Titan Books is very good to us — not just to CHUD in sending us cool stuff to review, but to film fans all over.
They consistently put out some of the very best cinema and entertainment oriented books on the market. Over the past few months, I’ve had my hands on The Art of Drew Struzan, The Art of Hammer Horror, The Avengers: A Celebration, The Art of Sucker Punch, The James Bond Omnibus 002, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog: The Book.
I’m sure a few readers have rolled their eyes whenever I review one because they’re almost always positive. But each one of them has been a detailed and enjoyable read.
When they asked me if I’d like to post an exclusive excerpt from their upcoming Johnny Depp biography, I told them I’d be thrilled. If they were a company that put out gooey, teen-oriented books, I’d hesitate, but so far they’ve shown to be eminently tasteful about any cinematic subject they tackle.
I’ll have a review of this book coming shortly — it’s currently hidden where a Depp-obsessed sister can’t find it — but for now, here’s an exclusive excerpt detailing Depp’s battle with Disney over Pirates of the Caribbean.
ETA: A reader with sharper and less tired eyes than I noted the excerpt below appears to have an error, citing Shrek as having been written for Disney. After a little curious searching — which does not turn up any record of the project as ever having been at Disney — I have to conclude it is a mistake. It’s not a transcription error, as it also appears in my copy of the book. This isn’t my goof, so I shouldn’t be embarrassed, but it’s definitely not the kind of thing I like seeing in a biography.
I’ll review the book. It may simply be one typo in an otherwise flawless work, but if not, that’s the place for me to criticize it. I’ll stand by what I said about Titan, as the other books I’ve reviewed have been awesome, well-researched, and well-written. I certainly hope this is another one.
Every once in a while, a film comes along which hits all the right buttons; where everything works; in which the combination of luck and expertise from which all films spring alchemically transforms into something more precious than gold; where every element of the production is in sync with every other; and where all blend perfectly together to make a universally acclaimed work of pop-art – a cinematic classic – a piece of pure movie magic. Such a film was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. For Johnny Depp, its like had been a long time in the coming. It was worth the wait.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s $125 million production was a rip-roaring seafaring saga of a kind not seen since the high adventure of post-war escapism reigned supreme in Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It is to Warners that the screen owes its greatest pirate movies, like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk (1935 and 1940, both with Errol Flynn), but aside from an odd jaunt down Jamaica way in films like The Spanish Main and Captain Kidd (both 1945), it was Walt Disney who breathed new life into the genre in 1950 with a full-blooded adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, whose commercial success launched a veritable armada of spectacular swashbucklers, from Blackbeard the Pirate and Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd and The Crimson Pirate (all 1952) to Pirates of Tripoli (1955). Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate represented the high water mark of pirate movies in the 1950s, and its manifest of sea battles, sword fights and skullduggery was not to be forgotten by the screenwriters of Pirates of the Caribbean.
The pirate genre had experienced a brief resurgence of popularity in the early 1960s during the cycle of sword-and-sandal epics that emanated out of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. Films like The Pirates of Tortuga, Morgan il pirata (Morgan the Pirate, with Steve Reeves) and Gordon, il pirata nero (The Black Pirate, with Ricardo Montalban and Vincent Price; all 1961) fired the flame of free- booting once again, before audiences tired of starless spectacle and the failure of Lewis Milestone’s Mutiny on the Bounty, as well as rising costs within the industry, prohibited exotic excursions to faraway places in eighteenth-century galleons. In more recent times, attempts to revive the genre have sunk without trace: Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995). It was not without trepidation that Disney chose to embark on a major feature on the theme of pirates in the Caribbean. The more so when executives discovered what Johnny Depp was intending to do with his pivotal role of Jack Sparrow, erstwhile captain of the good ship Black Pearl.
It is evident from his films that Depp had developed three distinctly different approaches to characterisation. Either he plays the role straight, relying on interior psychology and emotion to carry the day, or he mimics the individual concerned (in the case of living persons like Hunter Thompson and George Jung), or else he pulls a Lon Chaney and turns himself into an archetype by adopting mannerisms from an eclectic mix of cultural influences. In Ed Wood, it was Casey Kasem; in Sleepy Hollow, it was Roddy McDowell. Given the nature of the material in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp had already decided that Jack Sparrow should fall into the last of these three categories. The models in this instance were going to be more diverse than ever before: a cartoon French skunk courtesy of Warner Bros’ ‘Looney Tunes’ named Pepe Le Pew, and Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards. That was for starters; to these basics, he added Rastafarian dreadlocks, a braided beard, kohl eyeliner, a mouthful of gold and platinum- capped teeth and an angry scar on his chin – and he already had an apposite skull-and-crossbones tattooed on his right ankle. There was method in the madness.
‘Pirates were the rock stars of their day,’ he said, in explanation of the Richards influence. ‘He’s not far off being a pirate, is Keith.’ The result was the pirate equivalent of Bob Marley or Augustus Pablo, which was well-suited to the film’s Jamaican setting. (The real ‘Jack Sparrow’ was a Jamaican session-singer who went on to found 1960s Ska band The Ethiopians under his real name of Leonard Dillon.)
Depp was more effusive when it came to explaining the contribution of the skunk: ‘There’s something about Pepe Le Pew that I always thought was really beautiful,’ he told Emily Blunt: ‘The idea of this guy who absolutely had blinders on to reality, and just believed what he thought. He was always really in a good mood, no matter what was going on around him, no matter what the reality of the situation was; he always saw it his way, absolutely his way. Every episode, he was falling in love with this one cat and the cat just despised him, absolutely hated him, and he always interpreted it as ‘Oh, she’s playing hard to get; she’s shy,’ or something like that. And so I thought that it worked for the character. I also thought of Jack Sparrow as a sort of a constantly moving organism, who would shape himself to whatever situation, however he needed to be shaped. He would mould himself into that; this organism with a perpetual martini glass in his hand.’
Modeling himself on a cartoon animal was not that wide of the mark either: writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who previously had scripted Disney’s Shrek (which Depp so much admired)** had in mind Bugs Bunny when they wrote scenes for Jack Sparrow.
The Disney executives remained unconvinced about the efficacy of Depp’s characterisation for a full month and a half into filming, but he and director Gore Verbinski stuck with it, going so far as to alter the script so that other actors could ‘comment’ on the ragbag of idiosyncrasies, such as when Orlando Bloom and Kevin McNally stare in bewilderment at a part of the sky that Sparrow has fixed his gaze upon only a moment before, or when Bloom remarks, ‘So that’s the reason for all the…’ while mimicking Sparrow’s mannerisms, after McNally has told him some of his captain’s colourful history. ‘Originally I had two more gold teeth, and there were a few that wanted them gone,’ Depp said of his battles with the corporate suits in SFX magazine. ‘In fact, they wanted them all gone, and they wanted the braids and the trinkets and the beard gone. I said, “Look, I respect you guys. I’ll compromise to some degree, which means I’ll take two teeth out. But anything beyond that I feel is compromising the integrity of the character. I’m not willing to do that. You’ve got to trust me. You’ve got to let me do what you hired me to do. And if you’re not happy with doing that, then you’ll have to replace me.”’
It goes without saying that Johnny Depp was not replaced. He did what he was hired to do, and Disney was to find itself in the enviable position of never having to look back.