‘Pirates’ scribes ride wave of success

Hurdles nothing new to Elliott, Rossio

The Playa del Rey home of screenwriter Ted Elliott is a modest one, but it offers quite a panorama — one befitting a scribe who’s co-written three hit films about pirates. The view of whitecaps, seagulls and horizon of blue sea is pristine, breathtaking … and expensive.

With f/x-tweaking running into the 11th hour, and the specter of Sony’s “Spider-Man 3” opening box office besting previous record holder “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” one might think Elliott and writing partner Terry Rossio would be a tad anxious over their third installment.

But Rossio and Elliott are Hollywood’s durable duo, screenwriters who’ve navigated troubled waters to generate billions in box office with Disney’s “Pirates” as well as such moneymakers as “Aladdin” and DreamWorks’ “Shrek.”

Part three of the “Pirates” trilogy, “At World’s End,” is set to hit screens May 24, but the final two installments — lensed back to back — have hardly been smooth sailing.

“When we started shooting, Terry and I had complete stories for both (parts) two and three, but we hadn’t been able to write a fully realized draft for three,” says Elliott. “This made it real difficult for the actors. We were shooting two halves of a single scene up to nine months apart. Then we got shut down by hurricanes twice.

“The idea that anybody makes movies just for the money is insane. It’s just too much hard work.”

The effort has paid off for Elliott and Rossio. The duo, who met in the ’70s at their high school paper, the Saddleback Roadrunner in Santa Ana, Calif., have enjoyed a remarkable run of audience-friendly moneymakers, particularly the buccaneer bonanza that is “Pirates.” Fueled by Johnny Depp’s swashbuckling Jack Sparrow and the finest CGI money can buy, part three stands to rake in the doubloons.

According to Disney, “The Curse of the Black Pearl” earned $653.2 million worldwide, with “Dead Man’s Chest” bringing in just over $1 billion. The smart money has it that the Mouse will almost assuredly make the pic trio a quartet.

Whether or not that will include helmer Gore Verbinksi remains to be seen. Reports say the director is developing cartoonist Berkeley Breathed’s book “Flawed Dogs: The Year End Leftovers at the Piddleton Last Chance Dog Pound” as an animated feature for Disney.

“Gore’s sick of pirates,” Breathed said during a recent book reading. “If I wrote a scene that had to be shot on water, he’d run the other way.”

Both fans and detractors of the “Pirates” series are fond of pointing out that the whole franchise began with an amusement park ride.

“When we wrote the first movie, the odds were against us,” admits Elliott. “A friend of mine said taking on a pirate movie based on a ride for Disney isn’t so much a job as a dare. But in a way, it was freeing, because there hadn’t been a successful pirate movie, and we were able to come in and say, ‘We think this is what needs to happen to make this work.’ ”

Of course, the notion of turning a swell ride into a hugely profitable film is no sure thing: “The Haunted Mansion” grossed far less (some $280 million less) than “Black Pearl,” released one month later, while 2002’s “The Country Bears” was a furry flop. As for Rossio, the prospect of a Pirates of the Caribbean transfer to the bigscreen held potential. “It struck me as cool and different,” says the scribe, sitting in a screening room at Jerry Bruckheimer Films. “We’d actually proposed to the studio in 1992 that we make a supernatural pirate movie, and one of the best ways to do it was base it on the Pirates of the Caribbean.”

The team was brought in by Bruckheimer after two initial scripting passes by Jay Wolpert then Stuart Beattie, who christened Jack Sparrow.

Ever since Elliott and Rossio — who have one-off deals for each film — got involved, they’ve been the sole writers, a unique situation in the take-a-stab-and-pass-it-on Hollywood scribing game.

“As Terry says, it’s not that Hollywood doesn’t respect writers — they respect writers as much as anyone — it’s the writing they don’t respect,” says Elliott. “What Terry and I try to do is be able to replace our own writing, and to not lock ourselves into anything as being the only possible way it could go.”

The pair have also enjoyed a significant presence on the set, traditionally an off-limits zone to wordsmiths.

“It’s kind of unusual for writers to be as involved in the production as Terry and I have been in the ‘Pirates’ movies, but I actually think it should be the exception if there isn’t a writer on the set,” says Elliott, who serves on the WGA board of directors. “I think it’s imperative when the scene is being blocked and rehearsed for the first time. I like to see the actors’ performance and find if there are lines that can be cut.”

“It’s solely because of Gore Verbinski,” Rossio admits. “He doesn’t mind looking over and seeing the writers are talking to the actor. A lot of directors would freak out. Gore looks at us as a resource.”

Adds Bruckheimer: “We welcome our writers to work with our actors and directors throughout the production. It makes the movie better.”

Elliott and Rossio’s contributions to the “Pirates” series have resulted in the embrace of audiences worldwide, yet it’s a feeling not always reciprocated by crix. Naysayers complained of confusing subplots in “Dead Man’s Chest,” lack of coherence and that, at 150 minutes, the film was simply too long.

“The weird thing about the ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ reviews was, I do think there are problems with the movie, but none of the reviews actually identified those problems,” says Elliott. “I think there is value to the dialogue between the critic and the artist, but the level of film criticism in this country these days is just abysmal. For that dialogue to work, the critic has to be as knowledgeable of that medium as the artist, and I don’t read a lot of reviews where I get any sense of an understanding of the medium or even necessarily what the critic’s personal aesthetic for movies (is).”

The aesthetic the scribes say they apply to their work is hardly the stuff of typical popcorn feature fare.

“This is one of those things you don’t really want to talk about, because if you mention Bertolt Brecht in the same sentence with a movie based on an amusement park ride, it sounds really ludicrous,” admits Elliott. “But his theories about epic theater and alienation techniques had a pretty big influence on the first movie, and more so the second movie.” Those alienation techniques may have also influenced the critics. Not in a good way.

“We essentially abandoned the typical three-act structure for the motion picture,” he continues. “And we were influenced by foreign movies that came out of cultures that are markedly different from Western culture, particularly Hong Kong movies and Japanese anime. What they create is this kind of dream logic, and we were trying to imitate that in ‘Dead Man’s Chest,’ which is not common to Hollywood films. … We did this in the first movie and we did it really well, and we pushed it even further in the second.”

Given the value of the “Pirates” property, and Disney’s sizable investment in it, one might expect the studio to have had a hand in shaping every part of the material.

“Creatively, I haven’t heard a word from the studio as to what they think it should be, beyond good,” says Rossio.

Despite the artsy dollops of Brecht, the writers maintain an awareness of who they work for, and just how far out of the Mouse cage they can go.

“That’s the deal with the devil,” says Elliott. “Life is filled with tradeoffs. The stories we want to tell are going to cost somebody a lot of money to make, so we have a sense of responsibility to the people that put the money up to deliver something that will earn a reasonable return. … When does the studio’s need to continue the franchise outweigh the creative satisfaction? So far it hasn’t.”

But Disney has not been without concerns; initial footage of Depp’s affected Sparrow raised fears at the studio.

“Total panic” is how Bruckheimer
— during an appearance last year on CBS’ “The Early Show” — described execs’ reaction to those first dailies. The stunned suits felt they had “a gay, drunk lead” steering their pirate ship. It took awhile for the studio to embrace Depp and the scribes’ sensibilities.

“Whether you like them or dislike them, I don’t think these guys have gotten enough credit for being ambitious for their sort of elliptical storytelling,” says Brigham Taylor, Disney exec VP of production and development, who has overseen the franchise since its inception. “They’ve pushed Disney to a place it hasn’t been, tonally, where it doesn’t condescend to younger members of the audience.” Which begs the question: Will the world see a fourth “Pirates” extravaganza?

“A fourth movie would have to be different somehow, and I don’t know yet what it might be,” says Rossio.

“When we made the first one, it wasn’t intended to be a trilogy,” says Elliott. “We were able to sort of retro engineer a story that encompasses the three movies, but the story ends with the third movie. With approaching a fourth one, I think we’d have to be looking at it from the point of view of almost reinventing the franchise.”

Beyond another “Pirates” project, word has it that the scribes might be doing a take on the Lone Ranger saga for Bruckheimer.

And the pair were involved in Par’s upcoming “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” directed by Mark Waters, based on the children’s book series, and are returning to animation with nonwriting duties for an upcoming CGI feature.

Beyond those efforts, says Rossio, “We set up a project at Disney that we’re producers on (along with Scott Ross) with a couple of writers, Steve Barr and Tina Anderson. It’s called ‘Plant Life.’ It’s basically ‘Rear Window’ with a philodendron.”

Despite their string of triumphs, the scribes know there are no guarantees in Hollywood.

“We don’t make hits,” Rossio clarifies. “Making them, they don’t look like hits. Making them, they look like problems, disasters, things not working. You don’t know you’re making hits; you just don’t.”