Original 'Pirates of the Caribbean' Screenwriter on How a Budget Crisis Changed the Villains

"We were certain we were writing the last pirate film that would ever be made," writer Terry Rossio says of the hit that launched a franchise.
Johnny Depp in 'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl' (Inset: Terry Rossio)   |   Photofest (Depp); Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images (Rossio)
"We were certain we were writing the last pirate film that would ever be made," writer Terry Rossio says of the hit that launched a franchise.

Fan of the skeletal scallywags in Pirates of the Caribbean? You can thank the film's tight budget for the bony, motley crew. 

2003's The Curse of the Black Pearl follows a rambunctious group of pirates off the coast of Port Royal, Jamaica. Bewitched by a curse, they transform into living skeletons under moonlight. 

But it turns out, this creative decision was not what the writers of the live-action adaptation of the Disneyland ride initially wanted.

As the fifth movie Dead Men Tell No Tales hits theaters May 26, Heat Vision spoke to longtime Pirates writer Terry Rossio about launching the franchise 14 years ago. Rossio revealed that high production costs and the infancy of computer-generated imagery influenced the plot of the future blockbuster; the Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley starrer went on to gross $305.4 million domestically. 

What were your early days working on Pirates of the Caribbean like? 

We were coming off swashbuckler films such as Mask of Zorro, Road to El Dorado and Treasure Planet, an adaptation of Treasure Island. So we were ready for another. We had a crazy theory we could reinvent the pirate genre using gothic horror elements, which we'd been contemplating for years.

The original movie in particular is loaded with clever, family-friendly fun. What inspired some of your favorite bits?

One great moment on set, the actual sailing crew was bringing a ship close to the dock. The captain yelled out, "Take what you can, give nothing back!" which is a command to take advantage of the ocean swells, as the tide pushes the ship closer, you pull on the ropes ("take what you can") and then hold them fast ("give nothing back"). My writing partner and I looked at each other and said, "That's a perfect motto for a pirate crew," and so it went into the movie.

I believe you were specifically involved in writing the supernatural curse of the Black Pearl. Tell me about your experience developing that from the Disneyland ride.

One funny moment came during story development, regarding the skeleton pirates in the moonlight. We knew we wanted to have sword-fighting skeletons from the start because those were cool and already part of the ride. But we also wanted to see the actor's faces, you don't want to make Geoffrey Rush into a skeleton for an entire film. So, the natural idea would be to do it like in Ladyhawke, pirates by day, skeletons by night.

But the producers shook their heads. With all the nighttime fight scenes, CGI was expensive at the time. We couldn't afford for the pirates to be skeletons all night long. I was sitting at the table and laughed out loud. Everyone looked at me. "What if the pirates are skeletons at night, but only when the moon comes out? Can we get away with that?" They loved it. "Yes! When the budget gets tight, we just put a cloud in front of the moon!" And that's what we did.

The Curse of the Black Pearl was coming off the heels of 2002’s The Country Bears, based on another Disneyland attraction, which unfortunately did not do well at the box office. What kind of pressure did you feel to bounce back from that? Was there a moment you worried about the fate of Pirates?

We were certain we were writing the last pirate film that would ever be made.

This movie somewhat restored faith in the pirates genre at the box office. What aspect of development do you think helped contribute to that success?

We knew that audiences would resist talking parrots, peg legs and other pirate tropes that are a bit goofy and not cool. So we insisted on the supernatural, ghost story, gothic horror aspect, which is consistent with many tales of the sea. Once you buy into sword-fighting skeletons, the eye patch, buried treasure and monkeys are not such a big deal. These pirate films are really ghost stories set in a world of pirates.

The first movie had quite a bit of shuffling with different actors for Jack Sparrow. What role did casting play in writing the script?

We were writing specifically to woo Johnny Depp to the film. 

As for Keira Knightley's character, Elizabeth Swann is depicted as quite an independent woman who resists being the damsel in distress. How important was creating a strong female lead to you and your fellow writers? 

There wasn't a writer's room. Just Ted and myself, along with the producers, Chad Oman and Mike Stenson. I would say we transcended gender stereotypes in the best way, in that we simply wrote a female protagonist using the exact same techniques as for a male lead. Strong introduction, inner drive, obstacles, swagger, etc. It was a conscious choice to subvert gene to play the damsel in distress in Act II, then turn the damsel into the rescuer of the male lead for the climax.

You’re also credited as a writer on Dead Men Tell No Tales. How was working on the fifth film different from the first? In your experience, what has changed the most in working on a Pirates of the Caribbean movie over the past 14 years?

The people change. Obviously the director, but also castmembers and below-the-line crew members, key contributors like Jim Byrkit's storyboards, Crash Davis and his creature design, etc. There were more practical effects and stunts for the first films, stuff done out in the harsh heat and humidity of the Caribbean islands.

Next on your plate, you are in the writer’s room for Godzilla vs. Kong. What has that experience been like so far, and in what state is the script?

Godzilla versus Kong was my first experience running a writer's room, and it was fantastic. It was a blast reading samples, meeting different writers, and crafting a story in a group setting. It felt similar to animation, where the film is happening up on the walls, and the end result is better than any one person could accomplish on their own.

You also worked on 1992's Aladdin. Will you be involved in the upcoming live-action version?

I believe John August is in charge of the adaptation. I couldn't be more pleased, John August is on my Mount Rushmore of current great Hollywood screenwriters!


  1. by Carolyn Giardina , Aaron Couch