By Steve Ryfle and Den Shewman.
During their 25 years in the business, Oscar-nominated screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have made a name for themselves writing family-friendly blockbusters, the best known of which are perhaps Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Creative Screenwriting was fortunate enough to speak with them about their work on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
How did you get involved in Pirates of the Caribbean?
Ted Elliott: Our involvement actually began around the time we were working on Aladdin in 1992. Terry and I had come up with this great approach to a pirate movie. We pitched it at Disney as a tie-in to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and at the time Disney said, “No, don’t think so.”
Terry Rossio: “Do a film based on the ride?! That’s insane!” [Both laugh.]
Elliott: Recently the studio had developed a story of their own, which I think went to protecting rights to the ride. Jay Wolpert was the first writer, then while Stuart Beattie was on the project, Jerry Bruckheimer’s company became involved. In 2002, Bruckheimer Films’ Mike Stenson asked, “Would you be interested?” I said, “Yes, absolutely. But I have to tell you, we have an approach. It’s the only approach we want to write, and this is the only approach that has a shot in hell of being a successful movie. If you don’t like this approach, we really don’t want to do the story.”
That intrigued him, so we went in and pitched this approach—the same one we had pitched ten years earlier—and everybody came on board. It was the idea of bringing in the supernatural element. Instead of doing a swashbuckling romance, doing a swashbuckling Gothic romance.
Rossio: We realized that there really hadn’t ever been a supernatural pirate movie attempted. We went to Disney and said, “Look, the ride itself begins with a talking skull.”
Elliott: We came up with the idea that, if we’re doing this based on the ride, let’s base it on the ride! Cursed treasure, the sacking of the city, let’s just extend that all the way through the story.
Rossio: We just wanted to direct them back to some of those great elements that [legendary Disneyland art director] Marc Davis originally wove into that ride experience.
Elliott: What is it about the Pirates of the Caribbean ride that audiences like? That, more than anything else, is important to give to people. It’s scary and it’s unknown and it’s fascinating and it’s fun and it’s exciting.
What we wanted to do was come up with a story that would make an audience feel that way, no matter how old they were. There are story elements to the ride, and a lot of them appear in the movie, but it wasn’t about adapting the story. It was about creating a movie for which the audience experience of the movie was similar to the audience experience of the source material. The emotions generated by the original material.
The script for Pirates starts off, not in the middle of a pirate battle as many would expect, but very quietly with a sense of foreboding that draws you into the story. You set up a lot of things before the first cannon is fired.
Rossio: Well, it’s a ghost story.
Elliott: We made the decision that, rather than starting like you’d expect a pirate movie to start, we needed to start it like a horror movie. And so that’s what we did.
Did the studio accept that right away, or did they suggest they wanted to sell something different?
Rossio: We came in with our Academy Award nomination, and they bought every decision we decided to make [laughs].
Elliott: I think people could look at the ride and say, “There’s something here that could be a movie.” Terry and I said, “Here is something that is a movie.”
This scene that starts this movie will intrigue people. Things happen. There are interesting images. We don’t see a pirate battle, true; what we see is the aftermath of one. We see young Elizabeth take the medallion, and you immediately know that’s going to mean something. Why else would we be showing it to you that in that first couple minutes; if it wasn’t going to mean something later? You get the tone of, if not a horror movie, then a supernatural movie. Then there’s the weird, “Did she see or did she not?” aspect of the pirate ship [when a young Elizabeth thinks she saw the Black Pearl in the fog].
All of that satisfies the audience’s desire to understand what this movie’s going to be like without in any way tipping them as to what the story is. It creates an expectation. I think the promise is strong enough that the audience is willing to enjoy everything that leads up to the fulfillment of that promise. And that of course is when the Black Pearl attacks Port Royal.
How did you collaborate with Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski?
Rossio: Pirates was the best live-action experience we’ve ever had on a movie. We were able to come in and, with [Bruckheimer Films’] Chad Oman and Mike Stenson, really design the film and the story. And then Gore Verbinski came on and only made improvements, and Jerry Bruckheimer supported the whole thing.
It’s such an odd thing to have a film from start to finish and to be able to say, “Everything worked in terms of whatever your best fantasy of what it is to be to be a screenwriter in Hollywood.”
Elliott: It was genuinely a collaborative art form. In the true sense of the word “collaborative,” not in the usual Hollywood sense of “collaborative art form so shut up and do what we say, or else we’ll fire you and get somebody else who will.” We did the first draft, Gore came on board, and we started working with him. He had some ideas that made changes in the plot and the structure…
Rossio: …for the better. The audience experience of the story…
Elliott: …is going to be better because of the changes we made that Gore wanted. With our theoretical movie we had said, “Oh, this is going to be a great movie.” Gore came in and said, “Well, here’s a different theoretical movie.” And we said, “Hmm, that’s going to be a great movie. We don’t know what we were thinking with our first theoretical movie. It would have been good, but it wouldn’t have been great.”
And we worked with the various actors—Johnny Depp [Jack Sparrow] and Geoffrey Rush [Barbossa] and Keira Knightley [Elizabeth]—going through the script, incorporating their ideas. I think the final version of the story that Barbossa tells of the curse was probably twenty or thirty hours of work with Geoffrey Rush.
That sounds like Robert Shaw working on the Indianapolis monologue in Jaws.
Elliott: That was the inspiration. We said, “Look, Jaws was a sea story and they told a story. The story of The Indianapolis is one of the great scenes of modern cinema. We’ve got to have people telling stories in this movie!” [Laughs]
Rossio: The process was getting together and reading through and having meetings with Gore and Geoffrey, just talking it through. Is the story clear? Is it interesting? Is the rhythm right? It’s looking at it over and over again with an eye toward those aspects.
Elliott: In all honesty, we had to overwrite our version. We knew there were things that could be pulled out. In talking with Geoffrey we could say, “The intent of these three lines is to communicate that the character is thinking this,” and Geoffrey would say, “Wait, I can do that by arching my eyebrow.” “Okay, then we only need one word here.” It was not just working on the lines he was going to say, but talking about his performance. Again, that genuine sense of collaboration.
It’s dependent on the personalities involved.
Elliott: Absolutely. We had a very collaborative relationship with Mike and Chad, and through them, with Jerry. Gore is a guy who is so confident in his abilities, he has no problem listening to anybody else’s ideas. He does not take it as criticism if somebody says, “Hey, I have an idea.” Right there, that sets the tone for the entire production.
By contrast, do you mean that directors who are not open to that collaborative experience may come from a place of insecurity?
Elliott: I think… yeah.
Rossio: I think there are a couple of things that come into play there. Sometimes one of the job requirements of being a director is to project this image of absolute authority. One way to do that is to be the person who always defines the movie and always makes every decision.
There are all sorts of other talents that are involved in directing; one of them is being able to own a story, understand a story, completely, in all of its workings. Some directors have the ability to understand a story only if they’ve constructed it. So what they’ll do is break text down, destroy it or obliterate it, and then slowly construct it back up according to their own sensibilities.
It’s not necessarily because of ego; it’s because of a legitimate need to understand all of the workings of a story, why every decision was made and how it was made. And then once they’ve reconstructed the story to their own sensibilities, then they can go out and tell it in an effective manner. So it has the appearance of a director being insecure, but in fact it’s the director simply lacking one talent.
Elliott: My experience is insecurity [both laugh].
Rossio: Oh well, I tried.
Elliott: That was nice of you. But I would argue that some of our worst experiences with directors are because directors are so insecure that an idea from somebody else is an attack on them.
Rossio: An attack to their authority. Yeah, that can be, and is often, an aspect.
You have written about the Warner Bros. Hallway Test. What is it, and how would it apply to Pirates?
Rossio: The notion is to recognize how people in Hollywood talk: over the phone, in the hallway, between meetings. You’re going to have a ten-second chance of somebody passing by somebody else and the conversation’s going to go: “So, how’s that new draft of Pirates of the Caribbean?” And the answer’s going to be something like, “Wow, it’s really cool—”
Elliott: Sword-fighting skeleton pirates!
Rossio: Unless your script can be described in a shorthand way that has all these obviously intriguing or cool elements, the conversation might not go well. It might go, “Well, it has some cool things in it…” [trails off weakly].
Elliott: It may be unbelievable, but the way people talk in Hollywood is not too dissimilar from the way people talk in the real world. “I saw Matrix.” “What’s it about?” “Oh, man, it’s about these guys, they live in this computer simulation program, they have these superpowers and all this neat kung fu.” “Oh, really, tell me more.”
You have to get to the “Tell me more” part.
Another concept of yours are Strange Attractors. What are they, and what are the strange attractors in Pirates?
Rossio: People played with this notion of “high concept” and I was just annoyed with that concept. So, “strange attractor.” “Strange”: your idea should be unique. “Attractor”: you’ve got to get people attracted to it. For Pirates, there could be any number of things that are attractive. But if you said, “Hey, how about a pirate movie, and instead of looking for treasure, they have to get back the treasure that they’ve stolen,” there’s something about that. It’s unique, and it should have the quality of making people intrigued by it.
Elliott: There has to be a sense that this is something where I can’t think of a movie like that. The strange attractor for us to do Pirates was, can we do a—
Rossio: —a $300 million movie? [Laughs]
Elliott: Can we do a movie that embraces the story sensibilities of the golden age of Hollywood pirate movies while appealing to the story sensibilities of the modern audience? Can it have all the strengths of the old movies and all the strengths of current movies? Just the challenge of that was attractive to me.
Rossio: I thought it was, “Can we get a free trip to the Caribbean?”
Elliott: It was also that.
When you were developing Pirates’ characters, did you intentionally compare and contrast them, such as Norrington versus Will?
Rossio: That’s something we tend to do when we do story creation in conjunction with character creation. It’s fun to take whatever your major theme is and then use your characters and character design in such a way as you can fully explore all the major facets of the theme. If you put the characters at these different extremes in your theme, when they come together there’s almost automatically something interesting happening in the scene between the characters, because they’ve been designed that way.
Elliott: Going back to the classical Greek construction, the way those plays worked was that you would have a protagonist who would embody a particular point of view. The antagonist would embody an opposing point of view, and the structure of the story was an argument between these two points of view, with the resolution of the story being the resolution of the argument.
In Pirates, Elizabeth is the protagonist, representing the idea of the romance of the pirate. The romantic illusion of the outlaw is a very common concept in our society; in fact, the underpinning of all romances is the anti-hero, the Byronic bad boy. That’s what Elizabeth is looking for.
Each of the characters surrounding her present differing points of view on that issue. [Buena Vista Motion Picture Group President] Nina Jacobson put it best. She said it’s like an animated movie: you have the prince (Norrington), the pauper (Will), the rogue (Jack) and the villain (Barbossa). All of these characters are presenting these different points of view to the princess (Elizabeth). Hopefully, the final resolution of the story is our point of view about the whole thing, which is “Don’t fall in love with the romantic illusion; find the romantic reality.”
You write upbeat action-adventures stories. The audience knows that no matter what you put the hero through, he or she will be victorious in the end. Did you plan to write such positive stories or did it just happen that way?
Elliott: There’s that great Neil Gaiman quote from Sandman, where he’s talking to the nightmare of serial killers and telling him—I’m paraphrasing here— “You told stories that told people the world is a bad place. They already know that.” Come on, how hard is it to tell people, “The world sucks”? People know that.
Much more valuable, in my mind, is to point out the ways in which the world is a great place, and people are worth a damn. Ted Tally has a terrific quote: “There’s almost never been a movie made that couldn’t benefit from its ending being a tentative affirmation.”
Rossio: Because anything more is too pat and anything less isn’t worth it.
Elliott: There’s a truth to that. I guess my own point of view is that people for the most part are worth a damn.
This interview first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 10, #4 in 2003.
If you missed the first part of this series, don’t forget to check out Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio on Shrek.