According to screenwriter Terry Rossio, one should tread carefully when it comes to gangplanks.“They are not sturdy,” warns the man who, alongside partner Ted Elliott, is largely responsible for the wellspring of Jackology that comprises Pirates of the Caribbean episodes 1, 2 and 3, thus he’s negotiated a good many gangplanks over the last few years. “You’ve got to have a sailor at either end, one to help you on, the other to help you down onto the ship.” They are precarious. Any sudden moves and you’re in the drink.
Way back, during the shoot for The Curse of the Black Pearl, back when studio rivals were still sniggering into their Frappuccinos at this pirate movie, there came another snag in the script department. Not unusual for a big movie—things change, so it pays to be flexible. That is why producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski keep their screenwriters to hand down in the Grand Bahamas, or wherever their voyages take them.
On this day, to whisk Captain Jack Sparrow—otherwise but seldom known as Johnny Depp—from ocean to deck in one swift maneuver,the very able stunt team devised a cracker: up he would be hoisted by rope to land precisely at the helm of the Black Pearl. However . . .
“The script required him to land mid-ships and move toward the wheel,” admits Rossio. “The new staging meant Depp had to say something to order his crew away, to leave him alone for the end shot of the movie.”
Rossio and Elliott were summoned to the deck to come up with a line that was to be, “A bit more profound than, ‘Back to work mates!’” Rossio immediately took off in search of Captain Jack, to give him the heads-up on the temporary hole in the day’s dialogue. Naturally, Depp was cool—he’s Captain Jack—even offering to give it some thought himself. He started to muse on the spot: “How about . . . ‘We venture forth over the waves of adversity beneath clouds of adventure, always searching for that elusive shore of our dreams . . . ?’”
“Right,” Rossio replied. “Something like that.”
They tried everything, these two hip writers, the adventure-makers par excellence behind Shreks 1 and 2, the Zorro movies, and, by the end of next summer, the official Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Verbinski wasn’t buying. “Put the wind to our aft!” felt a bit Carry On. “To stations! Let go and haul to run free!” a bit waffly to be that great last line. They began to stew. The shoot had been strenuous for everyone. Then a cry came from the shore and Depp was seen racing toward the vessel at full pelt, his dreadlocks bouncing, those golden molars glittering in the Caribbean sunshine, waving a piece of paper over his head like it was peace in our time.
“So, he’s shouting, I got it! Got it!” delights Rossio. “He bounds onto the gangplank, it bounces him into the air, and light as a feather he comes down, bounces up again, and lands gracefully on the deck.”
Not only that, but on the piece of paper is one line. “Bring me that horizon,” it reads. Depp’s smile is purest Jack, the cat who got the cream and just might have the key to the dairy concealed beneath his fur.
“I’ve got that scrap of paper pinned about my desk,” sighs Rossio like a lovesick schoolgirl. “It is the best line in the movie. And we didn’t even write it!”
Johnny wrote it. No, Jack wrote it.
In hindsight, it’s as obvious as sunlight. That perfect fit between actor and role and film. Johnny Depp as a rock star pirate, the Charlie Sheen of the Spanish Main, it’s an idea as unsinkable as Molly Brown. How we’ve all wised up (us/Disney/Hollywood): Jack Sparrow, Oscar-nominated Captain Jack Sparrow, is arguably the most beloved movie character since Indiana Jones.
They’re certainly brothers in charms: rogues, heroes, pifflers and acrobats, but forever in over their handsome heads and jaunty hats. They are the movie. It’s that touch of humanity that counts. We love them because they’re honest, even if one is a dubious archaeologist and the other a demented pirate. The result was $654 million-worth of worldwide love for a movie based on a piddling theme park ride, starring Edward Scissorhands, Legolas and that skinny girl from Bend It Like Beckham. And now Disney is forking out $400 million (approx) for not one but two sequels, and Superman, the big wuss, has been brought forward in American cinemas by two days to escape the glare of Jack’s treasure-chest smile.
“It’s beyond me how such a character has taken root in people’s hearts,” ponders Depp, as humble as he is fine; his manner is light as air, effortless. “I was handed this opportunity and just had pretty solid ideas about who he was. There were a number of people who thought I was nuts. But I loved this idea of a cartoon character—a three year-old can sit down on a couch next to a 20 year-old and a 50 year-old and a 75 year-old, and they all react.”
It all started, appropriately enough, in The Viper Room, Depp’s notorious hive of iniquity just off Sunset Strip. Where, on a distant afternoon, the principal cast of the Curse of the Black Pearl gathered for the first read-through. Just to get their feet. Just before the star pulled the rug from beneath them. In a good way.
“The character was written as a young Burt Lancaster, just the cocky pirate,” recalls Jerry Bruckheimer, producer, winner, brand name, “but Johnny’s interpretation was just so different. Something truly unique.”
There must have been a few slack jaws that day as Depp delivered his lines off-kilter, like his brain was at half-mast, but with just the hint that he was hiding something, playing a devious game. As surprise descended into happy giggles, Verbinski was delighted, and Bruckheimer, with that in-built divining rod for a hit, started to feel something growing. There was one hitch.
“The studio didn’t know what he was doing,” laughs the producer, now comfortably the other side of a hit.
That’s putting it mildly. Upon seeing early footage, Disney threw a heavyweight wobbler.
“Disney gave me such a hullabaloo about what I was doing with the character,” recalls Depp with relish. “The gold teeth, all the beads hanging and the dreadlocks. I would get these phone calls from upper echelons, Team Disney, like, ‘Okay, okay, what are you doing with your hands? Is he drunk? Is he gay? What is he?’”
According to Depp’s happy recollections, the then Disney chairman Michael Eisner hated it so much, he was heard shrieking, “He’s ruining the film!”
“That really killed me, of course,” sniggers Depp. “It made me laugh. Bless him.”
A year later, Depp had an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Not long after that, Eisner lost his boardroom battle and was evicted from Mousedom. These two events may not be connected. It has been widely reported, though, that the new regime, to a mogul, consider Depp’s performance “first-rate.”
If you prefer a touch more color in your praise of the Jack phenomenon, try one of the many eloquent Brits who populate the trilogy’s cast. For instance, newbie Bill Nighy, unrecognizable as testicular baddie Davy Jones (of Locker infamy): “One of the great cinematic performances. It will be with us through the ages.”
Or, if you want something more ladylike, try Keira Knightley, back to give as good as she gets as the betrothed Elizabeth Swann: “Watching Johnny Depp work, you know, it’s masterful really. It’s taking an acting masterclass. And still very easy on the eye.”
Or, if you want something more abstract, try Jack Davenport, back as the lovelorn and down-on-his-luck Commodore Norrington: “He’s the most elegant anarchist you could ever want to meet.”
It has become Depp’s signature performance, but he wears his crown at a tilt; like that spring from the gangplank, there is something blithely brilliant about it—making it up as he goes along. Yet by all accounts his preparation is inordinate, a wobble born of pure concentration. “He’ll step away from the shot,” thrills Mackenzie Crook, back as inept pirate Ragetti, whose errant eyeball is still giving him jip, “you can see him pacing up and down, doing his Jack thing, kinda talking to himself. He’d never do it the same way twice.”
It’s a silly pirate movie—in fact, three of them—but Jack means something to Johnny. Tipsy waters run deep.
“I remember Scissorhands,” recalls Depp. “The last day of that movie, I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘This is the last time I’ll see you.’ It becomes emotional. Every character, once you’ve clicked, you love them. There’s an odd separation anxiety. But with Captain Jack, at the end of the original film, I had a sneaking suspicion I would see him again.”
And here he is. Yet a question hangs over this entire beefed-up production cascading across seven Caribbean islands and studio sound stages, seven purpose-built ships, a cast and crew getting on for four figures, and a story that’s been kept firmly under wraps but has the industry a-buzz with possibility. It’s perhaps the biggest question of the entire summer, if such hype is to be heeded: can Captain Jack Sparrow capture lightning in his rum bottle once more? Come to think of it, can he do it twice more?
Of all the places optimistic, and fairly blessed, journalists can conceive of when visiting the set of Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, first of the brace of sequels shot back-to-back over the entire length of 2005, a car park takes second place to, say, the snow-white sands of the Great Bahaman archipelago. Yet here EMPIRE is, on the Universal backlot in Los Angeles, looking rather despondently at Joss Whedon’s parking space, when, as if by magic, a PR appears with more bad news. “Erm, it turns out . . .” she hedges, following our gaze to the vacant celebrity macadam, “. . . that today they are shooting Pirates 3. Can you not tell anyone?”
Right. Say no more. We’d never spill. Of course, you can trust a journalist the same way you can trust a pirate. Anyway, didn’t Bruckheimer mention they were making one big film, only divided into two parts? Surely, 2 or 3 is a matter of perspective. Still, descriptions of the sequel’s ‘sequel’ set will have to wait—it is Dead Man’s Chest to which we must first attend, to catch up with what’s been occurring lately in the lush, early 18th century Caribbean waters of the refined Port Royal, rambunctious Tortuga, and the riotous deck of The Black Pearl.
“If you look at this as a trilogy,” surmises the loquacious Davenport, first of the factory-like procession of actors, pirates and scoundrels brought before Empire, to a man, or lady, lamenting the absence of Caribbeaness in our surroundings, “it is fair to say it’s loosely based on the structure laid down by the original Star Wars trilogy. And I know I am going to be hoisted by my own petard on this, but what the fuck—this is our Empire Strikes Back. You can say that it is darker in tone.”
Somewhere in an air-conditioned trailer, Bruckheimer, who worships at the altar of understatement, must be shuddering in dismay. “It’s a romp,” is the master-producer’s modest description, never one to make claims that could bite back.
Davenport, like most of his co-stars, is reluctant to be drawn on details. They fear retribution, to be condemned to Pluto’s underworld. “Disney will send seven dwarfs to beat me up in my sleep!” he quips.
“I’m not sure how much I can tell you,” hums Knightley. “I do have two swords, that’s all I’m saying. Maybe it’s a little darker.”
“I don’t know what I can tell you,” haws Orlando Bloom, back as dashing Will Turner, well-fit blacksmith-turned-well-fit pirate. “Will becomes darker, but it is still a Disney movie. It’s not like I go around slaughtering people unnecessarily. It’s not like I’m Hayden Christensen turning into Darth Vader.” Heaven forefend.
The shadows do, though, seem to be gathering, that Star Wars riff not entirely a coincidence as Rossio and Elliott deliberately reference a more flighty mythology. But what news from Captain Jack? Trouble, no doubt. “He certainly has something specific on his mind outside of financial gain,” breezes Depp.“It’s more of a spiritual journey. He’s looking for something extremely unique.”
A Dead Man’s Chest perchance? That teasing reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 piratical classic Treasure Island shows those writers have done more than watch George Lucas movies and hang out atDisneyland. “Early in the film Jack receives the ‘black spot’,” drawls Depp, “which is the end for all pirates once they receive that. You belong to Davy Jones.” Now we’re getting somewhere. “That’s ups the stakes considerably for Jack, as you can imagine. It puts him in maybe more of a panic mode.”
The deal is that Davy Jones, that devil-like figure of nautical legend as played by the aforementioned Nighy with a Scottish accent and CG beard, has come for Jack’s mortal soul. Jack, foolishly, offered it up as collateral for his precious ship The Black Pearl. A deal’s a deal. “And of course, Jack is going to try and avoid that,” adds Depp.
So, where once there was a Captain Barbossa, Geoffrey Rush’s swaggering homage to Robert Newton’s 1950 Long John Silver, now we have Davy Jones, lord of the deep and likely filter-feeder, with a crew of brigands who are, how to say, of a fish persuasion (one has a hammerhead). They roam aboard the fearful Flying Dutchman, and have a kraken at their beck and call.
“We are of the sea,” says Nighy helpfully. “We are otherworldly figures, terrifying. People seek to own us, because if you have us, you control the oceans. Psychologically it’s a tough role—you have to remember that you’re playing half-squid, half-crab.”
Nighy endured a Serkis-like process of motion capture—“I’m too long in the tooth for a leotard, I got pajama-type things”—to enable him to be clad in a beard of tentacles that really enhance organ recitals. “That was Gore’s idea,” he laughs of a scene where Jones’ ‘beard’ slithers across the keys of the Captain Nemo-style pipe organ he keeps below-decks. “Gore knew exactly what my beard was doing in every scene. I had no idea.”
The dastardly behavior doesn’t stop at the Jones gang (all working to scale, no doubt). There’s also the arrival of an even more dreaded foe—big business, in the guise of the East India Company, and their haughty commander Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), keen to eradicate the scourge of pirates and any known associates. Count in Messrs. Turner, and Swann.
“I go to the Caribbean to get rid of pirates, because they’re unruly and don’t pay taxes,” asserts Hollander, channeling the caddish panache of Terry-Thomas. “I play all them off against each other, I manipulate events to suit the company. We’re like the Empire in Star Wars.” A familiar refrain. “And the pirates are like the Jedis.”
While we’re hammering this theme into the deck, you may not be surprised to hear of some father issues. Turner’s growing dismay with the world is connected to the arrival of his father from the deep. Goes by the name of Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and smells funny. “It’s about my desire to free him from his physical imprisonment,” explains Bloom. “Which is the form he takes under Davy Jones’ command. He’s a grotesque sea monster. Will manipulates things to get what he wants. He learned a few tricks from Jack.”
And while we’re talking fathers, in what has become the worst kept secret since The Crying Game’s game, you’d be after the skinny on whether that proto-Jack, Rolling Stone Keith Richards, will be showing up for a cameo as Sparrow Sr.
“We’re getting closer,” hints Bruckheimer, despite the fact that Richards recently plunged like a Stone from a palm tree in Fiji, to land on his befuddled head—although it could be he was getting into character. “Hopefully his tour will coincide with our filming.”
While Dead Man’s Chest is now complete, once premiere duties are done with, the cast will reunite to complete Pirates 3, with just that chance that Jumpin’ Jack will be joined by Tumblin’ Keef. Depp has been putting the work in, by breaking in the rock idol’s shoes for him. “Keith doesn’t like things to be too new or obvious,” Stones tour manager Robert Cary-Williams reported. “Johnny idolizes Keith, so he’s happy to oblige.”
If we’re going to stretch this father riff to breaking point—and we are—we should mention that if Bruckheimer is the trilogy’s godfather, it’s Obi-Wan, then Verbinksi is its true paterfamilias—although Yoda fits better than Vader in our Forced parallels. The New York-born punk guitarist and creator of the Budweiser frog chorus-turned-director is back for both sequels, the unsung hero of yarns 1, 2, and 3.
“It’s like he’s got an antenna for the movies,” says Kevin R. McNally, back as skeptical pirate Joshamee Gibbs, self-proclaimed rational section of the Black Pearl ensemble. “Nothing gets by him. Even under incredible pressure, I’ve never seen him lose his composure or vision. Every line is in his head.”
And if you want to get some idea of how enormous Verbinski’s burden is, with its cannibal tribes, ocean deeps, CG kraken, sardine sailors, and a swordfight atop the greatest ever, take a gander at Tom Hollander’s travel itinerary for a single isolated shot.
From the top: a car picks him up from Portobello Road, to Heathrow, a lovely first-class flight to Miami, then another flight on a smaller turbo-prop plane to “a bit of the Bahamas”, from there, by car, to the hotel, to sleep, then in the morning a limo (driven by someone who once worked for cocaine baron Pablo Escobar) to take him to the other end of the island, then onto a ferry, then a speedboat (“a cigar boat with four 1200hp engines, unbelievably powerful”) to a huge floating city of ships that is the unit base—“like something out of a Terry Gilliam film”—then anything he could possibly want to eat, then he gets made up, then into another smaller boat to a sandbank in the middle of the ocean which is only uncovered for four hours a day with its white coral sand, “like polystyrene balls”.
“Then you do a bit of acting,” notes Hollander.
Madness? That’s not the half of it. Verbinski and crew had to scram from hurricanes named Katrina and Wilma (“We had to be out in 48 hours flat,” recalls the good-in-a-crisis Bruckheimer), unmanageable currents, sea-sickness, and indignant locals protesting at their depiction as “cannibals.” The biggest hurdle of all, however, could be the cures of their own success. Can you ever top the sheer joyous surprise of the first Pirates movie?
“I love the first movie, but I had no idea it was going to be hit,” says Bruckheimer, cool as a crop of cucumbers. “I know this one is the same kind of romp. Hopefully, I’ll have the same success . . . You never know.”
“It’s just a great script with good jokes, proper jokes,” says Nighy. “If this were the first one I’d feel pretty good. With Jerry and Gore, you’re in safe hands.”
“It’s just nice to be in a film where people go, ‘So, what’s going to happen?’” shrugs Knightley.
So . . . What happens in Pirates 3? Be warned, we’re off the edge of the map, here there be spoilers . . .
Back in the original, you may recall one of Rossio and Elliott’s throwaway Jackisms, both louche and wise at the same time: “Clearly, you’ve never been to Singapore.” As is evident today, on the humid LA sound stage, this is one of those nonchalant touches that will become through-lines for the entire trilogy.
We are in Singapore circa 1720, there is a stone quay, a fungally afflicted bathhouse, and a hive of bridges, walkways, and shacks built over a vast tank of murky water where crew members wade about fishing for anachronistic Twinkie wrappers. Impressive is not the word. It is complete. The home of Captain Sao Feng, king of the Singapore pirates, as played with a full-throttle flamboyance near as madcap as Sparrow’s by Chow Yun-Fat.
“Welcome to Singapore!” he hollers to EMPIRE, before the scene launches into a riot of gunfire and screaming. This is the beginning of Pirates 3, which might or might not be suffixed “World’s End”. So, if our theory holds, that surely makes Feng the pirate Jabba The Hutt. Curiously, behind Verbinski’s wall of monitors there’s a chair with a familiar name on it, and a big hat draped over the arm. A really big hat. “You won’t mention that will you?” begs the PR. There is no sign of Captain Jack.
“I took over his trailer,” blurts Chow, “because I am a pirate! I can do whatever I want. This is my kingdom now! Johnny, bye bye! Working with Keira is an honor. Orlando, Mr. Handsome, all Asian girls love him. I’m the last person on board. When I will make an appearance? Part 2? Part 3? Who knows?”
A roving Davenport glances toward the frankly demented visage of Chow’s Feng. He ponders the image for a moment and smiles: “Pirates don’t give a fuck, do they?” Bring me that horizon.
Update? I do get to fight with a bloody sword at last! Two of them. They kept asking what I wanted for my character, and I kept on saying, “A sword!” I also get a piratey look this time instead of a corset. I’m in sort of boy’s attire now which is much more me. And I’ve got a bigger trailer now, which is lovely.
Britishness? You know, I’m a city girl at heart. We go to some very beautiful places, but you end up getting island fever. They’re great for a couple of weeks: “Okay, I’ve done the beach, I’ve done the sea, I’ve read all my books.” It gets a bit difficult. Saying that there are definitely worse place to be. Weirdly, though, I prefer the bits in LA.
Sea legs? I have good legs.
Captain Jack? Johnny’s beautiful. Both him and Orlando, both beautiful. Orlando, I’ve know for a very long time. He’s me mate.
Bruckheimer? I owe Jerry an awful lot.
Pirate Love? The first film really was the one that changed things for me. I’ve been working non-stop ever since. The thing about pirates is there are so many stories, you’re bound to find a good one. This one is a great one.
Update? You discover that Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and I are there for more than just comic relief. It turns out we do have a purpose in the grand scheme of things. Lee and I have worked out a backstory: I’m the son of a prostitute, and Pintel is my uncle.
Britishness? Johnny and Lee are pretty much the only American actors on it. We gave them a real taste of British culture.
Sea legs? Everybody was taking seasickness pills on the first film. By now, though, I have my sea legs.
Captain Jack? When you’re on set with Johnny playing Jack Sparrow at his height, it’s an awesome thing to behold.
Bruckheimer? I get the feeling he’s a film nerd like the rest of us.
Pirate love? When I’m stopped in the street, I’m the “eyeball guy.”
Update? This is certainly not a poor man’s version of the first one. While you’re never quite sure where Will is coming from, I am definitely confined in the sense that Will is the poster boy.
Britishness? I was looking at Keira the other day on set, doing this whole sword routine. She’s the most beautiful woman on set and still able to rough it with the lads and look ethereal. There’s a Britishness in that.
Sea legs? It took a while, but not bad.
Captain Jack? It’s unbelievable working with Johnny, that chance to learn my craft from a master. He’s still the guy.
Bruckheimer? He’s the boss.
Pirate love? I have had the most ridiculous fortune when I left drama school to work on Rings. But Pirates really sealed the deal. Pirates come out of left field, people thought it was this film based on Disney ride. What I love is that they are based on pirate legend. That’s why people love them so much.
Update? I don’t do swashbuckling. I do expensive soft furnishings and very good tailoring. I dislike pirates.
Britishness? We had this dining club, mainly in a local Italian, the only one place to eat in the Grand Bahaman bit. Splendid.
Sea legs? Nothing, so far, touch wood.
Bruckheimer? He takes photographs, like a tourist. He says, “Cos there is nothing else to do.” That’s a man in control.
Captain Jack? An English glove puppet with an American hand.
Pirate love? People love pirates ‘cos they can do whatever they want, they don’t have their moral feet on the land.
Update? You have to play the man he once was—it’s difficult to conceive of playing a bloomin’ squid.
Britishness? There was this unofficial dining club. We had a lot of diners. We would even invite Americans.
Sea legs? Not terribly good. They took us on speedboats. In a rough sea, you hit a wave, there’s a three-second wait before—BAM!—hitting the water again. On one occasion I just hung on this strut reciting the lyrics to Me & Bobby McGee.>
Captain Jack? It’s an affectionate homage to British rockstocracy of the ‘60’s or ‘70’s. Big-hearted, and daft.
Bruckheimer? Charming, committed and enthusiastic.
Pirate love? I remember seeing The Crimson Pirate. I sword-fought all the way home, trying to leap cars, going crazy down the street. I’m sure in reality pirate life was a nightmare.
Update? I’ve got an action figure, which fills me with such joy. They threatened it for the first one, and I had visions of children screaming outside KFC when they hadn’t got a Captain Jack but a bloody Commodore Norrington.
Britishness? Us Brits constructed a parallel social life. You have to—we were in this jerry-built resort full of 30-stone hippos from Florida.
Sea legs? Not a jot, thank God.
Captain Jack? Johnny’s very improvisational. You have a choice: you either freak out or you go with him.
Bruckheimer? Enigmatic, kind, and rich beyond dreams.
Pirate love? I remember the first fancy dress party I went to. I went as a pirate—it’s a good look.
Update? I’m trying to restore some sanity to the Pearl. I mean, Jack Sparrow is completely unhinged, someone’s got to deal with things.
Britishness? Johnny himself is a great Anglophile, he goes round saying “bugger” and “damn” all day like a good old Brit. I did notice that the director and a lot of the crew started saying “mate” a lot.
Sea legs? A couple of bad days, it was me and the side of the ship.
Captain Jack? Johnny lives on a boat during production, a beautiful yacht—Nicolas Cage’s, as a matter of fact. Absolutely beautiful, a crew of 12 or something. I asked for one. They told me to fuck off.
Bruckheimer? He’s generally an all-around good egg. When we see him on the set, we know we’re going to have a nice party.
Pirate love? I’m forever humming the theme to Captain Pugwash, from my youth. And my very first job in the theatre was playing Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. I’ve come full circle.