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Thrill Ride, Empire (UK), September 2003
By Ian Nathan
typed by Sarah of The OB Files, scans from Jenn, Diana, and Gollumsess

It veered dangerously towards Waterworld territory and was based on a boring theme park attraction. So how did Pirates of the Caribbean break the curse of Cutthroat Island to become the ultimate summer blockbuster?

Keith Richards, lizard-skinned rock reprobate and chief axe-wielder for the Rolling Stones, may find it surprising - if indeed, he finds anything surprising - that he has helped save the pirate movie genre. Languishing in a watery grave, bloated and consumed by their own self-importance, recent sea-bound turkeys such as Cutthroat Island and Roman Polanski's Pirates had condemned the once-glorious movie buccaneers to status of Hollywood laughing stock. There was every chance reruns of silent Russian cinema were more bankable. Well, not anymore. Thanks to out Keith, probably snoozing off another night on the tiles as we speak, times have changed. Pirates are hip again. Pirates are in. Pirates, goddammit, are where it's at. It was that most loquacious and rock-flavoured of movie stars, Johnny Depp, whose decision to model his role, at the eye of the Pirates of the Caribbean hurricane, entirely on the legendary musician, that has made this Disney romp the summer's big-time resurrection story. Musicals? Phooey. As soon as you witness Depp get his gold-sheathed chops into Captain Jack Sparrow, you'll take it as written: pirates are the new rock 'n' roll. "I thought pirates were the rock stars of the 18th century," shrugs Johnny Depp, puffing neatly on a cheroot. (You mind the poison?") and giving every question the full bearing of a preternaturally becalmed personality. "I got to thinking of rock stars of today and just the way Keith carries himself..." Depp drifts off into reverie; he and Richards are long-time buddies. He is currently poised at the head of a hotel table, dressed inch-prefect in a denim shirt overlaid with a pinstripe waistcoat, his golden locks (coloured for a new movie?) hidden beneath a bobble hat. He looks damn cool. To be honest, he could be wearing Rupert Bear trousers and a bin liner and still look like the hippest car in town. There is something unshakably, genetically stylish about Depp. And he is incapable of letting it slip.

"I wasn't interested in doing an imitation of him or a character study of him," he continues. "I just used a memory of spending time with him, the way her carries himself. He is very graceful, very charismatic, elegant and incredibly witty. I also think he is the greatest rock 'n' roll star of all time."

Captain Jack Sparrow, channeling Richards, plus threads of cartoon skunk Lothario Pepe Le Pew and a distinctly Rasta vibe, is the wow-factor for Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney's mega-budget (4125 million), theme park-based, CGI-infused, finely-cheekboned gamble. Like a salt-lashed Adam Ant, with implanted gold teeth, Depp's galleon-sized homage to the piratical dash is a drawling, sprawling, gentleman rogue perpetually at half tilt, and worth all the CGI ILM can cook up. A more perfect fit of a man, movie and drug-addled riff master is hard to imagine.

"It was awesome to watch Johnny," iterates lifelong fan Orlando Bloom, who lends his new-found popularity to straight-arrow blacksmith hero Will Turner, the Wise to Depp's Morecambe, if you will. "I really don't think anyone, in terms of studio, would have expected to get what they got, which is this completely fantastic character; he always creates a character that is so different, but he went from the guts with this one. I kind of slotted into the sort of more typical boring hero-type role and kept looking at him thinking: 'F***, I wish I was doing that,'"

When producer Jerry Bruckheimer came on board the project, the script sucked. As one of Hollywood's major powerbrokers, with more home runs under his designer belt than he's had caviar sarnies, you don't start dabbling with a defunct genre with some soppy effort about lantern-jawed heroes rescuing coy damsels from bearded tyrants whose dialogue amounts to bellowing, "Ahhh-harrrrr!" to the gallery at opportune moments.

"I make movies that I want to go and see," Bruckheimer says emphatically - you get the feeling, judging from the icy calm of Mr. Bruckheimer, that everything he says is emphatic. "And when Disney first gave me the script, I didn't want to see that movie." So he took the script to Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, the witty scribes behind Shrek, who immediately came up with a sly twist. What if the bad pirates were cursed? What if, by the silvery beams of moonlight, they revealed their true selves - a crew of nightmarish, skeletal undead, unable to taste, touch, or "take pleasure from a woman of questionable virtue" until the curse was lifted? What if it required a 'good' pirate, of dubious morals, to aid the heroes in defeating the despicable bad' uns? Now you're talking. "That really excited me," concurs Bruckheimer. "I thought that the combination of cursed pirates and Johnny Depp was something I would go and see."

As a concept, everybody loves pirates. Director Gore Verbinski immersed himself in pirate lore, researching the scabrous, violent history of the real scourges of the seven seas. Bloom and Depp couldn't help but grin when they were offered the script ("I felt nine years old again," was Depp's reaction). Even Keira Knightley, kidnapped heroine and potential paramour to Bloom, Elizabeth Swann, was already a convert. "When I was five I had the hat and sword and eye patch and everything," she sighs happily. After all, they cut such suave figures, the gentleman rogues of their day, raping and a-pillaging with such a debonair flair and fashion sense it hardly constitutes unlawful behaviour. Which, of course, bears no relation to the gruesome, brutal reality. But then, who wants a pirate movie that hankers after authenticity? You want it to wallow in those cutthroat cliches, the memorable bric-a-brac of legend that Uncle Walt helpfully tucked into his leisurely theme park ride. Indeed, this is a film that sticks firmly to the party line: if pirates are the business, let's make sure they do the business.

"If you look at those bad pirate movies," says Bruckheimer, "I don't think they have the humour of Johnny and some of these pirates. This is a pirate movie with a wink, something a little different, and hopefully the audience will appreciate that."

The script now shipshape, they still faced the other great drawback of the pirate milieu - you have to shoot on the open sea. And we all know what that means. In a word: Waterworld. Yeesh.

"It is very difficult because the wind always changes and you can't predict things," agrees Bruckheimer, with a tone that suggests such trials are the realm of mere mortals. "What we did was an enormous amount of research into where both Waterworld and Titanic got into trouble. We based our entire movie on what we learned form their mishaps."

The trick, it transpires, is to cheat. You place your ships in a dock, away from the difficult swells and feckless gusts, then use your digital paintbrush to remove the background. In fact, only six days of the entire shoot took place out on the ocean free, a product of necessity for a fierce, multi-angled ship-to-ship battle. "It was all very well planned - we only went a day over," affirms the producer with a glint of satisfaction.

Okay, but you still have half your cast turning into filthy skeletons, complete with scraps of rotted flesh clinging to their bones, including Geoffrey Rush, an irritable monkey and Mackenzie Crook (geeky Gareth from The Office), whose ill-fitting wooden eyeball spends most of the film rolling across the deck. Another job for the ever-ready, no-job-too-bog, no-deadline-too-soon FX magicians at ILM.

"They really bought into the concept," retorts the ever-sure Bruckheimer, for whom no question is too negative. "The results are spectacular. These weren't just skeletons lying on a deck; they had to act and behave as if fully human, taking part in sword fights and climbing up the rigging,"

The visuals speak for themselves - at one point, to demonstrate his physical dilemma, Rush's dastardly Captain Barbossa downs a bottle of scarlet rum and we watch deliciously as the booze seeps out between his empty ribs. Each of this rag-tag gang of scallywags comes complete with their natty zombie equivalent.

If all of this sounds like a whole lot more pizzazz than the granny-friendly jaunt between decaying animatronic puppets mumbling, "A pirate's life for me," of the original ride, then that is entirely deliberate. There were no actual requirements from the studio to stick to the rusty Disneyland 'adventure'. Even so, Verbinski and the writers were cute enough to add plenty of snap references along the way to keep the trivia goons at bay.

"Gore did a wonderful job of recreating those scenes," confirms Bruckheimer. "The dog with the keys is the most memorable thing from the ride, and when they walk through Tortuga (a riotous pirate dive) there are a lot of things, like the guy drinking from two flagons. However, the misconception is still that this is a movie about a ride: it's not."

Bruckheimer refuses to dwell on it. He wants to emphasize how sexy and modern his movie it. After all he secured the services of two of Britain's hottest young stars: Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. So you can stuff your clockwork barges and nursery-sized flume section. Feel the sex appeal.

One-time Elf and full-time heartthrob Orlando Bloom, looking so ridiculously healthy and handsome it make you want to spit, is yanking back his unruly black locks (grown long for Troy) and trying to encapsulate the movie in a sentence. The words, sadly, are evading him. "Ah mate, it's fun," he 'describes'. "It's a pirate movie. Who didn't want to be a pirate at some point in their life? It ticks all the boxes. It's kind of across the board; it's got a weighty side to it, a fun subject matter and a supernatural thing. Which is kind of intriguing. The story itself is very intricate. When I was reading it I was going, 'So hang on a minute, I see we go from here to here, and who is cursed and who isn't, and that there's a coin...;"

In a crowded nutshell, Bloom is Will Turner, a blacksmith orphan of pirate stock (unbeknownst to him), with a hefty crush on Knightley's governor's daughter (who wouldn't have?). Turns out she's got his Aztec coin, needed by bad pirate Barbossa (Rush) to end his curse, and gets kidnapped by the nefarious crew of The Black Pearl. So, Will gives chase with good pirate Jack Sparrow (Depp), who happens to be the Pearl's former captain. Anyway, it's Will who Barbossa really needs... Oh just go see it.

Suffice to say, the backdrop is the sunlit Caribbean; cerulean skies, emerald seas, golden beaches, the lot. Must have been a trial to shoot. "It was quite hard work to be honest," says Bloom. "People think if you go to these exotic locations it is amazing, but it's often quite grueling. You don't have many of the creature comforts."

Knightley, who has the frothy confidence only flawless looks and being a bit posh gives you, sees things differently.

"I went into work every day on a speedboat," she grins, "and got onto a big old 17th century ship and sailed 26 miles which, I have to say, isn't too bad. It could be a lot worse than the Caribbean."

One of the most gratifying elements of the movie the is robust, semi-cynical, can-do persona granted to damsel Elisabeth Swann. She spends most of the time getting on with things while the idiot heroes dither, usually to the tune of her exasperated namtra: "bloody pirates!"

"She's not like me at all," Knightley asserts unconvincingly. "She is feisty, she is fun and I am neither of those. She is courageous and I'm not. I suppose she is English - I'm English.

The part also required plenty of leaping, dangling and whacking bad guys with frying pans. while the boys farted about at swashbuckling school, she was in the thick of things. Mostly, without the aid of a stunt double. "That was strange for me because I am really lazy and it is really hard for me to get off my arse. It was all so spur of the moment: 'Isn't it a good idea if you hit a guy over a head with a pole?' I didn't really have the chance to think about it much before I did it."

Elizabeth does get to kiss Orlando though, which can't be bad. Knightley waves away such an unprofessional suggestion and sighs (this has been the constant question since she began the promotional barrage). "He's a sweetheart. We got on really well. Yet, we only had, like, three or four scenes together. We are in love, but I get taken by pirates. Think about it! Then who has to come to rescue me? Hello..."

And where does she stand on Johnny Depp? "No, he was never my thang," she retorts. "I wasn't head-over-heels, which is a good job. He's not bad-looking though is he?"

Which brings us, full sweep, back to Captain Jack. If Pirates is as big a hit as it deserves to be, then Johnny Depp may well have unwittingly lifted himself into franchise territory. The idea, of course, makes his eyes glaze over. That was never the point. "I'm still too dumb to make choices just because it is going to be successful. In terms of this being a giant production, I still chose it the same way I choose other films. I really saw something in the character I could do something with."

The proof of the pudding has come pretty close to home. Depp's four year-old daughter, Lily-Rose, has been watching the Pirates trailer on loop, as long as daddy is available to punch rewind. "It's funny," he admits, as if it has just occurred to him. "She knows that mummy (Vanessa Paradis) is a singer. But she actually think that her daddy is a pirate" Yo ho ho.