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Why For did Michael Eisner try and shut down production of "The Curse of the Black Pearl" back in 2002 ?

Jim Hill

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Why For did Michael Eisner try and shut down production of "The Curse of the Black Pearl" back in 2002 ?

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Christian P. writes in today to say:

I'm a huge Pirates of the Caribbean fan and I'm literally counting down the hours now until the third movie opens next week. Do you have any new stories that you can tell about these great great movies that might distract me for a while? Prevent me from spending so much time staring at the clock?

How about this one, Christian?

Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photo by Steve Vaughn

BARBOSSA: Ever gazed upon the green flash, Mr. Gibbs ?

GIBBS: I reckon I've seen my share (To Will) Happens on rare occasions, at the last glimpse of sunset, a green flash shoots up into the sky. Some go their whole lives and never see it. Some claim to have seen it. Some say ...

PINTEL: ... it signals when a soul comes back to this world from the dead !

Gibbs glares at Pintel for interrupting his story.

PINTEL: Sorry.

It's kind of ironic that the characters in "Pirates of the Caribbean : At World's End" actually talk about a flash of green light. For back in 2002, when Gore Verebinski and Jerry Bruckheimer were trying to put the first film in this trilogy -- "Pirates of the Caribbean - The Curse of the Black Pearl" -- into production, they too had to deal with a flashing green light.

Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photo by Peter Mountain

As in: Walt Disney Studios was going to be making this movie. Then they weren't. Then Walt Disney Pictures was going to be making this movie. Then they weren't.

At one point during pre-production, Michael Eisner himself canceled the first "Pirates" film. Saying that the movie -- as Gore & Jerry envisioned it -- was going to be far too expensive (I.E. A then-whopping $120 million). Plus what with all of those undead pirate skeletons walking around and all the throat slashing, stabbing and shooting, this motion picture was going to automatically wind up getting a PG-13 rating. And Walt Disney Pictures -- as a rule -- never released anything racier than a PG.

And then there was the cold hard fact that it had been 50 years since Hollywood had last produced a successful pirate picture (I.E. Burt Lancaster's "The Crimson Pirate" Which Warner Bros. released back in 1952). Every modern attempt to reviving the swashbuckling genre -- 1976's "Swashbuckler," 1980's "The Island," 1983's "Yellowbeard," 1986's "Pirates" and 1995's "Cutthroat Island" -- had all been miserable (more importantly, expensive) failures. So why even bother to try ?

And then there was that whole based-on-a-theme-park-ride angle ... Eisner knew that Dick Cook, the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, had been pushing this concept for years. But given how poorly "The Country Bears" had turned out, Michael was now eager to abandon this project. Put the idea of turning Disney attractions into major motion pictures 'way behind him.

 Copyright 2002 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

So in spite of the fact that Verbinski & Bruckheimer already had storyboard artists at work dummying out "Pirates" 's action scenes and concept painters creating these amazing images of the Black Pearl, Isla de Muerta and Barbossa's undead crew ... Eisner called the director & the producer and said : "I'm sorry. Disney's not making this movie. Please shut down production."

Gore's response ? He just told the artists to keep working. That Verbinski & Bruckheimer would now team up on Eisner and eventually persuade Disney's CEO to change his mind.

Oddily enough, it was all of those sketches & pre-production paintings that Gore had insisted the artists keep working on that ultimately swayed Michael. The next week, Eisner made a special trip to Bruckheimer's offices in Santa Monica for the express process of shutting down production of "Pirates of the Caribbean."

But -- as James B. Stewart describes in his 2005 book, "DisneyWar."

Bruckheimer had assembled storyboards, and drawings of the major scenes : the island of the dead, the Caribbean port under siege, the skeletons under water and on the moonlit pirate ship. After getting a tour and running commentary from Verbinski, Eisner sat down. "I love it," he said. "Why does it have to cost so much ?"

Copyright 2003 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

"Your competition is spending $150 million," Bruckheimer countered, ticking off projects like "The Matrix" and "The Lord of the Rings," franchise films that were allowing Warner Bros. to dominate at the box office. Disney desperately needed a franchise of its own.

Eisner shook his head in exasperation. "The theme park is a drawback, he said, "Country Bears" still in mind. "Let's move this away from the park."

And under Eisner's orders, that's exactly what Verbinski & Bruckheimer did. They actually pruned a number of moments out of the original version of Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio's rewrite of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" screenplay. Scenes & bits of business that they felt were far too obvious references to the Disney theme park attraction.

These cuttings ranged from individual pieces of dialogue (Take -- for example -- this exchange between Captain Barbossa & Elizabeth Swann) ...

BARBOSSA: Very well. You hand that over, we'll put your town to our rudder and ne'er return.

ELIZABETH: Can I trust you ?

BARBOSSA: It's you who invoked the parlay! Believe me, Miss, you'd best hand it over, now ... or these be the last friendly words you'll hear !

Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved 
Photo by Peter Mountain

... to whole scenes (Like how Will Turner & Captain Jack Sparrow were originally supposed to make their way into the Treasure Cave at Ilsa de Muerta) ...


The Interceptor lies at anchor in the distance. Closer, Jack and Will row away from the large vessel in a small longboat, toward the rocky shore.

The RUSH of a waterfall grows louder. Will looks: Ahead of them is a black CAVE MOUTH, right at water level.

WILL: What's that?

JACK: Depends.

WILL: On what?

JACK: On whether the stories are all true. If they are, that's a waterfall that spills over at high tide, with a short drop to an underground lagoon. If not ...

By now, the moving water tugs on the longboat, and they are sucked in --

JACK: (CONT'D) Well, too late.


-- the longboat takes a harrowing drop over a short waterfall ... but then lands safely in a gorgeous underwater lagoon, floats lazily toward a sandy shore.

JACK: Chalk one up for the stories.

Mind you, what's ironic about all this is -- because, on Eisner's order, Bruckheimer & Verbinski did have Eliot & Rossio remove that line that referenced the talking skull at the start of the "Pirates" theme park attraction as well as that nod to the waterfall that your bateaux slides down at the very beginning of the ride ... Well, that meant that Ted & Terry could then fold these bits back into their screenplay for "At World's End."

Don't believe me ? Then play very close attention to Barbossa's dialogue in the scene where that Chinese junk goes hurtling off the edge of the known world. Which -- FYI -- is also supposed to remind you of your sliding-down-the-waterfall entrance into the actual "Pirates of the Caribbean" attraction.

Mind you, Eisner's insistence that the "Pirates" movie deliberately distance itself from the theme park attraction didn't end with those scenes being clipped from the script. No, Michael was still so worried that teenagers would think that "Pirates of the Caribbean" was a kiddie picture that -- very late in the game (I.E. February of 2003, just five months before "Pirates" opened in theaters) -- he insisted that the studio tack a new subtitle onto the film : "The Curse of the Black Pearl."

Please note that the above "Pirates of the Caribbean" teaser poster makes
absolutely no mention of the film's "The Curse of the Black Pearl" subtitle
Copyright 2003 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Which made Verbinski insane. Because -- of course -- it wasn't the Black Pearl that was cursed. But -- rather -- the Aztec gold that Barbossa and his crew had spent the past 10 years sailing around the Caribbean, trying to recover.

But Eisner was insistent. Arguing that -- should the first "Pirates" picture prove to be a success -- that the studio could then keep the subtitle thing going for all of the subsequent installments. That said, Gore was still so upset with this last minute addition to his film's title that he asked Disney's marketing department to make the subtitle so small that you could barely read it on the "Pirates" posters. Which -- for the most part -- the PR staff agreed to do.

Of course, in this one instance, Michael was right. Which is why "The Curse of the Black Pearl" could then be followed by "Dead Man's Chest" and (Coming next Thursday to a theater near you !) "At World's End." So score one for Mr. Eisner.

Anyway ... There, Christian. That story should have helped you kill 10 minutes or so. Come back to JHM next week and I'll help you kill even more time by talking about how Johnny Depp wasn't really Mouse House managements' first choice for the role of Captain Jack Sparrow.

And who was ? Would you believe ... Matthew McConaughey ?!

More details next week, I promise. Til then, have a great weekend, folks ?

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  • Lucky thing that the production did get through.. Because if it really was cancelled.. OMG, they wouldn't have had this huge franchise to profit from, and I couldn't be so syched and excited about it all! I'm 100%, definitely going to see "Pirates" on opening day!

  • Great article, Jim- it's my favorite kind!

    I've read "DisneyWar", but I forgot about that part...it's a good thing that Gore & his crew kept on working...a very good thing.  Would "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Aztec Gold" not have inticed people to see the movie?  To be honest, who went to see POTC:TCotBP because of the title?  I think the trailers sent most people to the theaters.  

    And, I can't wait for Monday's article- Johnny Depp made Captain Jack Sparrow.  I can't imagine anyone else being him.  Would Matthew McConaughey have been wearing all that makeup and "stuff"?  I just don't see that.  I like him, but I just can't see that.  I mean, that's just going on the physical (which I usually do like about McC.)...I think maybe he could pull off "flamboyent pirate"...but, ultimately, Disney made a great choice with Johnny Depp.

  • I'm normally first in line to take a whack at Eisner, but I gotta tell ya ... I wholeheartedly agreed with him when I first heard they were going to make this movie.

    I can't say as I blame him ... upfront, it seemed like it had "BOMB" written all over it.

  • Of course Eisner was scared...Country Bears and Haunted Mansion both show how "theme park" movies can be done wrong.

    Verbinski & Bruckhiemer knew they had a good thing going, and figured they could sell it to another studio if Disney backed out... now ewouldn't that have been amusing, Universal Pictures releases "Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of Micro-Management". The Universal could have put an attraction in their theme parks.

  • Christopher Walkin was also considered for the role. And Johnny Depp was almost pulled off set for being a 'gay pirate'. They didnt like his depiction of ole Capt. Jack.

    Ok no more fun from me. Seriously though Jim, couldnt you give us some info that cant be found on the internet, or in various POTC books?

  • If it had been another actor, Jack Sparrow wouldn't have been flamboyant.  That part of the character came from Depp

  • Even if some of this info is floating around on the net or in some books, greenskyp, I still think it's a great read! After all, these sort of nuggets are way more fun when you just "discover" them, rather than when you're actually seeking them out (or paying for them by buying books, haha). Thanks a bunch Jim! And I'm SO glad Matthew McConaughey didn't get the part. Nothing against him, he's great in certain roles, but I think his rascally charm and Southern accent-- his best roles I feel are when he leans on those, not masking it-- would have distracted from the Pirate-y setting. Plus, he's constantly rippin his shirt open. Not exactly what we need from Captain Jack!

  • Excellent "Why For" Jim.  Looking forward to the follow up articles.

  • One of the reasons "The Country Bears" bombed HAD to be the godawful ugly bear suits the Jim Henson people concocted. My family and I LOVED "The Country Bear Jamboree" at WDW and would have gone to a movie based on it - IF the bears in the movie had in any way resembled the bears at the park. But no, they didn't look Disneylike, they looked Hensonlike, which means ugly (all Henson's "realistic" puppetry looks awful, like the Dinosaurs. Miss Piggy might be cute, but not Earl Sinclair. Gross!)

  • Personally, I think that sucks. I know I am not the only one who was a little disapointed that the movie didn't feature more reference to the ride. That scene with the boat and the waterfall would have been golden. What's the big deal?

    Ironicly, now the ride is being altered to reflect the movie. Even the sign at the entrance of the ride has been changes to look more like the movie logo.

    I call foul on that... The movie should be the movie... and the ride should be the ride. The ride came first... and the movie should have been more of a tribute to that rather than the other way arround after the fact. While I love the movies and the ride ... it is titled Pirates of the Caribbean... not PIRATE of the Caribbean.

  • Hahahaha! That pic is hilarious...

  • Also, to Gigglesock-- I agree partially to what you are saying. I do agree that the Henson Company should have sculpted the bears to look like the ride characters...that's why I loved the ride so much ---Marc Davis' characters are amazingly lovable and endearing--but the movies bears were laughable--in a bad way.

    BUT!!! Henson's Country Bears Design is merely a fluke (with a  little fault from Disney not staying true to the actual ride designs) --and I loved the way DINOSAURS looked-- it was compleetly different from anything I had seen on a TV show. those suits were awesome from Earl's pal Roy the T-Rex to Fran's brontosaurus girlfriend who would stick her head in the window.  To add, even if you ignore that you have Ludo and Hoggle to look at from "Labyrinth" alongside the Skeksies Olgra and the characters, in " The Dark Crystal"... you can't pass a statement like that until you've seen an original Jim Henson series that shows excellent displays of Henson animatronics in action-- I'm talking about "The Storyteller" --

    If you have never seen "The Storyteller" I encourage you to BUY IT NOW or at least YouTube it! I don't mean to sound rude but this series a masterpiece when it comes toa display of modern puppetry-- particularly the episode entitled, "The soldier and Death"... The demons the soldier plays cards with in that episode are so stunning and ell orchestrated that I can't help but smile everytime I see them!

    So please, I encourage everyone to take a look at "The StoryTeller" Then pass judgement and tell me you hate Henson's design-- I won't even talk about the first live action "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" Movie or "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"...

    So again, I think Country Bears was a fluke-- and if Disney had instructed  The jim Henson Company to stay true to the designs I think the movie would have been more successful... Ultimatley I think it was disney's fault not staying true to the Nostalgia--

  • Jim, I'm a relative newcomer to your blog, but articles like these are wonderful!  Thanks!

  • So, the same man who tried to dump "Lost" because he thought that after the pilot episode no one would watch it also almost dumped "Pirates of The Caribbean" because he thought people would think it was silly.  Is there any question how out-of-touch Eisner had gotten with his audience?

  • perrybw:  Now picture the fact that he's not there anymore.  Makes you wonder how many ideas Eisner permanently pulled the plug on, and which of those would have gone big.  Hopefully Iger has a little more sense.

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