Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
As long as I’ve been in LA, Jerry Bruckheimer has been one of the biggest names in film production. The second day I lived in town, I went to the Chinese theater to see the opening day of DAYS OF THUNDER, the first film to play there in DTS digital sound. It wasn’t a great film, but it was a heck of an introduction to a theater I’d been reading about since I was a kid, and it felt appropriate to see a “movie movie” there. More than anything, that’s what Bruckheimer does. He makes “movie movies.” His films don’t take place in any sort of real world, and that’s what makes them work. When they work. I’ll confess, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with his movies. If I were to divvy them up, I’d put BEVERLY HILLS COP, THIEF, AMERICAN GIGOLO, MARCH OR DIE, THE REF, CRIMSON TIDE, BLACK HAWK DOWN, BAD BOYS II, NATIONAL TREASURE, and even GLORY ROAD in the category of films of his that I enjoyed. The film I think I was least expecting to like that I was most persuasively won over by was PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL. When it was first announced, I thought it sounded as wrong-headed as possible. Basing a film on a theme park ride seemed like the crassest, most blatant form of corporate synergy possible.
And, yet, somehow... it worked. Even during production, there were stories floating around town about executives panicking the first time they saw dailies of Johnny Depp’s performance, and there were questions about the untested star power of Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley. Even so, all of that disappeared as soon as the film was released. Audiences fell in love with Captain Jack Sparrow something fierce, and the film became a sensation that summer. Now, only a few years later, we’re looking at another part two-part three double-header, one this summer and one in 2007, and the real question is “Can they do it again?” If the odds were stacked against them the first time, I’d say they’re doubled at this point. Sequels are, by definition, lesser than the original. Time and time again, they end up being pale shadows of whatever worked the first time out, and they burn down audience affection fairly quickly.
One thing that they have on their side is the fact that they’ve brought back everyone. And I mean everyone. As much as Johnny Depp was a key piece of the puzzle, he wasn’t the whole picture. I think Gore Verbinski is one of those directors who really is the whole package. He chooses to make really commercial fare, but I like the way he approaches filmmaking. I think he’s got a strong visual style, but he doesn’t overpower the films he’s making. He’s not just going to ladle on the style for the sake of it. Instead, he seems to appreciate a good script and he definitely makes room for his actors to have fun and contribute truly special work. Those are valuable skills that many A-listers don’t possess, and I think part of what made the first PIRATES work was the way it managed to include some sly nods to the ride without ever feeling perfunctory or like a simple commercial.
The supporting cast in that first film was pretty great, too, whether talking about Geoffrey Rush, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, or Mackenzie Crook. The film was cast really well, and everyone seemed to dial in on the exact same tone, the same sense of swashbuckling fun. Bringing back that entire extended cast makes sense, and the fun this time comes from adding new personalities to the mix, people that are going to fill out the world in interesting new ways.
All of this is precursor... the long way of setting up the encounter I had when I got back to town a little over a week ago. I’d just spent 12 days onset for my new episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, having the time of my life, but the morning after wrap, I hopped in the car and drove for 22 straight hours without pause, hoping to make it back in LA in time to make an appointment on the Fox lot. See, that’s where the dubbing stage and editing rooms are that are currently in use by the PIRATES 2 team. They’re hard at work finishing the film, and I was invited to step into the tail end of that process and see what they’ve been up to.
When I showed up, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to be seeing. I signed in at the front desk, took a wrong turn through the editorial department of MIAMI VICE (oh, man, did I want to peek), and then finally found my way into the post-offices for PIRATES 2.
I stood there for a moment, looking around, when Jerry Bruckheimer walked in. He’s compact but commanding, and he gave me a friendly, relaxed handshake as I introduced myself. No small talk. No hard sell up front. He just indicated one of the closest doors and we walked into a small editing suite where one of the editors was waiting. Altogether, I saw about 45 minutes of the film, sequences from the very opening to several major set pieces and a fair sampling of big character beats. As we watched the sequences, Jerry filled in the gaps for me, setting up scenes and then narrating to fill in for missing footage. It was just the three of us in the room, and I have to say... the confidence he exuded about what Disney is releasing on July 7th was pretty infectious. He told me that they haven’t test-screened the film because they just... can’t. The film is still being finished, with final FX work arriving and sound mixing underway, and because of the way this film works, showing an unfinished version to audiences really wouldn’t work for anyone.
I don’t recommend films simply for visual effects work. At this point, there are several companies who routinely do excellent work, and the bar has been raised so high that people have stopped noticing innovation. From film to film right now, software gets refined or rendering power gets increased or people perfect certain tools, and everything is so cutting edge that nothing is. It takes a lot for me to really stop and stare at something in confusion.
Hats off, then, to the guys at ILM this time around for their work on the crew of Davy Jones’s ship. These cursed souls have started to change into creatures of the sea in strange and disturbing ways. Every one of his crewmen are elaborately designed. And every one of those make-up jobs in this film were done digitally. These aren’t entirely CGI creations, either. These are digital make-up jobs done to the actors who are absolutely giving the performances you’re watching. Performance capture appears to be where the real technical cutting edge is at the moment. Andy Serkis’s performance as King Kong is, no matter what you think of the movie, a milestone in cinema because of the way it combines technology and craft. It’s inspirational, goddammit. You can do things now you could never do before, and it seems like people are just starting to take full advantage of what’s possible.
But I’m getting ahead of myself... more on Davy Jones in a few. First, let’s touch on some of the broad strokes of the story. I’m not going to totally give away all the story stuff I saw, because part of the pleasure of this one is the way it connects to the first film in unexpected little ways. Watch for the monkey, for example. He makes some outstanding appearances here. You’ll finally see why Jack Sparrow’s compass never worked in the first film. In fact, the stuff I saw strongly suggested that there was a lot of really subtle groundwork in that first film that set up things that will pay off not only in this movie, but in the third as well.
The film opens on a dark note, as we see the detritus of a ruined wedding. We find Elizabeth, played once more by Kiera Knightley, there in the midst of what was supposed to be a happy day. Soldiers march in, and Elizabeth finds herself arrested for helping to free a pirate who had been legally sentenced. Will, played by Bloom, is also arrested, and both of them are read their sentences by the man in charge, Lord Cutler Beckett, played by series newcomer Tom Hollander. He’s got personal reasons for orchestrating the arrest of Elizabeth and Will, and he reveals a little bit of that when he offers Will a way out of trouble. All Will has to do is find Jack Sparrow and bring him back. Beckett wants Jack, but he also wants that “broken” compass that Jack carries with him. He sees Jack as the means to an end, the end being the capture of Davy Jones himself.
Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce) stays with Elizabeth, determined to find some way to free her, while Will leaves to take Beckett up on his offer. That’s pretty much the whole set-up that I saw, and it’s efficient and well-done and it gets things in motion quickly. What I didn’t see was Johnny Depp’s introduction in the film. “You should see that in the theater,” Bruckheimer said. “It’s pretty special.” Instead, we jumped forward into the film, and Bruckheimer explained that Jack Sparrow has decided to stay off the water as much as possible, so Will’s forced to search for him on land. On an island, to be more specific, which is where all of the cannibal stuff comes in. Oh, yeah, there are cannibals in this film, and they are, frankly, hilarious. They’re a menace, but Verbinski’s visual wit makes these scenes funny like a Charles Addams cartoon. Sinister funny.
Jack Sparrow is a slightly different character this time around. He spent all of the first film determined to reclaim possession of The Black Pearl, and it seemed like it was just because it was his ship. But in this film, we learn that Sparrow paid a very high price for the Pearl in the first place, and then managed to not even enjoy the benefits of being a Captain because he lost the ship for a while. Basically, the check for that price has finally come in, and Sparrow doesn’t want to pay it. He’s on the run, but the person he’s running from has unlimited resources to expend in an effort to catch Jack.
And that, of course, is Davy Jones. Bill Nighy, who’s been on a real roll lately, is going to be one of the most iconic screen creations of the year as Davy. Every single moment of screen time I saw with him was fascinating. It’s a well-imagined character, but beyond that, watching how Nighy inhabits this digital make-up is remarkable. I was shown footage of Nighy live on-set, and then I was shown the finished footage of him in the film, and it’s remarkable. The crazy details, like the way the body of the octopus throbs on the back of his head like a brain-sac or the way he blows air through his lips when exasperated, are what sell Davy Jones as real. Also, the film has big enough balls to do many of the Jones sequences in harsh, bright sunlight, daring you to find something wrong with what you’re seeing. Davy Jones and his crew are all different, all designed with that same rich attention to detail, and all of them fully-articulated to the same degree.
Check out some of these images, like this one of Hadras...
... or these of Koleniko...
... or this of The Twins...
... or this picture of Maccus...
... or these images of Wheelback...
... or these two Clanker images...
... or even Davy Jones himself.
Now, those images don’t really do justice to what you’ll see in the film. They just suggest how each of the pirates is different. Seems that these men who serve on Davy’s crew are the men who have fallen overboard from other ships. Given the chance to join the crew of Davy Jones or drown, these men take this watery half-life, and then gradually, the ocean changes them. There’s one guy I saw in one sequence who has literally grown into the side of the ship on the inside, like barnacles, and when he tries to pull away to lean forward, he ends up exposing his brain. It’s twisted, beautiful work.
And as if having a totally supernatural crew wasn’t enough, Davy Jones has a weapon at his disposal, something that no man would ever want to face on the open waters, something that the trailers hint at but barely show. Yes... The Kraken. And, oh, man, the Kraken is fun. I saw two Kraken scenes, and both were exhilaratingly-staged.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Will, Jack, and Elizabeth all end up traveling with different groups, but all of them end up with the same goal: find the chest of Davy Jones, the Dead Man’s Chest. Inside, there’s something that can either be used or destroyed depending on what someone hopes to accomplish. Before they go on their separate ways, Jack and Will go together to visit Tia Dalma, a voodoo priestess played by the stunning Naomie Harris, who you might recognize from 28 DAYS LATER, but who was recently so great in TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK & BULL STORY. Her scenes with Johnny are awesome, and it really shows how much Verbinski loves to set up two good actors in a crazy environment and then really let them go. She rips it up, and Johnny chews the scenery keeping perfect pace with her. She’s the one who sets the second half of the film in motion, laying out what might happen and starting the ticking clock running.
The last big sequence I was shown was once the location of the Dead Man’s Chest has been discovered, and everyone converges on the location at once. What they find is something you should see in the film, but know that Jack and Norrington (Jack Davenport) and Will end up in a wild three-way swordfight that is pretty amazingly staged, while Elizabeth has to fight off Pintel (Arenberg) and Ragetti (Crook) at the same time. This leads, one presumes, into a much larger showdown, but what I saw was already as big as any action sequence I’ve seen staged in recent memory.
There’s no question... this is a gigantic, expensive, risky movie for Disney. It’s not as risky as trying to sell something no one’s ever heard of, but there’s still a lot of pressure on the filmmakers to succeed and to justify the massive bill required to bring this one to life. This is risky because the first film was such a happy accident, a great example of chemistry gone right, and trying to recreate that can sometimes be a losing proposition and even irritate an audience enough to ruin their affection for the original.
That won’t happen here. This is as smart and as solid a sequel as I can imagine Hollywood making at this point. It looks like they listened to the audience of the original, and they really thought about what worked. This thing wasn’t rushed, and you can tell. Every frame of what I saw had been lavished with attention and was packed with layer upon layer of things to look at and to rewatch. This looks to be one of those rare sequels that actually makes the first film richer if everything pays off as well as what I saw. Although I wasn’t exactly dying to see a sequel to PIRATES when it was first announced, this has won me over, little by little. That last trailer was a pretty much flawless blockbuster trailer, and that’s when I really started to suspect that this one might be something special. Seeing this footage and spending the time listening to Bruckheimer talking about what they’ve done convinced me completely.
Before I left the building, Bruckheimer took me into the actual dubbing stage, where Verbinski was hard at work. Standing there, both of us exhausted for different reasons, we shook hands and said hello, and we talked for a moment about the film. I could see that his eyes were even more red-rimmed than mine, so I let him get back to it and headed for the door. Bruckheimer walked with me a little further, and we stopped in the lobby of the building.
I asked him if he remembered the Joel Silver comedy series ACTION, and he didn’t at first. “It’s the one where Jay Mohr basically played the most toxic producer ever...”
”Oh, yeah,” he said. “Sure. I remember that.”
I told him that I never watched it when it was on the air, but that I’d recently been watching it on DVD, and there was a line that made me laugh in a different way that I’m sure it was intended in the wake of CUTTHROAT ISLAND, where Mohr’s character Peter Dragon was listing off the rules of being a producer, and three out of the ten rules were “Never make a pirate movie.”
If you’d seen how he smiled, you’d know just how big a hit PIRATES 2 is going to be. Count on it.