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Interview: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio on 'At World's End'
by Scott Holleran
May 31, 2007

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Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott at the At World's End premiere in Disneyland
Photo Credit: Brandon Gray
ith the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the picture's writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio spoke to Box Office Mojo about the series, including the latest installment.

(Note: This interview contains many spoilers.)

Box Office Mojo: At the end of our interview last year about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Ted explained that questioning authority is an important idea in your writing. With the latest picture, are you also questioning reality?

Ted Elliott: I always worry about talking about this stuff. I'd much rather have some sharp academic kind of tease it out of what's already there. But, oddly, what informed all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies was [Jean-Paul] Sartre's philosophy of existentialism—that whole [idea] that there are societal constraints that limit one's freedom and we sort of explored that. That's what a man can do and what a man can't do and that's about as basic a statement of existentialist thought as possible. So I think you actually do have to question the nature of reality itself—just allow yourself to say "what if there is more in this world than I am allowing myself to see?"

Terry Rossio: I like to imagine watching the three films together. There's an intertwining of storytelling as a way of trying to interpret what is real and what is not. [The series] starts off with tales of something called the Black Pearl and it turns out that, in that world, there are swordfighting skeletons, ghost ships and Aztec curses by evil gods and, as the films progress, and the stories reach a climax, you get to Davy Jones, the Flying Dutchman and whispered tales of Calypso. By the third movie, the viewer, the audience and the characters in the film have all been brought to essentially the source of the story—seeing first-hand the things that might have seemed like legends. With the theme "at world's end," of the world coming to an end—when Jack says "the world's just as big, there's just less in it"—we're telling the story of almost that era of magic and grand Clash of the Titans-type stuff where they're no longer existing in our world. As a progression, I find that really enjoyable.

Ted Elliott: One thing I'm really happy with—and it's a small, subtle thing—[relates to] one of the criticisms we've had with all the movies: [the assertion that] death has no meaning [because] nobody stays dead. In At World's End, there's a little thing that Davy Jones says that ties these escapes from death to the same source—Calypso, from the original Aztec curse, which refers to Calypso as one of the heathen gods, a callback to how Barbossa describes the effects of the curse in the first movie. It's one of those things that's there for somebody who might notice it. It's not necessary to get to understand but that was actually our intent—to make this temporary death state have a singular cause. Of course now that Calypso is free, that may not exist.

Box Office Mojo: What is your least favorite part of writing this series?

Ted Elliott: Finding new orders for Barbossa to yell—that gets difficult. Trying to find just one more way to say "go faster!" or "fire the cannons!" becomes real work.

Terry Rossio: One of the difficult aspects of writing for this world is that people can't get from one place to another easily. There's more effort than you might think put toward working out the logic of who's on which ship and why. There was one point where we had the same character on two ships at the same time.

Box Office Mojo: But contradictions can exist in the Pirates world, right?

Ted Elliott: Not one like that. Only Jack Sparrow could have been on two ships at the same time and, even then, only in his own mind.

Director Gore Verbinski
Box Office Mojo: Does director Gore Verbinski improve your writing?

Terry Rossio: Gore has a particular way of communicating. I've never been able to imitate it—or even describe it—but it's great. He'll be making a point, reaching for something, and what I really admire about it is that he pushes each one of these scenes to be more than we often start with and often on a thematic level. On At World's End, he wanted to explore the resonances between the Will and Elizabeth relationship and the Davy Jones and Calypso relationship and that would even go to a scene between Elizabeth and Bootstrap Bill. So there were certain story points that had to be made in the course of the scene, but that wouldn't be enough for [Verbinski]; he wanted to do it in such a way that it would resonate and he'd start making gestures like rubbing his fingers together or a facial expression and you'd understand that he was talking about reaching for a deeper meaning. Then, he would go to this sort of speaking where he would truncate his sentences and throw out random words to try to corral the idea that we were all aiming for.

Ted Elliott: He would come up to us and say, "we need to do something like this but it needs wordsmithery." A lot of times in this industry, the layers or the complexity that is possible in film storytelling is abandoned or watered down. In the first movie, there are a lot of lines that are just there because it's what that guy would say at the time, not because it somehow is constantly driving the plot forward—I do like that type of lean movie that starts and accelerates through—but I kind of like the experience of taking these little turns. With At World's End, what we were really working to do, and Gore was on board with this by saying "is there more?," was making sure all those curly cues ultimately comb in the same way—that they all are contributory to the story—

Terry Rossio:—As different facets of the jewel.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer
Box Office Mojo: Does producer Jerry Bruckheimer improve your writing?

Ted Elliott: Jerry gets the best people he can find and then protects them and lets them do the work. That in itself is amazing. Jerry has this great idea. He says he doesn't like refrigerator moments; he doesn't want to go to a movie and like it and then later that night, when he goes to the refrigerator for a snack, he opens the door and has some question about how something happened. He likes there to be—if not an overt cause and effect—then an inherent one that can be discovered if you give it some thought.

Terry Rossio: There's a moment in At World's End where it's absolutely necessary for Davy Jones to know that Tia Dalma is on the Black Pearl and it's absolutely important that Will know that Davy Jones is the person who betrayed Calypso, and it has to be done efficiently and the best way to do that is for Will to understand Davy Jones and the history and to reveal that Calypso/Tia Dalma is on the Black Pearl. Jerry's the guy who spots "wait a second, how does Will know that and does the audience know that he knows it and is the audience going to be able to put it together?" So if there's a moment where Will spots the pendant that Davy Jones has, will the audience remember from Dead Man's Chest that he also spotted the same pendant? We might say, well of course. But Jerry would say, no, we're going to have to make sure that there's at least one more moment where we indicate that Will sees the pendant, to make sure that base is covered.

Ted Elliott: A friend of mine talks about how, if you're in a meeting, always say "yes." It's the rule of improvisation. Never say no to a suggestion. Always say yes. You can reject it later. In the room, say yes. Jerry's version of that—and it really is important—is that it's better to have something in the editing room and not need it than to be in the editing room and need something and not have it. So, there would be occasions where we would think we wouldn't need something in the movie, and, based on that philosophy, we would go ahead and write the best version, it would get shot, and, sometimes, yeah, we did need that [idea]. When you're writing a script, you're developing a theory of a movie. When you're shooting a movie, it's more developed theory but it's still just a theory. It's all theory until you're actually sitting there in the editing room and start putting things together. That's when you can find out how well that story is working and whether the dramatization is affecting the audience.

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