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

Ted Elliott
Photo Credit: Scott Holleran
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 [http://www.snopes.com/language/stories/420.asp] 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?

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth
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
Photo Credit: Scott Holleran
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.

Continued . . .

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