Claudia Leisinger

July 2003

How Johnny Depp, Jerry Bruckheimer and a motley crew plundered a Disney ride to make off with the summer’s surprise hit, Pirates of the Caribbean. Story: Leigh Singer

It’s January 2003 and in the crystalline blue sea off the Caribbean island of St.Vincent, a huge 18th century ship looks like it’s about to ram the very 21st century-looking film crew on the barge opposite. Through the camera lens only two people are visible aboard the looming two-masted clipper, neither of them – actors Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom – able seamen. The real sailors crouch out of shot at the instruction of director Gore Verbinski, leaving an incredulous Depp to take the wheel.

‘The cameras were rolling and next thing I know, the captain kind of disappears. It was just me by the ship’s wheel, so I had to grab it,’ Depp later recounts. ‘On the second take, Gore shouts “Johnny come closer, bring the boat closer.” And I thought, “Oh man, I just steered a massive ship for the first time at what felt like breakneck speed! Come closer?” But we survived.’

‘I looked over my shoulder and there’s Johnny at the wheel with the hat and the gold teeth,’ adds a bemused Bloom, ‘and there’s me just yanking on a rope going “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”’

Six months later in the somewhat more stable surroundings of a luxury L.A. hotel, the Pirates of the Caribbean principals are in high spirits, regaling the world’s media with such tales. Advance buzz is, well, buzzing. The confidence is palpable. Keira Knightley breezes around as perhaps only an-eighteen-year-old-superstar-in-waiting can; Bloom, despite having jetted in direct from the Maltese set of Troy, looks livelier than most of the journos; and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, despite claims of nerves (see boxout), is beaming his thin, wolfish smile to all and sundry.

Johnny Depp? To all appearances, he appears placid, almost shy, sitting quietly under a knitted tea cosy hat and thick black-rimmed ‘nerd’ spectacles. Mid-interview he starts rolling up a cigarette (almost a federal offence in L.A.) reminding you that his renowned iconoclasm hardly ties in with publicising, let alone appearing in, a summer blockbuster. It’s quickly clear, however, that Depp, too, had a blast. ‘Isn’t it every boy’s dream to be a pirate and get away with basically anything?’ he enthuses. ‘There were moments [on set] when we’d look over at one another and say “man, can you actually believe we get to do this?”’

Fans of Depp’s hitherto defiantly subversive career choices may balk that ‘this’ means cavorting about in a Jerry Bruckheimer summer extravaganza, particularly one based on a Disneyland ride. ‘Pirates’ has long been one of the Magic Kingdom’s top attractions – ‘ingrained in our collective psyche’ according to director Gore Verbinski – but, let’s face it, surely there are more promising concepts. True, your Errol Flynns (Captain Blood) and Burt Lancasters (The Crimson Pirate) are part of Hollywood’s essence, but times change and every single recent example of swash - Pirates, Hook, Cutthroat Island, Treasure Planet - buckled under public indifference.

Bruckheimer himself admits he wasn’t thrilled with the first screenplay draft that crossed his desk. ‘I just felt I wouldn’t go see it,’ he explains. ‘But when [Shrek writers] Ted [Elliot] and Terry [Rossio] pitched me the idea of cursed pirates, skeletons in the moonlight, I got excited. The supernatural on a pirate movie – I don’t think anyone else has ever done that.’

Armed with the new script Bruckheimer flew out to France to try something else few have ever done: to get Johnny Depp in a potential franchise action movie. A fool’s errand? ‘Johnny’s got kids now,’ Bruckheimer quickly points out, ‘and your point of view changes when you have kids.’ Depp acquiesces: ‘That 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 about fifteen, twenty years to watch that one…’

Once Depp committed to the role of infamous chancer Captain Jack Sparrow, there was an immediate knock-on effect. Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush jumped at the chance to play Captain Barbossa, Sparrow’s cursed nemesis and thief of his ship the Black Pearl. He in turn discussed the movie with Ned Kelly co-star Orlando Bloom at their wrap party and Bloom too signed up as romantic lead blacksmith Will Turner, rapidly followed by Knightley as his abducted true love. ‘When I heard that Johnny and Geoffrey were going to be in it,’ Knightley verifies, ‘I thought, “OK, these guys don’t do your average Hollywood blockbuster.” It made me feel a lot more comfortable about the whole thing.’

Assembling the very best talent around went a long way to navigating the potentially choppy waters of a tight, multi-faceted shooting schedule. 80-year old legendary swordsman Bob Anderson, Errol Flynn’s double on some of his classic swashbucklers, was brought in to add a little zing to the fight scenes, particularly an epic barn duel between Sparrow and Will. A full-scale reproduction ship sailed down from Washington to play the Interceptor, the British armada’s fastest vessel that sets out in pursuit of the Black Pearl; elaborate sets, including recreating Jamaican port Fort Charles and the pirate’s treasure trove cave, were built.

By all accounts Verbinski coped with the breathless pace exceptionally well (‘at 4.30 a.m. after a night shoot he’s got boundless energy, like a toddler,’ laughs Knightley), honouring his pledge to keep the ‘macabre sensibility’ of the tale, Industrial Light & Magic’s stylishly gruesome undead skeleton pirates ending up with Disney’s first ever PG-13 certificate movie. ‘[They] wanted a PG but we weren’t going to compromise the movie to get it,’ states Bruckheimer flatly. Little did he know, the least costly special effect of all would raise most concern up at the Mouse House: Depp himself

Playing pirate for his kids aside, Depp evidently sensed additional possibilities with the roguish character of Sparrow. ‘I was reading a lot about pirates – it had to be about more than ripping people off, pillaging, all that stuff,’ he expounds. ‘It must also have been about freedom - they all wanted to leave their mark. Those guys were basically the rock and roll stars of the 18th century, y’know?’

‘So I thought, who’s the coolest star in the history of rock and roll and 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 kind of my memories of Keith – a certain grace, an elegance and wit that I thought would be useful.’

‘It didn’t read like that on the page,’ chuckles Orlando Bloom. ‘Johnny dragged Captain Jack from the back crevices of his mind and created it like you see on the screen, which I thought was absolutely fantastic. He’s very courageous with his work. I mean, that could have fallen flat on its face.’

Which, in fact, Depp almost literally does several times, turning Cap’n Jack into a staggering, swaggering dandy Cockney seawayman, complete with gold-capped teeth, red bandanna and weird trinkets woven into his hair and beard. And eye make-up. Hardly Errol Flynn. Bearing in mind that Pirates was still down as a Disney summer family movie, is it any surprise his antics provoked such trepidation?

‘That definitely happened,’ confirms Bruckheimer. ‘I got a call from one of the younger Disney execs saying “Oh my God, what are you guys doing out there? Who is this character?”’

Depp’s answer was measured: ‘I said, “Look, these are the choices I made. You know my work. So either trust me or give me the boot.” And luckily, they didn't.’
As a compromise, he uncapped a few of the gold teeth – that, incidentally, he’s still sporting today. ‘Yeah,’ he glints back, ‘I haven’t had a chance to get ‘em off yet. I’ll do it when I go back home.’

At this point, as the other hacks nod sagely, Hotdog decides to take the Stones analogy to its logical conclusion: if Sparrow is Keef, does this make Rush’s Barbossa, a ruthless, money-grabbing backstabber, Mick Jagger? Depp pauses and looks up, fixing Hotdog with a knowing grin. ‘I don’t know if he’s Jagger or Bill Wyman…’

Naturally the very thing scaring sensitive executives inspired Depp’s fellow actors. ‘Johnny led the way and we followed,’ admits Knightley. Bloom too sees Depp’s example as engendering a fresh approach in everyone on the film and, more personally, for someone being touted as the next big sex symbol, a source of good counsel. ‘Working so closely with someone you’ve grown up admiring was just great,’ he says. ‘Offset I would ask him how he’s managed to cope with all the stuff that he’s coped with as a “Hollywood star”.’

So, Johnny Depp, career advisor? ‘I’m really no one to be giving advice, I’ve stepped in shit more than most people – and on purpose,’ Depp smiles back. ‘But because how they initially tried to present me to the public was such an uncomfortable skin to be forced to be in, I fought. And it’s still going on to some degree, even at the ripe old age of 40. So when Orlando comes to me and says “hey man, they want me to be this and do that”, essentially I told him “fuck ‘em”. Just do what you need to do for you.’

Johnny Depp, pirate, at the helm of a huge vessel, sailing it into uncharted waters. Doesn’t sound such a crazy idea after all.

'© Highbury Entertainment 2003. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'