CANNES Q&A: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' Director Rob Marshall

8:38 AM PST 05/13/2011 by Gregg Kilday
Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland via Getty Images

The filmmaker tells The Hollywood Reporter why Johnny Depp is the best dancer since Fred Astaire.

Having established his directing bona fides with screen adaptations of the musicals Chicago and Nine, Rob Marshall steps into the action arena for the first time with Disney’s big-budget summer sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The 3D spectacular sails into Cannes Saturday with a casts that includes Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz. Marshall spokes with THR film editor Gregg Kilday about taking on the enormous challenge, mastering the art of 3D and why Depp is the best dancer since Fred Astaire.

The Hollywood Reporter: When you were announced as the director of the latest installment of Pirates, it came as a surprise to many given that you’d never made this type of film before. What was your first reaction when you got the call?

Rob Marshall: I was thrilled, because I’d always wanted to work with Johnny. It’s funny, sometimes things you put out there in the universe come back. We had mutual friends in common, and people had said to me, you’d be a wonderful team together, you’d really enjoy each other. So when I got the call about a project with Johnny, I was thrilled. Secretively, I’ve always been interested in adventure, action, something for the family. As a director, you want to constantly change it up, you want to have variety in your career and not do the same thing over and over again. So I was excited about the idea of doing a different kind of genre.

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THR: Pirates is an established franchise, and Johnny Depp had already created an iconic character. Did you have any concerns about how much creative input you’d be able to have?

Marshall: The most important thing for me was to take a look at the script. I saw how I could have my entrance into this world, because the script was a completely new story with so many new characters that I felt it was the beginning of a whole new storyline and a whole new beginning for pirates. That gave me a great deal of relief that I could find my way into the material.

THR: Both Johnny and producer Jerry Bruckheimer are strong personalities. How did you all negotiate your roles?

Marshall: They were incredibly welcoming, and that was another reason why I was excited to do it as well. They weren’t looking to replicate what they had done before. They were looking for new blood, a sort of new take on things. They were excited to hear what I had to say. I never ever heard the words, ‘Well, we’ve done it this way.’ Ever.

THR: You were responsible for bringing Penelope Cruz on board?

Marshall: I did, although the moment I mentioned her name to Johnny and Jerry, they said absolutely. Johnny loved working with her on a movie called Blow years ago. It was pretty clear this character needed to be formidable. We needed to find an actress who could not only go toe to toe with Johnny and match him, but also needed to be all the things that Jack Sparrow is in a way. She needed to be funny and clever and smart and crafty and beautiful. It was an enormous bill to fill. It was really clear that it was Penelope. We didn’t have another choice actually. We were in London, John DeLuca, the executive producer on Pirates and myself, we took her to dinner. I didn’t even get the words out and she jumped up from the table and said, ‘I’d love to.’ She’s looking for variety in her career, too, and she’d never done anything like this before on this scale, so she was very excited to do it.

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THR: How did you prepare for handling such a big production?

Marshall: I had John Myhre, my production designer from all my other films, and that helped enormously. I was walking with a new DP, Dariusz Wolsky, but I call him Derek. Penny Rose, who was the costume designer from the previous Pirates. We just went to work. The great thing about the script that Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott wrote was that it was incredibly strong, and the focus for me all through pre-production was all about story and character. I really wanted to make sure that that was the center of it all, because you can get lost in a picture like this, with all the other things. And, of course, the action sequences were really fun to put together.

THR: Coming from a background in choreography, did that help you mount the action pieces?

Marshall: I felt very at home doing action. Choreography and action are very similar. Through phsyicalization, through something active, you’re trying to tell a story and also develop character. In addition to handling all sorts of things like movement and large numbers of people, the action sequences felt like big production numbers. And we had a fantastic stunt coordinator named George Marshall Ruge, and we found we spoke the same language.

THR: Johnny himself almost dances his way through the role in the previous movies.

Marshall: I always say, ‘Johnny, you’re a major dancer, like Fred Astaire,’ and he says ‘You’re crazy.’ But I mean it, he’s one of the greatest dancers I have ever worked with.

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THR: How’d you find working in 3D?

Marshall: I did a little class over at Sony. I needed to distill it down to something simple for myself. It’s complicated, but I grasped the basic elements and, of course, you learn as you go. I’m from the school where I don’t feel every movie should be 3D, but I think there are certain movies that lend themselves to it and this did, because you are on an adventure and with the 3D experience you are inside that adventure. We were pioneers in a sense. We were the first live-action film to bring these delicate cameras, all these rigs and things, into these remote locations. Normally, 3D films of this scale are shot on stage or shot in 2D and then converted. But we brought the 3D equipment into jungles and caves and waterfalls. I still can’t decide if we were insane or pioneers. But we did it and I’m proud of that fact, because you feel it, it feels like real 3D It’s not cheesy 3D.

THR: Do you think Cannes is ready for a big entertainment movie like this?

Marshall: It’s a unique property for Cannes, but what I like is that it says Cannes represents all kinds of films. I’m happy that we are playing out of competition. That’s appropriate for Pirates. The one thing that felt very natural about Cannes for us is that we’re very much an international film. We have Penelope Cruz, obviously Johnny, Geoffrey Rush from Australia and a wonderful new actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey, playing Serena, our mermaid, from France. So that feels very right about it.

Rob Marshall Vital Stats
Nationality: American
Born: Oct. 17, 1960
Film: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Out of Competition
Filmography: Chicago (2002); Memoirs of a Geisha (2005); Nine (2009)
Notable Awards: Directors Guild of America Award, outstanding motion picture director, Chicago (2003); National Board of Review, best debut director, Chicago (2002); American Choreography Award, outstanding achievement in feature film, Chicago (2003); Costume Designers Guild Award, distinguished director collaborator (2010).

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