Posted on Thursday, February 3rd, 2011 by Peter Sciretta
In October, we visited the set of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Over the next few days we’ll be posting interviews we conducted on set with the cast and crew. Today I bring you a transcript of our roundtable chat with co-screenwriter Terry Rossio. Here is a short quote from Rossio:
“The key to Jack Sparrow is that he’s the trickster, so he is an archetypal character. That type of character doesn’t show up in American cinema that much. You go to Bugs Bunny to get the classic kind of tricksters. And the key to the trickster character, is that that character is environmentally based. Jack Sparrow is not that good at not getting caught for example, (interviewer laughs) you can catch him. He’s caught all the time, the thing is is that you can’t hang on to him because what he does is, he starts tap dancing, and he starts blowing smoke and he starts talking circles around you. And what he’s doing it, is he’s looking for the opportunity because the ultimate thing about Jack Sparrow is he has faith and conviction in himself that the world is going to turn his way eventually. Maybe not now, maybe now he’s down and out, maybe his ship is sinking, maybe he’s drunk, maybe he’s in prison whatever. But he knows, he has faith through long experience that if he just hangs on long enough, there’ll be a little bit of fate that will turn things his way that he can actually use to his advantage. “
Read the whole interview after the jump.
TERRY ROSSIO: …because you know you have a core base of fans and I’m just really interested in what they have to say, what their hopes are and what they are looking forward to seeing uh as far as they do know the story.
INTERVIEWER: Does that ever influence, influence the direction that you and (word?) that you might take and if you ever think, oh that’s a great idea, I think we should.
TERRY ROSSIO: All through the four movies now, the trilogy really a fan based effort. Like we wrote it for our fans, I mean we wrote it the style that we thought that fans would enjoy. They wanted a really immersive story, they want a complex story, they want more character stuff. They want their most beloved characters to all have important moments, and that’s what led us to in the trilogy doing the um sort of tapestry, interwoven, um multiple redundant stories because the fans were just, you know really eating it up and really enjoying it.
INTERVIEWER: Everyone that we’ve spoken to has been talking about how great the script is. Every one is really excited… How long did it take you guys to write this one compared to writing the first story?
TERRY ROSSIO: You know um there are more similarities than difference. In every scenario there’s been a time pressure. The first script was written in three months, and then went into filming just a couple months after that. It’s the nature of how these come together that there’s a game of chicken that goes on in terms of pulling the trigger as to making the film. I suppose we had a little bit more this time than we did in the course of doing the two sequels because of how those were filmed at the same time. This one took about a year to write. Yeah like I said, it’s a game of chicken. I guess you have a tentative release date, but what’s more important is the date of the start of the principal photography and then working backwards from that to when you have to have your script done for preproduction sort of things. It is a game of chicken, you know, what’s the budget, who’s in it, what actress, who’s the director. What does the script look like, what are the ideas of the script, what might you change in terms of budget etc. Do we have the green light, well maybe, let’s go back and look at the script and the director and the actors, and the locations. And what if we film here, what if we film there. Finally at the last second, we’ll finally, when they get really up against their release date deadline, they’ll say, okay here is your start date… It’s funny yeah because they never actually give you the green light, it’s just, at some point, you just figure, wow, I guess we built stages and there’s sets being built, and I guess it’s a good thing (interviewer laughs) . You think that there’s some big clear moment, a bell rings or something, but you walk out of the elevator, you’re walking down the hallway, and, the executive says something like, okay you’re approved to go on a location scout. And then you go, I guess we’re making it. (interviewer laughs) You know it’s real, it’s real subtle, it can be real subtle when it actually happens.
INTERVIEWER: Can you talk about how you built the script?
TERRY ROSSIO: Yeah well, we are very lucky in that we have an iconography, if that’s the right word, of what may take place within the story world that we’re constructed. We’re in the world of ghosts stories, and stories of the sea, and elements that are associated with pirates. Um sort of gothic elements, historical elements, romantic elements, etc. And within that world, there are certain things that we get excited about defining what they are. Like for example the flying Dutchman, Davey Jones, those sorts of things are in the public consciousness but maybe not quiet clearly defined. So as we go through the different ideas, when you have an opportunity to then actually do another Pirate of the Caribbean film, you can’t help but say, well let’s see mermaids. We’ve mentioned them but we haven’t really explored them. Uh the fountain of youth, that’s something people know about but what is it really. Um Black Beard, Queen Anne’s Revenge is his ship, those are elements that sort of scream out because they’re, they’re iconic. Somewhat well known, but yet undefined. So then we start by building out from those omens. Like, Execution Dog in London is a famous place, um uh zombies, you know and, and, the whole uh voodoo religion of the, of the Caribbean, that’s an interesting thing. So those go up on the board, and then you start to actually say, well, from the point of view of Jack Sparrow, what haven’t we put him through yet, what haven’t we explored, what hasn’t he done emotionally. And then even stylistically in terms of the film… because we have such a mix of the horror elements or the ghost elements, the supernatural elements, the romantic elements, etc.
INTERVIEWER: When you’re working on number four, do you get ideas of where you think to yourself, well we can’t wedge it out in there, but I’m going to tuck that in my back pocket for number five. Or number six.
TERRY ROSSIO: Up in the office, there’s a whole board of ideas. There’s a sea serpent over here, there’s a giant spider over there, you know like, there’s New Orleans up there. And if they don’t turn into this one, then they go on the boards, just in case.
INTERVIEWER: Do you get moments where you go, well we can’t do X because it just doesn’t fit?
TERRY ROSSIO: Yeah it just turns out that our world is so broad. I think we’re somewhat unique in that we have romance, comedy horror action, but we also have such a range of performers. I think we’re unique among some of our movies in terms of exploring some very interesting characters who will go off on some really sort of odd tangents. We get away with a lot because there’s not a lot that falls outside of our parameters, really. I suppose there are, but I can’t think of any right now. No time travel. (interviewer laughs)
INTERVIEWER: On the subject of time, one of the things that suddenly have, it seems through what we’ve seen on the last day or so, that there are a lot more realistic elements being brought in from the real world into this one. Is there just like shifting time between this and the previous films?
TERRY ROSSIO: Yeah I would say so, one thing that is consistent is the need for reinvention. Certainly I know that Gore felt that way. The second film he didn’t want to to have to be like the first, and the third shouldn’t be like the second. And then we all can’t help but come into the fourth and say that, well you want to certainly continue what’s worked before, but you can’t help but say, wait a second, in this epicenter, so to speak. In this installment, what are some things that we haven’t done, bringing in some reading on more actual historical references. We’ve done it before, but maybe not quite so much. So you turn up the dial on that a little bit. In this case, there’s elements to support the story and what it’s telling. There’s something that happened before that happened more in this screenplay than in others and that was Johnny Depp’s involvement. We had more early meetings with Johnny in terms of talking about what he was interested in doing, and then when we presented story elements, or presented plot elements. He was really involved. He was surprisingly, I think, surprising is not the right word, he was more involved, or significantly involved in coming up with story lines, connecting characters, creating moments that we would then fashion, shape and then go back, and pitch that again. So that was different, in terms of usual process. Also Rob Marshall steps in, the screenplay goes through a whole other iterations, then when the actors come in, we have individual… We have a talk with actors, and then we do a whole other set of revisions as well. So it’s, it’s tough to characterize it certainly.
INTERVIEWER: Is it stressful, I mean how do you guys work together, is it just, does it just look like work, or is there a certain level of stress. There’s a partnership and then obviously what you’re saying is, there’s a lot of there people that you have to then incorporate, like it sounds like you need to be very flexible or is it every like…
TERRY ROSSIO: Hollywood screen writers are a frustrated, usually bitter, group of people because we often get held to a position of responsibility amongst you folk (interviewer laughs) that we don’t in fact have. There are so many techniques, we have to really determine what the parameters, and do the best work you can within those parameters. You have to choose your battles and argue for the positions that you really believe in. You have to be willing to lose, there’s a few words in order to win the overall battle. Sometimes you have to just beg and say, look this will work this way, if you’d just try it. Even when it comes to like right now shooting over on the stage. There’s discussion about, should a certain line by in or out. And if it’s in and you love it and you want to hear it, and you win that argument and they film it, you feel good. If the decision is made, it doesn’t work, we don’t have time, we have to do it a different way, then you feel like maybe, you lost a battle. Um but yeah that, here’s the thing though. I personally would be frightened if it was only my opinion that was putting these things together. I wouldn’t want that, you don’t get anywhere unless you make use of the collective talent that’s assembled around you, and then you have to be open to it, even when it conflicts with your own point of view. Because I have been proven wrong so many times when I thought it was perfect, leave it alone, somebody says no. They go a different direction and it got better. So after a while you learn to fight, but you also learn to kind of concede.
INTERVIEWER: I’m really interested in your assessment now of the first three stories, and then with this script. It gave you a chance to readdress things that you felt hadn’t gone the way you wanted or just a chance to reboot, or you know just take things in, maybe not difference or similarities?
TERRY ROSSIO: Well yeah the first three stories were designed to be a trilogy, so as a trilogy, we had an ensemble cast of characters, and some might say an ever growing ensemble of characters. And so we found ourselves weaving this complex tapestry to service this, I think pretty, pretty kind of vast trilogy. The fans loved it, I think some of the critics felt like they didn’t want to have to necessarily invest so much into um the complexity that we were going for. Um certainly with this story, since we’re no longer necessarily creating that big of a tale. I think of it as kind of a James Bond sort of thing. Like James Bond, you can do the single story. It’s complete in and of itself, and that opens you up to things like you know unity and that are perhaps more clean and clear. It is a very very different sort of thing to just set out and say, okay we’ve just got one story here with a particular set of characters. As opposed to the world creating uh, uh primary and secondary and thirdenary (interviewer laughs) characters that we were sustaining when we were putting that trilogy together.
INTERVIEWER: There’s a whole show business legend about how happy days were supposed to be about the Cunningham’s. People loved Fonzi so much, you had to wedge him into every scene. And you know Han Solo steals Star Wars films. Were you prepared to how the zeitgeist is going to respond to Captain jack Sparrow and did you rewrite the character to fit the later films to take advantage of how much people really found him to be a stand out of the ensemble?
TERRY ROSSIO: To the first part of your question, yes, when we were making the first pirate film, we thought we were making the last pirate film for the next 50 years because those, that’s what happened to pirate films.
INTERVIEWER: Cut Throat Island.
TERRY ROSSIO: Yeah Cut Throat Island. You know what would happen if we wrote Pulaski’s Pirates. Some group of people just lucky enough to make a pirate movie, somebody is crazy enough to put money behind it, and it doesn’t happen again for another several decades. So we were going into it with all the strikes against us. It was based on a ride which hadn’t worked. It was a pirate film which hadn’t worked. You know Disney features at that point had never had a $200 million grossing film, prior to Pirates. So even being a Disney movie was a little bit of a strike against it, certainly in the live action field. Even the Jerry Bruckheimer brand at that point was not really for family movies by any means. It was very much not expected. You know we were trying for that target, we were trying to make Raiders of the Lost Ark meets the Three Musketeer movies. That was our goal and we all thought, okay good goals. But you know what are the odds. And certainly with the Jack Sparrow character. Who knew that it would, you know we’d worked on Shrek for example, and it’s exciting to say, well there’s Ogre but what do you think of when you think of Ogre. Well now you kind of think of Shrek when you hear the word Ogre. Now we have a good Pirate and we used to think, mostly I’d think Long John Silver, but now I think Captain Sparrow is definitely up there. That was definitely a surprise. Now having said that, for the trilogy, the answer to the second part of your questions is, no. The trilogy starts as a protagonist as did the first movie, Kira Knightley as Elizabeth was the protagonist through all three films. She and the Will Turner character, those are our leads so to speak. The Jack Sparrow character is the Han Solo character to some degree. And I think of the quote that Neil Gaiman had when he was working on writing the Sandman, the graphic novel… he said everybody always wants more death, everybody loves death, death is a wonderful character, but death works because she floats in and out of the story and of course, later on he did a, a book featuring that, but still, the way that character is intrinsically designed, is to exist in a world that supports that character interacting… So as popular as Jack became, we were very very concerned to make sure that he still functioned the way that, that he could function, and not necessarily be the driving narrative force of the story.
INTERVIEWER: People always talk about Keith Richard as being the template. But is jack Sparrow a little bit of a Dean Martin character too, that kind of drunken charm?
TERRY ROSSIO: It’s a little bit of everything. I can’t say no to that, to me, in terms of the design of the character, the key to Jack Sparrow is that he’s the trickster, so he is an archetypal character. That type of character doesn’t show up in American cinema that much. You go to Bugs Bunny to get the classic kind of tricksters. And the key to the trickster character, is that that character is environmentally based. Jack Sparrow is not that good at not getting caught for example, (interviewer laughs) you can catch him. He’s caught all the time, the thing is is that you can’t hang on to him because what he does is, he starts tap dancing, and he starts blowing smoke and he starts talking circles around you. And what he’s doing it, is he’s looking for the opportunity because the ultimate thing about Jack Sparrow is he has faith and conviction in himself that the world is going to turn his way eventually. Maybe not now, maybe now he’s down and out, maybe his ship is sinking, maybe he’s drunk, maybe he’s in prison whatever. But he knows, he has faith through long experience that if he just hangs on long enough, there’ll be a little bit of fate that will turn things his way that he can actually use to his advantage. And then move on with his life. And that’s what he does.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned the James bond connection where this like sort of a one off film, but obviously to Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer, Pirates is a very valuable franchise to the studio. Are you planting any seeds or sort of thinking as you did this one, about possible future stuff with or without Jack?
TERRY ROSSIO: It’s a really interesting question, I hope you don’t mind somewhat of a complex answer. The first part of it is that the audience is going to decide whether we do another one. And we won’t know that till this one comes out. Ultimately, it’s audiences who will vote and decide, the studio may or may not want another one. We’ll find out. Right now, they probably do, but we’ll find out based on this, on this movie. In terms of prepping for that moment, I’ll go with the quote by J.R. Tolkien in designing the Lord of the Rings universe, the Middle Earth world had this idea of distant mountains, and in the backdrop of the story he was telling, he would always invent these distant mountains. And of course the readers would write in and say, oh that scene’s cool, you know tell us more about _____ or _____, you know, these embellishments that were backdrops to his world. And he said well I can’t do that, if I go there to tell you about those stories, then I have to invent more distant mountains to distant mountains because those serve to make the world that we’re in realistic because there’s always stuff about our world that we don’t quite know about. But if those elements are there, then the story works that you’re telling. So what we did, is we make sure to have those distant mountain bits in there. And it could be a prop, it could be a reference, it could be a character. It could be a description of a place, it could be just a throw away line. Now sometimes we know where that might lead, sometimes we don’t. But if it gets to another movie, we’re going to be very glad that we had some loose threads and sort of random references that might hint at something to come. Or we might not.
INTERVIEWER: The first film had a lot of influences from the ride, and I’ve talked to a couple people and they say that this film has some throwbacks… In the writing process, did you try to incorporate anything from the ride?
TERRY ROSSIO: Absolutely, yeah in fact the way that works, which has worked on all the movies, it’s funny because we, we don’t really learn our lesson. We write our story, we’re working on our story, we’re immersed in the story, and we get stuck and we start to think, okay now what do you do when you’re stuck. Well you do research. (interviewer laughs) Or you go for a walk, you work through it. And then all of a sudden we think, wait a second, we have another resource here. And I can’t tell you how often what we have done is, when we’re stuck, go back to the ride, look at it, see what’s available there, see what it might inspire and then we come, we come up with a story solution. And that happened on this film as well.