Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott (Aladdin, Shrek) had wanted to make a pirate movie since 1992. They finally got their chance when Walt Disney Pictures hired them to rewrite Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. (See CS Vol. 10, #3 for our interview; Jay Wolpert and Stuart Beattie contributed to that screen story.) Pirates opened in the summer of 2003, and its success was a welcome broadside to both moviegoers and the studio. Disney scrambled to capitalize on that success, greenlighting not one but two sequels, to be shot back-to-back. July 7 sees the first sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, hit cinemas. Chest once again pits Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) against supernatural forces—this time it’s not skeletal buccaneers but the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), captain of the dreaded Flying Dutchman and ferryman of all dead sailors lost at sea, come to collect on a debt Jack owes him. So what does a good pirate do? He runs. But Davy Jones’s tentacles are far-reaching, so running might not be enough. Once again, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) are dragged into Jack’s misadventures, this time at the expense of their own wedding—and, possibly, their lives. There are some new faces in the mix, like Will’s father, “Bootstrap” Bill (Stellar Skarsgard), Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), the latest enforcer of the high seas, and the mysterious pirate oracle, Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris). Happily, director Gore Verbinski returns to helm the sequels, under producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
But how do you follow up a successful film that disproved the curse of pirate movies (see Cutthroat Island) and took audiences by storm, so much so that characters from the first film have been integrated into the Disneyland ride that spawned the story? In separate interviews, Rossio and Elliott detail their amazing writing process, why having “Way too much” story is a good thing, and the mythology behind these summer swashbucklers.
What was your starting point with the sequels?
TERRY ROSSIO: Panic, desperation, fear, intimidation, confusion—but that’s the starting point of most projects. I think, as with all pirate films, it begins with a commitment toward exploring the idea of moral ambiguity. In this case, that had to do with the Jack Sparrow character. In the first movie everybody loves Jack and they think he’s a good guy. That’s partly because his agenda happens to coincide with Will’s agenda—Will wants to save the girl and Jack goes along to get his ship back.
In the second movie we thought it might be interesting to see what happens when Jack’s selfish agenda is at odds with the lead characters. Same character, but you have a different perception of him if he wants to do is in conflict with what Will and Elizabeth want.
Were any ideas for the sequels mapped out when the first film was shot?
TED ELLIOTT: If we’ve done the work right, then somebody watching all three movies will get the sense that it is all one larger story, sort of like a large story told in three books. You know, you create characters that hopefully suggest life beyond the story you’re telling, but there was no specific story [mapped out from the beginning]. We’re not going to do the George Lucas thing here, ‘Oh no, it was mapped out and there were twenty-seven entire films to the entire thing.’ [laughs]
You’re known for taking the creative process very seriously. Can you walk us through your process for writing Dead Man’s Chest? For instance, which comes first, concept or characters?
ROSSIO: We try to not let anything come first, in the sense that nothing is defined until everything is defined. The danger is that you’ll lock in something; like you’ll lock in a story point or you lock in a particular characterization. But a particular characterization is useless unless it is working within the overall story. Sometimes to get the story to work the design of a character ideally should shift to create maximum impact. Or the story point has to give way to something else so the overall story works best.
I guess our commitment initially is to an effective exploration of the story idea, if that makes any sense. We try not to let anything really come first. Let the rising tide raise all boars—to use an expression.
ELLIOTT: It’s really thinking about the character and plot in combination, and trying to get a real feel for ‘What is the story we’re going to be dramatizing?’ Maybe the way to describe what we’re going for is this: after you’ve seen a movie, you’re talking to a friend and he says, ‘What’s the story about?’ and you can go through and give a synopsis of the story as it unfolded for you to your friend. That’s where we’re trying to get to—what is that story as it unfolds?
The step from there is to look at that story and say, ‘All right, how are we going to treat that for use in a movie as a dramatization?’ That means thinking about scenes and what happens in those scenes, how those scenes interrelate. Every once in a while you’ll have something that has to occur in the story that you can think of no good way to dramatize. That story point can’t be written as a dramatic presentation. You say, ‘All right, we need to somehow reveal to the audience that this character is thinking about this.’ Basically he’s doing something in opposition to what he is really thinking. How do you demonstrate it to the audience?
For example, in the first move we established that Jack had this compass and it’s implied very strongly that the compass points to Isla De Muerta. In fact, we went back and looked at it and in no place in this movie do we state definitively that the compass points to Isla De Muerta. So in Dead Man’s Chest we had a chance to redefine the compass—whoever’s holding it, the compass points to what you want most.
In the beginning of the story, Jack points it in one direction, he looks at it and he says, ‘Okay, we’re sailing in the completely opposite direction.’ And this way you’re demonstrating to the audience that whatever Jack actually wants most is something he really doesn’t want to have anything to do with. That’s one way to demonstrate that Jack is a conflicted character.
Because we’re using props to reveal character, more naturalistic writers like John Sayles or Horton Foote might say we’re cheating, because we’re not telling the story through character behavior alone. Terry and I tend to go for a much more . . . well, I guess “artificial” is the opposite of “naturalistic,” but let’s say “stylized” instead. “Melodramatic?” Man, they’re all pejorative. We write more Golden age of Hollywood style, how’s that? So, whatever, John. [laughs]
How do you go about then developing your characters? You write a lot of genre films, how do you keep your characters human yet hew to the conventions of the genre?
ELLIOTT: As you talk about the story, you explore all the different things about it. In a pirate movie you start by saying, ‘What do we know about pirates?’ So you find out, ‘Oh hey, did you know that pirates invented democracy? Oh, did you know that in a lot of cases pirates were rebelling against their incredibly harsh treatment by the Royal Navy and just wanted the hell out? They actually lived in England and would go out for a couple of months and then come back.’ Things like that. What sort of thematic material is being suggested here? Just so I can be clear—theme, as I’m using it here, doesn’t really refer to the moral of the story. That’s something different. It’s more—What is the subject of the work itself? Beyond the narrative, beyond the specific techniques, beyond the story? What is the story about, in a subtextual way?
What Terry and I have found is that it does more to actually keep the characters as characters by thinking about the characters in terms of, “On this fundamental idea of the story itself, what would their position be?” and nailing them down to a thematic point-of-view. If you think about it, everything a real human being does—all of his behavior—will be in some way, shape, or form consistent to a single point of view.
The other thing is, because all the characters have different points of view on the thematic, put any of the two characters together and there will be conflict. They will not see eye to eye. That is the very source of drama: characters in conflict.
I know you usually begin by brainstorming using 3 x 5 cards. Can you explain that process?
ELLIOTT: Pretty much anything we think might be interesting to have in the movie is on the cards. It could be anything from description—‘You know it would be interesting to see a shot that does this’—to a character’s lines of dialogue. That’s the story treatment phase. How we think of it is we’re creating the story and it’s dramatization as we go along, but we also like to have way too much. There is something to be said that you have an idea for a story and you can’t think of more than you could possibly ever put into the movie, you don’t have a good idea for a story.
If you do have more than what you can possibly fit in the movie, the challenge there is to figure out how to imply those things to the audience, how to give the audience the suggestion that there is a greater story. If we had simply shown them Scene A and Scene B, and somewhere between there something happened—if we had shown that instead of Scene B, it would have been an interesting story in and of itself. It’s taking advantage of what we refer to as the off-screen move to carry as much of the story as possible, so that what’s happening in the on-screen movie is the very best parts of the story.
Is there something that comes before the cards?
ROSSIO: Yeah, that would be a lot of playing solitaire on the computer, surfing the Net, going for drives, hanging out on websites like Word Play [Rossio’s excellent screenwriting website] or Writer Action Board [a private forum for WGA members], all sorts of procrastination techniques. [laughs]
In the world of Pirates, we also benefit from visual exploration by artists such as Crash McCreery. There’s also the research phase. You start to think—what are key images? What are key ideas? What are key things to reference? In Pirates you start thinking, “There was a black spot in Treasure Island. Can we use a black spot? If we did use a black spot, what would be our version of it?” You don’t really know where it goes in the story yet, but if it sounds like a cool thing then it’s in the mix. Then you think, “There’s a song, ‘Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest.’ What is a dead man’s chest? What if there was a chest? Is it a chest of treasure or is there something else in the chest? What might be in there?”
There could be a huge number of ideas like that. Then what starts to happen is some ideas start to connect to other ideas. The ones that don’t connect unfortunately fall away, no matter how cool they are. But the ones that do connect start to suggest story characterization, and the rest of it.
How do you determine the order of the narrative when you’re moving from the cards to the treatment? The cards represent a bunch of random ideas, how do you organize them into a story?
ROSSIO: The cards aren’t finished until the narrative unfolds properly. That’s why you have cards, so you can move them around. We believe in the technique of reading the movie out loud—you look at the cards and you read them out loud. You say, ‘This happens and then this happens and then that happens.’ Hearing the story out loud is hugely valuable. When you can go from start to finish through a movie reading through and describing all the cards and there’s a sense that the narrative unfolds in a compelling way, then the cards are done. (At least you hope they’re done.) Then you can move on to more fully realizing that particular story structure in a treatment form.
When do you decide it’s time to write the pages? And do you write chronologically, or in any particular order?
ELLIOTT: Occasionally we hit a deadline crunch where we’re going, ‘Okay, we’re going to have to keep working out the story stuff while we’re writing.’ But for the most part what we prefer to do is work on the story in treatment form. That’s really what we’re doing on the cards—working that stuff out. Once we know the entirety of the story can be told in scenes that can be written, that’s when we start writing.
We don’t write chronologically. I’ll usually try to write the first couple of scenes in the movie just because I really like to write the first couple of scenes in a movie. Then we’ll jump around and we’ll tackle different things and trade them off back and forth. It’s an interesting aspect of filmmaking that if you really think about—‘What’s the fundamental vocabulary of film?’ It’s not the image; it’s two images of juxtaposition.At its very fundamental basis, that’s what you have to have in order to have a film: an image and another image that is slightly different juxtaposed to create the illusion of movement.
Extending that back out to film storytelling itself, stories are told through the juxtaposition of scenes. The scenes themselves have an existence independent of the entirety of the film, but in juxtaposition with all those other scenes—that’s how the story gets told. It’s valuable, to not write in sequence , because you’re dealing with the story itself in exactly the same way that it will eventually be dealt with when it’s shot and how the audience will experience it—as a series of juxtaposition.
ROSSIO:My personal technique is to write the easiest scenes first and leave the hardest scenes for later, or see if I can get Ted to write them. Doesn’t matter where they are, if it seems like an easy scene, jump on it. I don’t necessarily recommend it. It was not necessarily helpful to the production, but I really dislike writing to a great degree. I find it incredibly tiresome, tedious, and painful. So the longer I can put it off, the better.
How long did it take to get the first draft? I understand you didn’t really have a true shooting draft, you were writing and shooting at the same time. What were the challenges there?
ROSSIO: There are drafts that exist where it’s functional for the purpose of production—where you know there’s a better solution, but for the needs of the production you know you’re going to have a ship, a parrot, a pistol, and a long boat, and there’s going to be story point made—but not necessarily ever really finished. At any time you could call it a first draft, or a second draft, or a third draft. That’s the same even for the outline. It’s just a whole series of story problems to be solved in a superior way to what you have, and we’re always looking to solve the issues more effectively.
ELLIOTT: There was a really interesting thing that happened because we were shooting both Dead Man’s Chest and the next movie at the same time. I was doing some work on the script of the third movie, and I realized that in the second movie there’s a point where Jack has to tell everybody to abandon the Black Pearl. When we wrote it, we didn’t give enough of a moment to Jack giving up the Pearl. I didn’t discover it until working on the third one in a certain scene where he was talking about the Pearl.
Oh no, I’ve blown it. Jack comes back in the third one. Uh-oh. [laughs]
It was one of those things where we were going to shoot the scene or we might have already rehearsed the scene when I realized that. So I had to head down to set and say to Gore, ‘Look, we’ve got to give Jack time to mourn the loss of the Black Pearl. We’ve got to give that character that moment, ‘cause it’s a moment that character would take,’ We were all so involved in the day that we were not thinking in terms of the whole macro story.
How does Jack Sparrow’s Faustian deal with Davy Jones propel the action and characters of Dead Man’s Chest?
ROSSIO: Emergent from the first film was that Jack was reunited with the Black Pearl and the Black Pearl would always be fundamental to the Jack Sparrow character. So pushing past that we had to ask the question, ‘What more could he want?’ Jack is perfectly happy to sail the seas on his beloved ship, so for the sequel it seemed almost necessary to take that away from him. It would be redundant to take away the Black Pearl again, so what we took away was his freedom to roam the seas. Out of that need we said, ‘How would Jack lose his freedom to roam the seas?’ Well if there was something on the ocean or in the ocean that caused him to have to leave the ocean. And that led to the debt to Davy Jones.
Then it just seemed to unify things, to say we knew that the Black Pearl was a special ship. It was interesting to think that perhaps at one point the Black Pearl was underwater or had been sunk and Jack had to go to Davy Jones to raise it. Then if he did, what sort of deal would he strike? So those kinds of ideas emerged out of need for creating a situation. We knew that we needed the dramatic situation, so we had to work backwards from that to the backstory of the characters.
Will’s father, Bootstrap Bill, is back in this film. On both a story and a character level, what’s the power of the returning father?
ELLIOTT: In the first movie, Will had a real problem finding out that his father was a pirate. His final judgment of Jack—that he can be a good man and a pirate—is in a way coming to peace with that sense of his father. But there’s also the issue in the movie, if you follow it through—when Will broke the curse he killed his dad, which may have been haunting Will. He was able to accept intellectually that his father could be a pirate and good man; now he has to deal with it emotionally, and figure out who he is in relationship to that. It’s the father’s responsibility not to abandon the child. But if the father does abandon the child, the child has some responsibilities himself.
ROSSIO: In terms of Dead Man’s Chest, it’s an interesting situation because Bootstrap is a member of Davy Jones’s crew and Will, who carries with him a good amount of guilt over his actions in the first movie, feels compelled to take action. The second movie offers him a second chance to do the right thing and help his father.
Who is Davy Jones? What’s in it for him?
ROSSIO: The job of the captain of the Flying Dutchman is to ferry the souls of sailors that drowned at sea to the other worlds. That was the job that Davy Jones was commissioned to do by Calypso, one of the heathen gods. After his romance went bad and his lover was unfaithful, he abdicated that job. Instead he started collecting crew members, the souls of the sailors who had recently drowned, and put together his ship and his crew that way.
So Calypso is someone who will play into the third film?
There’s a pretty intricate action sequence when everyone’s trying to get a key. You have two or three subplots of the sequence going on at any one time, covering everyone from Jack, Will, Elizabeth, the returning Commodore Norrington, and Pintel and Ragetti [the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Pirates]. How did you create an action sequence that uses character to further the scene, but is stuffed full of all kinds of frenetic activity, reversals, and complications?
ELLIOTT: This is one of those things that was floating around in my head for a long time. If you’ve ever seen The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, it has a great sequence at the end where it’s actually a three-way gunfight. Where usually you see the showdown between two people at either end of the street, in this one they are each at one point on a triangle. Just that idea—who shoots who first? Who’s the most dangerous man?—was real intriguing.
I thought, ‘You know, wouldn’t it be cool to do a sword fight where you have three people, none of whom is on the same side, defending against the other two at all times?’ Basically, the ultimate cutthroat sword fight.
How do you create a sense of closure for Dead Man’s Chest even though you have more story to tell in the third film?
ELLIOTT: There is closure and resolution of the story, but it is a tragic ending. This is one of those things that writers, at least, argue about a lot. There’s the line about how God answers all prayers, just sometimes the answer is ‘no.’ That’s what we’re dealing with here. There is resolution, there is conclusion—but the characters we’re rooting for lose.
It’s been rumored that the title for the third film is World’s End. How does Dead Man’s Chest set up this brewing battle?
ROSSIO: The third film’s about the end of the era of piracy. It’s a final battle between all the protagonists, all the antagonists, the final resolution of all the storylines. What we set up is the pirates against the East India Trading Company and all their allied forces.
You created the characters Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa [played by Geoffrey Rush] for Pirates, and Davy Jones for Dead Man’s Chest. Now those characters have been added to Disneyland and Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean attractions. How does if feel to have your creations added to the ride that you’ve wanted to adapt for almost fifteen years?
ROSSIO: It’s sort of odd. I’d feel better if we got a residual or something on it. [laughs]Truth be told,I don’t really approve of the manner in which they are adapting the rides. So it’s exciting but it’s also—I’m a little bit of a purist. I prefer the original the way it is.
ELLIOTT: Our intent [in creating the films] was that ten to fifteen years from now, people would not be able to know whether the ride came before the movie or the movie before the ride. From what I have heard so far, it sounds like they’re making minimal changes that are completely within the spirit of the original ride. Like Terry, I’m kind of a purist, but it's obviously a very cool thing.
You two wrote many drafts of National Treasure, but in the end didn’t receive screen credit. What are your thoughts on the WGA arbitration process in general and this case in particular.
ROSSIO: The WGA arbitration process is highly flawed and results in inaccurate credits. I understand the counter-argument of limiting [screenwriting] credits. Actually, I guess I don’t understand the counter-argument. I guess there is a counter-argument that says to limit credits is a benefit to writers, but in my mind credits should be accurate or they’re somewhat useless. So it’s disappointing to have a guild that seems to leave credit determination to a coin flip, or makes decisions according to guidelines that seem inconsistent and difficult to fathom.
Now I’ll tell you what I really think. [chuckles]
ELLIOTT: The arbitration was conducted in compliance with the MBA and Guild guidelines. I do think there’s a tendency for Guild arbiters to give screenplay credit for story contributions, but ultimately I signed a contract and the contract says X, and X happens. So there you go.
Is there any favorite memory or moment you have from working on all three of the Pirates films?
ROSSIO: On Pirates 3 there’s a moment where you have Johnny Depp, Keira Knightly, Orlando Bloom, Chow Yun-Fat, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, and Naomie Harris all standing on the deck of the ship, and it hit me that any one of those actors could open a movie. Any one of them is talented enough to be a lead, and to have more of them standing there than I could even count . . . . Of course, you have to imagine this little ship bobbing in the middle of this vast ocean. Like, how did we all get here, and how did they all get here, and are they really performing this scene? Kind of surrealistic and kind of great all at the same time.