"Blackbeard burns all of his victims to death," reports John Myhre, the film's production designer, with glee. "There's a huge cage hanging outside the back of his ship above a huge lantern on which he throws his victims. That's where he gets the bones." With a flourish he reveals a looming stained glass window that makes up the back wall of the cabin, decorated with scenes of souls in fiery torment, through which you can presumably see the real deal occurring. Obviously, walking the plank is so 17th century.
For the fourth entry in the $2.7 billion-earning series, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow isn't just shooting here in England, it's where we first catch up with the world's first glam rock swashbuckler. Here at Pinewood, with X-Men: First Class filming opposite, security is tighter than Captain Jack's habitual last-gasp getaways.
As such, it helps to have two-time Oscar-winner Myhre take us on a personal tour of the 18th century London backstreets his team have recreated, which provide the setting for a carriage-top chase sequence with Captain Jack fleeing the king's men. "You see Jack going from undertaker carriage to a rich lady's carriage and finally jump on the back of a pull cart, which bursts into flames, running through London. We shot [exteriors] at Little Temple on Saturday, and it looked fabulous."
Sadly we're too late to see the chase but Myhre proves to be not just a gracious guide but a one-man-plot-spoiler, walking us through a virtual play-by-play account of the chase's climax. "We're almost like the soldiers chasing Jack Sparrow right now," he enthuses, "coming around the corner and we don't see him. What we don't know is that Jack jumped off onto a pub sign [overhead]. So the soldiers run around the corner and then the camera comes back and finds Jack hanging up here. He jumps down, goes through this door, this is our Captain's Daughter Pub."
We're ushered into the cramped London boozer. "The reason Jack's here in London is that he heard that 'Jack Sparrow' is trying to crew a ship," continues Myhre. "But he's Jack Sparrow, and he's not in London. So who in the world is in London, at the Captain's Daughter Pub here, trying to recruit a crew?"
Who indeed? Although a quick glance at the film's press release and cast list, not to mention the aforementioned watering hole's name, offers plenty of clues. On Stranger Tides sends Jack Sparrow on a quest to find the legendary Fountain of Youth, tangling with a mysterious woman from his past, Angelica, played by Penelope Cruz, as well as the most feared pirate on the high seas - Captain Blackbeard - played by Deadwood's Ian McShane, who just might also have blood ties to Cruz's character.
While Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa - now with a peg leg - and Kevin R. McNally's sidekick Gibbs return, the emphasis is decidedly on new faces, including young British actor Sam Claflin, who plays earnest young missionary Philip, and French actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey as a seductive mermaid. And the roster of new talent isn't just onscreen. Director Gore Verbinski who helmed the first Pirates trilogy is out, replaced by the man behind musicals Chicago and Nine, Rob Marshall (Myhre, Marshall's regular designer, is also new to the series).
It's clear from talking to the key personnel here that On Stranger Tides offers something of a clean slate for a franchise whose latter two episodes got increasingly convoluted, weaving in more protagonists and plotlines than Lost - which clearly is how some audiences felt.
For these interviews, we're ushered into the Storeroom at the rear of the Captain Daughter's Pub, a multi-level space festooned with beams, ropes, barrels and all the accessories ideal for an epic fight scene; which, according to Myhre, our own 'Deep Throat', is exactly what happens:
"There's a huge duel that takes place between Jack and 'Jack'," he divulges. "Fights on the fire pit, in the mezzanine, on top of barrels, and then 24 of the king's soldiers come in to get Jack back and they go after all of the Jacks in the room. There's also a fun gag, with spurting ale from the barrels. Johnny's holding one of the barrels up and a little stream of wine goes into his mouth. Fantastic."
Myhre describes how the film breaks down roughly into three acts: Act I, in London; Act II, at sea, "with pirate ships, battles, mutinies, everything you'd expect"; and Act III, "which actually feels a little Indiana Jone-ish", as Jack and co head inland to locate the Fountain.
Uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and co-writer Terry Rossio expand on this outline, keen to appraise the other new jewels in the Pirates treasure chest. Bruckheimer, looking impossibly sleek and unruffled given his punishing work schedule, flags up the franchise's first use of 3D, out on location no less. "I just think it's such an immersive filmmaking," he says. "We're very adventurous and we decided we wanted to be the first big exterior movie to do [3D]. Avatar was all on stage. Or mostly on stage. And I think we're the first big adventure picture to be released that's 3D and actually using 3D cameras."
He's also quick to praise new director and "premier filmmaker" Rob Marshall: "Chicago won a bunch of Academy Awards. We checked him out, actors love him, they'd do anything for him." This may explain the presence of Cruz, last seen in Marshall's Nine (and, as revealed by the costume department's head shots, another Nine co-star, Judi Dench, presumably in a cameo).
Bruckheimer is also pleasingly upfront on the overstuffed nature that dogged films 2 and 3: "We tried to streamline the story a little, not have as many characters. That was one of the things we found in editing [film] three, there were so many stories to tie up and that's why the picture got longer than you would've liked. We can learn from that and say, hey, let's make it a little easier on ourselves."
Rossio, heavyset but very softly spoken, is slightly more defensive, claiming "the fans loved it, [but] I think some of the critics felt like they didn't want to have to necessarily invest in the complexity that we were going for." But this fourth installment, he points out, is "kind of a James Bond thing, you can do the single story complete in and of itself."
That said, he's clearly enamored with the additions to the Pirates universe, notably the mermaids who, as featured here, definitely aren't of the virginal Hans Christian Andersen/Disney variety, but rather seductive sirens who transform into deadly sea creatures. Bruckheimer highlights a mermaid attack sequence as "spectacular" and the trailer already reveals the appearance of zombies. But that seems to be the fun of the Pirates universe, the fact that almost anything goes.
A case in point: back on The Queen Anne's Revenge, John Myhre cautiously shared the contents of Blackbeard's treasure cabinet, a collection of miniature ships in bottles, with a difference. "These are all just being used as reference props for the actors," he confides, "they'll actually be replaced with CG ships. That's the magical world inside." So, what, would we be able to see tiny people inside the ships inside the bottles? "Possibly, possibly..." "There's not a lot that falls outside of our parameters, really," Rossio laughs later. "No time travel, I suppose."
Which isn't to say that the film's f/x are all green screen. Our tour takes us briefly via the underwater stage (used by 007 and many others) where a handful of watery scenes will be shot; and back on the soundstage, we're treated to an early glimpse of what will be the Ponce De Leon, an abandoned ship precariously perched atop a mountain. The crew is currently experimenting with a large pivoting gimbal, to make the entire cabin sway back and forth according to where trespassers move.
"Geoffrey Rush was saying it's like that sequence from Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush," says Myhre, referencing the famous scene with a shack teetering on a cliff edge. "Barbossa and Jack are both trying to get to the treasure chest in the centre of the room. So one of them might take a cup and roll it down the floor and that just makes the ship tilt and the chest move a little bit further away!"
While the tour is fascinating, access to actual filming is limited to watching Depp, Rush and co on the monitors, filming a dialogue scene in the royal court. In fact the closest we get is seeing Depp's body double in full Captain Jack regalia standing in the lunch line. That is, until we run into Depp departing the set, and grab an inpromptu mini-interview with the star.
As one might expect, compliments flow. Filming On Stranger Tides has been "a gas"; director Marshall is "a wonderful man"; and co-star Cruz is "a serious force to be reckoned with. We did a film together years ago called Blow - I could've said we did 'blow' together years ago," he grins to laughter all around. "She's someone I adore, one of my best friends."
Both Bruckheimer and Rossio lauded Depp's involvement in the script, notably his idea to make Claflin's character Philip a missionary. The actor himself is more modest. "It's like going into a think tank basically and they were very receptive to [my] just kind of throwing ideas around. If something sparks, it sparks."
But in the same way that Captain Jack is the perfect antidote to puncturing any potentially po-faced or self-important aspect of the films, leave it to Depp to be the one to keep things grounded amid all the razzle-dazzle; and therefore make audiences more likely to return for this fourth installment. How, he's asked earnestly, has Jack Sparrow changed for the fourth film?
"Well, there was a sex change..." he winks back. "This whole thing about character arcs and characters, you know, finding themselves... I think, I honestly think old Captain Jack found himself a long time ago." Disney and Bruckheimer will doubtless be hoping audiences want to re-discover him one more time. At least.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides will open on May 20, 2011.
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