What do you do when you’re asked to make a sequel to the last pirate movie anyone would ever make?
During production on the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, there was a very real sense that the creative team behind it had conned a major studio into making a movie that should never have existed, a film that would be the last of its kind. Like westerns, the pirate movie had steadily fallen out of favor since its heyday in the mid-20th century, culminating in the apocalyptic failure of 1995’s Cutthroat Island. Now, a major movie studio was spending upwards of $150 million on a pirate movie – one based on a theme park ride, no less. Nobody expected this to succeed. As screenwriter Ted Elliott put it:
Basically we thought we may never get to write another pirate movie ever again. It was also possible no one would get to write another pirate movie ever again.
It’s true that Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner insisted on the clunky subtitle – one that director Gore Verbinski detested – in order to leave the door open for sequels, but that was only after he had cancelled production on the film following the disastrous performances of Disney’s prior theme park-based films, Mission to Mars and The Country Bears. Verbinski managed to reverse their cancellation after personally pleading with Eisner to let them continue, but even that felt like borrowed time. If this was to be the last pirate movie ever made, they were going to go for broke and make the biggest damn pirate movie the world would ever see.
But then, against all odds, The Curse of the Black Pearl was a hit. Not just a hit, but a bonafide cultural phenomenon. A massively entertaining swashbuckler that reintroduced pirates to our collective pop psyche and permanently cemented (for better or for worse) the superstardom of Johnny Depp. As you well know, a movie simply can’t have an impact like that without someone asking for a sequel, and ask Disney did. But once again, the question must be posed: when you’ve already made a film that was meant to effectively close the book on an entire cinematic genre, what the hell do you do for movies two and three?
When it comes to the Pirates movies, the answer, it seems, is to get weird.