Pirates braved storms, delays

AP – In the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” Johnny Depp plays a swashbuckler who sets off on an arduous adventure that takes him through cannibal-infested jungles and monster-ridden seas. For the studio behind the sequel, Walt Disney Co., getting the movie to screen has been an equally harrowing journey.

In deciding to make this and the next sequel to its original 2003 blockbuster back-to-back, Disney embarked on what turned out to be the biggest movie bet it has ever made. Initially budgeted at a combined $350 million, the two movies are now expected to cost more than $450 million.

Along the way, the pain and expense of the rigorous production has left little room for error. When hurricanes swept through the Caribbean set, production had to be halted for a nail-biting week. The grueling schedule also took its toll on the cast and crew, many of whom fell sick.

A gamble

If Disney gets it right – and early audience research suggests the first sequel has the potential to be a monster hit – the gamble will pay off big. The original movie hauled in more than $650 million world-wide at the box office. The real test comes a week from today when “Dead Man’s Chest” hits theaters.

By taking a dual approach, Disney anchors its slate for two consecutive summers. It also establishes a beachhead in the action-adventure genre at a time when the studio is shifting its focus toward Disney-branded, family fare and away from the adult fare made by its Touchstone label, which is being cut back to just a couple movies a year from six or seven. “Dead Man’s Chest” is rated PG-13.

Disney has embarked on a company-wide “Pirates” push that includes an aggressive merchandise campaign and a new version of the “Pirates” theme park ride the movie is based on. The updated ride has been spruced up with the stars from the movies. Mr. Depp, who plays the film’s effete, swaggering Captain Jack Sparrow, posed for pictures with his animatronic double at the film’s elaborate Disneyland premiere last weekend. “A homegrown franchise like this is like a shot of adrenaline through the whole company,” says Disney studio chairman Dick Cook.

Career maker

Despite the risks of back-to-back shoots, producer Jerry Bruckheimer saw little alternative when he first sat down with his creative team in fall 2003 to plot a follow-up to “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” After the first movie, the careers of the three main stars (Mr. Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley) had skyrocketed and the filmmakers knew they would face major scheduling issues bringing them back for one new installment, let alone two. At the same time, making both films at once would avoid some of the demands for more money that come with each sequel and save on costs such as costumes and sets.

“It was a daunting undertaking, but if we had only made one movie, we may have had to wait four or five years to make the second sequel,” says Mr. Bruckheimer. “This way, there’s only a year between the two sequels.”

A handful of filmmakers have attempted the back-to-back strategy before, with mixed results. Robert Zemeckis shot two sequels to “Back to the Future” which were released in 1989 and 1990. Both were box-office hits.

More recently, director Peter Jackson slogged through a mammoth shoot to make “The Lord of the Rings” movies in one go. He wound up with a trio of blockbusters that made $3 billion in combined box office. The cinematic feat, however, wasn’t easy to pull off. Mr. Jackson’s manager, Ken Kamins, compares the director’s work on “The Lord of the Rings” to “playing three-dimensional chess for every minute of every day for 15 straight months.”

When Warner Bros. tried the same with the “Matrix” films, the tepid critical and commercial response to “The Matrix Reloaded” left the studio in rough shape when it came time to release “The Matrix Revolutions.” Similarly, if the second “Pirates” film isn’t a big success, it will leave Disney with an expensive disappointment to deal with when No. 3 comes out next summer.

Colony of cannibals

For the first sequel, the screenwriters kicked off the story with Mr. Bloom’s character Will Turner and Ms. Knightley’s character Elizabeth Swann being arrested at their wedding for aiding the escape of Sparrow. Turner does a deal with their captors to track down Sparrow in exchange for their freedom. In the chase that ensues, Sparrow confronts his undersea nemesis Captain Davy Jones and escapes a colony of cannibals.

The logistics of such a sprawling production were extraordinary. Mr. Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski tried to prepare for various contingencies, but ultimately were overtaken by the kind of factors that can’t be controlled, like the weather. A big chunk of filming took place in the Caribbean through a stormy season – a particularly difficult development given that so much of the movie takes place on the waves.

The crew built a tank in the waters off the Bahamas in an effort to create a calmer setting for scenes at sea. But each time a storm hit the islands, the tank filled with sand and production was delayed for dredging. The rough seas created a washing machine effect inside the tank after each storm. With nowhere for the waves to break, they slammed into the sides of the tank, rising four stories high.

Real scenery

Such problems periodically hit all movies, but are more troublesome on an ambitious back-to-back production schedule because it effectively delays two expensive movies at once. The filmmakers could have used effects to shoot such scenes but they felt that water remains difficult to reproduce digitally, and they wanted to have real sea, sky and scenery.

On the “Pirates” shoot, the schedule sometimes flummoxed both cast and crew, who were often asked to shoot scenes from both the second and third sequels, one after the other, at the same location. That fostered creative confusion about what the actors were supposed to be doing or which costume they were supposed to be wearing.

The original plan was to hold two separate 100 day shoots with a hiatus in between. But the demanding action scenes eventually took their toll on the cast. After weeks of nonstop filming, they were so burned out that Disney had to fly them back home more regularly. “Everyone eventually got sick,” says Mr. Bruckheimer. Stomach bugs and ear infections were among the ailments.

Fearful that the actors would be too exhausted to make it through a grueling marketing campaign in the run-up to the first sequel’s release, they decided to shift part of the shoot of the third installment to August, after the release of “Dead Man’s Chest.” So despite the fact that the project’s total cost has already swelled by about a third since it was originally plotted out, the tab is still open. Still, both Disney and the filmmakers say they would do it again. “Absolutely we would, just perhaps not on Pirates,” says Mr. Bruckheimer.

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