Interview: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio on 'At World's End'
With 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.

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.

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.


Box Office Mojo: There's nothing in three movies you wish you'd said no to in a meeting?

Ted Elliott: The point of a creative meeting is to be creative. You never know where an idea will come from. On the first movie, and it's almost become a signature line in the movie, after the ship-to-ship battle, and the monkey has the medallion, he runs over to Barbossa and gives it to him, and we needed kind of a button for Barbossa—and we were thinking "we have it, men!" or "we're free!"—and I just thought, what if he simply says, "Thank you, Jack." And Jack kinda goes in and Barbossa says, "No, we named the monkey Jack." In the room, in terms of how we were thinking of that scene, we thought it was probably a bad idea. But I didn't reject it and say no. I let it kind of sit [there]. That's the case with everything. You might hear something that sounds like the stupidest suggestion ever. But it may lead to something that you could not have gotten to otherwise. We tried to do things in At World's End that would cause people to look at the first movies from a different perspective. Ragetti's eye is an example. Remember all those scenes where Ragetti for comic effect is chasing the monkey who has his eyeball—well, in At World's End, you find out that Barbossa entrusted him with the care of one of the Pieces of Eight. No wonder Ragetti was willing to ignore everything in a battle to get that eyeball back. It adds a new layer to what's already been perceived. We're doing it across three movies but, in a way, that's really what you do in any movie. Storytelling, particularly cinematic storytelling, is a cumulative effect. You're trying to manipulate in a way—but you want an audience to remember specific things and it becomes a cumulative experience so that you can jog their memory in a later scene for a brief reference or add a new memory that changes the context. It's a weird way to think of storytelling but it's actually how it works.

Box Office Mojo: Did you research pirates?

Terry Rossio: We are often asked about research and I never quite know how to answer. There are some books, and we like to look at picture books. There's the Internet and histories of pirates and biographies—what you would normally do.

Ted Elliott: I think there's a perception that writing Pirates of the Caribbean means you're going to buy a lot of books about pirates and read them so you have stacks of books you're constantly going through—but I read Daniel Dafoe's book about pirates when I was 13.

Box Office Mojo: Is there one story you came across that you used?

Ted Elliott: There's Wagner's Flying Dutchman opera, there's a little bit of resonance to that. But the weird things that inspire are more like John Gay's Beggar's Opera and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera and I don't want to get into the reasons why those were influences but they were. The one that was really interesting is the Snopes legend. You know the Web site Snopes has that section about "fake true American legends." One of them is the idea that the four and twenty blackbirds baked into a pie [] was [notorious pirate] Blackbeard's recruiting song. When Blackbeard came into port, these people would go around and sing this song when he was looking for a crew. It was just such a fun idea and it's a shame it's not true, so we decided to make it true and the song [in the beginning of At World's End] "Hoist the Colors," sung at the beginning and Keira sings it and it's referenced in a couple of ways, every one of the verses tells the story of Davy Jones and Calypso. It starts with "the king and his men stole the queen from her bed"… We sat down and wrote that out and it's based on a fake legend from the Snopes Web site. The other odd bit of research came from a cool Web site I stumbled over that made me start thinking of other things. It's a Web site about historical piracy from an economics point of view. It's the most arcane Web site. Their review of Dead Man's Chest compares it to [Hayao] Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle. It was a really insightful analysis of the movie. Anyway, there is an economic theory that says that piracy is actually a valuable aspect of building an economy because [pirates] can open up trade routes that legitimate businesses can't and by doing so it then allows legitimate businesses to take over [those routes]. They cite the black market demand for Levi's [denim blue jeans by Levi Strauss] in [Soviet] Russia that paved the way for legitimate acceptance of that product [after the communist regime collapsed]. They were already aware of that product and they wanted it.

Box Office Mojo: Are you saying those pirated DVDs of At World's End in communist China are good for business?

Ted Elliott: The problem with video piracy is not that it happens but that it exploded overnight in a way that's just beyond control. There is a certain level of piracy or copyright infringement that is kind of expected and has always been. This is just so huge that it must be brought under control.

Box Office Mojo: Isn't it huge because it's sanctioned by the communist government?

Ted Elliott: That's right. Of course, Asia really has no history of [recognizing] the concept of copyright or intellectual property rights.

Box Office Mojo: Whose story is Pirates of the Caribbean?

Ted Elliott: We have never been shy about the fact that Elizabeth is the protagonist of the overarching story. It's been fun to think of the movies as kind of books of a larger novel. In Dead Man's Chest, we were actually telling a story that Will was the main character and that Elizabeth was the main character and that Jack was the main character—in a very non-traditional type of structure. In At World's End, everybody who ever told me that Jack's the main character will finally go, OK, Elizabeth is the main character, but it's always been her story. Always.

Box Office Mojo: What is the series' primary entertainment value?

Terry Rossio: The screenplay.

Ted Elliott: [Laughing] You know, I don't think that was exactly the question he asked but I love the literal answer.

Terry Rossio: Okay, the writing.

Ted Elliott: It's become such a phenomenon, that's very hard to wrap my head around. What's the entertainment value? It is entertainment. That in and of itself is a value. A movie that is entertaining can and should be more than entertaining. But there's been this weird segregation over the last couple of decades that says a movie must either be entertaining or have some sort of social conscience. But if you go back earlier, even light screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey or His Girl Friday, these were incredibly entertaining movies yet there was depth, too.

Terry Rossio: All the Preston Sturges movies were like that.

Ted Elliott: Yeah—and why have we decided that we cannot make an entertainment that is about issues. The goal is always that a movie is entertaining. Seven is a dark movie—but it is also entertaining. People don't like to talk about that but it was.

Terry Rossio: The difficulty in answering that question is that there are necessary but not sufficient conditions. For example, you can have a screenplay but if you don't have the actors and the performances, the screenplay is not sufficient. Those actors could be in a different movie—and not have the roles to play and the context, in which case the actors would be necessary but not sufficient. That's the joy and the tragedy of the film business, that you have all these necessary but not sufficient conditions. Having said that, I'll make this claim: what's different about the Pirates films—and if you're looking at a phenomenon saying, "why are these popular and not these other [movies]"—it's logical to ask how it's different because maybe that's also the reason it's getting a different response. One of the ways the Pirates movies are different, I would assert, which the critics are happy to point out, is the level of [plot] complexity. There's an irony to that—that the one thing pointed at as problematic is actually the most effective. We may have come upon a genre of filmmaking that is so different, not to sound grandiose, and this trilogy does have multiple intertwining storylines and complex character relationships and it does pack a lot of story into a small period of time and is shot stylistically in such a way that you have to keep up and it is challenging. What if it turns out that that's what people like, despite the critical response, which seems to [suggest] that that's a bad thing. I want the critics of Lost, who go on and on about how great it is because it's so complex and has so much backstory… Why is Lost winning awards for doing the same thing we're doing and the critics are apparently annoyed by it because they have to pay attention?

Ted Elliott: Terry and I came to the first movie with certain ideas about how to engage the audience beyond just the immediate experience of the movie itself—how to get them to talk and how to get them to tell stories to each other about the story and how to get them to compare notes, if you will. Part of that is that one of the greatest things a storyteller can do is to inspire other people to tell their own stories. We did that with Pirates and that's exactly what J.J. Abrams and others did with Lost—they created a show that engages the audience beyond the immediate, visceral experience of the episode itself. The similarity is in kind of pushing the idea of how you're telling stories on film, of trying new things, that may actually fail—but haven't.


Box Office Mojo: Let's talk about the multiple plot points. The first movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is more linear—

Terry Rossio: Oh, it is so not. Look at the reviews of the first movie. They're exactly the same as the second: it's convoluted, it's all over the place, it's impossible to understand.

Ted Elliott: A lot of friends of mine who are writers said there were so many plot holes—but it's still fun. The thing is there are no plot holes but what there isn't is tell-it-three-times, signposted exposition.

Terry Rossio: It's fun to watch how the first movie comes out and it's [considered by some to be] convoluted. Then the second movie comes out and the first one becomes ever so understandable. Now, the third movie is out, and people seem to understand Dead Man's Chest vastly better than they did before. The best reason to make a fourth movie is so people will actually figure out the third.

Ted Elliott: That is not a scoop. He's saying that's just the best reason—it doesn't mean it's happening.

Box Office Mojo: Who's your least favorite character?

Terry Rossio: Let's see…

Ted Elliott: [Speaking to Terry Rossio] You actually have one?

Terry Rossio: I was going to say—

Ted Elliott:—Cotton's parrot became a bear, I'll tell you that.

Terry Rossio: [Executive Producer] Bruce Hendricks. Shout out—hi Bruce, I love you.

Ted Elliott: One of the problems with At World's End is simply that we had so many characters. Writing the first one, we were able to create the characters that we needed to tell the story and then we wanted to service those characters in the second and third movies. That sort of limited the possibilities of creating new characters that we needed to tell the story. The actors did not like this but I did say that At World's End would have been a lot easier if, at the end of Dead Man's Chest, a whole bunch of characters had been hit by a bus. But, really, Cotton's parrot, because he has to be able to communicate what's going on in Cotton's mind but he has to do it in nautical clichés or jargon and there's a point where you really need to have Cotton and the parrot have a presence in a scene and you've already used "red sky at morning" or "all ashore that's going ashore" and you can't do that [again]. It was a great idea for a character in the first movie. In the third one, notice he flies away before the maelstrom starts and only comes back in the end.

Box Office Mojo: I meant who would be your least favorite character if it were a real person …

Ted Elliott: Beckett, obviously. His philosophy sort of absolves him of personal responsibility for the actions he's taking in the service of the corporation. That's when it all goes to hell. That's the problem with Beckett because the rest of the story really is about Sartre's [idea of] freedom—that if you enter into a relationship, you take on these obligations and limit your own freedom willingly and, if you objectify the [other] person, that can lead to sadism, whereas if you try to ensure that other person's freedom as well as your own, that's really the nature of love. To me, it's such an inspiring concept. Anyway, Beckett has a philosophy that is very much at odds with my own.

Terry Rossio: For the longest time, my least favorite character was the [rock guitarist] Keith Richards character—whatever it was going to be—because somehow the world collectively woke up one day and decided that Keith Richards was going to be in these films—

Ted Elliott:—It really felt that way.

Terry Rossio: Every question we were asked everywhere we went was about Keith Richards and we became almost required to include this character. Somehow, everybody thought it would be wonderful to have Keith Richards but if you explored the idea and pressed them a little bit, nobody had any idea of what they wanted to see or what they could see—other than to [have him] show up and mumble which would have made everyone unhappy. It was very challenging because the role had to be crucial to the movie or it shouldn't be there but not so demanding that if Keith couldn't make it for whatever reason it somehow couldn't be modified.

Ted Elliott: I think we also found a good use for Keith Richards as a personality himself and for the character he played.

Box Office Mojo: Who is your favorite character?

Terry Rossio: Elizabeth, mostly because of Keira. I've never seen a moment of action or a line of dialog or anything that she ever performed that wasn't spot on. We knew that any scene with her in it was going to be good and anything we wrote for her she would make good.

Ted Elliott: My answer is also Elizabeth and knowing we had Keira is what made us push the character in the direction that we did particularly in Dead Man's Chest. She was why we had the confidence we could make that story work. But it really comes down to the fact that there are not that many female protagonists that have done that whole [writer Joseph] Campbell heroes journey—and when they do, it's [usually] a complete imitation of the journey that a male character would take. We tried to find a way to create moments that were specific to her being a female but were no less dramatic and complete as they would be for a male character.

Box Office Mojo: Has the Internet influenced this series?

Terry Rossio: I definitely feel that Barbossa's first name kind of came about through the Internet. I don't know if it was Johnny [Depp] who dubbed Barbossa's first name Hector but somehow it wound up on the Internet and everyone started calling him Hector. We went ahead and put it in.

Ted Elliott: I think in one of the behind-the-scenes [home entertainment features], Geoffrey [Rush] and Johnny [Depp] were joking about Barbossa's first name and Johnny came up with Hector. He became Hector Barbossa.

Box Office Mojo: What's the plot point of the peanut in At World's End?

Ted Elliott: Sometimes, a peanut is just a peanut, Scott. Actually, Johnny [Depp] was responsible for the peanut—his attitude was that, if you have nothing, then a peanut is everything.

Box Office Mojo: Is anyone virtuous in these movies?

Ted Elliott: Like cruelty, virtue is a matter of perspective.

Terry Rossio: I think Gibbs is the one character who's continuously loyal to Jack Sparrow. Gibbs is the one shining beacon of hope for humanity.

Box Office Mojo: Is the opening scene a political statement?

Ted Elliott: How could it not be? The recitation of the [suspension of individual] rights came from an actual historical document—an order concerning piracy in which they suspended the right to trial—the writ of habeas corpus—

Terry Rossio: There was an uprising in a South Pacific nation and that was an actual decree. The greatest threat to a democracy—

Ted Elliott: —is that people will vote themselves out of their own freedom. Once you've done that, you can't vote them back.

Box Office Mojo: Is Norrington a hero?

Ted Elliott: I really have a problem with the terms hero and villain. The only true evil in the world is willful ignorance—the refusal to accept facts.

Terry Rossio: I would say that a character who's good is one who would make a moral choice once they know all the facts versus a character who would knowingly make an immoral choice. By that criteria, I think Norrington is a good guy.

Box Office Mojo: Have you ruled out the possibility that you two will write future installments?

Ted Elliott: Not at all. We don't want to make a bad movie in the franchise. For us, it's about whether there's a story worth telling—and, right now, Jerry, Gore and the studio agree with that.

Box Office Mojo: Any plans for new motion pictures based on Disneyland attractions?

Terry Rossio: I wanted to write The Haunted Mansion and I'd actually figured out a way of doing it.

Box Office Mojo: What types of screenplays are under consideration?

Ted Elliott: We want to do a Western. The public consciousness that existed when Westerns were popular—that sense that, if you leave town, you could easily die—isn't there anymore.

Terry Rossio: If you think of The Searchers, that lack of civilization is dangerous.

Ted Elliott: I think it started to fall away in the middle to late Sixties to the early Seventies—this idea, as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that the men you need to build a civilization have no place in it once it's been built. If you think about the idea of a hero, the last thing you want to show up in your life is a hero—because all that can mean is that there's something really bad going on. The only time heroes show up is if there's conflict. It's not good to be around heroes if you're not a sidekick—you can become collateral damage way too easily.

Terry Rossio: The other thing that happened to the Western is the political correctness about the Indians—or the Native Americans. There was a point where the wilds were [considered] scary partly because the [Indians] would, as in The Searchers, come in and wipe you out. Then, somehow, we started to sort of understand that Native Americans perhaps shouldn't be cast as such bad guys considering we came in and slaughtered all of them and that had the effect of making the Western less [appealing] and making those open spaces less frightening. In the Western that we want to do, those open spaces need to be made frightening.

Ted Elliott: Actually, the minute it became sort of understood that maybe the Indians had a really good reason to do what they were doing, they stopped doing that in movies.

Box Office Mojo: Speaking of Westerns, John Wayne would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. What's your favorite John Wayne movie?

Ted Elliott: Red River, where he's playing much older than he actually is. He's a genuinely underappreciated actor—a very mannered actor—

Terry Rossio: —I was going to say Red River.

Ted Elliott: I also really like Rio Bravo. Believe it or not, Rio Bravo had an influence on the [original] Shrek movie [written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio]. The great thing about John Wayne's character in Rio Bravo is that his change is very subtle—it's a very slight change—but he causes change in the characters around him and you cannot deny the influence he has had on everyone. I just find that story template to be fascinating. To some extent, Jack Sparrow is very similar.

• Pirates of the Caribbean Special Briefing


• Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

• 5/29/07 - Third 'Pirates' Sacks Memorial Record

• 5/25/07 - Scott Holleran: 'At World's End' Premiere

• 7/8/06 - Interview: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio on 'Dead Man's Chest'

• 6/29/06 - Scott Holleran: 'Dead Man's Chest' Premiere

• Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

• Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl


• Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's Web Site:

• 'At World's End' Official Web Site

• 'Dead Man's Chest' Official Web Site

• 'Curse of the Black Pearl' Official Web Site