'Pirates 5' Directors On The Tough Production, Their Winning Pitch, And More [Interview]

I'll be straight with you: I'm not a big fan of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. The first Pirates film had the benefit of extremely low expectations back in 2003, and I don't think the film series has ever been able to truly recapture the magic of the lightning in a bottle they managed to snag the first time around. Pirates 5 was notorious for its difficult production: delays, rewrites, budget woes, and an injury to star Johnny Depp that caused the production to shut down for two weeks.

So when I attended the press junket and found that co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) were giving interviews separately instead of being paired together, I knew I had to ask them a tough, uncomfortable question about whether or not this movie had a negative impact on their working relationship. To their credit, they didn't throw me out of the room – and it sounds like while the shoot was indeed difficult, they ultimately had a good experience making it. Read our Pirates 5 interview with the filmmakers below.

I'll start with an easy one. Not counting anyone from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, who is your favorite cinematic pirate and why?

Joachim Rønning: I remember the first movie I saw when I was a very young kid was Swiss Family Robinson. I think I saw it like a hundred times because I had it on VHS and we got the VCR in 1979 because my dad had a record store and he was selling these films in the store. I remember it really captivated me. I can't remember the names of the bad guys in that film now, of course, but I think that was my first love, so to speak, for the kind of adventure that Pirates of the Caribbean reminds me of.

Espen Sandberg: Captain Hook. He's funny and scary!

Jerry Bruckheimer is one of the biggest producers in Hollywood history. I'm curious about his level of involvement on this film. What was your relationship like with him?

JR: He's very involved. Involved in absolutely everything. He's a great collaborator. Very director friendly. Going on this journey with him, I'm a big fan of his and his movies. They rocked my world! I feel very honored that he wanted us to do this and he believed in us, and he never stopped believing in us through the whole process. He's also a guy with great intuition in regards to what the audience wants and needs. He's great at that. So it's very important to listen to him, because he's usually right.

ES: He's 100% involved. Very hands-on from the very beginning to the very end. He's incredibly knowledgable and it's been a great collaboration. He's very filmmaker friendly. He just makes your job easier. He's the expert at bringing the best possible team together both behind the camera and in front of the camera, and he's always right. You always have to pay attention to whatever he says because he has this intuition that's unique.

How much influence did he have over the look of the movie? Because a lot of his films have a very distinct "Bruckheimer" look.

JR: He was instrumental in picking the [director of photography], Paul Cameron. We use a lot of his people, so to speak, and of course Stefan Sonnenfeld, the brilliant colorist at Company 3 that has done all of the Pirates movies and the majority of Bruckheimer's movies. He does the Michael Bay movies, Transformers – he's an amazing colorist, and that gives it a certain look, and a look that I love and wanted.

ES: He's very interested in that. That's really a dialogue with us. I don't know if it's because he has a background in advertising or where he comes from, but he's very into the choice of DP and the lighting style and all that. So that's really cool, we love that. It means that we have to be really conscientious about what we're doing and how to make the movie better.

This is the fifth entry in a huge franchise. Were there any orders given from on high about needing to recreate the style that Gore Verbinski established in the first three movies?

JR: That pressure I put on myself. Especially the first movie. I think they're great. I think he's an amazing director and visionary and he created this and I wanted to honor that. Not only in the look of it and the feel, but that mix of big adventure, great fun, comedy, thrills, it scares you, and at the same time it has a lot of heart. That's exactly what I wanted from this one. That mix is very unique to this franchise, and difficult to do.

ES: I think we were all conscious about the first movie really having done something right. It just had the right balance, I guess. I think we all wanted to make sure this movie was really, really funny like the first one, and also that it had a strong emotional core and a lot of heart. I think that's what they liked about our pitch also, was we really wanted to make sure every character had an interesting journey that appealed to people on an emotional level. Even Jack Sparrow, who doesn't have an arc as a character.

What else was involved in your pitch? I imagine there were a lot of people trying to get this movie and you guys were able to lock it down.

ES: Another element, apart from the character arcs, was we talked a lot about the humor. We really wanted to make sure we had a lot of physical humor. By that, I mean that the action sequences were also fun, but that they were based in story and character. They weren't something that would stop the show. And we talked a lot about the bad guy, Salazar. Because the other movies have such iconic bad guys, so we knew we had to put an emphasis on that and make sure he was really intriguing, both visually and also as a character. By implementing him to Jack's backstory, which is something Joachim and I brought to the table, and making that personal, I think that was key.

There's some pretty gruesome stuff in here. Severed heads, people getting stabbed through the chest...

JR: You know those heads are Espen and I? We did a cast, we did everything.

Oh, really? Very cool. Was that a tough process?

JR: Yeah, it's very claustrophobic. You sit in a chair and they put straws up your nostrils, and they have silicon layers and at the very end they put the cast that stiffens. That chemical process heats – it actually warms your head and you're completely dependent on breathing because it's going to take a couple minutes to rip this thing off. I was a little claustrophobic.

So with stuff like that in the film, was there any sort of pushback from Disney about any of the content?

JR: I would say no. There were also some restraints we put on ourselves. We didn't want to go too far ourselves, either. We were nervous about a couple of things that they maybe wouldn't like that we really believed in, but they kept it in there. It's very much our director's cut what you're seeing.

ES: No. This is a Disney film and we have kids, so we know that there's a limit. But at the same time, we want to push the envelope. This movie is fantastical, which means that you know it's a movie, so you can go a little bit further without being too grotesque. The thing is that kids also love scary things, because if you do it in the right way, it's funny at the same time. I think we have that balance. I think Javier [Bardem] has that balance in his performance. He's really scary, but he's also funny. He's also emotionally interesting, and he has a pain there, where you feel you understand the guy.

Pirates 5 Reviews

I know you guys have used CG in your films before, but this is on a whole different level. What is the learning curve like for working with CG effects on a film of this scale?

JR: Well, we've done commercials for twenty years, big commercials all over the world, so we've had experience with it. Also, Kon-Tiki, our previous film, had over 500 effects shots in it. So we've been through it. But of course, this movie has over 2,000 effects shots in it, and it's just a very lengthy process. The principle kind of stays the same, I must say. If anything, it's more fun because you have these resources that are enormous and the best of the best. I don't think they ever say no...you just keep working on it.

ES: We've worked a lot with CG, so I'd say we're pretty used to it. It's just that in this movie, it's just ten times as much, or more. It's just the scale of it. What we used a lot in this movie that we [previously] couldn't really afford – we've used it before, but not to this extent – is pre-viz. That's just a perfect tool, because a lot of these action sequences are so tricky. They involve so many different people and so many different technical departments, actors, countries, and weird machines to work, that you need a tool like that just to make everybody understand what the heck we're doing and bring everybody to the same page.

This is obviously the biggest film you have ever made. I have to imagine there were a ton of moving parts and a lot of different voices to answer to on a film this size. Amid all of that, were you able to feel artistically and creatively fulfilled making this movie?

JR: Absolutely. It's what we always dreamed about. It's a dream come true. To sit here and talk to you and be here in its opening week, and we've been to some screenings and hearing the reactions, people laughing in the right places...yeah, it's a great feeling.

ES: Yeah. Disney and Jerry encouraged that, and the actors demand that, so yeah, it's great fun. Every movie you make has rules, whether it's Kon-Tiki or Max Manus or any other movie. You have to make rules, because if not, the movie is just going to [fall apart]. For Pirates, of course, there are many rules because this is number five and there's a universe. You can be creative within those rules. But there's a lot there to be creative with.

I remember enjoying Bandidas when I saw it back in 2006. Do you have fond memories of that film? Any fun behind-the-scenes stories you remember?

JR: Really? I think it was the best film school I could have ever had. The most expensive film school [Laughs], and it was great to work with that level of actors. And also the producers – Luc Besson was amazing. Talking about steep learning curves, we were hitting the ground running on that one. The thing I learned most about that process is probably "know your audience" a little bit. I wanted it to be a Sergio Leone western, and I feel it should have been a broader comedy looking back at it.

ES: That's a long time ago! That was a treat. We had great fun. It was, of course, our first film, so it was really scary in that way. But [stars] Penelope [Cruz] and Salma [Hayak] are such great people, so they made it a great experience for us. It was really cool being in Mexico.

I've heard all of these crazy rumors about how this was a very difficult movie to make, so I'm wondering A) if you felt this was a tough movie to make, and B) if you felt like this experience had a negative impact on your working relationship with your co-director?

JR: No. These kind of movies are very complex. I think it's part of the appeal, actually. We have to go to these remote locations – tropical, exposed to the weather, on the ocean – and it's 100 days. And shit happens, and suddenly you're in the middle of that. But also, we do have the best crew and production in the world, and you're prepared for most of that when it happens. I think for Espen and I it was a great experience, and something I would do again for sure. It was an amazing journey.

ES: It's definitely a tough movie to make. Also, it takes a very long time. It's just so big. I think that's the tough part of it – it takes a pretty big chunk of your life. [Laughs] But then again, it's also worth it because it is a movie that so many people are going to see for so many years to come, so I'm really proud of it and it's been really fun and totally worth it. I think Joachim and I both had a great time and we're very proud of the result.


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is in theaters now.