Who could have predicted that one of the most popular films of 2003, number three on the box-office charts with over $305 million, would be a pirate movie?The genre had been dead for decades. Every attempt to revive the genre (Cutthroat Island, Nate and Hayes, Pirates, Peter Benchley’s The Island) had resulted in absolute failure. Cutthroat Island actually brought down Carolco Pictures, the company that produced Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Terminator 2 and the Rambo movies. Any film about pirates was sure to flop. What Hollywood psychic could have foreseen that one of the best-reviewed studio films of 2003 (“thumbs up” from Roger Ebert) would be based on a theme park ride? Despite a quirky performance from Christopher Walken, The Country Bears didn’t get much good press. Even with Eddie Murphy, The Haunted Mansion didn’t impress critics or the general public. Turning a theme park ride into a movie was a bad idea.
Yet, Pirates of The Caribbean:The Curse of the Black Pearl managed to overcome both the curse of pirate movies and the curse of theme-park-ride movies to become a huge success with critics and audiences alike. The movie turned art house actor Johnny Depp into a box-office attraction, transformed Orlando Bloom from “that cute guy in The Lord of The Rings” into an above-the-title actor, and made British unknown Keira Knightley a major star (the brilliant Pride & Prejudice and the nearly unwatchable Domino). None of this is surprising when you know the screenplay was written by the team of Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who revived the swashbuckler genre with The Mask of Zorro and turned a classic kids’ picture book in the box-office smash Shrek (scr(i)pt, Vol. 7, No. 3).
For the sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean:Dead Man’s Chest (and its sequel, tentatively titled Pirates of the Caribbean: World’s End). Disney not only brought back the original cast and director, they enlisted Rossio and Elliott to write the screenplay.
Even with Pirates 3 still filming and Déjà Vu starring Denzel Washington (written by Rossio and Bill Marsilii) in post-production, Terry Rossio took time to tell scr(i)pt magazine about their adventures writing Dead Man’s Chest.
The movie will be opening in cinemas about the same time this issue hits the newsstands, but that’s still a couple of months away. How do you feel about the finished film?
Terry Rossio: You might be astonished to see just how unfinished the film is right now. Few effects, reels not locked down, sound design not done, no music, [Automatic dialogue replacement] lines still being recorded. Final takes still being sweated over. I doubt there will be time for a single audience test screening.
We have a huge problem with high expectations. The first film, in retrospect, was really good. Great moments, great lines of dialogue, a sort of giddy, rollicking charm. Added to that, nobody knew it was coming. Now, people want that same feeling, but they want it with familiar settings.
Having said that—we do have a good film. It essentially works. What remains to be seen is whether we get any of that magic fairy film dust sprinkled on, the way the first film had.
Most writers don’t get to write sequels to their scripts; once they hand in the final draft, they’re history. But you guys landed the job of writing two sequels to Pirates of The Caribbean. Did the studio come to you first? Were other writer’s considered?
Credit to Johnny Depp—we were told he made it clear he wouldn’t do the film unless we were hired back. I think it’s fair to say that we did a pretty good job on the first movie.
Did you have to pitch several sequel ideas or did they just say “Whatever you come up with is fine by us”?
We had one basic approach that we pitched and initially no one liked. But, that was the only approach that made sense to us and we stuck to it. Over time, with a lot of help from Gore Verbinski and producers Chad Oman and Mike Stenson, we fashioned the movie.
Since the first movie was a stand-alone story, how do you go about creating a sequel? Where do you find another unique idea with the same characters?
Our decision was to reverse-engineer a trilogy. Create a second and third film that appeared to be set up by the first. So, the official story will be that we had the three films all worked out from the beginning. But, in fact, I can tell you when we were making the first movie, we had no idea that we’d be doing any more. We figured we had likely killed off the pirate genre for another decade.
Let’s talk about emotional journeys or character arcs. In the first film, Will begins as someone who plays by the rules and doesn’t think much of pirates; and by the end of the film he has found his inner pirate and breaks the law to save Captain Jack Sparrow. Okay, you’ve done that . . . how do you find a new character arc (and theme)?
Will took action as a pirate but did not have to face the consequences of those actions. There are hard choices; there is a price to pay when one decides to live outside the law. Will’s actions were of a pirate nature but born of a sense of honor and fair play. We asked the question, what might make Will give up those qualities?
You have three returning lead characters: Will, Captain Jack, and Elizabeth. I remember when you were working on the first film, Ted was explaining the story to me in the parking lot of Vitello’s after dinner, and he described Elizabeth as the protagonist—she had to choose between three men: Jack, Will and Norrington. Elizabeth is the first character we see in the script … but on film it seems like Will’s movie. Did you select a different protagonist character this time around? I think one of the reasons why Romancing The Stone only produced one sequel was the protagonist change to Michael Douglas’ character in The Jewel of The Nile—his emotional journey just isn’t as interesting as Kathleen Turner’s character’s journey.
Well, we had the advantage over Romancing The Stone in that our first film was an ensemble piece. Ted and I think of the first film as telling Elizabeth’s story; the second film features Jack Sparrow and in the third film Will Turner is the protagonist.
There was a buddy movie element to the first film where Will and Jack team up to go after Barbossa. The two learn from each other and become more rounded by the end. You’ve done that . . . what now? How did you keep the relationship fresh and interesting?
In the first film, audiences conclude that Jack Sparrow is good because his agenda happens to coincide with the needs of the good guys—mainly Will’s desire to rescue Elizabeth. But, Jack Sparrow is not inherently a man of high ideals. So, we asked the question: How will the audience react if Jack’s agenda is at odds with the more heroic characters? We explore that idea in the second movie.
Let’s talk antagonists. Antagonists bring the conflict, and the story in the first film begins with an incident in the past between Barbossa, Captain Jack and Will’s father Bootstrap Bill. So, where did you find your new antagonist, Davy Jones?
Through another incident in the past. Looking back over the first movie we wanted to know—how did Jack get the Black Pearl in the first place? As it turns out, a deal with Davy Jones . . . and now payment is due.
One of the things I loved about Barbossa is that he’s both relentless and completely understandable. In fact, we feel for the guy, though we still fear him. Barbossa is such an amazing tragic character, how do you create another great antagonist in the same world?
As it turns out, there’s plenty of tragedy in the world to go around. Many varieties of tragedy . . . and many different inappropriate reactions to tragedy. Davy Jones suffered pain in his past through no fault of his own. Now his only satisfaction is to reveal to others how unfair, and painful, life can be.
Casting is one of the most important elements in a successful film. We create a character and then an actor performs that character. On the page, Captain Jack Sparrow is a flamboyant character in The Curse of the Black Pearl, but Johnny Depp’s performance brought a different kind of flamboyance. How did the casting of the first film affect writing the characters in the sequel?
The characters are written the same although, having been through the first movie we know where the strengths of the different actors lie—what they do best. Kevin McNally, for example, can make any bit of exposition sing. And Keira can do anything. We know that when she’s in a scene, no problem, the scene will play.
All of your characters are individuals—can we talk a little about how you create distinctive characters?
Any story could be viewed as an exploration of a theme or an issue; in the case of a pirate film, issues such as moral ambiguity, situational ethics, or man’s simultaneous responsibility to himself or to his society. Each character, then, can be fashioned to embody an aspect of the issue. Given the same situation, then, each character will have a differing response because other core beliefs showcase an aspect of the theme, part of the mosaic for the audience to feel that the theme is presented in a complete and fair manner. What’s great about this is that it becomes very interesting for two characters to get together—Jack confronting Barbossa would be a far different scene, for example, than Norrington confronting Barbossa because each would choose different arguments that naturally emerge from their differing beliefs.
Before the first film, Johnny Depp was a character actor, Orlando Bloom was “that elf guy from The Lord of The Rings,” and when Ted told me Keira Knightley had been cast as the female lead, I said “Who?” Now, all of these people are movie stars—Depp is a mainstream lead! Did this change have any effect on writing the sequels?
I’m sure it had an effect in negotiating their deals, but no, it didn’t affect the writing. At least, not that I know of. I suppose we felt a little pressure to showcase each actor because they’re so talented, but I think we would have felt that anyway.
One of the great things about the first film was all of those fun supporting characters. I remember you saying you wrote those characters as I you were writing a studio film in the 1930s and were creating roles for the studio’s contract players. Let’s talk a bit about creating the supporting characters in Dead Man’s Chest. Is there a role for Ned Sparks in this one? Will Hoagy Carmichael be singing at the piano in a scene?
We ran into a bit of a problem with the two sequels—too many characters. Too many beloved characters, and you have to give them each their due. Dead Man’s Chest introduces four new main characters, and then you have all the returning characters. They’re all great actors; there’s just not enough screen time. Not to mention a monkey, a parrot and a dog, and a new supernatural ship. The result is we just could not add a lot of colorful supporting characters. There are a few, but as of now some are in danger of ending up on the cutting room floor—victims of running time.
You and Ted are two of the most cinema-literate people I know—you’ve seen everything and can discuss in loving detail films many people have never heard of. The first film was filled with great homages to classic pirate films, as well as gags from the theme park ride . . . what’s left for this time around?
We managed to include a couple of homages and tributes. Keep an eye out.
Let’s talk about the importance of the fun factor—your scripts are fun to read, and the films made from them are usually playful and amusing. How important is the fun factor and how do you create it?
We write the first draft in crayon and use a lot of sparkly glitter glue. What can I say? It’s just our sensibility, our style. As Gore Verbinski says, “If you get caught trying to be cool, you’re not cool.” We don’t try to be cool. Not if cool is cynical, dark, gritty, techno-crap. That’s easy enough—let others do it.
The first film had a complex plot that seemed to be too hip for the room—many critics didn’t seem able to follow it (even though it made perfect sense and everything was fully explained if you were paying attention). How do you go about plotting your story, and do you ever fear that audiences or critics may not be smart enough to follow?
The critics were remarkably dense regarding the first movie. Or, they were simply dazzled by Johnny Depp and couldn’t process other elements—such as Geoffrey Rush’s amazing performance, the fantastic screenplay, Gore’s direction, etc. For myself, I think of complexity as akin to humor, drama, amazing visuals, emotion—the more the better. You wouldn’t say a film is too funny or too dramatic, so why say it is too complex? Audiences love complexity. There are hundreds of films made where the audiences are unhappy because they are bored; the films are too simple. I can’t think of any film that failed with audiences because it was too complex (as long as the complexity is logical and makes sense, of course). As for how we do it—you know, the index cards on the wall. We write outlines and treatments and continuously revise them. We also work with a group of great collaborators in Gore, Mike and Chad.
One of the cool things that you brought to The Curse of the Black Pearl was the curse itself—all of the fantasy elements and Ray Harryhausen’s sword-fighting skeletons. Davy Jones is another supernatural character. Can we talk about creating myths and magic and the importance of fantasy in these stories?
Fantasy was a crucial element for the film because audiences, over the years, stopped giving themselves license to enjoy. The trappings of the pirate genre seemed too old-fashioned, too quaint. So, we got them not by writing a pirate film; instead, we wrote a ghost story. They bought into the ghost story, the elements of the fantastic, and then suddenly, the pirate stuff seemed all right. They could enjoy that, too.
There was an issue with portraying some islanders as cannibals in the film. Did that create any problems for you as writers?
We weren’t affected, and I can’t say that the film was either. Gore or the producers might have a different answer; they might have more information. I saw some news stories that tried to make something out of it, but that’s all.
You guys were on the set for all three films, which is amazing. How did having you onset help the film?
Ted was working a scene for the third movie and realized we’d missed an opportunity for the climax of the second movie. So, we rode in on the bus with Gore to the set and pitched the change. He agreed, and we wrote up a new scene during breakfast. It went to the actors’ trailers just before rehearsal. Rehearsal revealed some additional changes that were needed, and we worked on those over lunch and distributed pages just after lunch, just before cameras rolled. After months of preparation, the climax of this $200 million film was written the day it was shot.
One of the coolest things about the first film was the day Ted gave me a set tour at Disney, and we went from photos in history books to artists’ sketches to scale models of the set to the actual blacksmith set and treasure cave set. One of my favorite experiences as a writer is to make something up . . . and then see it in real life after a crew has built it.
Oh, yes. As it so happened, by total chance, it fell to me to name and sort of indicate the style of the various ships. The Black Pearl with its black sails, The Flying Dutchman that can sail underwater, The Empress (an Asian junk with red sails), and the Edinburgh Trader. Now, to be clear, the final look of each ship was created by talented experts—pros who did fantastic work—but still, for me there was just this little sense of pride of creation. So, when each of those ships came sailing into the bay . . . you have to imagine that immense Caribbean sky, the sharp horizon, the aqua-blue waters . . . and you get to go walk out onto each ship. It’s like someone told you that you could make up some fun toys and it’s all right if they cost $5 million each.
You have written a string of great movies that were also big financial successes. Do you get final cut now? How has your power changed as a screenwriter, and do you have more control now?
We got a chance to test that with the screenplay Déjà Vu, a spec script that sold for a ton of money and went into production during the Pirates shoot. The answer is—nothing has changed. I disagreed vehemently with rewrites done by the director. Actually, everyone did, to no avail. The most powerful writer will lose out to the least-talented director. For the studio, it seems, it’s still a director’s medium.
How do you feel about projects that you were once involved with that end up in others’ hands, like A Princess of Mars and The Legend of Zorro?
I still haven’t seen Shrek 2, though it has our names on it. Nor have I seen the Zorro sequel. So, there’s my solution. Yes, it’s odd to get checks for movies I haven’t seen, but there’s no law that says I have to go.
What is your advice to new writers?
New writers are too cautious with their characterizations. Their ideas and plots might be ambitious, but their characters are tame.
What have you recently learned about writing that you’d like to pass on?
The importance of the throw or the movement from one scene to the next. At the end of each scene or sequence, the audience wants to go somewhere; and when you get to the editing room, that’s where you’re going to go. You might want to send the audience somewhere else, according to some theory, but it’s not going to happen. You can’t ignore what the audience wants or needs to see next. Predicting those moments accurately is oh-so-tricky.
What are you guys working on now?
As for other projects, there is the aforementioned Déjà Vu, which gets released this holiday season—for good or ill. Other than that, I’m thinking we need to do a Western . . . dry, lots of desert sand in all directions, no waves, no boats, no hurricanes, hopefully, not a drop of water in sight!