Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio On Pirates of the Caribbean
During a recent interview about Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series—including next year’s installment—writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio demonstrate clarity, intelligence and a flash of the randy humor that’s made the franchise a hit.
Meeting at the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, the brains behind the spectacle that now opens Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest are a couple of pals who grew up in Orange County with frequent trips to Disneyland. Three years after Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl took Hollywood by storm, its writers are ready to go another round.
Box Office Mojo: Is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest exactly the movie you wrote?
Terry Rossio: It’s not an easy question. There are things I would change. But there are aspects that exceed what we wrote as well. The trade-off is probably worth it—
Ted Elliott: —life is full of these little trade-offs—
Terry Rossio: —and there are relatively few. They amount to quibbles. I’d say it’s 90 percent of what we wanted.
Box Office Mojo: Did you choose the darker tone?
Terry Rossio: I’m not sure it is darker. You could just as easily say it has more slapstick. Maybe it extends further in each direction—maybe there are occasionally darker alleys. Hopefully, those are balanced.
Ted Elliott: We didn’t intend to have sequels. The first [movie] is a story in and of itself, a sort of capital ‘r’ romance in the Prisoner of Zenda sense that ends in an idealized love between Elizabeth and Will. So, what happens after that? Ideals are very difficult to [achieve] in this world. It’s much more interesting to watch somebody struggle, where it’s not so easy to know what’s the right thing to do at all times.
Terry Rossio: In the first film, Jack Sparrow wants to get his ship back, and that’s what he’s focused on. Though he does some underhanded things, he’s aligned with the heroes for the most part. That’s kind of uplifting. In the second [movie], Jack Sparrow is more desperate. His needs put him at odds with pretty much everybody—his crew, Will and Elizabeth and, obviously, Davy Jones. His desperation is magnified, and that may go a long way toward that impression that it’s darker.
Box Office Mojo: Davy Jones talking about death is definitely darker.
Ted Elliott: Well, we’re using the same palette that we used in the first movie. But we’re definitely using different values in different combinations and, yeah, we actually do set out to suggest the world of pirates is darker. The darkness was implied in the first and we’re making it more apparent in the second [picture] because we are ultimately leading to this climax [in the third picture]. It’s a far more interesting type of drama to see people operating in this morally ambiguous world.
Box Office Mojo: When did you first ride the Disneyland attraction?
Ted Elliott: I was seven or eight years old. We grew up in Orange County [ California], so Disneyland was always about 15 minutes from the house. I spent a lot of time there. Before we started working on the movie, I’d probably been on the ride at least a hundred times. It was my favorite ride. Number two was Monsanto’s Adventures Through Inner Space—I just liked the idea of things getting really tiny and walking around in that environment—but number one was Pirates of the Caribbean.
Terry Rossio: My experience was similar. I’d been on it maybe a hundred or two hundred times before we even contemplated doing the movie.
Box Office Mojo: Were you drawn to the attraction’s horror features?
Ted Elliott: It was the totality of the experience. That ride begins with what is a dark ride feature. It really does—the skeleton, the cursed treasure—it’s always been part of the ride. Right at the beginning, the skeleton warns you to keep your hands and arms inside [the boat] and says that Davy Jones is waiting for those who don’t obey. It always had this supernatural aspect of legends that we all associate with the sea. But there had never been a movie that tied pirates to it.
Terry Rossio: For me, what the ride accomplishes so well is that sense of a fully realized fantasy. It’s a tip of the iceberg feeling—like [you are entering] a world that has its own rules and is its own reality. It’s like going into the world of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. The ride felt like little vignettes or episodes that feel as if they have a larger story behind them. I was curious to find out: how did those guys get there? How did the dog get the key? What’s going to happen? The fun of doing the Pirates of the Caribbean films is that you get to create a world. I think that’s what audiences like—they want to go visit that world. They want to visit those characters and look around corners and see where that path leads or where that ship came from.
Box Office Mojo: Are you writing The Jungle Cruise movie?
Terry Rossio:[laughs] No.
Ted Elliott:[laughs] No—although that movie was already made. It’s called Congo. Congo is The Jungle Cruise. If you watch it, even the hippos are there.
Terry Rossio: There’s nothing about doing The Jungle Cruise as a movie that’s inherently restrictive to making a great film. You could end up with The African Queen—
Ted Elliott: —If the Jungle Cruise [attraction] hadn’t already started with The African Queen. All I know is that they put the guns back into the ride. I personally thanked Disney for that.
Box Office Mojo: Is there more gunplay in the sequel?
Terry Rossio: No. There’s more pet violence perhaps. But don’t overlook the rather brutal moment [in the first picture] of the butler coming to the [governor’s residence] door and being shot.
Ted Elliott: Also, the first death we see in the first movie is Will throwing an axe into somebody’s back—when the pirates are invading Port Royale—and he doesn’t know that the pirates are unkillable. From Will’s point of view, he is the first person to commit actual violence.
Box Office Mojo: Is the third picture done?
Ted Elliott: No. We still have a couple of months left to shoot. We shot the location work simultaneously with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest but the plan was always that we would have something left to shoot.
Box Office Mojo: Is the title Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End?
Terry Rossio: That’s what we’re campaigning for—but it’s not set.
Ted Elliott: I like it because then you could say 'POTC: AWE.'
Box Office Mojo: Johnny Depp has received widespread praise for his portrayal of your character, Captain Jack Sparrow. How much of your writing remains in that characterization?
Ted Elliott: We wrote a very specific character and Johnny played that character but his performance was one neither of us could have imagined. We wanted to create this trickster. If you go all the way back to [Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel] Treasure Island, we kind of borrowed the moral ambiguity of that story. The whole thing comes down to [young boy] Jim Hawkins making the call as to whether [pirate] Long John Silver is a good man or a bad man—that’s the emotional crux of that story. Silver does kill people—he betrays everybody—and this moral ambiguity is inherent in the pirate/swashbuckler genre. To that regard, the trickster archetype seemed appropriate. That’s what we wanted to do with Jack Sparrow. Whether Johnny identified that consciously, he definitely found a perfect performance.
Terry Rossio: The world wants there to be movie stars and, in a sense, the story becomes Johnny Depp—because people want that. In terms of understanding why he’s [created] an iconic character, the story becomes 'Johnny Depp is brilliant' which of course is true because Johnny Depp is brilliant. People are not necessarily as interesting in pedestrian reality. You still have a storyboard artist who comes up with a visual of Johnny first stepping onto the dock as the ship sinks. We wrote that [scene in which Jack Sparrow is introduced]. We wrote lines like: 'you’re the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of—' and [the response] 'but you have heard of me.' People quote those lines. If the character had walked on screen and just stood there and said, 'hello,' it wouldn’t be the same. So, clearly the screenwriting goes into the creation of the character. And I have to credit Gore Verbinski’s direction.
Ted Elliott: When we were writing and making the first movie, [we had in mind] the Sergio Leone [spaghetti] Westerns like The Man With No Name [movies]. The Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef characters are essentially gods compared to all these mortals. They can shoot better, they can ride better, they’re smarter, they’re faster and they don’t say much. To some extent, that’s what we were playing in the first [Pirates], that Jack and [Captain] Barbossa [played by Geoffrey Rush] are kind of pirate gods. They come into the lives of these two mortal characters—
Terry Rossio: —and we continue that into At World’s End—
Ted Elliott: —and, to some extent, Jack is the demi-god, the trickster. He straddles both sides. Is he on the side of the gods—is he opposed to the gods?—is he on the side of the mortals? He’s on his own side.
Terry Rossio: You can also track the dialog in those [spaghetti Westerns]: the less words you say, the more god-like you are—and, in Pirates of the Caribbean[pictures]—
Ted Elliott: —pirates talk.
Terry Rossio: —the less Johnny says, the more truthful he is. The more words he uses, the more you should mistrust him.
Ted Elliott: So, yes, there is some conscious thought given to the behavior of Jack Sparrow.
Box Office Mojo: Does it concern you that Jack Sparrow will be perceived as less likable in this movie?
Ted Elliott: More interesting, not less likable. I can’t say what everybody’s going to feel, but, certainly the intent here was for people to be surprised by what Jack is doing. My argument against making him more likable is that he [ought to be] understandable. Everything he does is perfectly within character and, in a way, all we’re doing is revealing greater character depth. His character in the first movie included things that were less than admirable, less than likable.
Terry Rossio: The most important commandment is to sustain interest—if you do that, everything else follows; you can move people emotionally, you can make them laugh, you can do all sorts of things. It’s most important to demonstrate character complexity or to let characters do things that create interest, because that’s how we live our lives day to day. Same thing with complexity. For some reason, there’s a focus when people talk about movies about the idea of somehow 'getting it,' like things should be easy or clear. What really goes on in movies is that things are beguiling or intriguing and interest is sustained by seeing glimpses of a world or a story. That’s what happens in real life. People have to navigate the world based on incomplete information. That can draw people into a story. Yet, for some reason, people don’t understand that and they’re resistant to that technique. Luckily, we get to do it in these movies, which I think actually works. Likability and simplicity are not all they’re cracked up to be.
Box Office Mojo: What is the meaning of the series?
Ted Elliott: It’s a study of what is a pirate. How free can you really be? What are those trade-offs? Jack kind of represents the ultimate free man—he really has no obligations to anybody, and, obviously, if you make an obligation to somebody, you’re limiting your own freedom. But, if you’re not willing to limit your own freedom, you can’t have those relationships. If you look at Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest from that point of view, you kind of see what really leads to Jack’s ultimate fate and why Elizabeth does what she does.
Box Office Mojo: Jack Sparrow’s an anarchist?
Ted Elliott: Essentially, yes, he really is.
Terry Rossio: I wouldn’t say he’s a complete anarchist—
Ted Elliott: —he’s opposed to social structures, he’s opposed to government—
Terry Rossio: 99 percent of that’s correct but Jack has his own internal moral landscape. The choices he makes are not necessarily inconsistent with forming relationships.
Box Office Mojo: Is there an inner goodness to Jack Sparrow?
Terry Rossio: No. Jack says it clearly [in the first movie:] there’s what a man can do and what a man can’t do. Those words encompass his inner contradictions—that’s what’s so beautiful about them—he’s saying you cannot generalize, you cannot philosophize, you cannot come up with a simple [moral code]. It’s almost saying each situation calls for its own resolution; there is simply what you will do and what you won’t do.
Ted Elliott: He’s also saying, judge by deeds, not words.
Box Office Mojo: Do all the characters return in the third movie?
Ted Elliott: Yes.
Box Office Mojo: What are the mechanics of your writing partnership?
Terry Rossio: We do the back and forth exchange of files. One of the techniques we learned while working in animation [on Shrek] is to work in sequences. For me, it’s easier to attack a three-page thing than the entire script.
Ted Elliott: I know writers who actually work in the full draft and I can’t figure out how they do it. If you have a hundred pages, if you want to get to a scene in the middle, you have to go through all that other stuff. Whereas, if you’ve broken it up into sequences, you only have to deal with exactly the part you need to work on.
Box Office Mojo: How do you take a step back and look at the big picture?
Ted Elliott: That’s why the cards are up on the storyboard. We work out the story on index cards to break it down.
Terry Rossio: Truth be told, sometimes, you don’t get that view of the Big Picture until opening day. Also, it’s a very immersive job; you wake up and you’re on a set and talking to actors and going to story meetings and, with the amount of time you spend understanding how a story should work, you don’t necessarily have to go to the boards. You’re living the film as it’s being made, and you can sometimes tell [what to write] because you know that world so incredibly well. You [already] have the context of the larger movie.
Box Office Mojo: How do studio pressures affect the writing process?
Ted Elliott: You’re ultimately trying to create a physical object. It’s wonderful to imagine, but once you start rendering the script as something physical, you have to deal with the physics. It really comes down to the physical constraints on what’s mostly intellectual. The reason I became a screenwriter is to make movies. If I just wanted to write screenplays, that’s all I’d do. If I just wanted to be a writer, I’d never write screenplays. There is much more satisfactory work than writing a screenplay because it’s not the final work. You’re not actually writing to communicate with your intended audience; you’re writing to communicate with the people who are making the movie.
Terry Rossio: Sometimes the physical constraints on a movie are the people working on the movie and Ted’s much more able to navigate that.
Ted Elliott: I come at it from the point of view that, if Terry, for example, doesn’t get my idea, I’m not communicating my idea—not if it’s really a great idea—or, it may not be a great idea or, in Terry’s subjective opinion, it’s not a great idea for the movie. [Director] Gore [Verbinski] may initially disagree with an idea [in the script] and we may have arguments. But what eventually develops is a new idea that we’re all satisfied with.
Box Office Mojo: Can you give an example of an idea you refused to compromise?
Ted Elliott: In the very first meeting we had on Pirates 2 and possibly Pirates 3, we kind of pitched to Gore, [and producers] Jerry Bruckheimer, Mike Stenson and Chad Oman how the movie ends—I don’t want to spoil it—with Jack, Will and Elizabeth. We said 'this is what we want and then in Pirates 3, this happens.' They were like, 'nyahh.' But we’ve learned an important lesson, which is that the right idea at the wrong time is a wrong idea. So, we stopped and said, 'alright,' and talked about what more we wanted to do with this movie. A couple of weeks later, Gore had come back to those [same] ideas and, now, they’re there. There is a point where the writer has to be allowed to take responsibility for the work—or not take responsibility for the movie.
Box Office Mojo: How do you filter the demands of your previous success—with Shrek and the Pirates pictures?
Ted Elliott: [Pauses] What Terry and I like to write happens to be what audiences like to see. When we’re working, we’re concerned about how we’re affecting the audience, but we’re not basing decisions on whether the audience will like it—it’s based on us trying to manipulate the audience to experience the story the way we want to tell it to them.
Terry Rossio: You would think those things—the pressure of previous work and living up to the success—matter. The irony is that there’s a story you have to solve and it’s incredibly difficult. External pressures don’t help solve it but they also don’t make the process any harder. If you solve the difficulty of writing a good screenplay, you’re already there and everything else kind of falls away. Nothing can make it better or worse.
Box Office Mojo: What is it you’re trying to express with your stories?
Terry Rossio: We often have a theme that emerges: to accept responsibility for your actions—
Ted Elliott: —and always question authority.
Originally published by Box Office Mojo