Hasitha Fernando looks back at Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl as it turns 20…
To say Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl revitalized an entire sub-genre of movies is something of an understatement. Before the flick hit theatres there had nary been a proper live-action pirates movie for close to a decade and pirate themed movies were something of a non-entity in the minds of studio execs, as well as the movie going audience. And so, on its 20th anniversary we look back at the fantastic swashbuckler and try to briefly detail the goings that went on to craft this unique film…
Pirate films weren’t viewed as bankable projects at the time
Pirate movies were all the rage during the Golden Era of Hollywood. Many an actor transformed into household names by being involved in such efforts, however, by the 80s the subgenre was more or less dead. And following the box-office debacle that was 1995’s Cutthroat Island, studios temporarily pulled the plug on all potential pirate related projects. The aforementioned movie’s box-office performance was so bad, that it became an instrumental causative factor that lead to Carolco Pictures – a company responsible for such hits like Rambo, Terminator 2 and Basic Instinct – to file for bankryptcy.
So, in the minds of many studio execs there still existed considerable doubt about producing an effort populated by old sea-dogs and buried treasure. As such there was much concern, about bankrolling Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl from the folks over at Disney – particularly Michael Eisner, then CEO of the Walt Disney Company who thought that a hefty price tag of $140 million was completely unnecessary. Thankfully, producer Jerry Bruckheimer was able to persuade Eisner to continue the partnership with the project.
Crafting the perfect script was an odyssey of its own
Somewhere in the early 2000s Walt Disney Studios had an ambitious plan of developing a feature length film based on one of their most popular theme park rides – Pirates of the Caribbean. To achieve this end, they had producer turned scribe Jay Wolpert have a crack at it. Wolpert’s first draft was based on a story brainstormed by Disney executives Brigham Taylor, Michael Haynes and Josh Harmon. Next, Aussie screenwriter Stuart Beattie, who was known to be something of a ‘pirate buff’, was hired by Disney to submit a rewrite of Wolpert’s submission in March 2002. That same month Bruckheimer boarded the project and not finding the script to his satisfaction, brought on Shrek and Mask of Zorro scribes Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio to add an edgier, supernatural spin to the pirate tale, and that’s when things officially started moving forward.
There are innumerable nods to the theme park ride in the story
As most of you are undoubtedly aware, the movie is based off of one of Disney’s very own theme park rides – Pirates of the Caribbean. So, in order to pay homage to it the writers included many nods to the theme park ride which they incorporated seamlessly into their fantastic story. Some of them are, the drunken wenches of Tortuga, the inmates begging for the jailer’s dog, the wine going through Barbossa’s skeletal chest and the theme song of the Disney attraction ‘A Pirates Life for Me’.
Matthew McConaughey nearly became Captain Jack Sparrow
That’s right. Matthew McConaughey himself was in the running to play Capt. Jack Sparrow at a very early stage of the film’s production. Disney being doubtful of the IP’s potential were undecided on whether they should release the movie in theatres or direct-to-video. They had their eyes set on McConaughey if they were looking for a theatrical release or in the case of the aforementioned latter option, Christopher Walken or Carey Elwes. Jim Carrey was another contender who was in talks, but due to scheduling conflicts Carrey dropped out. Ultimately Johnny Depp was cast in the role, since Bruckheimer felt he could give the character the edge.
Kiera Knightley was only 17 years old when she was cast
To say British actress Kiera Knightley career blew up because of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is something of an understatement. Before Pirates, her most famous performance was in the 2002 sports comedy drama Bend it Like Beckham; but her tides completely turned afterwards as she transformed into one of the most in-demand actors of that period. But back when she was cast as Elizabeth Swann, she was just a seventeen-year-old up-and-coming actress with dreams of fame and fortune, who had to be accompanied by her mother because of her young age.
The film has an unusual connection to a computer game
Since the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, two myths have constantly swirled around it that pertains to the Monkey Island adventure game, or more accurately the unproduced film adaptation based on the property. The two myths are as follows – that writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rosio worked on the ill-fated project and the duo recycled the ideas of it for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. But the truth, however, is much simpler than that.
During an interview with Polygon in 2021, the director of the long-forgotten movie David Carson set the record straight by saying that the screenwriting duo merely visited their studio as part of a pitch meeting hosted by one of their producers, and that was pretty much it. On an entirely different note, however, it must be said that Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert’s main inspirations for the game came from the Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride and Tim Powers’ book On Stranger Tides. The latter property went on to become the inspiration for the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise in 2011.
There were creative differences in the music department
Alan Silvestri, of Back to the Future fame, was initially tapped to score the music for the swashbuckler. Having had fruitful collaborations with Verbinski on Mousehunt and The Mexican in the past, the composer was more than up to the task of tackling a high-sea adventure but alas creative differences between him and Bruckheimer led to the musician’s departure before any material was recorded. This resulted in Hans Zimmer being involved in the project, but even he was unable to fully commit, due to his obligations to The Last Samurai. To resolve this conundrum once and for all, Zimmer personally recommended his Media Ventures’ protégé Klaus Badelt instead, and what the young artist accomplished in the end was nothing short of amazing.
The shoot was relatively quick and without much incident
Shooting a sea-faring adventure brings many challenges but none more so than the issues brought on by the sea itself. However, quite surprisingly Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, had a relatively uneventful shoot that lasted only for a period of five months. Disney built an elaborate movie set at Wallilabou Bay in the Caribbean replete with a period marketplace, taverns and other seedy dives featured in the film. Once the shoot was complete the place was abandoned, but the set has since then become a popular tourist attraction thanks to the series’ surging popularity.
An unexpected box-office hit and the beginning of a lucrative franchise
Not during any point of its production was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl envisioned to be a box-office hit. In fact, many industry insiders and box-office analysts predicted that the movie would flop because the last pirate film – made nearly a decade prior – went on to become a box-office dud. Add in the unpredictable track record of flicks based on theme park rides and Johnny Depp’s doubtful bankability as a box-office draw, the movie honestly didn’t have much going for it. However, when the film opened on July 9, 2003 it shattered all expectations raking in $ 654.3 million worldwide which prompted Disney to fast track the development of a trilogy of movies.
These first two sequels were shot back-to-back with a proverbial bare bone of a story to guide the daunting proceedings. Verbinski & co. had their work cut out for them, as they worked around the clock to nail the two successive sequels… and succeed they did. At the conclusion of their cumulative theatrical run the original trilogy – comprised of The Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End – managed to make a whopping $ 2.7 billion in earnings, with the later addition of the fourth and fifth films assisting the entire franchise to effortlessly sail towards a monumental $ 4.5 billion worldwide gross.
Unanimous critic and audience acclaim for Depp from across the globe
Before being cast in the titular role of Capt. Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp’s career was more or less relegated to cult films and indie movies, with varying degrees of success. So, when Bruckheimer chose the talented actor to headline his latest pirate project, doubts began to swirl regarding Depp’s potential as a box-office leading man. But, rest assured, all doubts were laid to rest when the film debuted and everyone saw what he’d accomplished. Unanimous praise from critics and audiences was showered upon the actor and Depp went on to win the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role that year. He also went on to bag nominations from the Oscars, BAFTAs as well as the Golden Globes.
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Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.