When it came time to finally make Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales — the fifth entry in the series and first since 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides — producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the execs at Disney went in search of a fresh director (the previous four entries were helmed by Gore Verbinski for the first three and Rob Marshall for On Stranger Tides). They found not one but two: Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who had just made waves (so to speak) with their independent epic Kon-Tiki, a recreation of explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s bold 1947 crossing of the Pacific in a small raft.
Kon-Tiki was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film just as talks began about Dead Men Tell No Tales, but directing the fifth Pirates installment was surprisingly a job they pursued. “We didn’t get the job, we chased the job,” says Sandberg when we speak with him at the Los Angeles press junket for Pirates. “We pitched how we saw the movie, what was important to us about the story, what we wanted to add to the story, and that’s what Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney liked. So it was a very nice collaboration from the get-go because they really liked our ideas and they had ideas that they wanted our take on so it’s been like a good conversation ever since.”
Rønning agrees that the experience of moving from the relatively small scope of filmmaking in their homeland to the vast, often unwieldy expanse of Hollywood tentpoles was a smooth one for the pair. “It’s been an amazing journey for us,” he explains when we speak with him right after talking with Sandberg. “I think that we’ve always been inspired by the Hollywood family adventure kind of movies, even while growing up and making films together since we were 10 years old. So it’s kind of in our blood a little bit. I think our style, even with our independent movies before this, has been cinematic. We like making movies for the big screen, and I think that’s what Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney saw.”
The two childhood friends did indeed begin making movies at a young age. Inspired by films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (and Spielberg’s work in general, among others), the pair reached a pivotal moment when Rønning’s father bought him a video camera. “We started just playing around and we were lucky to get an infomercial,” he recalls. “We’re from a very small town in the south of Norway and back then the things you needed for editing and stuff was very expensive equipment, so you couldn’t just do it. But we managed to sit there at night and do it. We were like 14, 15, and editing our movies. I think that really catapulted us into the next level, where we could actually shoot something and get to edit it. I think that early experience was paramount for us to learn and become filmmakers.”
Sandberg and Rønning eventually launched their own production company, directing commercials and churning out two features before making their mark outside Norway with Kon-Tiki. That also led to a job directing several episodes of the ill-fated Netflix series Marco Polo, and then finally the opportunity to get behind the camera for Pirates of the Caribbean. Stepping up to the plate on a movie that reportedly cost $250 million to make (partially due to production delays) was not as intimidating as it may sound. “In a weird way, it’s easier,” says Sandberg. “Because the people and the resources, you know, especially the people, they’re the best of the best so they just keep offering you great solutions and ideas and help so it’s really about not getting almost lost in everything you can do, but keeping your eyes on the story.”
The story this time out, written by Jeff Nathanson and longtime Pirates scribe Terry Rossio, concerns a search for the Trident of Poseidon, a legendary and powerful relic that can lift all curses and give its owner control over the seas. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is looking for it so he can free his father, Will Turner (series vet Orlando Bloom in a cameo) from the Flying Dutchman. He is aided by budding astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), driven to find the Trident by clues from her missing father. Meanwhile, the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his dead crew want to use it to free themselves and enact revenge on none other than Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), whose sins of the past come back to haunt him, along with old friends Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and the British Navy.
Sandberg and Rønning are both adamant about what they wanted to add to what reads like an archetypal Pirates narrative. “I always want to make movies with a strong emotional core,” says Rønning. “It’s really the only thing, the most important thing — to at least try to move the audience. Even in a franchise like this, which is a huge spectacle with a lot of fantastical elements and very eccentric characters, it became really the key to working on the script with Jeff Nathanson, going, ‘Where do we find the emotional through lines?’”
We really wanted to work on the characters,” concurs Sandberg. “We worked a lot on the new characters that we brought into the franchise, but also the storyline of Barbossa because he’s such a great character and we wanted to tell a story that would touch people and make you connect with him. Same thing with Sparrow, we wanted this story to be personal for Jack. We came with a backstory idea because Jack as a character doesn’t have an arc, you know, he doesn’t learn anything — and because of that we figured we want to know more about Jack anyway. He’s such a great character, but how did he come to be so great? So we came with the idea to go back in time and see a young Jack.”
While the filmmakers didn’t want to mess too much with the characters of Sparrow and Barbossa, Rønning says that adding Scodelario and Thwaites to the mix — especially Scodelario’s fiercely intelligent astronomer — brought something fresh to the story: “Making her role, that character, a modern woman, that was also very important — making her smart, making her strong and showing that she can hold her own in this crazy, dirty pirate world. I have girls of my own and I wanted something for them to, I don’t know, identify with.”
No movie this size comes without some amount of rough sailing, and in the case of Dead Men Tell No Tales, extreme weather and in particular a hand injury sustained by Johnny Depp — which shut the movie down for two weeks — were two of the factors that contributed to a long (95 days initially from February to July of 2015, followed by three weeks of reshoots in March 2016) production process. “We were constantly working on the script, constantly working on how to make it better basically,” says Sandberg when asked what he and Rønning did to keep their creative juices flowing during the break. “It’s sort of a mixed blessing to get a couple days off like that and clear your head and think. It’s such a huge, complex movie with so many elements that when you’re shooting, you’re so in the midst of it, it’s almost like you could lose the big picture. So you just have to think of it as a blessing somehow.”
The end result of all that work is now in the hands of audiences worldwide starting this weekend, and Sandberg and Rønning (the latter already has several other projects lined up, including Methuselah with Tom Cruise and the Michael Crichton adaptation Micro) are hopeful that fans of the first four movies — and new viewers — will be satisfied with what they’ve crafted. “I do think that regardless if you’re a fan like me or if this is your first pirate movie, it’s just a great adventure,” says Rønning. “We go to amazing places and it’s great fun. At the same time it’s also an emotional movie. I hope that it will move you.”
“It’s such a great franchise and I think there are several reasons why we wanted to do it,” chimes in Sandberg. “It’s a really interesting challenge because it has a unique tone with this mix of supernatural and spectacle and humor and horror and heart and so to get that mix right is very interesting. And now we have kids — I have 3 kids, Joachim has 2 kids — so we also wanted to make that kind of a movie for them…and for us, as kids at heart.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is out in theaters this Friday (May 26).