INTERVIEW: At World’s End with ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

 

Since breaking in with Aladdin in the early 90s, the writing duo of Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott have remained on the A-list of plum writing assignments with a score of box-office hits. Now they reign supreme on the top list of every studio project with the gigantic success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Both Rossio and Elliott had reservations of jumping into the Pirates franchise but were convinced of the challenge as a dare, since pirate movies have never done well at the box-office. With the final chapter of Pirates at hand, the next challenge for the writing duo is a Western franchise they hope to reinvent. They are clearly getting a reputation for resuscitating dormant film genres. Meanwhile, for budding screenwriters, Rossio and Elliott have a website for screenwriters called Wordplay which is chockfull of advice and tips for screenwriters on the craft and breaking into the business.

The following interview is provided through by Sean Kennelly through CS Weekly, a weekly newsletter from Creative Screenwriting magazine:

When Disney invited Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the story architects of the multi-billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, to write that film's two sequels back-to-back, it presented a unique set of challenges and rewards. Both a mental and, at times, physical marathon, the writing team behind such hits as Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, and Shrek endured everything from the pressure of the sequels living up to the first film to production schedules arranged around hurricane season. Thankfully, much of the same creative team was back in place for the sequels, from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski and conceptual artist Crash McCreery. The fruits of their labors were seen last summer in the second film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and today in the third film, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

CS Weekly continues the dialogue to bring you more insights into the minds of two of Hollywood's great storytellers as they shepherd newly minted pirates Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) to hell and back to rescue Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Along for this closing chapter of this (first?) trilogy is the resurrected Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the witchy Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), and the cursed and tentacled Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) aboard his Flying Dutchman ship. There are also new pirates, like Singapore's Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), as well as the convening of the Pirate Brethren Council. Meanwhile, the East India Trading Company, heartily represented by Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) and newly reinstated Admiral Norrington (Jack Davenport), is out to destroy piracy once and for all. Here, Elliott and Rossio they tell us about the joys and challenges of writing the sequels back to back, keeping your focus on the characters no matter how epic the film gets, and how Bertolt Brecht's theories help support their thoughts on what comes after the three-act structure in the evolution of storytelling.In our last interview with you, about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (CS Vol. 13, #4), you talked about retroactively viewing the first Pirates film as the first chapter of a larger story. How did you approach creating the third chapter in this story, and did you create it all at once or in phases as you worked on Dead Man's Chest?
TERRY ROSSIO: Writing the movie "in phases" is a very polite and gentle description of the mayhem and madness of it all. But it's an apt phrase. Ted and I speak of the idea of a "phase space" regarding the screenwriting process. At the start, anything is possible; all answers to the various problems are in play. But as you make each choice, the number of remaining options gets more limited. New solutions have to work within the parameters of previous decisions. What happens during production is that process is accelerated. When a certain location is available and has to be used, or an actor can only be scheduled at a certain time, story choices get made and are locked in. Then you design the rest of the film around the phase space that is left.

Since you were writing two films at once, what modifications to your normal development process did you have to make?
ROSSIO: Well, the normal development process is nothing like having a big-budget, greenlit sequel. In normal development you're working up through layers of executives, and trying to navigate their ideas and work around their various forms of resistance, and helping them to do their jobs, put together the needed elements to make a film. You're not collaborating with a director or working with conceptual artists, or getting notes from the actors.

On the other hand, normal development lets you read a book, see your family, watch the Lakers play, vacuum out the car.

Did you ever feel the process of making the sequels may have taken some of your control over the story out of your hands?
ROSSIO: Oh, we never had complete creative control of the sequels. We were charged with designing them, and for the most part, the powers- that-be went along with what we wanted to do, but in the end if Gore Verbinski or Jerry Bruckheimer or the studio had wanted something different, we would have been booted.

Personally, many of my ideas for the third film got shot down, and there are many decisions where I would have gone the other way. That can be very frustrating. But you have to trust that your collaborators will add more than they subtract. What you discover is that the job of screenwriting is not always defining the content of the film, but designing the content of as much of the film you are allowed to design. Another way to look at it is you're not always responsible for what's up there, but you are responsible to try to make what ends up there as good as it can be.

Looking at the trilogy as one long film, the third picture in some ways could be considered the third act (even though, of course, it has to have its own three-act structure). Keeping in mind William Goldman's adage about "racing curtain" and not introducing any new elements in the third act, just getting to the conclusion, how do you write a film that closes out the trilogy but also has to stand on its own?
TED ELLIOTT: Like I say, to some extent it's not a completely accurate metaphor. Think of each piece as a movement: the first movie was an argument, the second was counterpoint, and now we're coming to synthesis. It really is kind of a classic dramatic structure: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We bring everything to a head at the end, but we still have plenty of story. Things happen. We were very happy with the fact that in the first two movies, particularly the first one, the stakes were very personal. The characters didn't have to stop something to prevent the world from being destroyed or from somebody doing something really bad. I mean, the first one really was just about how Barbossa and his guys didn't want to be skeletons anymore. But this one, the stakes are higher. We were intentionally going for a much more epic feel. Sort of the end of the era. Like in Westerns, the frontier is coming to a close -- that idea.

How does an epic scale affect and/or play off of the individual character arcs?
ELLIOTT: It's still focused on the characters. Jack's still talking to people, he's just talking to more people (laughs). It ultimately comes down to these decisions that Elizabeth makes, that Will makes, that Jack makes, that Barbossa makes, and how they affect the people around them. Forget for a moment that there are goddesses and huge armadas and people who turn into skeletons. Even in these big fantastic movies, we're always working off the idea of what's going on with the characters emotionally? How would that really be if they were just sitting in a room someplace looking at each other and they were arguing over the price of a used car?
Do you develop your characters as you go? Or do you sit down and really conceptualize the characters and their different aspects so that you know what kind of decision they would be making so you can then put the story together?
ELLIOTT: As you think about a character, to some extent what you're talking about is just the psychological makeup of the character -- what is he like and how does he relate to other characters. But then when you start to talk about "What is his behavior?" in my mind that's where you get into the aspect of characterization. That's when you're into the dramatization, what the character does and what he says. That's his behavior. So, you have the psychology, and if you have some grasp on some fundamental psychological truths about the character, you want to leave yourself enough room to allow the behavior to evolve naturally.
Can you tell us more about the character arc that Will Turner goes through in this installment?
ELLIOTT: The thing with Will is, of all our characters, he is the most altruistic. He puts his life on the line to help Elizabeth, and did so to help Jack. I always thought it was interesting that the first movie ends with Will saving Jack's life, and in the second movie Elizabeth takes it. I think that was a neat counter-balance. But coming into the third one, Will has made this promise to his father to help his father. So, there's that altruistic thing. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that helping his father will lose him Elizabeth.

So he's in this situation for the first time in the three movies where he is looking at the difference between self-interest and altruism.

At the end of the last film, Elizabeth seemed infatuated with Jack Sparrow, yet she locked him to the mast; meanwhile, Jack called her a pirate. How does this set up Elizabeth's arc for At World's End?
ROSSIO: The more important moment was the Kiss of Death, where Elizabeth locked Jack to the mast. I'm surprised that doesn't get more focus. We made a big family summer movie where our heroine actually commits murder for her own benefit -- yes, to save the lives of others.

That was Elizabeth's watershed moment, where she had to confront the truth, that under the right circumstances, she was every bit as capable of being a pirate as Jack. Her prediction came true, Jack did a good deed, but his prediction also came true, she performed a dark selfish act. So, going into At World's End, Elizabeth can take on any situation, she can deal with the pirates on their own terms, as she is now one of them.

ELLIOTT: That said, in the same way that Will doesn't trust her, she doesn't trust herself. She's actually at a point where she's got a bit of a death wish, to tell you the truth. She has taken on more of a classic anti-hero demeanor. The interesting thing is, a lot of the speculation amongst fans is: "Who is Elizabeth going to be with?" I maintain that the third movie is not about "Who is Elizabeth going to be with?" but rather "Who is Elizabeth going to be?" She grew up as this rich aristocrat, she got to play at being pirate in the last movie and found out it's not just play sometimes. She's gotten a look at the circumstances and said, "Who am I, really?"

What about Jack? What is the role of Captain Jack Sparrow's character in the trilogy, if not the main character?
ELLIOTT: In the first movie, one of the things we did was we had this Jack character who really was this classic trickster archetype, operating in his own self-interest, loves a good joke. But again, when you come to stories about tricksters, tricksters are typically not the main character of stories. More importantly, the trickster affects those around him and becomes the catalyst. In a lot of the heroes' stories, there's a mentor type like Obi-Wan Kenobi. If you think of it as, "We don't want somebody who's giving you good advice; we want somebody who's screwing up your life at every turn. That's how you learn." And that's the role that Jack plays here.

How do bumbling pirates Pintel and Ragetti, your Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, contribute to At World's End, and what rules should writers follow in terms of using minor characters like this to contribute to the story?
ROSSIO: Our rule is simply that every character be necessary to the story. The test is, if you took the character out, would the story still work? If that answer is yes, then you should take the character out. Pintel and Ragetti are our access characters, more so than even Will and Elizabeth. They ask the questions that the audience wants to know, too. As characters not really on top of what's going on, they react to scenes in the same way we hope the audience will react. Amazed at stuff that is amazing, scared at stuff that is scary, etc.
This film was being written simultaneous with Dead Man's Chest. Besides probably "Never do this again," what were some of the lessons learned from this unusual process?
ROSSIO: Actually, we were also shooting Déjà Vu (co- written by Bill Marsilii and Rossio) in New Orleans, a very complex film, and during our hiatus we took on a rewrite of The Spiderwick Chronicles. Never do that again, for sure!

As for shooting two or three films at once, I think I gained a new appreciation for the subtle rhythms of the usual process, and how kismet plays into finding solutions and achieving quality. In the normal situation, when you're focused and immersed in just one story, you let your environment play into the creative process. Maybe you see something on the drive to work, or you have a conversation in the hallway, or the subconscious works out the problem, a dream comes to you, your girlfriend says something funny, an actor makes a suggestion over dinner, whatever. Or during prep, you have a chance to meet and have everyone get on the same page, or in post- production, the editors have time to try several solutions, and then that eureka moment hits, etc. The classic form of filmmaking allows for all that; it's like it's designed for those sorts of connections and fortunate accidents to happen. But if you're shooting three movies at once, you kind of don't get that. You just have to just figure a solution to the puzzle, now, no time to let the little pointy-eared muse elves sneak out from the woods and whisper in your ear.

Let's talk about your influences. Could you suggest some favorite books that would help writers trying to hone their storytelling abilities?
ELLIOTT: One of the best books on storytelling I've ever read is a book called The Science of Discworld. One of the authors is Terry Pratchett, and the other two (Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen) are actually scientists who write about science. On the one hand, it's a fascinating book about evolution and the scientific method, but it is also, weirdly, a great book about storytelling. Because that is sort of their fundamental thesis is that ultimately science is storytelling. A description of the universe is a story; it's not a universe itself. It's fascinating stuff.

The other one I think people should look at and had a lot of influence in the Pirate movies is Bertolt Brecht. Just go and read his theories about epic theater, find out some stuff about that. Because I've been more and more feeling like the three-act structure is great if you have a story that can be told in a three-act structure, but there are a lot of stories that can be told on film that can't be structured in three acts. I would even argue that there is nothing inherent to film that demands acts at all. I feel like we need to break the three-act structure as the only structure used to tell stories in film. So Bertolt Brecht, epic theater, looser structure, involving the audience, alienation techniques, how's that? (laughs).

Probably Brecht's most famous work is The Threepenny Opera, which is an adaptation of an earlier play called The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, and those two works had a certain degree of influence on the Pirates movies. If you're familiar with them at all, you'll see it.

Sean Kennelly studied film at Florida State University and a year later won a regional Emmy for his writing/producing efforts in the Utah media. A Writers Boot Camp alumnus, he is developing several feature scripts as well as a book.


Filmmaking, Interview, Screenwriting


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