Avast, landlubbers! It's been four years since we last set sail with Captain Jack Sparrow and his scurvy band of seadogs, and frankly, it hasn't seemed as though many people missed him. Sure, the original 'Pirates of the Caribbean' trilogy has plundered box offices worldwide to the tune of more than two billion dollars, but by the time 'At World's End' rolled into theaters in 2007, it seemed that audiences had gotten a little seasick.
Before I visited the set of 'On Stranger Tides,' I would've counted myself amongst those clamoring for dry land; it seems like an inevitable law of Hollywood mathematics: The more sequels you make, the more the quality declines. But after wandering the elaborate sets at Pinewood Studios outside London -- from sinister pirate ships and a dingy alehouse to the opulent elegance of a royal palace and pristine 18th century courtroom -- I'll admit that I'm ready to buckle my swash and take to the seven seas once more. Join us after the jump to discover what we learned on the set of 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' -- it'll shiver your timbers.
'Pirates of the Caribbean' has become Disney's live-action flagship (pardon the pun) since it first hoisted the mainsail in 2003, and the attention to detail and obvious passion of the crew was evident in every stroke of paint on the 'On Stranger Tides' set.
We were lucky enough to be given a thorough tour of the various soundstages on the Pinewood lot by Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre, as well as grabbing a few moments to talk with mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, screenwriter Terry Rossio, and the man behind Capt. Jack himself, Johnny Depp. We were also introduced to two new members of the cast, but more on them later.
When returning to a world and a character so indelibly etched into the public consciousness, one of the biggest challenges is keeping things fresh, especially coming off the back of a blockbuster trilogy. Terry Rossio (along with his writing partner Ted Eliott) has written all four 'Pirates' movies, and he admitted that "one thing that is consistent is the need for reinvention" when it comes to approaching a new installment.
"The first three stories were designed to be a trilogy," he pointed out. "We had an ensemble cast of characters and found ourselves weaving a very complex tapestry to service this very vast story. With this story, we're no longer necessarily creating that big of a tale." Critics of the sequels may breathe a sigh of relief at that, since 'Dead Man's Chest' and 'At World's End' often felt heavy with the weight of so many plotlines and interwoven character threads.
Rossio compared 'On Stranger Tides' to the self-contained tales of each James Bond movie, which may still share links with previous films but don't necessarily rely on old characters or plot devices. "You can do the single story; it's complete in and of itself, and that opens you up to things like unity and more set-ups and pay-offs that are perhaps more clean and clear," the writer explained.
But what else did we learn on the bustling back lots of Pinewood Studios? We don't want to reveal too much, but I can promise that this is 'Pirates of the Caribbean' as we've never seen it before ...
1. You Don't Know Jack
As the most beloved character from the original trilogy -- and now one of the most iconic pirates in cinematic history -- Capt. Jack Sparrow was always going to be the linchpin of the fourth movie. Depp (who was apparently far more involved in coming up with story lines and characters during the writing of 'On Stranger Tides' than the earlier films) was more concerned with making sure that they weren't simply repeating what came before.
When I talked to Depp at the press junket for 'The Tourist,' I couldn't resist asking about his experience on the fourth film, and his enthusiasm for his character was clearly evident in the way his eyes lit up and a fond smile came to his lips, as if he was talking about an old friend. "Going back to Jack Sparrow is like arriving back at somewhere that's so comfortable and that you know so well," he reminisced. "All the homework, all the preparation is done, there's only, 'what can we do this time, how can I investigate this character further?'"
When the group of visiting journalists caught him on the 'Pirates' set at Pinewood, Depp was still in Jack Sparrow's costume and, method actor that he is, kept his character's cockney accent throughout the brief interview. When asked what was new for Jack this time around, Depp joked, "Well, there was a sex change ..."
In all seriousness, Depp went on to explain that while most movie characters generally go on a voyage of discovery to "find themselves" over the course of a film's narrative, "I honestly think old Captain Jack found himself a long time ago; I don't think there's any more room to [grow]. He can't go any further, I think he's hit a wall, as it were."
Still, Depp reassured me at the 'Tourist' junket that he was optimistic about the quality of the newest film: "I think we did a good job on 'Stranger Tides,' I think we've done something that's outside of what we did, for example, on 'Pirates 2' and '3', where there's less sub-story, sub-plot, sub-characters, all these mathematical connections -- so 'P4' feels like the first one."
But Depp might not be the only person stepping into Jack Sparrow's boots; we were taken on a tour of a cavernous storeroom set where a spectacular fight scene would take place (think Jack and Will's daring duel in the smithy from 'Black Pearl'), and the only cryptic hint we were given as to the identities of the two combatants? Jack Sparrow versus Jack Sparrow ...
2. "Fish Out of Water"
Though we witnessed many exotic locales during the first three movies, they were still firmly rooted in the tropical setting of the Caribbean. This time around, the filmmakers wanted to take Capt. Jack where he's never gone before -- the streets of London in 1750. During our visit, set designer John Myhre revealed that the film has three specific acts and settings: One-third is set amongst the cobbled streets and grand palaces of London, one-third "feels very much like the best of all the pirate movies; pirate ships and acts, fights on the sea, mutinies, everything you'd expect," and one-third feels like "Indiana Jones" mixed in with the pirates, taking place in a mysterious jungle as the pirates pursue the mythic fountain of youth.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer shared that bringing Depp's character to London was "so much fun -- the fish out of water aspect of the pirate meeting with the aristocracy, meeting with the king. It's a blast."
3. Familiar Faces and New Foes
If you've feasted your eyes on the treasures of the trailer, you'll know that a number of old friends are joining us for the newest chapter, including Jack's nemesis, former-Capt. Barbossa, who has now, somehow, attained the rank of Admiral in King George II's navy (or at least an admiral's jacket).
Bruckheimer divulged that during the process of plotting out elements that they'd love to see in the fourth film, Geoffrey Rush's name kept appearing: "Barbossa was always the one who came up on the board because he's such a great actor, Geoffrey, and we wanted to bring him back. He's so much fun to watch."
This time, Jack not only has to contend with the King of England (Richard Griffiths) but also with the most fearsome pirate to sail the seven seas -- the infamous Capt. Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane. We were also given a tour of the interior of Blackbeard's ship; the actual vessel was constructed and left in Hawaii for the scenes at sea, but the cabin interior and exterior were intimidating enough. Blackbeard's cruelty is legendary, and at least in 'On Stranger Tides,' the man lives up to the myth -- Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, boasts blood red sails and a skeletal decor, including chandeliers and railings made out of human bones, as well as a very special cupboard that contains a decidedly sinister collection we won't spoil for you now. The ship also sees plenty of home cooking, but it's not particularly appetizing:
"We're saying that Blackbeard burns all of his victims, and there's a huge lantern on the back of this ship that he throws his victims in and burns, and we see that through the stained glass window in his room," Myhre gleefully told us. We hope that Jack knows what he's in for ...
4. Bigger Is Better, But Smaller Is Smarter
Though there were rumors that Disney cut the budget for 'On Stranger Tides,' you wouldn't know it to look at the sets -- Bruckheimer was quick to reassure us that the fourth chapter is "still a huge movie."
We were also shown around a set that was still under construction, but was being designed to rock back and forth to simulate a ship tilting perilously over the edge of a cliff -- that will be the scene of another dramatic fight.
Still, while the set pieces are big, Bruckheimer promised that the story lines will be "more streamlined" this time around. "It's all about your story and your characters," he insisted. "That was one of the things we found in editing three, we had so many stories to tie up, and that's why the picture got longer than you would've liked it to have been. We learned from that and said hey, let's not throw as many characters in, make it a little easier on ourselves."
5. New Hands on Deck
One of the changes that apparently made Depp confident in returning to a character he thought he'd left behind was the inclusion of Rob Marshall, Oscar-winning director of 'Chicago'. (Not that he's had a falling out with previous director Gore Verbinski -- the two recently collaborated on 'Rango' and will soon embark on 'The Lone Ranger' along with Bruckheimer.)
"Oh, what a treat -- he's different, obviously, every filmmaker has a different approach, but [he's] a treat, a real gift," the actor affirmed on the set. "First and foremost, he's a wonderful man, very kind and collaborative, but with fantastic ideas. And he has a brilliant handle on scene and story and shape. He's really special."
Bruckheimer readily agreed. "I just thought that [Rob] was a premier filmmaker and I loved his background, I loved that every film he made was unique and different," he asserted. "We checked him out, and actors love him, they'd do anything for him. And it's the same case with Penelope [Cruz] wanting to work with him. It's not the kind of movie she's ever done before, but because Rob was directing it, it made it much easier to get her involved because she had just done a movie ['Nine'] with him."
Sultry Cruz was an unexpected addition to the cast, but one that should prove interesting, providing a female foil for Capt. Jack as well as an undercurrent of sexual tension. Plus, we've kind of been itching to see a real kickass female pirate in the franchise, since Elizabeth Swann wasn't quite up to snuff. Cruz plays the enigmatic pirate Angelica, with whom Jack shares "a mysterious past," according to the Disney press release. She's on a quest to find the fountain of youth, come hell or high water, and not even a flirtation with Jack is going to get in her way.
"Oh yeah, she's a serious force to be reckoned with, Penelope," Depp chuckled, clearly in a playful mood. "We did a film together years ago called 'Blow' --I could've said we did 'Blow' together years ago [laughs] -- which was wonderful. She's a heavy hitter, you can throw all kinds of stuff out there into the atmosphere and she'll snatch up something and throw a curve ball back at you. She's someone I adore, one of my best friends, so it's been great having her."
'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' will set sail on May 20. Check out a 10 second teaser for the film's Super Bowl TV spot below:
We'll have more from the set of 'On Stranger Tides' closer to the release, including interviews with two gorgeous young newcomers who will find themselves unwittingly tangled in Jack's web of drunken adventure. In the meantime, share your predictions about the movie in the comments below -- will you be watching?
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