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The Curse of the First Moon, Ciak (Italy), August 2003
translated by Francesca

One fine day, Johnny Depp appeared with a whole mouthful of gold teeth to assume the look of the pirate Jack Sparrow, and the Disney executives almost had a heart attack. “As a matter of fact,” laughs the producer Jerry Bruckheimer, “his smile was… blinding. I had to convince him that it was more important for the audience to remember the character, and not his gums.”.

Over a year and a half later, and a lot less golden molars, the result of the odd collaboration between the Mickey Mouse studio, the producer of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, and a highly idiosyncratic actor that takes care to nuance and detail, that has always steered clear of Hollywood action movies, has made it to the screen. Inspired by the homonymous Disneyland attraction (an unmissable tour of the happily dissolute pirate world, with ransacking, fires and rum fests) Pirates of the Caribbean was on paper a double-edged bet.

On the one hand, there was the guarantee that the starting point was very familiar; on the other, the idea of retrieving and actualizing not only the Disney adventure movie tradition (adaptations of Verne and Stevenson) but also the pirate genre itself, of which the last Hollywood manifestation takes us back to the catastrophic Pirates (my note: 1995 movie with Geena Davis and Matthew Modine). That’s where Jerry Bruckheimer comes in. “I have no idea what the audience wants,” the producer said in Los Angeles. “I base my work exclusively on what I would like to see. And when Disney sent me the screenplay, the way it was them, I didn’t want to see that movie. So I passed it on to the writers of Shrek, and they got an idea that I really liked straight away, that was to add a supernatural element. Cursed pirates and Johnny Depp: that was a combination that I would have paid a ticket for. Because it was a Disney production I didn’t want kids thinking that it was a movie for their baby sisters”. Considering the fact that Johnny Depp modeled his Jack Sparrow on the Rolling Stones’ guitar player, Keith Richards (whom the actor imitates in his makeup, movements and even his English accent), the Curse of the First Moon definitely doesn’t run that risk.

On a background that mixes visual references to the theme park ride, pirate movie classics and a bit of Ray Harryhausen-style horror, the plot includes a blacksmith of mysterious origins (Orlando Bloom), the lively governor’s daughter whom he is in love with (the English actress Keira Knightley, who has already starred in Bend it like Beckham), the garrison captain to whom she is promised (Jack Davenport) and a mysterious Aztec medallion in which is concealed the secret of the curse that has transformed the pirates of Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) into skeletons (one can see them as such in the moonlight) and their ship the Black Pearl into a ghost ship.

But, most of all, the movie is Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a “sunfried” pirate, a rogue, in his own way an idealist, the former captain of the Black Pearl, abandoned by Barbossa on a desert island. Since then, Sparrow pursues him incessantly to retrieve his ship.

“There’s always something rebellious and revolutionary when one talks about piracy,” says director Gore Verbinski (The Mexican, The Ring), “pirates belong to an era of oppression, when one was hanged for stealing a piece of bread. There was nothing to lose. For me, this is a movie about the importance of breaking the rules; in that sense, all the characters get what they want through “acts of piracy”.

“Who has never wished to be a pirate?” wonders Orlando Bloom, fresh off the set of the third installment of The Lord of the Rings. “It’s every little boy’s dream.”. And also Keira Knightley (who personally did almost all her action sequences herself) guarantees that, when she was a little girl, she also played pirates. Verbinski admits to being fascinated by the genre and quotes Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn (Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk), The Crimson Pirate, by Siodmak with Burt Lancaster and The Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks.

But in his movie he leaves the romantic exuberance of those titles, their duels, their love stories to Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Pryce (the governor), steering more in the darker direction of the strictly piratesque. Both Depp and Rush (who engage in a long duel in the treasure cave) seem in fact closer to the irreducible Long John Silver of Treasure Island and the delicious ferociousness of Charles Laughton in Captain Kidd (his pirate learned lord’s manners, committed crimes on behalf of the British Crown which he then went on to rob as well) than the more benevolent interpretations by Flynn, Tyrone Power or Douglas Fairbanks. The result of this restyling, The Curse of the First Moon, by a producer who is known for his glossy, monumental, hi-tech movies, could be the key to relaunch Disney adventure movies. Last year The Count of Montecristo didn’t quite work. In the meantime, another Disneyland attraction adaptation is under consideration: The Haunted Mansion.

Like a Rolling Stone

In order to interpret the pirate Jack Sparrow, the actor got his inspiration from his friend Keith Richards, guitar player of the English rock band, whom he defines “graceful, funny and smart.”. The real star of The Curse of the First Moon is Depp: chosen by surprise by the producer of Top Gun and Pearl Harbor as the “Disney antidote”.

The producer Jerry Bruckheimer intended for Johnny Depp in The Curse of the First Moon to act as an “antidote for Disney”. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley refer to him simply as a “genius” (“Johnny is Johnny”, says Bloom, “a whole different level”.). And Depp must have something of the genius, something unique, in order to “burn a hole in” and so radically turn such a production upside down. His is truly a boarding, a one-man boarding. For years now, the ex-television star of 21 Jump Street, who has been living in southern France for a long time now, with his wife Vanessa Paradis and their two children, marks his movies indelibly. The impression one gets is that Depp works in a world of his own and that he moves in a separate microcosm. He’s always about the shock of Edward Scissorhands appearing in pastel-colored suburbs. We met him in Los Angeles.

Why did you model your character on Keith Richards?

I thought that pirates were the rock’n’roll stars of the eighteenth century and there’s something rather peculiar in how Keith “holds himself”. I didn’t want to imitate him, reproduce him exactly. But I used the memories of when we spent time together. He’s extremely graceful, incredibly funny and very smart. And I believe he’s the greatest rock star of all time.

It’s odd seeing you in a big summer blockbuster action movie…

I’m still too stupid to make choices based merely on their potential success. This is a more important production than usual for me, but I chose it in the same way I always do, because I saw something in my character; I thought that I could really do something with this pirate. I imagined his as kind of the guy who can slide between raindrops without ever getting wet. For me, even in this kind of production, the work doesn’t change. From my point of view it was as small a movie as all the others I’ve done.

Gypsies, pirates, kids with scissors for hands. Your characters are almost always outsiders…

I really like gypsies and pirates. Gypsies are kind of like American Indians, wonderful people for whom music and art have enormous significance. The romantic imagery of pirates has been part of me since I was a kid. And my daughter, who is four years old, when she saw the trailer she went mad. Now she’s convinced I really am a pirate.

Your part in the movie is very different from the others, your acting is more over the top, almost comedic. How did you understand whether what you were doing would work or not?

My ideal thermometer is the crew. If in the corner of my eye I could see someone trying to stifle a laugh or if I could hear someone laughing softly, I knew I was at the right level. Same thing when at the end of a roll someone would burst out laughing. And it’s important to have that thermometer: I want every “Action” to be fresh, I try different things every time.

Why do you still have gold teeth?

I’m ashamed to admit it but, after production – during which I stayed in California with my family – I wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Only when we landed in France did I realize that the person who had to take all of the caps out was on the other side of the ocean, where I had no intention of returning for months.

Photos: a pic of Johnny Depp at sea; one of Orlando and Keira where Orlando is wearing a musketeer like hat and Keira’s boobs are about to explode from her dress, they have redcoat soldiers behind them (sorry, movie’s coming out next week here, so can’t really do more than describe the pix); one with Keira and Rush in the treasure cave; one with Rush taking Keira’s necklace off on the ship; one of Johnny and Orlando ready to fight with swords; a close-up of Johnny in Sparrow-mode for his interview.