The worst thing for any pirate is feeling rudderless. The first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies grossed more than $2.6 billion worldwide. But even Johnny Depp admits to being ambivalent about the sequels: “To be perfectly honest, I didn’t see them. I did see the first one. I have not seen the second one or the third one.’ To be fair, he tends not to watch his own movies, but even while making 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End, he sensed something was off. “They had to invent a trilogy out of nowhere.’ says Depp, 47.
“It was plot-driven and complicated I remember talking to [Gore Verbinski, director of the first three films] at certain points during production of 2 or 3 and saying, ‘I don’t really know what this means.’ He said, ‘Neither do I, but let’s just shoot it.’ This guy is this guy’s dad, and this guy was in love with this broad. It was like, ‘What?”’
With the fourth installment, On Stranger Tides, Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have taken steps to correct the course of the multibillion-dollar franchise. Major recurring characters have been jettisoned and a shorter running time established. (Directed by Rob Marshall after Verbinski chose not to return.) Bruckheimer believes that the last movie had a unique set of problems, which could be prevented this time around. “In the third one, there were a lot of characters, so the film got long,” he says. ”And we felt that in order to tell the story properly, you had to close all those doors that we opened. Now this is a stand-alone movie. So we don’t have to tie up any loose ends.”
Depp, for his part, felt a burden of responsibility to audiences. According to the most conservative estimates, ‘he’s pocketed between $32 million and $35 million to appear in the new film. Asked how much he’s made from the series thus far, he says simply, “I have no idea.”
“With this one, in terms of story, my involvement was a little more just because I felt if we were going to do a 4, that more than anything we owed the audience a fresh start, without all the complicated mathematics of 1 colliding with 2 and 2 colliding with 3.” Depp says. “I felt it was very important to eliminate as many complications as possible.” Encouraged by fans who’ve managed to stay loyal, Depp says his mission for the fourth movie was this: “Let’s give them something character-driven. Something fun and irreverent. Hoops of fire and whatnot. New blood, as it were.”
The resulting film focuses squarely on Captain Jack, who’s driven by an emotion we didn’t know he was capable of: regret. Regret over a woman, no less. Penelope Cruz, who shot the movie while pregnant, joins the crew as Angelica, the badass daughter of the merciless pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). When Blackbeard shanghais Sparrow and forces him to join a quest for the Fountain of Youth, it’s only Captain Jack’s guilt over Angelica that keeps him from escaping with a quick dive overboard.
Gone are Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann, whose stories came to a fairly neat conclusion in At World’s End. As for new supporting characters, there’s Philip (British newcomer Sam Clafiin), a young missionary held hostage aboard Blackbeard’s ship. (Clafiin describes his character as the conscience of the story. “Unlike Will Turner, Orlando Bloom’s character, who turned pirate and committed crimes, Philip remains goodwilled throughout.”)
Geoffrey Rush returns as Captain Barbossa, who remains Captain Jack’s comic foil and rival. But at this point, the two are more like frenemies. “I believe Barbossa and Jack are the two brightest, the two cleverest pirates in the whole story.” Rush says. “Johnny and I were shooting a scene together, and I said, ‘You know, if these two guys could actually stop arguing, they’d be formidable together.”’ So, as Bruckheimer points out, Blackbeard is Captain Jack’s worthiest opponent, as well as the series’ first truly repellent villain. “Blackbeard is pure evil,” says the producer. “That’s the way I like ’em,” laughs McShane. “If you’re going to go big, go big! I think the line in the film was ‘I’m a bad man. I have bad in my blood.’ He’ll do what he has to do to survive, like the [fable of the] scorpion and the frog, even if it’s in his worst interest.”
“For me, if the movie had continued with the same cast, the same story lines, it would have been very difficult to come into the project,” director Marshall says. “But I felt like it’s a new beginning in many ways.” Marshall wanted to push Sparrow beyond being a wisecracking type with a sword. The gamble is whether fans even want this freewheeling character to actually care about someone. “What’s nice is you get a sense that Jack has a heart,” says Marshall. “He’s doing something heroic in a way. For him-for a pirate, who only thinks selfishly it’s nice to see that.”
Then there’s the Fountain of Youth, which is as much a metaphor as a plot device. Sparrow is getting older, becoming reflective, and beginning to look back at wreckage from his past and deciding whether to make it right. “He really has a conscience,” says Marshall. “And he’s protective, caring.” Well, to a degree, anyway. “It’ll never be: Jack sits down and gets married and has kids,” Marshall says.