Set Visit Report: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Set Visit Report: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Feb 03, 2011

Last November, Disney brought Fandango to London to visit the Pinewood Studios set of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Over the course of two days, we saw no fewer than eight major sets in various states of being, witnessed 3D shooting, got a tour of the costume shop, and spoke with some of the new talent on the film, as well as writer Terry Rossio and über-director Jerry Bruckheimer. Would you expect any less from a Disney production?

On Stranger Tides

Disney is rebooting the Pirates franchise with this fourth installment, with central protagonists Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) a thing of the past. On Stranger Tides puts beloved troublemaker Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) squarely at the forefront, along with some new “friends,” such as the pirate Angelica (played by Penelope Cruz), and a few old ones—such as Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa—as well.

According to Jerry Bruckheimer, the plot is based around Tim Powers’s fantasy novel, On Stranger Tides, which is about pirates (namely the infamous Blackbeard) and the search for the Fountain of Youth. Mix that with the imaginative minds of co-writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, and the next thing you know mermaids and voodoo zombies are working their way in, too.

How it all fits together is part of a larger puzzle, but from what we can deduce, about one third of Pirates 4 takes place in London, a third at sea, and then a third in the jungle of the New World, with Jack Sparrow carrying us through it all.

London Calling

A lot of our time at Pinewood Studios was spent with production designer John Myhre showing us around his remarkable creations. He says that On Stranger Tides opens with Jack Sparrow finding himself rather out of his element—as a pirate kicking around the city of London—who is then captured by the king’s soldiers and brought before the king.

We got to watch a bit of filming in the king’s set—complete with checkerboard floors, huge tables, chandeliers, wall murals and perfect Disney opulence. As we would have ruined sightlines had we watched the shooting on set, we journalists put on those sexy 3D glasses and crowded around some remote monitors to watch the action as it unfolded.

In this scene on the king’s set, Jack Sparrow (being Jack Sparrow), escapes 20 royal guards and an inescapable room. “He runs through the palace,” Myhre told us, “jumps out a window, flies down banners, and runs through the streets and jumps on carriages”—all in the heart of London.

For Jack’s time in the city, Disney replicated 1750s London at Pinewood, and it is something to behold. As someone who used to live in a similar old neighborhood in Boston, the effect is perfect. The sooty buildings, the cobblestone streets—you can’t believe they’re not real.

In fact, this little stretch of London street is actually rather small, but Myhre said they’re able to change the building exteriors and shoot them to make them look much larger as Sparrow jumps from carriage to carriage to make his escape. He ultimately winds up at the Captain’s Daughter’s Pub, where he’s heard that Jack Sparrow is trying to build and crew a ship. But as he’s Jack Sparrow and he’s not doing that, then there must be an imposter he needs to sort out.

The Captain’s Daughter

The Captain’s Daughter’s Pub—or, more specifically, the back storeroom of the pub—was where we spent the bulk of our time at Pinewood. It’s a big dark space, full of thick oak beams, wooden floors, ropes, ladders, lofts and barrels of beer. Or is it?

“Some of it is real wood, some of it is real stone,” said Myhre. Most of it, though, is unbelievably well painted plaster and rubber, which are both more economical and safer for the actors, with the huge swordfight that takes place.

“Fights on the fire pit, fights on the mezzanine, fights on top of barrels,” he went on. Basically, you name it, they fight on it—with some stops for Sparrow to drink some of the beer that is being loosed from the barrels in the process, naturally.

As for us journalists, we weren’t so much swashbuckling back there as using it as ground zero for interviewing Rossio, Bruckheimer and two of the film’s new stars, Sam Claflin and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey. Claflin, who is as humble as he is handsome, plays Philip, a young missionary who has been captured by the pirate Blackbeard (played by Deadwood’s Ian McShane). Although Philip doesn’t get to do much fighting, he is a bit feared by Blackbeard’s crew, said Claflin, because they read his godliness as magical. “He’s not afraid to stand up to Blackbeard,” he explained, “whereas all the other pirates fear Blackbeard with their lives.”

Already an established actress in France, Bergès-Frisbey will be making her American film debut as the mermaid Syrena in On Stranger Tides. But Syrena (and her compatriots) are not your usual mermaids, explained Bergès-Frisbey, who said “they can be really dangerous and really strong.”

The mermaids have tails when in water and legs when on land, said Bergès-Frisbey, but the tails are CG-generated as costumer Penny Rose tried to do a mermaid costume, but wasn’t pleased with the results.

We got a little tour of some of Rose’s creations, which she tries to make as period appropriate as possible (with the appropriate amount of imagination, of course). In casting about for Blackbeard’s costume she had her work cut out for her, as she’s basically done every traditional type of pirate already. “I just thought, alright, well, he’s a biker pirate,” she said, pointing out the toe-capped boots at the bottom of Blackbeard’s costume. “Just kind of meaty and mean and powerful. And we wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night.”

Rose also had to dress Penelope Cruz’s lady pirate, Angelica, with the added challenge of making the costume adapt to—and hide—her pregnancy. She showed us the breeches, side boot, long vest and leather corset, explaining how she covered the secret: “We made it with big pleats in the back, and every few weeks we undid a pleat.”

The New World

While most of the jungle and water scenes were filmed in Hawaii, Blackbeard’s ship (aka the Queen Anne’s Revenge) and Ponce de Leon’s cabin were in Pinewood for us to see.

Apparently, Blackbeard’s quarters were missing some of their dressings, but in general the Queen Anne’s Revenge was still everything you’d expect and then some—bone railings, treasure cabinets and giant windows. “The whole ship had a skeletal theme to it,” said Myhre. “The ship was decorated with real human bones, and then we did bone chandeliers and the bone stained glass.” Okay, Myhre admitted, they’re actually rubber and plastic casts of bones, which I think we all can agree is for the best.

Ponce de Leon’s cabin wasn’t done yet, but promises to be washed up onto an island after a storm, teetering on a rock. Myhre described a scene with Jack and Barbossa, in which the house is so precariously balanced that wherever they walk the house tips this way and that. To achieve the effect, they will “build the set on this giant gimble that will rock in any direction we want it to, to rock and be controlled, so you’d have things slide and change,” Myhre explained.

Point and Shoot

Bruckheimer was very excited about On Stranger Tides being at the forefront of the 3D revolution, shooting almost exclusively with the 3D cameras (as opposed to adding the 3D effects in post-production). “I think we’re the first big adventure picture that’s going to be released that’s 3D and actually using 3D cameras,” he said, explaining that movies like Avatar were shot all onstage.

For On Stranger Tides, director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) brought the big, new 3D cameras on location, including to the jungle and beaches of Hawaii. While there were some problems with the rain and humidity (“They’re very sensitive cameras” said Bruckheimer), by and large they were able to make it work. There was a mirror in the cameras that they had to keep changing, and they were unable to get the cameras in by boat or helicopter to one particular beach to shoot, but even those problems were easily dealt with.

It seems the biggest change the cameras required were some adjustments with the sets, as Myhre explained that backdrops don’t work with them. “If you want to see clearly out of a window,” he told us, “it’s got to be a blue screen that you’re putting in something that has all the layers, because it would read as a painted backdrop.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides will come ashore in theaters everywhere on May 20, 2011.

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