Last July 7, as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was opening around much of the world, Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer sat in the oldest restaurant in Paris, Le Procope, having dinner and awaiting word of their film's fate. They had reason to be anxious. Reviews of the follow-up to the 2003 seafaring-adventure smash Curse of the Black Pearl had started coming in, and they were enough to put a man off his boeuf bourguignon. Critics were slamming the sequel, declaring the two-and-a-half-hour, $200 million-plus production a bloated, confusing mess. “We were right across the street from where Dr. Guillotin perfected the guillotine, looking down on his courtyard,” producer Bruckheimer remembers, “and the numbers started coming in.” It was quickly clear that no heads would roll. The box office returns were not just good, but shiver-some-serious-timbers good. Biggest-opening-weekend-ever good. “These numbers kept coming in, and none of them made sense to me,” says Depp.”'The only thing I did notice was that they kept getting larger.”
Well, hoist the mizzenmast, weigh anchor, and [insert your own nautical cliché here], because here we go again. On May 25, the final installment of Disney's Pirates trilogy, subtitled At World's End, will hit theaters across the globe. In the wake of the last film's $1.1 billion worldwide box office gross—the third-highest in Hollywood history—expectations are, to put it mildly, huge. Despite competition from other massive franchises, including Spider-Man 3, which just broke Dead Man's Chest's opening-weekend record, At World's End is still widely considered the favorite to rule the summer box office.
The finale picks up where Dead Man's Chest left off. Feisty Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), her swashbuckling beau Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and the undead Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) are uniting to rescue rakish, rum-soaked Capt. Jack Sparrow (Depp), who was last seen being dragged into the sea by the kraken commanded by Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Meanwhile, the East India Trading Co., led by the cold-eyed Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), is trying to snuff out piracy once and for all, leading the world's nine pirate lords to join forces in a final battle for control of the seas. “It's really a Western” says director Gore Verbinski, boiling it all down. “It's like The Wild Bunch or something.”
While there's no question the movie will reap heaps of booty at the box office, it won't necessarily be all smooth sailing. With At World's End, at 167 minutes, promising to be even longer and more narratively complicated than Dead Man's Chest, Verbinski is already bracing himself for another round of stinging reviews. “That's going to happen again, I suppose,” he says wearily. Which raises the real question at stake: Will the conclusion be deemed a worthy capper to a trilogy some have called this generation's Star Wars? Or, like the Matrix trilogy, with its successively more ponderous sequels, will it overstay its welcome?
Just weeks before the release, Bruckheimer sits in an editing room, giving an advance preview of key scenes from At World's End. He looks fatigued from shuttling between Pirates and his other current production, National Treasure 2, but clearly proud. And with good reason—there are a slew of eye-popping sequences, including the sight of the Black Pearl being hauled across a desert on the backs of thousands of crabs, the introduction of the menacing pirate lord of Singapore, Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), and a climactic ship-battle-and-sword-fight extravaganza between the British naval fleet and an armada of pirates in the middle of a giant whirlpool. Between clips, Bruckheimer explains the intricacies of the interweaving plotlines: the double crosses, the deceptions, the reversals of fortunes. Setting up one scene, he finds himself momentarily tongue-tied by the story's complexity. “It's a little confus—” he begins. He stops. He takes a breath. “Let me back up a little.”
Back in 2003, just about no one was expecting a hit movie about pirates. But Curse of the Black Pearl pulled in more than $650 million worldwide, thanks to its rousing derring-do, its state-of-the-art effects wizardry, and Depp's instantly iconic turn as Jack Sparrow. Disney spied a franchise in the offing. The studio quickly ordered up two sequels, and Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio took up the challenge of turning a one-off popcorn flick into chapter 1 of an epic trilogy. The plan was audacious—to film the second and much of the third film simultaneously, at a cost that would reportedly soar upward of half a billion dollars—and they dove into the shoot with many creative decisions still to be made. “We had release dates and blank pages,” says Verbinski. “It's like, How Not to Make a Film 101.”
As with other current franchises, Disney's approach to the Pirates sequels is vastly different from that taken in days of old. There was a time not so long ago when Hollywood considered sequels an afterthought, dumping them into theaters with noses plugged. But in the early 1990s, with the enormous success of Terminator 2 and the increasing ability to amp up the spectacle factor with newfangled digital effects, sequels no longer seemed such a tawdry business. The success of the Lord of the Rings films, each of which outgrossed the last, made jumbo-size trilogies de rigueur. “People used to throw sequels out there as pure commerce—they'd try and fool the public the first weekend and then they'd die,” says Bruckheimer. “Now you have filmmakers who keep raising the bar.”
For the Pirates crew, doubling down on the initial bet proved more grueling than expected. The Caribbean production was plagued by hurricanes, construction delays, and countless logistical nightmares. When the cast and crew reconvened in California last August to finish At World's End, they still had about 60 percent of the film left to shoot. The story Verbinski and the writers had devised to fill out the trilogy was as supersize as the production, bursting with interweaving story lines, MacGuffins, and mythological references. At times, even the actors were hard-pressed to keep it all straight. “You had to leave a trail of bread crumbs to know where you'd been,” says Depp. “You'd walk out of a door in scene 191 and then you'd shoot scene 192 a year and a half later, where you've just arrived outside that door.” Says Bloom, “Someone asked me, ‘So tell us about your character's arc in the third movie.’ I said, ‘Dude, the writers can't even explain the third movie.’”
Verbinski defends the more-is-more approach to storytelling: “I don't mind if people find it confusing. I don't want to dumb it down to where it's just processed cheese and you're not thinking about it afterwards.” He and the screenwriters insist nothing was done to take the criticisms of Dead Man's Chest into account when production resumed on At World's End. The films had been “designed for multiple viewings,” says Rossio. “You couldn't do a course correction. That presumes that the course was off.” Bloom, however, says, “There was talk of that stuff. Clarity was something that was talked about.”
But in the midst of filming sequences like the massive battle in the maelstrom, which was actually shot in a stealth-bomber hangar in Palmdale, Calif., there was little time to dwell on the reviews. Says Rush, “You've got 140 pirates sword-fighting, there are rain and wind machines going, you're doing critical dialogue—in that situation, you're not thinking about the critics. You're just going, I hope that cannon doesn't roll over my foot.” Anyway, those staggering grosses more than offset a minority of naysayers. “When you pass the $1.1 billion mark,” Nighy says drily, “you start to suspect that you must be doing something right.”
Verbinski doesn't like to talk money, in particular the reported $300 million budget of Pirates 3. “It's tacky,” he says. “When you read a book, you don't ask how much the pages cost to make.” For all the tremendous sums poured into the Pirates movies, some of the bits Verbinski prizes most involved hardly any expense at all—like a scene in At World's End in which a pirate snaps off one of his frostbitten toes: “That's one of my favorite moments in the movie, and it cost 48 cents with something on the props truck.” It's hard to avoid the subject of money when it comes to the Pirates franchise, though, because the thing has generated so damn much of it. Not just the movies, but the action figures, lunch boxes, pillowcases, Xbox games, snow globes, and on and on. “You look at what Pirates has done for our theme parks, publishing, and consumer products, all these things,” says Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook. “I don't know how you put a price tag on all that.” At one point while discussing At World's End, Bloom refers to it as “a product,” then stops himself: “It's not a product—that's completely the wrong word. It's a movie.”
Verbinski, too, keeps his focus on the films: “My kids look at the toys sometimes and they're like, ‘Dad, this is pathetic.’ I'm like, ‘I just make the movie. If the arm breaks off the doll, that's not my domain.’ That machine marches on, but you've got to make the movie and let the other thing take care of itself. If you left it up to them, this movie would be called Pirates of the Caribbean: Nacho Cheese Flavor.” Depp argues that the Pirates franchise is actually about subverting the system, whether on the high seas or in Hollywood: “It's cool to see that you've planted your flag deeply in enemy territory and the enemy is kind of okay with it. We've made our mark. We have our own brand of cheese.”
Exhibit A in defense of the subversive spirit of Pirates could be the casting of Keith Richards in a cameo as a pirate who may or may not be Jack Sparrow's father. When reports that Richards claimed to have snorted his father's ashes hit the news earlier this year, you can imagine the panic at Disney. But Verbinski laughs it off: “It's Keith Richards! Of course he snorted his dad! I mean, I don't know if he did or he didn't, but does it matter? If his dad didn't have a problem with it, I certainly don't.”
However you look at it —Nacho Cheese or Depp's Own Fromage—as the old Doritos ads say: Crunch all you want, they'll make more. As long as there's a demand, Disney will continue to deliver Pirates product. “It'll be ‘Pirates on Ice’ in Las Vegas,” jokes Rush. Though Verbinski and his crew are looking forward to a much-needed shore leave, the potential for further sequels involving Jack Sparrow has already been built into At World's End. “There's something we show you as they drift away, what the next adventure could be,” says Bruckheimer.
Depp seems up for another journey, at least in theory. “As long as you're doing it for the right reasons, why not? If we came up with a story where we could explore something absurd or funny or totally insane . . .” He mulls over the possibilities. “You know: Captain Jack is part ape, he develops simian traits and an obsession with peanut butter . . . It could get really cool. That's the movie I want to do. Let's see that on a box of cereal.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before Pirates, you'd never reprised a character in a sequel. You got swallowed up by the bed in A Nightmare on Elm Street, so—
JOHNNY DEPP: Yeah, that ruled me out of any of those sequels. [Laughs] The only other sequel I'd ever thought about was Edward Scissorhands. There may have been no need to revisit that story, but back then I just wanted to play him again. It's the same thing with Captain Jack, ultimately. I just wanted to play him again.
Did the bashing a lot of critics gave the last Pirates movie surprise you?
God, no. After the first one was a success, I was sure that the critics were going to have to snap around and start taking potshots. It's in the rule book: You must take a dump on the second film. And with this one, they're probably going to do the same thing and maybe even go below the belt. Which is cool. Why not? There are worse things in life.
Of all the licensed merchandise that has spun off from the Pirates movies, has there been anything so far that seemed so surreal, you just said “Hold on a second”?
There were only a couple of things that I thought, Now we're stepping over the line. I drew the line at hygiene products. It just seemed wrong. Like Captain Jack toothpaste, for example. How can a guy with gold teeth sell toothpaste? It's like a bald man selling shampoo. And cold cuts would be weird: Captain Jack hot dogs, bologna—things like that.
Early in your career, you resisted the idea of being on lunch boxes and thermoses. Do you ever wonder what your 21 Jump Street-era self would think if he saw you on a box of Pop-Tarts?
The Jump Street guy—that was 20 years ago, and I didn't have a lot of the perspective or experience or distance or sense of humor that I do now. Being able to embrace the absurdity of it, as opposed to fighting tooth and nail for somebody to represent you with some degree of integrity or whatever—I mean, that's a ludicrous notion. You can only do your work, and your work represents whatever you want it to represent. I've arrived at a certain place where I just go: You know what? I don't care. It's freeing.
You were instrumental in persuading Keith Richards to make a cameo in At World's End. What was it like to work with Jack Sparrow's spiritual godfather?
The anticipation was mad. Everybody was like, “Is he going to do it? Is he going to do it?” And then whammo, he arrived at 8 o'clock in the morning, totally prepped and ready to go. Obviously, Keith Richards—the guy invented charisma. But what I didn't expect was he was going to be such a great actor. I started calling him “Two-Take Richards.” It was like this gunslinger who arrived in the town, charmed all the women and impressed all the men, and then split.
The success of these movies has obviously boosted your clout in Hollywood. Is that something you've felt or does it seem very abstract?
The idea of status or where one stands in the competitive marketplace—that kind of thing is really foreign to me. It's one of those arenas of ignorance I really prefer to stay in. I've had people say some of the strangest things I've ever heard in my life: “Do you know how much you've made?” “This is where you are in the power . . .” It just doesn't make sense to me. I just feel glad that I still get jobs to where I don't have to sell out or sell my soul. [Pauses] Although maybe I sold my soul already. I don't know, it's hard to tell.
After several years of playing Captain Jack, is it a relief to finally be taking on a new role in [the Tim Burton-directed musical] Sweeney Todd?
I wouldn't say it's a relief necessarily, although having the safety cushion of another character was nice because it saved me some degree of depression saying goodbye to Captain Jack. But Sweeney Todd is a great challenge. I did a musical, Cry-Baby, back in 1989, but I didn't sing. It wasn't my voice. So here I'm challenged with these amazing melodies of Stephen Sondheim. That was kind of a bugger to deal with. But I think we got there. [Laughs] At least I haven't been fired yet.