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Loose story threads ultimately lead to box office gold for Disney's "Dead Man's Chest"

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Loose story threads ultimately lead to box office gold for Disney's "Dead Man's Chest"

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It's getting harder & harder to not be impressed by "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Given this Gore Verbinski film has earned (to date) $407.5 million during its initial domestic run. Which makes this "Pirates" sequel the sixth highest grossing film in U.S. history.

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Now $407.5 million is admittedly a very impressive figure. But even that enormous amount pales in comparison to the $929 million that this Jerry Bruckheimer production has earned (to date) worldwide. Which makes DMC the fourth highest grossing film in world history.

There's just no getting around it now. Audiences worldwide have truly embraced this "Pirates" sequel. Which is -- to be honest -- is kind of astounding. Given that when Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio were initially writing "Curse of the Black Pearl," they never dreamed that they'd get the chance to create a sequel to that film. Let alone two.

As Rossio explained in a recent interview with "Scr(i)pt" magazine:

When we were making the first movie, we had no idea that we'd be doing any more. We figured that we had killed off the pirates genre for another decade.

But once "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" proved to be one of 2003's box office behemoths (Earning $305 million during its initial domestic run as well as an additional $348 million overseas), it was almost inevitable that Walt Disney Studios would order up a follow-up. Which was why -- once Ted & Terry landed this assignment (Johnny Depp reportedly refused to reprise his role as Captain Jack Sparrow unless Elliot & Rossio were hired to write the film's screenplay) ... Well, they approached their new duties with considerable caution.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

After all, Ted & Terry had seen more than their share of disappointing sequels over the years. In a recent feature article in Sci-Fi magazine, Rossio described how let down he had been by "Return of the Jedi." How disappointed he was that this Richard Marquand film had recycled so many story ideas (I.E. The Death Star) from the first "Star Wars" film.

I remember going, "Uh, oh!" We already saw that. You didn't come up with anything else?' It was supremely disappointing.

Elliot & Rossio wanted to avoid having "Pirates" fans have the same sort of reaction to their "Curse of the Black Pearl" follow-up. But then how do you write a satisfying sequel to a film that was never supposed to have a sequel in the first place?

 Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

And the answer is ... You watch "Curse of the Black Pearl" over and over and over again. Looking for loose story threads that you can then tease out into full-blown plotlines for your follow-up film. As Rossio explained:

Our decision was to reverse-engineer a trilogy. Create a second and third film that appeared to be set up by the first ... If we've done the work right, then somebody watching all three films will get the sense it is all one larger story, sort of like a large story told in three books.

Sometimes these new storylines were just the results of some happy accidents. Things that these two screenwriters had accidentally left unexplained in the first "Pirates" picture. Take -- for example -- Jack's compass. As Ted Elliot explained in a recent interview with "Creative Screenwriting" magazine:

In the first movie, we established that Jack had this compass and it's implied very strongly that the compass points to Isla De Muerta. In fact, we went back and looked at it and in no place in this movie do we definitively state that the compass points to Isla De Muerta. So in "Dead Man's Chest," we had a chance to redefine the compass -- whoever's holding, the compass will point to what you want most.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

This was just the sort of thing that Ted & Terry tried to do with "Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End." Take advantage of plot points that hadn't been completely explained in the first film, concepts & characters that had been introduced in "Curse of the Black Pearl" but had not been fully delinated yet ... and then using this new material to expand & enhance the known "Pirates of the Caribbean" universe.

It may surprise you to learn how many loose threads from "Curse of the Black Pearl" Elliot & Rossio actually used while spinning the screenplays for "Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End." Don't believe me? Well, then let's take a closer look at some of the lines & scenes from Disney's first "Pirates" picture that were used to inspire its sequels.

  • " ... and then they made me their chief." -- Jack says this line to Murtogg & Mullroy (I.E. The two sailors that were left to guard the Interceptor) as Elizabeth falls from the parapet into the sea. This piece of dialogue reportedly inspired the Isla de Pelegostos sequence in "Dead Man's Chest." Where Sparrow is made king of that cannibalistic tribe.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

  • "Had a brush with the East India Trading Company, did we, Pirate?" -- Commodore Norrington's comment to Jack Sparrow after discovering that the letter "P" has been branded on the Captain's inner wrist. Ted & Terry used this seemingly thrown-away line as a way to set up the East India Trading Company as the pirate world's chief nemesis in "Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End."

    Elliot & Rossio also use this brand to establish that Captain Jack Sparrow has some history with the new commander of Port Royal, Lord Cutler Beckett. Do you remember the scene in "Dead Man's Chest" where Beckett is brandishing a red-hot fire poker that features the letter "P" on it? Cutler's next line of dialogue -- "We've had dealings in the past. And we've each left our mark... on the other" -- clearly indicates that Cutler has previously crossed swords with Jack. And will no doubt do so again in "At World's End."

  • "You cheated." "Pirate." -- Will Turner's exchange with Captain Jack Sparrow in the blacksmith shop, after that pirate has broken the rules in order to come out on top in their first sword fight, is echoed on the deck of the Black Pearl in "Dead Man's Chest." After Elizabeth -- in order to give the crew a chance to escape from the Kraken -- distracts Jack with a kiss before manacling him to the mizzen mast.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Though Miss Swann tries to justify her underhanded action by saying "It's after you, not the ship. It's not us. This is the only way, don't you see? I'm not sorry," the Captain won't hear of it. Now looking up at Elizabeth with genuine admiration, Jack only has one word to say: "Pirate."

  • "According to the code of the Brethren, laid down by the Pirates Morgan & Bartholemew, you have to take me to your captain" -- Elizabeth's quick exchange with Pintel & Ragnetti (As she invokes the rights of Parlay after being cornered at the governor's mansion) may not mean all that much to "Pirates" fans now. But trust me, folks. By this time next year, after you've seen "At World's End" and watched as Miss Swann makes her trip to Shipwreck Island for a meeting with the Brethen ... You're going to be amazed at how well all of the pieces of this film trilogy seem to fit together.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

  • "My name is Will Turner. My father was Bootstrap Bill Turner. His blood runs in my veins. On my word, do as I say. Or I'll pull this trigger and be lost to Davy Jones' locker" -- Will's colorful threat to blow his own brains out right there on the deck of the Black Pearl not only adds some tension to the first "Pirates" picture, it's also the very first time that the name of the villain of "Dead Man's Chest" villain is actually mentioned in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" universe. Which is why it is yet another one of those loose plot threads that Ted & Terry were happy to take advantage of.
  • "You're off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters" -- This is one of the more memorable lines that Captain Barbossa tosses off during his epic swordfight with Jack in the Treasure Cave at Isla De Muerta. Little did Elliot & Rossio realizes that -- when they first wrote this piece of dialogue back in 2002 -- that it would hold the key to "At World's End." When -- in order to rescue Captain Jack from the underworld -- his crew would literally have to sail " ... off the edge of the map."

    And speaking of the third "Pirates" film ...

  • "Clearly you've never been to Singapore" -- Jack's throwaway comment to Murtogg & Mullroy after he cuts Elizabeth out of her wet corset will seem a whole lot more surprising next May. Once you see Barbossa, Elizabeth & Will journey to Singapore in order to secure ...

No. It wouldn't be fair to Ted & Terry -- given all of the hard work that they've put in, all the ingenuity that they've used in order to turn the "Curse of the Black Pearl" 's dead-end plot into the proper launching place for a truly entertaining trilogy -- to reveal anything else about the storyline of "At World's End." Other than to say that two themes that have already been explored in the first two films in this series (I.E. The concept of using leverage to get what you want. As well as the somewhat unique notion that just because you're a pirate doesn't mean that you can't also be a good person) will be carried through the third installment of this trilogy.

I know, I know. I'm forgetting all the great little gags that provide connective tissue between "Curse of the Black Pearl" and "Dead Man's Chest." Like how Governor Swann accidentally breaks off one of the lanterns in the hallway when he first visits Elizabeth in prison in "Pirates 2." Which echoes what happens to Will Turner in "Pirates 1," when he comes by the governor's mansion to deliver Norrington's sword.

 Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Or -- better yet -- how about Capt. Jack's throwaway comment to Gibbs after he discovers Miss Swann in disguise on the docks of Tortuga? Sparrow first says -- in this loud happy voice -- "Elizabeth!" As if he's truly pleased to see the governor's daughter there . But then in a sotto voce aside to Gibbs (Perhaps because Sparrow remembers all too well that it was Miss Swann who set fire to all that rum when they were stranded together on that deserted island), Jack quickly says "Hide the rum."

I mean, surely I can't be the only one who noticed how well "Curse of the Black Pearl" and "Dead Man's Chest" fit together. The many ways that Elliot & Rossio tied these two films to one another. Perhaps some of you JHM readers out there have your own favorite moments from these motion pictures, things that you noticed that cleverly connect "COTBP" & "DMC" that you'd now like to share.

Your thoughts?

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  • Fun article, Jim! One thing that surprised me in DMC was the use of the undead monkey - because this character's condition only makes sense to those who stayed through Black Pearl's closing credits to see the very last scene.

    I applaud them for rewarding the fans who do sit through the credits, and I'm pleasantly amazed that they went merrily forward with this plot point without bothering to spell it out for the many, many audience members who never saw the monkey's fate at the end of the first film's credit roll.

    Opening night of DMC, I overheard several conversations that went along these lines:

    "Why is the monkey undead? The curse was broken!"
    "Did you sit all the way through the credits?"
    "Uh, no..."
    "Well, there ya go."

    Needless to say, a huge percentage of the opening night crowd stayed 'till the bitter
    end this time around. The pay-off didn't *seem* as big a deal this time, but who knows: I don't think we've seen the last of King Canine.
  • "Given that when Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio were initially writing "Curse of the Black Pearl," they never dreamed that they'd get the chance to create a sequel to that film. Let alone two.
    "'When we were making the first movie, we had no idea that we'd be doing any more. We figured that we had killed off the pirates genre for another decade.'"
    You really have to appreciate history to see what a lightning bolt the first "Pearl" was:
    This was back when Disney didn't see the project as much beyond a Pressler-synergized follow-up to "Country Bears", thought they could get us in with a few ride references and quoting the song a couple times, and that their "big marketing thrill-ride" would be the Haunted Mansion movie the next year--
    Up to that point, the last two big-budget Pirate movies that had been made were the Roman Polanski disaster, and "Cutthroat Island" becoming one of the all-time studio money-losers, and "The Goonies" was still calling itself "the movie version of the POTC ride".  (Which nobody's really understood why, except that there's a pirate ship and the characters fall down an underground waterfall at some point.)

    It's easy to be cynical about surprise hits suddenly wanting their own closed trilogy after that Matrix mess (and don't think "Goal!"'s going to get one either), but like the article says, when they can tie it together just the right way...  :)
  • Great article, Jim.
  • Love the POTC franchise, but the "tying of loose threads" has sort of killed the magical ambiguity of the first film for me.  Jack uses a compass that doesn't work?  COOL!  The compass actually DOES work and it is plot point that is explained by an extended narrative?  LESS COOL!  You obviously have never been to Singapore?  COOL- what's up with Singapore; Jack is full of tantalizing non-sequiters... Did you know about the massive Singapore plot-point the line actually alludes to that will be explored in detail in the next film?  LESS COOL!

    See?  These odd throw-away lines helped the audience IMAGINE this unique parallel universe Jack lives in.  Now, the curtain is being pulled away in the name of a "garsh-look-what-we-found" trilogy.  Just like when "the Force" went from the mystical of Star Wars to the measurable (medi-chlorians... ugh...) of the prequels.
  • One thing that sticks out to me and something I have been surprised to not have heard more of from several sources is Jack Sparrow's age. In COTBP there was mention that it had been 10 years since Jack had lost the Black Pearl, that in and of itself was enough to make you go eh? But the real jab was in DMC when Davey Jones tells Jack his 30 year reign as Captain of the Pearl was up. Which means that Jack must have been what 13 years old when he was given the Pearl? I think there is way more there than meets the eye here.
  • Great article. I love both Pirates movies. I loved what they did with the second, just by using little (or not so little) comments made inthe first one, and I can't wait to see what they do with the third. oh and btw 'jthomasc', just so you know, Davy Jones tells Capt. Jack that his 13 year reign as Capt. is up- not 30. Two years as Capt., then the 10 years since he lost the Black Pearl that is mentioned in the 1st movie, and one year passed between the movies.
  • Thirteen year reign as Captain of the Pearl not 30.  I saw it again just last night.
  • Oh ok, I see.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • Yeah, I agree about "Return of the Jedi". Not long ago I rented all 3 films in the original (and should have been ONLY) trilogy. Loved the first two, but only got halfway into the "Jedi" film before turning it off. It was fan service to the nth degree. Lame dialogue, too many critters, recycled plot, and those damn Ewoks!!!

    I loved "Dead Man's Chest". A truly worthy sequel. Let's hope "At World's End" won't pull a "Jedi" on us...
  • Great article Jim. DMC was really a great movie. I love how they did cover many of the loose plot points from the first film and I eagerly await how they will tie everything together in the 3rd film.
  • As much as I love DMC, I do have to agree with bhb007 that not explaining those plot points in Pearl served to make it a lot more mysterious.  It makes it open-ended - a sort of "choose your own adventure" sort of thing - when you hear about Singapore and the East India Trading company and are never given an explanation.

    That said, I think any sequel takes away that mystique, even if it's planned in advance to eventually let more light on the throwaway lines, and looking at it that way, Ted and Terry Rossio did the best job possible on this sequel.  

    What I think they really did right was expanding on characters that hadn't had much chance to shine in the original movie.  Norrington comes to mind first and foremost, followed by Elizabeth; yes, she had a lot of screentime in Pearl, but there were very obvious hints that she found piracy interesting (even as a little girl) and had done extensive reading about it on her own time.  It's nice to see her actually acting on that in DMC.

    My biggest beef (maybe my own beef) with DMC is the chief bit - great part of the movie, don't get me wrong, but I'm a huge fan of Pearl and remember most of the lines...  The way it's mentioned in Pearl, I'd have expected either a flashback or some sort of mention that Jack had been there *before* DMC took place.  It seems kind of sloppy to have him magically become a chief of a tribe, making no mention of the "other" time he was a chief.  

    When all's said and done, though, I'm still beside myself that the sequel actually lived up to my expectations.  I agree with some of the other posters here... The last time I saw a sequel that rivaled the original was when I first saw Empire Strikes Back.  Let's just hope World's End isn't the Pirates franchise's Return of the Jedi.
  • Another gag is when Jack hits Will's head with an oar in DMC when they had to run back to the Pearl at the end.....reminder that Will hit Jack's head with an oar (I won't be your leverage Jack)  when they were in the cave the first time in COTBP.

    I have to say that I was so wrapped in the film that I was completely caught offguard by Barbossa's appearance at the end.  It gave me that "whoa" sensation that "No, I am your father" gave me on my first viewing of Empire Strikes Back so many years ago.  The only other time I've had that sort of feeling in a theater was in Jurassic Park when the T-Rex makes it's first appearance, tears through the fence and screams out it's grand salutation.

    I only hope that World's End holds some similar moments.  While I really enjoy DMC overall (especially everything surrounding Davy Jones - how they take old UNRELATED sea legends like Davy Jones Locker, the Kraken, the Flying Dutchman and tie them together into a single story) there were some creative choices I did not enjoy - like the "bullet time" musket ball and the slow motion jump into the Kraken's mouth - both a bit over the top, and out of tune with a movie about Pirates.  Since everything I've read about the next film has the first part of the film moving off into a mystical direction - into a dream-like world to rescue Jack - they could be moving into dangerous waters - shades of Return of the Jedi, Matrix 3, Jaws 3-D, Battle for the Planet of the Apes . . .  

    "Meesa hopin' no"
  • I love the "Pirates" films, and can't wait for the third one. I just hope the screenwriters do their research.

    In regards to the Singapore plot line, Singapore was a relatively obscure port from 1613 (when it was burnt by the Portuguese and was known as a different name) and 1819 (when modern Singapore was founded by the British). As these films appear to take place in the late 17th-early 18th centuries (the "golden age" of Caribbean piracy) no English-speaking person, pirate or otherwise, would bother going anywhere near Singapore, because Britain did not have much commerce in the area, in relation to the Caribbeean, especially because places like Australia would not even be settled until the late 1700s (Sydney was founded in 1788, Hong Kong in 1842). Also, Britain or other powers (other than the Dutch in Indonesia) were not strong in the East Indies because of a powerful Indian state and powerful states in Malaysia and Indochina. If the writers allow Singapore to play a large role in "At World's End," it will be quite an egregious error on their part.

    Sorry for the history lesson, but in films that seem to be as well done as these, it is very irritating to find simple historical errors that leap out of the screen and ruin the illusion of the film. It's like watching "It Happened One Night" and seeing a Southern Pacific train in what is supposed to be New Jersey or listening to the Scarecrow recite the Pythagorean Theorem incorrectly after receiving his diploma in "The Wizard of Oz."
  • I think it's wrong to blame the faults of Return of the Jedi on Richard Marquand.  
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