported $37 million to return as Jack in the two sequels which have been filmed virtually back-to-back, using soundstages on various lots in Hollywood and, of course, on location all over the Caribbean, complete with specially built ships. “It’s strange, says Depp of shooting two films in this way. “You do a scene and they cut it, and then that cuts to a scene that you did a year ago. You have to keep your dots connected.”
Orlando Bloom, who starred as Legolas in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was also filmed back-to-back over an 18-month period in New Zealand, has been here before. “I am reminded of the experience of Rings where it was that feeling of a huge steam train and everyone is just grabbing hold of it, trying to get a ride,” he says. “But at the same time that madness, that crazy kind of wild beast that is running away from you, is what gives it that energy and excitement.”
This has been film-making on a grand scale, with a budget for the two films reportedly exceeding $300 million. With a hard-to-please audience bombarded with comic-book adaptations (Superman) and sequels (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), or both (X-Men: The Last Stand), will a tongue-in-cheek romp featuring a mostly British cast, led by Hollywood’s unlikeliest mainstream star, be money well spent and pack them in from Boston to Basingstoke? “It’s a pretty good bet,” says Bruckheimer. “Especially if you can get the same writers back, the same director and the same cast. Had that not all come together I don’t think we would be here right now.”
Here right now happens to be the biggest soundstage on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles, where the set for the opening sequence of Pirates 3 has been built. We’re in a “red lantern” district of Singapore, somewhere around 1720, and the scale and detail is staggering. Standing in 3ft of water, there are three bridges linking more than 40 bamboo buildings (many of them on stilts) with meandering alleyways leading to a spice market, a bath house, houses of ill repute and a lake.
Director Gore Verbinksi is lining up a shot which features Keira Knightley and Bloom fleeing hand in hand from the bath house, chased by a motley crew that includes Geoffrey Rush (killed off as baddie Barbossa in the first film, but miraculously reincarnated for P3), a horde of soldiers from the East India Trading Company, and what appears to be about 100 Chinese extras. In between takes, teams of four or five from the crew wade into the man-made lake to fish out any tell-tale signs of 21st-century life that may have slipped into the water—a stray Coke can, a Styrofoam cup—with giant nets. This set alone took 140 workmen some eight weeks to build.
Production designer Rick Heinrichs is in charge of it all and spends his days worrying about cannibal villages, specially designed Chinese junks and how to design a giant wheel which can roll down a hill with three men inside—including Depp—having a sword fight. “When this is all over I’m going to take two years off,” he sighs. Heinrichs, a veteran of Coen brothers and Tim Burton films, is used to pulling rabbits out of the hat design-wise, but this one takes the top prize. Ask him what has been the biggest challenge and he can’t quite put them in any kind of order. “Well, we’ve had to build six or seven ships, including three galleons and some Chinese junks, a church, various villages, one cannibal village linked by rope bridges 80 feet off the ground, a giant water tank in the Caribbean, part of Singapore . . . ”
Reuniting the cast from the first film was essential. Both Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom have become major stars in their own right since The Black Pearl was released. Three years is clearly a long time in Hollywood, so what has changed? “I’ve got a bigger trailer!” Knightley laughs. “That says a lot, doesn’t it? But to tell you the truth the banter on set is exactly the same.”
Nobody does big-budget Hollywood quite like Bruckheimer, a producer from the old school who can list the likes of Pearl Harbor and Top Gun on his CV. Bruckheimer specializes in the spectacular, and Depp, you would think, is a rather unlikely collaborator. Not so.
“Rather innocently, the first Pirates just felt very intimate to me and it got more and more grand as time went on,” says Depp. “This time it is totally, utterly Jerry Bruckheimer—everything’s in, the kitchen sink, everything. So yeah, working on a Jerry Bruckheimer production is a different animal altogether.”
The production had to contend with extreme weather—the tail end of a hurricane forced filming to be delayed in the Caribbean—and daily mishaps and setbacks, but you keep rolling on, says the producer. “Every day something breaks down: a ship won’t be ready on time, an actor gets sick. But it is just part of it being a big movie. When you have been doing it as long as I have, you just see it as daily events.”
Nighy admits that this was a gig quite unlike any other. “When I stood on board The Flying Dutchman for the first time I was speechless, and then I said, ‘How the hell did they let me get away with this?’” The props, the incredible sets, all help enormously, he says. And the sheer size of the operation never failed to impress. “There was one shot we filmed on a spit of land off Exuma in the Bahamas which is only visible for a certain time each year. It’s about two cricket pitches long and one cricket pitch wide, in the middle of the ocean. So they built a rig in the middle of the ocean for make-up, wardrobe and the canteen, then you get another speedboat and you go a further 20 minutes and you are there on this piece of land in the middle of nowhere and you film this shot. Incredible.”
The story for Pirates 2—and especially for Pirates 3—is a closely guarded secret. But this much we know: Captain Jack Sparrow made a pact with the devil—in the ghastly form of Davy Jones—some ten years ago and sold his soul in return for possession of the Black Pearl. But now the time is up and Davy intends to collect his dues.
There’s more, of course: more earthly baddies in the shape of the East India Trading Company who want to rid the high seas of those nasty pirates, the romance of Elizabeth and Will—Knightley and Bloom—and most of the characters returning from the first, including a host of Brits—Pryce, Jack Davenport, Mackenzie Crook.
For the past four months Verbinski has been concentrating on editing Dead Man’s Chest, and will reassemble his cast and crew later this summer for the remaining sequences they need to shoot for Pirates 3, which will be released next year.
It’s been a long commitment for all, especially Depp and his co-stars who feature in both films. “Yes, we’re the lifers,” jokes Nighy. “But you know, it’s rather pleasant. You appreciate the fact that you are in a beautiful place with some rather nice people and you are very, very lucky. Actually, we had a quite wonderful time.” And a laugh, too. “Oh yes, we definitely had a laugh,” says Nighy. “Just ask Jonathan.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is released on July 6