“It’s sort of like Led Zeppelin doing ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ And then you go back and say, ‘OK, that was really good. Do another “Stairway to Heaven.” Do another classic song that everybody will love, that will be remembered throughout rock music history,’” frets writer Terry Rossio.
You might say Rossio is feeling more than a little bit of pressure these days, thanks to a quirky little pirate movie based on a Disneyland amusement park ride. The little movie that turned into a monster hit was, of course, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, a film based on a screenplay that Rossio and his frequent co-writer, Ted Elliott, wrote.
Now Rossio, who wrote or was part of the writing team for some of the biggest hits of our time (Aladdin, Shrek and Men in Black), finds himself in a quandary. He’s worried about his follow-up to Curse of the Black Pearl and all the pressure that’s been placed on his new film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, to succeed when it premieres in July.
“Definitely the biggest problem with Dead Man’s Chest is the bar that was set with the first one, which is quite high, and the expectations are impossibly high. I can’t tell you how many people just look at me and say, ‘I’m so looking forward to Dead Man’s Chest. It’s going to be great. It’s definitely going to be the biggest film of the summer.’ And you kind of look at them and you go, ‘Well I guarantee you that if Johnny Depp walks on screen and stands there and twiddles his thumbs and says, “Yo, he, gee, I think I’m going to go look for some treasure now,” and walks off, instantly everybody would start booing at the screen. They would just be going, “Well what happened? You know this isn’t any good.”’ Like you have to actually fulfill the requirements of doing something really interesting and involving and moving, and that just doesn’t happen because you want it to happen.”
English actor Bill Nighy, who steps into the shoes of the bad guy in Dead Man’s Chest, Davy Jones, agrees that the new movie has a lot to live up to. “When you talk to people, it’s not just a great cinema-going memory they have. It’s kind of beloved. People love the movie.”
It’s all ironic considering that Curse of the Black Pearl was a pirate movie after all, and that it was based on a Disneyland ride, and that the movie based on the Disneyland ride that preceded it tanked. Does anyone even remember the name of the movie based on the Country Bear Jamboree?
“There was this sort of universal backlash, like, ‘Oh, Hollywood is so out of ideas and it can’t think of anything original. They’ve done all these television shows. Now they’re starting to make films out of rides.’ You know, it was a common reaction, and I totally did not expect that,” says Rossio.
“I missed out on the whole resistance thing, which I found out was quite profound and pervasive. We had pitched the idea like 10 years before, because we wanted to do a pirate movie and we thought, ‘Well, there’s really not a lot you can base a pirate movie on that hasn’t been done before.’ And we thought, ‘Oh, Pirates of the Caribbean.’ And I instantly thought, ‘Wow! Pirates of the Caribbean. That’s just full of promise, and full of mystery and potential.’”
By missing out on “the whole resistance thing,” they were able to script a “very weird movie.” Rossio found the story to be challenging in terms of narrative and character relationships. “It was very weird that they let us do stories with secondary characters and let us create a world, and they let our characters give long speeches. We kept thinking, ‘Wow, a big summer movie.’ We have three characters at three different times tell stories, and usually you think somebody would come along and tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Um . . . uh-uh. Sorry.’”
Then there’s the sequel issue. Rossio recalls how disappointed he was when he saw Return of the Jedi. Not only did it deal with another Death Star, but one that wasn’t even finished. “I remember going, ‘Uh, no! We already saw that. You didn’t come up with something else?’ It was supremely disappointing,” says Rossio. And now he’s in that same spot with a movie that has impossibly high expectations.
“Our initial worry was, what else is there to do? [laughs] But then we started exploring the world and finding all sorts of iconic pirate images and moments that we hadn’t done. And we started to try and weave all those in. I guess it’s also a real challenge to feel like we were extending the first movie and taking all the characters to a sort of natural next step, while at the same time allowing for there to be a third movie which would pay everything off. I think there’s a second-act danger that can happen where you feel like the middle film is incomplete. We were trying to avoid that,” says Rossio.
As Rossio and Elliott tackled the new material, they set out to explore the idea that what Jack wants is opposed to what Will and Elizabeth want. “In Pirates 1, Jack’s agenda happens to be consistent or in league with what our heroes wanted. Will wanted to go save Elizabeth. Jack wanted the Black Pearl. In a way that kind of seems to put Jack on the side of the good guys, even though he is untrustworthy and capricious and wily and conniving and all of those great Jack things. In Dead Man’s Chest, the way the situation falls out is Jack is opposed to Will and Elizabeth. He’s the same character and behaves in the same way, but we perceive him differently because his agenda is at odds, and so that lets us explore the central sort of responsibility you have to yourself versus society in general. And the moral ambiguity that always comes in telling a pirate tale.”
When it comes to Dead Man’s Chest, Nighy doesn’t believe Rossio has anything to worry about. “I mean, I shouldn’t say this, because probably, you know, it will all go terribly wrong. [laughs] But I can’t see what can go wrong. It’s a brilliant script. You’ve got a world-class director in Gore Verbinski and all the people that you enjoyed in the first one. Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Johnny Depp, obviously Jack Davenport, they’re all back, says Nighy. Not to mention “the new bad boys,” including his own villainous turn in the film as the computer-generated Davy Jones and Tom Hollander, “a brilliantly gifted young English actor that plays the other nasty piece of work.”
For Nighy, one of the things that makes Dead Man’s Chest so special is Depp’s Captain Jack. “I would suggest one of the major reasons why this movie is so enchanting is you have Johnny Depp’s performance, which has entered the language in a way that very few performances do, I think.”
But Nighy doesn’t give all the credit to Depp. He believes the writers, Rossio and Elliott, had more than a little something to do with the creation of Captain Jack. “They’ve written beautifully for him and for that performance, and it’s wonderfully funny. It is a performance I think you could, without going crazy, confidently say will survive down through the years. People will show their grandchildren that performance,” says Nighy. More than that, Nighy believes Dead Man’s Chest works all the way around, sequelitis issues be damned. “I think they’ve really pulled it off. It’s a bighearted movie, like the first one.”
Whether Dead Man’s Chest meets its high expectations or not, Rossio does seem cautiously pleased with his creation. “I think the thing we’ve done well is you can tell by the trailer that it’s clearly a different movie than the first one. And different than anything else that’s out there is terms of scope and tone. It’s very hard to mix horrific elements with dramatic elements with romantic elements with comedic elements. And yet somehow I think we’ve been able to create a world where all those elements live together.”
Dead Man’s Chest reunites all the major characters from the first film for a continuation of the adventure. “Captain Jack Sparrow is in trouble,” says Rossio. In Curse he got the Black Pearl back. In Dead Man’s Chest we discover that he had to make a deal with Davy Jones to do it, and now the deal has come due. “He owes Davy Jones his soul, a hundred years of service aboard the Flying Dutchman, and, Jack being Jack, he has no interest in paying up. So he’s going to do whatever he can to avoid that. Jack discovers that Davy Jones has one point of vulnerability, and that has to do with the Dead Man’s Chest. Jack has already found the key to the chest. Now he just needs to find the chest.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Will are dealing with the consequences of having helped Jack escape at the end of Curse of the Black Pearl. They both face the gallows, and to avoid that terrible fate they race to find Jack.
Every great adventure needs a bad guy, and Dead Man’s Chest has Davy Jones. Nighy admits this may just be the perfect role for him as he takes over the bad-guy duties from Geoffrey Rush, who starred as Barbossa in the first movie.
“I joke that I’ve reached that difficult age where I can only play men from other dimensions, having played a zombie [Shaun of the Dead] and a vampire [Underworld], and now I get to play a squid. I also get to play a real human being occasionally. So I’ve got the best of both worlds, really,” [laughs] says Nighy. He also took off his clothes in Love Actually as a fading rock star, in a scene-stealing role that has kept his career hopping.
“Davy Jones is a seriously damaged individual,” says Nighy. “He’s been transformed by powers greater than any of us. He’s become part of the sea, really, and its creatures. And he’s a deeply unhappy and, therefore, dangerous creature. He suffers in a profound way. His only pleasure now is to arrange for others to suffer as fundamentally as he does. His only reaction is to witness other people’s pain. He’s very, very misunderstood.” [laughs]
His character’s job is to put the fear of death into people, says Nighy. “If Davy Jones were to come into your life, and please hope to God he never does, he would come into your life at the point of death, and he would offer you a deal. And it’s not a terribly good deal, but it’s the only deal in town . . . . And if you think he looks funky, wait till you meet his crew.”
The funky-looking Davy Jones was computer-generated, says Nighy. Only his mouth and eyes were actually made up to blend in with the digital creation. “Rather than makeup, what you do have to wear is very silly gray pajamas and trousers, which averagely are tough to front. Not everyone can wear them and retain their dignity, let me tell you. Particularly when you’re standing next to Orlando Bloom or Johnny Depp. And you also have an equally tough-to-wear skull cap with a little white bubble on the top, and then you have all different colors all over your face.”
“I kept getting flashes of Santa Claus Meets the Martians, where you get these two genres just clashing, because we had the period costuming and setting of a pirate movie and then there were these guys who looked like they dropped down from Mars. [laughs]The alien gray-suited creatures that have to create their characters through technology,” says Rossio. “It was definitely very odd.”
It created some acting challenges for Nighy and the actors who played his crewmen. With sensors all over his face to measure his expressions, he had to adjust his acting to make the character work. “You try and measure your performance according to the performance monitors, and then you take another look at the picture and you think, ‘Hang on. This man has a live squid growing out of his chin.’ And then you take another look at the picture and then you think, ‘What top? This man has a squid growing out of chin, and one leg is a crab leg, and one arm is a crab claw, and, you know, he’s in serious trouble.’ [laughs] You realize it’s not like any other kind of acting. It’s a different acting requirement.”
Davy Jones’ body parts aside, Rossio promises quite a few surprises for those who revisit the world of Pirates of the Caribbean. “We don’t play it safe at all. We have another ambitious, challenging storyline. We have multiple characters. It’s an ensemble piece. We take risks with the characters. They are allowed to do very unexpected things, and I dare say we even have a controversial ending,” he says.
“It will make people have a lot to think about upon leaving theaters. And for a studio to go out on a limb on a big-budget sequel like this, it really does say something. Because in a way, most sequels play it safe, and that’s kind of risky in and of itself.” Rossio believes there has to be “a sense something daring” has happened in a movie, or it will seem to lack a heart or a soul. “From our point of view this is the only way you could do it. If you don’t do it, then what else would do? Then you’re just doing fun sword-fighting scenes and cool visuals. But for people to adopt something and love it, you need, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ You have something there that is arguably kind of shocking. That’s what's missing sometimes in bland sequels, and we just said, ‘Love it or hate it, we’re not making a bland sequel.’ That we know for sure.”
In Nighy’s view, Dead Man’s Chest has everything. “It’s romantic, it’s adventurous, it’s funny. It’s got Johnny. It’s silly and daft and scary at the same time, which is a hard thing to pull off. But it’s also kind of generous-spirited. It’s bighearted and friendly. It’s what you want the movies to be. You come out of the cinema feeling a little bit better about stuff. It’s just cheering, and it warms your heart.”
As for Pirates 3, the working title is Pirates of the Caribbean: World’s End. The film was shot concurrently with Dead Man’s Chest, and Rossio estimates that 50 to 60 percent of the film is already done. He’s looking at Pirates as one larger story that he hopes will have a satisfying ending when all is said and done. But until the years have passed and all three Pirates movies have proven a success and stood the test of time, Rossio isn’t likely to rest easy.
“When you are making it, on all the different films we’ve worked, on the most successful and beloved and greatest films, they all felt like disasters as we were making them, because we could only see the problems. You never look at the good lines of the visuals or the exciting sequences. You don’t worry about those. You worry about the plot turns that are a little iffy, that you are trying to make work more effectively. It’s not our job at this point to feel like we’ve done anything good. It’s our job to feel like we’re on the edge of disaster and we have to save it and make it better,” says Rossio.