Johnny Depp goes for the custard...
Total Film is refuelling in the catering tent at Pinewood. It’s October 2010 and Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is approaching land (close to wrapping).
We’re mid-way through a tour of the gigantic 007 sound-stage, currently hosting the key Pirates set-ups: full-size galleon, oaken throne-room, barrel-lined grog joint.
The mood is triumphant, if a little guarded. Schedules are unbending, with journalists strictly chaperoned. Break-taking crew members shift laughter to whisper as we enter earshot.
We’re film journalists, after all. And film journalists haven’t been kind to the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise.
It’s the movie world’s Da Vinci Code – loved by millions yet sneered at by critics who see it as little more than an overstretched unit-shifter risen way above its station (a 38-year-old theme-park ride).
But in an era where guaranteed star bankability is in decline, Pirates has stayed afloat because of an audacious central turn from an actor who seems to be more at play than work.
Will we get to chat to Mr Depp? It’s unlikely, says the unit publicist. Johnny’s call sheet doesn’t leave room for interviews. But now, there he is, in full Captain Jack costume. Going for the custard…
"The drinks would arrive around 1am. Wed go on until 5 in the morning.
Back in 2002, Disney producers took a bleak view of Jack.
They hated how Depp turned what they perceived as a deft and dapper swashbuckler into a raffish, rum-addled buffoon. And then they saw the accounts.
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl was, in Hollywood terms, a gamble. Could the cultish Depp open a mainstream movie?
Were audiences still wincing at 1995’s atrocious Cutthroat Island ready to embrace the pirate genre again? Would the PG-13 certificate slice off an unsustainable chunk of youth audience?
The film cost $170m to make and took $650m at the global box-office. Two sequels – 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End – were shot back to back.
The first popped a $1bn global gross and currently sits as the fourth highest-grossing film of all time. The second is the ninth highest-grossing film of all time.
We thought the first movie would be the last"
It was a trilogy in search of a quadrilogy and, although the key characters and story threads were more or less tied up within Pirates 1, 2 and 3, cold, hard economics trumps fuzzy artistic logic every time.
“We thought the first movie would be the last,” says series screenwriter Terry Rossio over barnacle-stripping coffee in the production office.
“But as the success became more obvious, we dropped in various threats and back stories and unfinished business.
"One of those things was the idea of Jack and Barbossa in competition to discover the Fountain Of Youth.”
And so, Jack shacks up with pirate-ess Angelica (Penélope Cruz) – a fiery old flame who needs his help in finding the fabled spring.
Of course, Jack’s nemesis Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) would like a sup at the eternal cup himself – as would scary pirate lord Blackbeard (Ian McShane).
It’s a treasure hunt with everlasting life as the prize.
The one thing we couldnt change is Jack"
This time, Gore Verbinski has vacated the director’s chair for Rob Marshall, hired by producer Jerry Bruckheimer to steer through the first Pirates movie to be shot in 3D.
And while it’s hardly Elizabeth At Sea , Marshall and writer Rossio have introduced a keener historical edge, with characters like King George II (Richard Griffiths), King Ferdinand VI of Spain (Sebastian Armesto) and McShane’s take on Blackbeard – an infamous, 18th-century West Indies pirate.
“The one thing we couldn’t change,” says Rossio, “is Jack. That would have been a mistake. He’s always been a trickster character and we had to carry that through.
And with Johnny, there’s no need to embellish the performance on the page because you know that he’ll do it all himself.
We took a lot from Tim Powers’ book On Stranger Tides, which focused on Blackbeard and the Fountain Of Youth. We also wanted a romantic foil for Jack – someone who could meet him on his own terms, with wordplay as well as swordplay.
Johnny had a lot of input into creating scenes, storylines, situations. We had lots of creative dinners.
They’d normally start at 11pm, the drinks would arrive around 1am and we’d go on to around 5 in the morning – usually at some incredibly opulent LA restaurant.”
It was all Johnnys idea
On top of the obligatory 3D aspect, this time – get ready to roll your eyes – there are zombies. Rossio shrugs. “People might be cynical, but I think it’s consistent with the tone of the movies so far.
"We’ve had romance, humour, comedy, adventure, ghosts. We’ve had skeletons, pirates shooting people, monsters… We’re trying to make it macabre – scary but fun, instead of out-and-out gory. I know zombies seem a little overused, but they do fit with that ambition.”
The sceptics may sneer – as they did a few days before our visit when Depp turned up, unannounced and in full make-up, at a school in Greenwich after a nine-year-old girl wrote to ‘Captain Jack’, asking if he could lead a mutiny against her teachers.
Oh, how calculating! Think of the free publicity! Disney must have told him to do it…
“It was all Johnny’s idea,” says the unit publicist. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer concurs. “The letter moved him,” he says.
“It was fun for Johnny and great for her – a story she’ll tell for the rest of her life. Only around six people knew he was doing it. He wanted to keep it that way.
"But I guess one of the kids had a camera and took pictures...”
"This one is a bit more like a Bond movie..."
Bruckheimer has a reputation for bristling over franchise related questions. But he cheerfully confirms Pirates 5 (“We’re working on the story right now”) and is unashamed of the decision to continue the series.
“The success made the decision,” says Bruckheimer. “The first three feel like a unit of movies, so we wanted this to be more of a stand-alone.
"New cast, new characters. I’m aware of the criticism that the third movie was too complicated and this is our way of addressing that – fewer characters, freshen things up.”
“I think the accusations of complexity are a little unfair,” says Terry Rossio. “No one complains that something like Lost is too complex. They love it because their understanding of the different layers make them feel like real fans.
"But this one is a bit more like a Bond movie – it’s informed by what’s come before but it’s not part of a sequence. It’s a single story. So I guess that makes it a bit more approachable.”
"He has a close encounter with her cleavage
Total Film’s tour of the set is conducted by the ideal guide – the guy who designed it all. John Myhre was brought in by Marshall after working with him (and Cruz) on tepid musical Nine.
He’s joyfully indiscreet about plot details… “It all starts in the big city,” gushes Myhre. “With Jack being captured by King George.
"He’s brought into the castle and, of course, escapes from a situation where he couldn’t possibly escape.
"We see him running through the streets of London and there’s a big centrepiece carriage chase. And Jack is leaping from carriage to carriage.
"This is a big, busy movie. We have around 100 different sets and locations. We haven’t been bored!”
We trail Myhre into the artfully distressed interior of the ale-house where Captain Jack first encounters Angelica (“He has a close encounter with her cleavage”).
Withered candles, tank-sized tankards, creaking teak floors smeared with crust and dust...
“Jack’s entrance is terrific. We see the door open and a shadow cast – the unmistakable sword and dreadlocks.”
Myhre herds us into the main soundstage housing Blackbeard’s ship, a sinister frigate garlanded with gilded spine bones.
The morbid decor extends to the interiors – skeletal chandeliers, pelvic chairs, humeral hand-rails. Myhre chuckles with pride.
Further through the soundstage, a hangar-sized hall is monopolised by a motion-controlled gimbal rig, a fully dressed room that can be tilted and pivoted to 15 degrees.
“That doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re running around, trying to act and remember your fight moves, it’s a lot.”
"They are a magnificent pair of shoes..."
Tour concluded, we’re back in the catering tent when Depp’s arrival prompts craning necks and pretend-nonchalant murmurs. And there he is, going for the custard.
One of the world’s most famous men ladling steaming vanilla gloop into a bowl of sponge-something.
“Would Johnny mind,” we ask of our ever-vigilant unit publicist, “if we sidle over, maybe fall into conversation?” The unit publicist looks up at Johnny, smiles. Johnny settles down with his sweet.
Or rather, Tony Angelotti, Depp’s spookily identikit stunt double, settles down with his dessert. The penny drops, the buzz cools. Angelotti removes his hat and digs in.
The unit publicist assures Total Film that he really, really will try to sneak us a few minutes with Real Johnny Depp.
We scoff at the idea. But later, after half an hour of squinting into a monitor as Johnny/Jack is repeatedly hauled before King George, Depp wanders over.
He’s twinkly-eyed but oddly deferential, like a teenager being introduced to his girlfriend’s parents. Medium-strength handshake. Faint smell of lavender.
We fixate on his pirate shoes. He notices. “They are a magnificent pair of shoes, aren’t they?” He grins. “Quite heavy, too!”
"Its kind of the same, but different"
How has he found all of this – stepping into Captain Jack’s elaborate shoes one more time?
“The whole thing has been a gas. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about it. I love getting into this character. I love the physical language.
"It’s kind of the same, but different – because this time, we’re working with Rob [Marshall], who is very kind and collaborative, with fantastic ideas and a great handle on the… shape of the story.”
Is it true that he’s contributed to script revisions? “Yeah! It’s like going into a think-tank,” mumbles Depp (you have to lean in to hear him).
“Just kind of throwing ideas around. If something sparks, it sparks and it gets accepted. It was all part of Jerry [Bruckheimer] wanting to make things a little different, more than just another sequel.”
Is he tempted to refine the winning Jack formula? Tweak the character a little? “Well…” he grins. “There is the sex change.”
Laughter. Unit publicist: “Spoiler alert!” Depp (Unlucky Alf from The Fast Show impersonation): “Bugger!” He composes himself.
"We did Blow a few years ago"
“I honestly think that Captain Jack found himself a long time ago. I don’t think there’s any more room to tweak him. He’s hit a wall. It’s made it more fun, working with different people.
"Penélope is great. She’s more than a match for Jack. We’ve worked together before. We did Blow a few years ago…”
More laughter. “Uh, I mean we did the film Blow together. That would have been a headline, wouldn’t it!”
A man in headphones is beckoning from the set. Depp offers a comically courteous farewell.
“I think we should let the good Captain get some rest,” says the unit publicist.
“Rest?” says Depp, with a twinkle. “What’s that?
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Strangers Tides is released in the UK on May 18.