'MOST OF THE FILMS I'VE BEEN INVOLVED WITH HAVE BEEN OUTSIDE THE HOLLYWOOD STRUCTURE. I HAVEN'T DONE MANY WITH LOTS OF ACTION AND EXPLOSIONS AND PEOPLE IN JEOPARDY. USUALLY I JUST MAKE FILMS THAT I THINK ARE RIGHT FOR ME AND THAT I HOPE THE AUDIENCE WILL FIND INTERESTING.'
SWASH BUCK HERO
Vanessa Paradis loved spending Oscar night with Johnny Depp. At long last, the man she says she wants to spend the rest of her life with was finally achieving the kind of achievement that all Hollywood was applauding. If he hadn't played the role that had won him such acclaim, if he wasn't attending as a nominee, then perhaps there was no way that he and Vanessa would have come out for the big night in February 2004, the earliest in the year that the Academy Award rituals had ever been staged.
Nor would he and Vanessa have been hobnobbing with Johnny's celebrity peers. They would have probably preferred to stay home. As Johnny is quick to point out, 'I'm happy to say that I know nothing at all about who's in or out, or anything about the Hollywood scene. I don't watch contemporary films and I don't read trade magazines, I just don't know who's doing what, or who's a failure and who's a success.'
All the same, he was completely shocked 'that a movie which I was part of made a whole lot of money, and that thousands of kids went to see it. When a little kid approaches me on the street and screams "Hey, you're that Captain Jack Sparrow!" then I am always deeply touched.'
'That Captain Jack Sparrow,' as the kids called him, was the lead character in Jerry Bruckheimer's surprise summer hit of 2003, Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl. A film that was based on one of the top attractions in Disneyworld's Magic Kingdom.
Even though Roger Ebert, writing his review in the Chicago Sun -Times, couldn't quite understand the point of it, and called it 'a movie that charms the audience and then outstays it welcome.' With a $305 million gross in America and another £27 million in Britain, where it ran second only to The Matrix Re-Loaded as the biggest box office hit of the year, one could hardly say that it had outstayed its welcome.
Perhaps another point that Ebert had overlooked was the fact that, hit or not, the film was both stellar in its storytelling and in its cast. It is essentially the story of the roguish, yet charming, Captain Jack Sparrow, for whom the crystalline waters of the Caribbean, and high seas the world over, present a vast playground where adventure and mystery abound. But Jack's idyllic pirate life capsize after his nemesis, the wily Captain Barbossa, steals his ship, the Black Pearl, and later attacks the town of Port Royal, kidnapping the Governor's beautiful daughter, Elizabeth Swann.
Elizabeth's childhood friend, Will Turner joins forces with Jack to commandeer the fastest ship in the British fleet, the HMS Interceptor, in a gallant attempt to rescue her and recapture the Black Pearl. The duo and their ragtag crew are pursued by Elizabeth's betrothed, the debonair and ambitious Commodore Norrington aboard the HMS Dauntless.
Unbeknownst to Will, a cursed treasure has doomed Barbossa and his crew to live forever as the undead, with only the moonlight eerily transforming them into living skeletons. The curse they carry can only be broken if the plundered treasure is restored in total, and a blood debt repaid.
Against all odds, the Interceptor and Dauntless race toward a thrilling confrontation with Barbossa's pirates on the mysterious Isla de Muerta. At stake is Jack Sparrow's revenge, the Black Pearl, a fortune in forbidden treasure, the lifting of the pirates' curse that has doomed Barbossa and his crew to live forever as skeletons, the fate of the British navy, and the lives of our valiant heroes as they clash their swords in fierce combat against the dreaded Pirates of the Caribbean.
Perhaps that's why Roger Ebert considered it pointless, because, as he put it, although 'the characters keep us interested during entirely pointless swordfights,' he points out that the pirates 'are already dead, they cannot be killed, so doesn't that mean there's no point in fighting them?' But surely this misses the whole point of pirate movies – fighting. Although he may not agree with that summation, he does concede that Johnny's performance was pretty much faultless. 'He seems to be channelling a drunken drag queen, with his eyeliner and the way he minces ashore and slurs his dialogue ever so insouciantly. It can be said that his performance is original in its every atom. There has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie. There's some talk about how he got too much sun while he was stranded on that island, but his behaviour shows a lifetime of rehearsal. He is a peacock in full display.' Even when he arrives on shore in a dilapidated boat, he's told, 'You are without a doubt the worst pirate I have ever heard of.' Yes, he replies, 'but you have heard of me.'
Consider how boring it would have been, Ebert continues, 'if Depp had played the role straight, as an Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks Snr or Jnr might have. To take this material seriously would make it unbearable. Captain Sparrow's behaviour is so rococo that other members of the cast actually comment on it. And yet because it is consistent and because you never catch Depp making fun of the character, it rises to a kind of cockamamie sincerity.' But wasn't that why Johnny was up for an Oscar? Simply because his portrayal was so damn good.
It was probably something director Gore Verbinski had thought about, long before he went after Johnny for the role. 'He's an artist who is known to take on quirky projects. He's a brilliant actor. He's not out to create a fan base for himself, or to simply select work based on salary. It's clear he needs to find a role that gives back to him artistically. I think he also wanted to do something specifically for his kids.'
But, almost ironically, Johnny's character isn't the kind of guy you would want your kids to emulate. Jack Sparrow, says Verbinski, 'is basically a con man. He's a great pirate, he's lazy and he is not going to fight if he doesn't have to. He's always going to take a shortcut. And the big thing for him the myth that he is part of. He's his own biggest agent, and he markets himself very well.'
Verbinksi wasn't the only one to think this. Jerry Bruckheimer was determined that when Johnny created his character, he would have as much free reign as possible. Bruckheimer describes how Johnny took full advantage of his freedom: 'He had a definite vision for Jack Sparrow, which is completely unique. We just let him go and he came up with this off-centre, yet very shrewd pirate. He can't quite hold his balance, his speech is a bit slurred, so you assume he's either drunk, seasick or he's been on a ship too long. But it's all an act perpetrated for effect. As strange as it seems, it's also part of Captain Jack's charm.'
For Johnny, it wasn't only the chance to create something from scratch, but the chance to take on a kind of role that, perhaps, no one would have previously considered him for, 'It was a great opportunity to invent this pirate from the ground up, to create a different kind of pirate than you have seen before.' He also appreciated the mischievous nature and never -say-die attitude of his character, 'In Jack, I saw a guy who was able to run between the raindrops. He can walk across the DMZ, entertain a troop and then sashay back to the other side and tell the enemy another story. He tries to stay on everyone's good side because he's wise enough to know he might need them in the future.'
And no matter how bad things got for Captain Jack, continues Johnny, 'there was always this sort of bizarre optimism about him. I also thought there was something beautiful and poignant about the idea of his objective. All he wants is to get his ship back, which represents nothing more than pure freedom to him. Of course, he'll thieve and do whatever it takes, especially when the opportunity arises, but his main focus is just to get the Black Pearl back at whatever cost.'
Yes, echoes Verbinksi, 'but again it's about the simplicity of the character; his great love and his great freedom are his ship. He's not a villain and he's not the love interest, although he does think he's got a chance with Elizabeth. In the end, Jack Sparrow is a bit of an oddball.' From Verbinski's point of view, Johnny's characterisation is not too unlike Lee Marvin's drunken gunfighter, Kid Shellen, in Cat Ballou, Elliott Silverstein's equally hilarious 1965 take on the wild west. As Marvin did, Johnny as Sparrow, 'really just floats through the story affecting all around him while pursuing his goal.'
According to Johnny, his inspiration for Jack Sparrow didn't come from Marvin, but largely from Rolling Stones guitarist, Keith Richards. If pirates were, as he put it, 'the rock and roll stars of the eighteenth century', then who, he wondered, was the coolest in the history of rock and roll today? 'To me it's Keith Richards, hands down. Over the years, I've been lucky enough to get to know him, so I tried not an imitation, but I drew on my memories of Keith – a certain grace, an elegance and a wit that I thought would be useful.' Not that this came across in the script. Nor did Johnny's character description mention anything about the bits of cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, and modern -day Rastafarian characteristics that he also tossed in. 'Jack's got little trinkets hanging in his hair, so that was another inspiration,' Johnny explains. 'I liked the idea that each one of these little pieces is a very vivid and extremely important memory for Jack.'
Another inspired touch was the silver and gold caps he put on his front teeth, in three different carats, to make each one reflect light differently. Although the makeup people found they needed to do very little to keep him as the rugged pretty boy, apart from darken his eyes, glue braids into his own goatee and have a wig made, the studio weren't so happy about the caps, and in the end, Johnny did concede to have them moved to his side teeth.
There were, of course, critical questions voiced about why Johnny had agreed to star in a Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster, particularly one based on a Disneyland ride, especially in view of Johnny's defiantly subversive career choices up until then. Even if Bruckheimer himself didn't share those doubts, he did openly admit that he wasn't thrilled with the first screenplay draft that crossed his desk. In fact, it was only when Shrek writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio pitched him the idea of a movie with cursed pirates and skeletons in the moonlight that he got excited. The supernatural in a pirate movie wasn't something that anyone else had done before.
Armed with a new script, Bruckheimer flew out to France to try something few have ever done: to get Johnny Deep involved in a potential franchise action movie. A fool's errand, some may have said, but the way Bruckheimer saw it was that, 'Johnny's got kids now, and your point of view changes when you have kids.' His children, Johnny agreed, 'would definitely be one of the reasons. I wanted to make a more accessible movie. I mean, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, they may want to wait fifteen or twenty years to watch that one.'
Of course, once Johnny was firmly committed to the movie, there was an immediate rush of both young and established actors anxious to try out for the other parts that were up for grabs. Geoffrey Rush literally jumped at the chance to play Captain Barbossa, Jack Sparrow's cursed nemesis and the thief of his ship, the Black Pearl. An Australian whose past credits include such disparate films as Shakespeare In Love, Quills and Ned Kelly, he proved to be the perfect choice for Barbossa.
It is uncertain whether Johnny screen-tested alongside Rush or not but, once filming began, the pair hit it off immediately. They shared a mutual admiration for each other and were excited to be working side by side. A similar sense of excitement prevailed as the remainder of the cast was assembled. Orlando Bloom, best known for his role as Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was recruited to play the romantic lead, blacksmith Will Turner; Keira Knightley, the much talked-about star of Bend It Like Beckham, and the forthcoming King Arthur, was cast as Elizabeth Swann, Will's abducted true love; film and stage veteran Jonathan Pryce would be playing her father, Governor Weatherby Swann; and Jack Davenport, from This Life, the British hit television series, accepted the role of Commodore Norrington, the newly appointed commander of the British Naval Fleet in Port Royal, to whom Elizabeth's father hopes his unconventional, bold and sometimes downright audacious daughter will marry.
The attention to detail given to the casting was carried over to the filming itself. Under the watchful eye of production designer Brian Morris, one example of the film's extravagance was the pirate cave where Barbossa stashes the many riches that have been plundered by his crew. It was the centrepiece of the many sets constructed at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank – the largest stage on the Disney lot. It was recently enlarged, and was the prefect location to build a lavishly adorned cavern, complete with winding waterways, a moat, little grottos and treacherous rocky terrain. Interestingly enough, it took 100 craftsmen five months to build the cave set, which was filled with 300,000 gallons of water, and then set dressed over a period of three weeks.
Every object on the set was researched and selected for its authenticity, recalls set decorator Larry Dias. 'It was a big job just trying to stay true to the period and to the style of the movie. We had to make the sets look authentic because the film has a dramatic flair, but it's also comedic, so we tried to set a mood so that the atmosphere would be realistic yet theatrical at the same time.'
No less daunting was the task of the ships. Trouble was that there are very few ships in existence that could pass for a vessel dating back to the eighteenth century. The studio and the producers initially assumed they would have to build every ship featured in the story, never imagining they would stumble across a virtual treasure trove of information and contacts, who knew where to find viable stand-ins. They found such a character when they hired Marine co-ordinator, Matt O'Connor. A boating enthusiast and marine specialist who had been working in the film industry for over fifteen years, he contacted an associate in Seattle and persuaded him to convince his board of directors to allow the production company to use their prized tall ship, along with a fully staffed crew, for an unprecedented amount of time, in a location halfway around the world, but substantial structural modifications to the vessel were necessary.
The offer was too exciting to pass up, and the owners of the ship embraced the challenge, undeterred by the obstacles presented in such an undertaking. So, the Lady Washington was modified and became a valued member of the cast, 'starring' as the Interceptor.
No pirate movie is complete without action sequences, and Pirates of the Caribbean was no exception. The incredible sword fights took four hours each day to get right, as the cast practised moves that had been choreographed by the eighty-year-old legendary film swordsman and one-time Errol Flynn double, Bob Anderson. Another unforgettable part for Johnny and Keira Knightley, is the 'walk the plank' scene, as they call it. They spent almost three shooting days standing at the end of a long two by four plank that protruded from the side of the Black Pearl's deck, fifteen feet over the rolling ocean waves. No stunt person, no body double, no look-alike or dead ringer needed to apply – it was Johnny and Keira balanced at the end of that plank.