Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2007) dir. Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightly, Jack Davenport, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy
** (the films)
**** (the making of)
The “Pirates of the Caribbean” series is one of the most successful franchises in cinema history. But on the Rotten Tomatoes meter each film seemed to have decreasing critical returns - 79% for “Curse of the Black Pearl”, 54% for “Dead Man’s Chest” and 45% for “At World’s End”. But the “Pirates” brand grew to be so robust it was completely immune to all negative criticism (the domestic box-office totals for each respective film was $305, $423 and $309).
So the fact that I disliked all the three films clearly carries no weight in the enormous amount of press coverage of the series. The most entertaining aspect of the series for me is not the final product, but how these films got made.
Disney has released the three films on Blu-Ray recently, and cinephiles who think the Pirates series is a throwaway franchise or something to put on the TV to occupy their kids should reconsider. Scour the Bonus Disc on "Dead Man's Chest" for the two making-of documentaries and you'll find the real treasure of the franchise.
The two stand alone documentaries, “Charting the Return Pre-production Documentary” (25:00mins) and “According to Plan: The Harrowing and True Story of Dead Man’s Chest” (59:00mins) which together total a feature length film, is as good as any making-of special features I’ve ever seen on DVD. Both are true documentaries (not glorified featurettes) shot in verite, fly on the wall style with comprehensive access to all aspects of the production. Although it's still a product of Disney and largely a happy affair all around, we get to see the nuts and bolts, pitfalls and triumphs of this massive production.
“Charting the Return” introduces director Gore Verbinski in his production office looking unpretentious, calm and completely ordinary even though he’s in command of one of the most complicated and expensive series of films ever made. Jerry Bruckheimer and his team freely admit they are all working backwards from the release date, which means starting pre-production before the scripts are even finished, usually a recipe for disaster for any production. But money and talent have always trumped logic with the "Pirates" series. Cameras follow Verbinski into casting meetings, department head meetings, location scouts, stunt training, budget meetings and more - rare access into the ‘business of Hollywood’.
The pre-production doc fits well into the production documentary “According to Plan”. Again, instead of filling the running time with clips of the film, or press-junkit interviews, we get a fly-on-the-wall candid look into the ambitiousness of the film. I must give credit to Verbinski for choosing real-life location filmmaking over manufactured studios environments or relying computer graphics to create his on-screen world. The filmmakers go on a 200-day 'adventure' to the Bahamas, Dominica, St. Vincent to achieve 100% authenticity. Some of the more incredible on-set stories we witness first hand are the impressive engineering achievements in bringing 500+ crew members and all their equipment, trailers and trucks into some of the most remote places in the Caribbean. There was as much urban planning, engineering and infrastructure-building as filmmaking over the production period. Mountains were excavated so new roads could be shoveled, leveled, and asphalted to allow the heavy-load trucks to scale the mountainous terrain and access the interior of the island.
It’s the best example of Hollywood production philosophy – if you throw enough money at a problem anything will be solved.
While the undertaking is impressive, unintentionally the documentaries also expose the ironies of Hollywood. As quickly as the filmmakers parachuted into the Caribbean, dropped their hundred million dollars worth of cast, crew and gear, they jettisoned themselves out of there to move onto the next set. Out of sight, out of mind.
While the crew members are not shy to impress us with their achievements, in the big picture it’s hard not think of the ridiculousness and economic irresponsibility of the whole endeavour. With the manpower, money and efficiency the filmmakers and crew put into making these films imagine what could be achieved if these resources and energy were applied to creating real sustainable infrastructure for other struggling Caribbean nations, like Cuba, or Haiti.
And at the end of the phenomenal 200 days the legacy of their work is a few hours of disposable entertainment. Hurray for Hollywood, there’s nothing like it in the world.