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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) ...

EXT. ISLA DE MUERTA - LAGOON - NIGHT'

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.

INT. CAVES - UNDERWATER LAGOON - NIGHT

-- 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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  • CEO's get the best of both worlds - Eisner doesn't know how to write, develop, produce, direct, or act but he will willingly take the credit and bonus. It's so far removed from the studio it used to be. I'm still waiting for someone to say "Eisner inspired me," or "I just wanted to do my best for Eisner," like they would about Walt. Lassetter will be the first to tell you he's not Walt, but it's clear he's such a huge improvement over the Standard Corporate Uninformed Mindset. (initials)

    As to Capt Jack - Hugh Grant would have had an underlying vulnerability, Hugh Laurie from "House" could spit through the lines, Alan Rickman can handle bravado, and Kenneth Branagh could have played it in his sleep. From America, Kevin Kline or Tim Curry would have been great, but would have constantly been compared to their Penzance days. Walken has already made many many roles memorable through his unique line readings, and certainly could have made Capt Jack his own.

    The movies are fun, a breath of fresh air, a return to crowd-pleasing Disney movies, but If you really want to impress me with these movies - bring in a good editor and knock down the running time.

  • Baxter, I am not one of those Muppet semi-fans who blame Disney for every dumb move the Henson people have done. In fact, sometimes I think Disney trusts the Henson people a little too much. Otherwise I doubt we'd have gotten nipple jokes in "Muppets Wizard of Oz".

    As for the Storyteller, I have seen a few of those, and while they are indeed technically proficient, they include some of the dull drab dank monochromatic ugliness seen in most of Henson's non-Muppet fantasy projects. Sorry, but I like my fantasy lands to have color and likeable characters, as per the MGM version of "Oz". The Henson-produced fantasy lands make me think of mold and mildew. But that's just me. To each his own.

  • curmudgeon said:

    "Eisner doesn't know how to write [..]"

    Correction: he actually does, or at least did.

  • curmudgeon: Ha, I LOVED your suggestions for "alternate" Captain Jack's! But, of course, Tim Curry as a pirate might be a little too repetative of his "Muppet Treasure Island" role.  I would have loved seeing Kenneth Branagh play the part; if you ever want to see a refreshing movie of his, I reccoment "5 Children & It", another Henson release [though I am partial to Gilderoy Lockhart... ha!]

    Jim - thanks for the great article - the "what if...?" stories always fascinate me.

  • For all the comments about how the bears looked in COUNTRY BEARS I am frankly amazed that nobody questioned the story--a talking bear raised by a human family that can pass as human to everyone but his brother?!?  As Bill the Cat says--ACK!

    The trailer was what turned me off the most and insured I would never want to see this load of hooey.  Frankly, I thought the bears looked fine when they were on their own, but the inclusion of humans turned it all into one big stupid mess.

  • I'm with Rluke1971, I would have loved to see more references to the ride. I guess my family's pretty dorky, because all of us twenty-somethings were so excited when we heard that Pirates and Haunted Mansion were being made into movies. We couldn't wait to see them because we loved the rides. Haunted Mansion was such a disappointment. That could have been so good. I love the Pirates movies though, even though they don't have much to do with the ride. I can't wait to see the new one. And great article, these are the ones I love too!

  • Even when he was still at Paramount Eisner couldn't always recognize something with hit written all over it. It was Katzenberg who saw the potential in Star Trek, after noticing the phenomenon of fan conventions surrounding that former TV show. When he brought the idea of doing a movie based on Star Trek to Eisner, he was told there'd be virtually nobody interested in seeing it, therefore Paramount was not going to pursue such folly. Katzenberg really believed otherwise and fought to get the idea greenlit. The original "Star Trek - The Motion Picture" did terrific box office, spawned a series of sequels and ultimately, "Star Trek - The Next Generation" TV series. For years it was the biggest franchise Paramount had going. It doesn't surprise me that Eisner nearly nixed "Pirates..."

  • Rudy> It's also a movie where a tween becomes a member of a washed up 70s band after revitalizing them. It's like one of those Disney Channel stars joining the Eagles or something.

  • Cut Eisner slack.  He had to look at the real possibility of losing an awful lot of money on the production of "Pirates".  Box Office history was certainly against it.  But give him credit for being able to be convinced.  Others might not have allowed themselves to be swayed with that much money being put up.  (As for other projects that he might have axed, they obviously didn't have what it took to convince him, so rightly died.)

    As for the title, that was a brilliant move.  It was mostly ignored on initial release, but allowed for the further subtitles later.  I, for one, am sick to death of "This Movie II" and "That Movie 3".  The subtitles are much more fun.

  • Matthew McConaughey....? WTF

    They've might as well casted Tommy Chong for the role of Captain Barbossa.

    Actually.... hmm.

    AWESOME!

  • Never mind about this year's summer blockbusters. Jim Hill's already looking three years down the road to when Mickey (with the help of several key members of the "Pirates" creative team) will reportedly be releasing a $100-million-plus Western that will

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