As Michael Bolton once belted out: “This is the tale of Captain Jack Sparrow.” The Pirates Of The Caribbean film was a surprise sleeper hit in 2003, astounding the higher-ups at Disney who had long been skeptical of how a pirate movie, based on a ride at Disneyland, would appeal to audiences.
Off the back of this success, the sequels only got more ambitious and expensive in scale, with their use of practical effects and convoluted character dynamics serving to complicate the adventure format, with mixed results. It shouldn’t shock you then, to hear that each of the movies released so far had some serious behind-the-scenes battles to make them shipshape.
The fifth and apparently final instalment, Dead Men Tell No Tales, has had some very public battles before it has even been released, from stories about Johnny Depp’s behaviour and wrangles with Australian customs, to the recent news that the film has been stolen by scurvy hackers, who tried to get ransom money from Disney in exchange for not releasing it online.
It’s also been delayed twice from its originally intended release date in 2015, but as the new film goes before cinema audiences this week, here are some of the battles that the previous instalments went through on their way to the screen; against the elements, against time limits and often against studio executives too…
The Curse Of The Black Pearl (2003)
In Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm snarks that “If the Pirates Of The Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” It’s a good line, that also sneaks in a reference to Steven Spielberg’s favorite Disneyland ride. In the 1990s, Spielberg reportedly wanted to make a film based on the ride. He had a script by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and wanted to cast Bill Murray, Steve Martin, or Robin Williams as Captain Jack.
Disney wasn’t interested, and the project went away. However, they did hire screenwriter Jay Wolpert to write a script in 2001, about prison guard Will Turner releasing Jack from prison to rescue the woman he loves from the murderous Captain Blackheart. This story, featuring no supernatural elements, was cooked up by three of Disney’s creative executives and was intended to be a buddy comedy with pirates.
At this point, the studio didn’t have much faith in the film and planned to release it direct-to-video. The old-fashioned ‘pirate movie’ had been dead since 1995’s Cutthroat Island, a costly flop that closed down Carolco Pictures. That all changed when Dick Cook, who had started his career with the company in 1970 as a lowly ride operator at Disneyland, became Disney’s chairman in 2002, and got behind the project.
Cook hired Rossio and Elliott to write a new script (allegedly poaching them from a Spielberg-produced adaptation of the similar video game series The Curse Of Monkey Island) and enticed producer Jerry Bruckheimer with the supernatural spin on the ‘straight pirate movie’ that Disney had previously been pitching. Director Gore Verbinski was also enlisted on the idea of using new technology and genre elements to bring back a genre that had disappeared.
The major bone of contention on the first film was the casting of Captain Jack Sparrow. Disney’s first choice for the role was Jim Carrey, who was otherwise engaged filming Bruce Almighty, but the other names they threw around were Christopher Walken (who had been in the frame for the DTV version of the film too), Matthew McConaughey, and Michael Keaton. They definitely weren’t looking at Johnny Depp, who had next to no track record in tentpole movies, but would ultimately get his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for the film.
Bruckheimer and Cook were behind Depp’s casting precisely because he wasn’t the type of actor you’d expect to see in this kind of movie. The actor was already looking to work with Disney, but in a voice role, having enjoyed watching their animated movies with his two young children, but Cook pitched him Pirates and Depp was in on the spot.
Others at Disney were less impressed, demanding to know why Depp’s Keith Richards-inspired performance was “drunk” and/or “gay.” When the rushes from the film were screened for executives, Michael Eisner reportedly shrieked: “He’s ruining the film!”
Eisner was already skeptical about the film after the box office failure of 2002’s The Country Bears, another Disneyland attraction movie, and he had tried to shut down production before it even got started. He was eventually won over by Verbinski’s work with concept artists, and Bruckheimer’s insistence that for the film to succeed, Eisner would have to match the budgets of the competition’s major franchises.
Following a fire that caused half a million dollars’ worth of damage to Port Royal sets before principal photography began, the film was shot in California and St. Vincent from October 2002 to March 2003, and was marred by one or two accidents along the way. Depp was struck in the knee by debris during a stunt between two ships, but wasn’t injured, and Keira Knightley and her mother had to be rescued from a sinking boat coming back from a night shoot, which led the production to cancel night shoots on location and pick them up in the studio instead.
It was a quick shoot, with the writers on set to add bits and bobs and finesse the script as they went, but not everyone was happy with the hectic work environment this created. Zoe Saldana, who has since made a name for herself in Avatar, Star Trek, and Guardians Of The Galaxy, had an early role as pirate captain Anamaria, which almost led her to quit acting
“It was a lot of above-the-line versus below-the-line, extras versus actors, producers versus PAs. It was very elitist,” she told the Hollywood Reporter in 2014. I was 23 years old, and I was like, ‘Fuck this!’ I am never putting myself in this situation again. People disrespecting me because they look at my number on a call sheet and they think I’m not important. Fuck you.”
The hectic schedule also left Verbinski and his crew working 18 hour days in the editing room in the run-up to the film’s July 2003 release date. After the finished film wowed executives and tested well with audiences, Disney felt rather more confident about it, even though it was the first ever PG-13 film released under their banner.
Verbinski reportedly hated the subtitle – The Curse Of The Black Pearl – which the studio added at the eleventh hour in case of sequels. On the other hand, the director did get to make some sequels. Unsurprisingly, Zoe Saldana declined to return for them.
Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
Disney’s first order of business on the follow was insuring the same formula, including all of the talent working behind the scenes, in order to deliver another hit.
“It’s hard because everyone already has a superstar career,” Bruckheimer explained in the DVD bonus feature According To Plan: The Harrowing And True Story Of Dead Man’s Chest. “To bring them back for a continuation of these characters is expensive and a lot of other directors are chasing the same talent.”
The solution? Filming the second and third films back-to-back, with the same cast and crew intact. In 2004, Elliott and Rossio plotted out a two-movie arc around the East India Trading Company and Davy Jones, captain of the Flying Dutchman, which retroactively made The Curse Of The Black Pearl into the first of a trilogy. Nevertheless, the gargantuan production, with a cumulative budget that was north of half a billion dollars, would begin without completed scripts.
Disney almost cancelled the film in January 2005 as costs sky-rocketed and the scripts were no closer to being done, but again, pre-production work saved the day. Working from a ‘preparatory draft’ by the writers, Verbinski and concept artist James Byrkit storyboarded major sequences that were enough to convince the studio that they knew what they were doing while the script was still in development.
As on the first film, Rossio and Elliott were present on set again, and encouraged actors to use the spontaneity of the less than ideal script situation in their performances. Over the course of the sequels, Depp became more involved with their process, which continued right up until Dead Men Tell No Tales, on which Rossio says his script was vetoed by Depp because it had a female villain.
Dead Man’s Chest returned to the locations used in the first film, where the standing sets and piers had fortunately weathered a few hurricanes since production had finished. But in also travelling to Dominica and the Bahamas for filming, the weather would be a major problem throughout the shoot, with hurricane season bringing various stops and starts to the production.
Furthermore, the remote location of Dominica proved problematic, as it turned out that the island was entirely unprepared for a 500-strong film crew moving around it. Cast and crew endured four hour round trips to work on different parts of the island in scorching temperatures. The production had to build roads on the undeveloped surface, in order to move around equipment and practical props such as the giant waterwheel in which Jack, Will, and Norrington fight over the key to the titular chest.
In terms of special effects, there were some disputes over the film’s most celebrated special effects characters, the crew of the Flying Dutchman. Rossio and Elliott made them ghosts, but Verbinski redesigned them as part-pirate, part-sealife hybrids, using computer generated effects on most of the crew and prosthetics on Stellan Skarsgård.
It’s Bill Nighy’s performance as Captain Davy Jones that really stands out though, and the animators had a field day enhancing his already quirky choices in the role. Verbinski asked him to do a Dutch accent, (as per the name of his ship) but Nighy, a fan of the BBC’s Still Game, played it Scottish instead. Funnily enough, Nighy would deliver Jones’ line “release the kraken” again in the sequel to 2010’s Clash Of The Titans as the character Hephaestus, recounting Liam Neeson’s meme-worthy antics in the reboot.
At World’s End (2007)
The magnitude of the production’s back-to-back undertaking is more obvious from watching the third instalment, which was then intended to be the last in the series. While the basic outline was fixed, According To Plan shows Verbinski and Bruckheimer trying to thrash out the script for At World’s End with the writers in between shooting the second film.
It’s fair to say that the film’s story is a bit of a mess, turning the series’ knack for complex and characterful action sequences into an ever more convoluted web of double crosses, right up to its spectacular finale. The filmmakers insist that the build-up is necessary in order for the setpiece between battling pirates inside a maelstrom (perhaps inspired by the sequels’ difficulties with weather behind the scenes), but the film isn’t just the longest of the series; it’s the longest Disney movie ever made, clocking in at a bottom-blistering 169 minutes.
That spontaneity runs rampant here too, given over to long setpieces in which Jack has conversations with other versions of himself and a supremely indulgent cameo for Keith Richards, who had turned down a cameo in Dead Man’s Chest due to touring commitments with The Rolling Stones. Playing Jack’s guitar-strumming father Captain Teague, Richards was reportedly a cause of concern for the studio on account of his very public statements about snorting his father’s ashes in the run-up to the film’s release.
At World’s End took most of that humungous two film budget to produce, and is often cited as the most expensive movie ever made, outweighing even the adjusted-for-inflation costs of 1963’s Cleopatra. In an early attempt to appeal to the lucrative Chinese market, the film’s advertising made a big deal of Chow Yun-fat’s new character Sao Feng, a Pirate Lord from Singapore in the ‘Jabba’s palace’ style introductory passage of the third film.
It didn’t go down well. Although the film was the first of the series to be released in China (the previous two instalments had been banned for their emphasis on the supernatural and depiction of cannibalism, respectively), the country’s press went to town on the stereotypical portrayal of Sao Feng, comparing him to Fu Manchu. In the censored Chinese version of the film, ten minutes featuring the character were cut out.
Disney had more success marketing the film elsewhere, although the campaign was more muted than before taking a similar tack to The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King in selling the film as the final part of a trilogy, including one of the best trailers of all time.
Released ten months after Dead Man’s Chest, the film fell short of the $1 billion landmark achieved by its predecessor at the box office and got the worst reviews of the series at that point, but Disney’s gamble paid off well enough for them to continue exploring further films. Believe it or not, the next one was even more expensive and got even worse reviews…
On Stranger Tides (2011)
After At World’s End, Verbinski had a number of projects lined up, including Rango, The Lone Ranger, and his as-yet-unmade Bioshock movie. When Disney came calling about a fourth Pirates movie, he requested that it come out before his Lone Ranger movie, and suggested Rob Marshall as his replacement in the director’s chair. He was duly hired and the film was announced by Depp, in full Captain Jack regalia, at Disney’s D23 convention in September 2009.
But later that month, an even bigger sea change came when Dick Cook resigned. Disney CEO Bob Iger had asked for Cook’s resignation, prompting uproar both inside and outside of the studio, and especially for Depp, who had doubts about working with Disney again without him in charge.
“There’s a fissure, a crack in my enthusiasm at the moment,” Depp told the Los Angeles Times. “It was all born in that office. When things went a little sideways on the first Pirates movie and others at the studio were less than enthusiastic about my interpretation of the character, Dick was there from the first moment. He trusted me.”
Nevertheless, Depp returned for a whopping $55 million salary, in a fourth instalment that foregrounded Captain Jack even more, and left the story of Will and Elizabeth closed. The Fountain of Youth had long been considered as a subject for the sequels, and Rossio and Elliott returned to it here. Like some of the Die Hard sequels, On Stranger Tides was based on an unrelated story, Tim Powers’ 1988 novel of the same name, which Disney had optioned to be adapted for the Pirates franchise after the third film’s release.
“It’s important to get the story right and it’s important to me to scale it down, because we can’t get bigger,” Disney’s head of production Oren Aviv said, on their approach to the fourth film. “The movies have subsequently gotten bigger and bigger and very complicated and they were satisfying on so many levels obviously, but I want to kind of reboot the whole thing and bring it down to its core, its essence, just characters.”
Furthermore, new chairman Rich Ross wanted to bring more fiscal restraint to Disney’s motion picture division and asked Bruckheimer to keep costs around $200m. There were a few steps taken to bring the film in at this budget, including filming in Hawaii and London for their attractive tax credits. It was also the first film in the series to be filmed digitally, in order to take advantage of the 3D boom, but the special effects were post-converted.
Penélope Cruz joined the cast as Angelica, daughter of Ian McShane’s Captain Blackbeard, but her pregnancy led the production to hire her younger sister Monica as her body double in long distance shots and stunt work. Speaking of doubles, Angelica is introduced impersonating Jack, just as an intruder did while the film was shooting at the Old Royal Naval College in London. As the British press delighted in reporting at the time, security didn’t think to ask him for ID.
3D receipts contributed to the film surpassing Dead Man’s Chest‘s billion dollar benchmark, but it didn’t make any more overall. It’s the only one of the series to date that wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, and it had a broadly negative response from critics and audiences, but that wouldn’t be bad going for a film that kept its purse-strings tight.
However, some time after the film was released in 2014, Forbes magazine got hold of financial statements from the British side of the production and revealed that the final cost was more than double Ross’ $200 million projection, standing at $410 million. That won’t all have come out of Disney’s coffers, but with Depp’s salary and post-production, it’s a significant increase from At World’s End.
After a number of other costly bombs, most notably John Carter, Ross went the same way as Cook, with much greater acrimony than his predecessor. Disney has several franchises on the go now, after consolidating their brand by acquiring Marvel Studios and LucasFilm, but it’s no surprise that Dead Men Tell No Tales has battled its way to screens and given the tumultuous history of this franchise, it’ll be interesting to see if it really means final this time.