Interview with Producer Jerry Bruckheimer

Jerry Bruckheimer is the most successful film and television producer of his generation. His credits include such movies as Top Gun, The Rock, Armageddon and National Treasure, and small screen hits CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Without a Trace and The Amazing Race. Bruckheimer’s seemingly uncanny sense of the public’s taste led to him being dubbed the “man with the golden gut” by The Washington Post and was nowhere better demonstrated than with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Based on the popular ride at Disneyland, the film was mostly written off by Hollywood’s chattering classes before its release in the summer of 2003. Yet it went on to be a huge, worldwide hit as well as a career-defining moment for star Johnny Depp who, in Captain Jack Sparrow, created the first cinematic icon of the new century, a character as instantly recognizable and immediately beloved as Batman or Mickey Mouse. With the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Captain Jack and Jerry Bruckheimer are at it again: Captain Jack evading cannibals, a giant squid and the captain and crew of the ghostly Flying Dutchman and Jerry Bruckheimer breaking every box-office record in sight. Just a few days into its worldwide rollout and Dead Man’s Chest seems set to be the most successful film of the year. Between prepping for the third film in the series Jerry Bruckheimer explained the secret of his success.

Were you surprised that the first Pirates of the Caribbean was such a big hit?
Well, pirate movies had been dead for a long time when we started the film. It had been 40 years – maybe even longer I think — since a pirate movie came out and was a hit. But Pirates of the Caribbean became such a huge success thanks, first of all, to the writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio who created this wonderful fantasy about pirates who turned into skeletons in the moonlight and have to return the treasure rather than steal the treasure – it was something we hadn’t seen before, a unique premise. So that’s where it started, and then you take a wonderful director and amazing actors and that’s how you get movies that work. What ultimately mattered was whether audiences would fall in love with the characters, and they did.

How much of the success of the first film do you attribute to Johnny Depp?
Audiences loved Johnny as Captain Jack and Johnny’s enormously talented. No matter what he’s in, Johnny creates a character that’s unique and fresh. And because he’s edgy and always surprising, I think the simple fact that we cast him in Pirates sent a signal to the audience that this wasn’t your normal Disney movie.

At what point did you think about a sequel to The Curse of the Black Pearl and did you have any doubts about whether you should do another film?
With other films I’ve often felt the stories were complete and I didn’t want to revisit them. The studio wanted us to do another Top Gun, which we didn’t do. They wanted us to do a third Beverly Hills Cop, which we didn’t do, somebody else did. They wanted us to do another Crimson Tide, to do a sequel to The Rock, and so on. On Pirates of the Caribbean, the idea for a sequel came up almost immediately and certainly when we had a huge opening weekend. In fact, it wasn’t huge but it was a nice opening weekend and the film just hung in there all summer. It ended up doing close to $660 million in worldwide box office. So then the studio started saying, would you guys consider doing another one? So we started on a trilogy.

Why two more films?
We felt there was a sufficient story there and great characters – enough to sustain two more films. We decided to do two films back to back because we felt we’d never have the opportunity to keep this creative team together unless we did it like that. They’re all in such demand, these actors, even the writers. Anytime you make a successful picture everybody’s price goes way up and everybody wants them. They think they’ve got the magic touch. And it took us three years to put it all together. It was hard, very hard, but worth it I think. I love the picture. I hope other people will too.

You seem to have so many things on the go at once – both films and television shows – how involved are you with the actual production of a film such as Pirates?
I’m involved with the script, with hiring the director, with hiring all the actors, I’m involved in the filming. I can’t be there every day but I’d go for a few days, go back to Los Angeles for a week and then come back for a week. You come in and out but you’ve got to be involved and pay attention to what’s actually being filmed.

Given your track record, do you exercise greater control on your films than other producers?
You stand or fall on your work and you look a lot taller when you have a lot of good work behind you, so people might listen to you a little bit more. But it’s a creative process and everybody contributes. When Director Gore Verbinski spoke with the cast and crew at the start of production, he said he thought that a film is like a piece of clay that everybody gets their fingers on and molds. And that’s what filmmaking is, collaboration. I never say, you have to do this. It’s the best argument that wins. Telling people what to do, that’s not how I work.

Was it easier to make Dead Man’s Chest than The Curse of the Black Pearl?
I think everybody came back because the first film was a great experience, so the second time around it was like a big family. The writers were on the set the entire time working with Johnny, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley and the rest of the cast, and I think everybody had a ball. Unfortunately we had a number of storms that slowed us down. Hurricane Wilma came in and gave us a big wallop and damaged some of our ships as well as the tank we were shooting in.

There are some extraordinary locations in Dead Man’s Chest such as the cannibal village perched on top of a mountain. How difficult is it to find locations that haven’t been used before?
It’s very hard. We had a team running around all over the Caribbean trying to find these locations and some of the islands were extremely primitive so the studio didn’t want us to go to some of these places. We had to build roads into some locations, the electricity would go out for a couple of hours each day, everybody was in sleeping bags because there wasn’t enough accommodation, and there wasn’t a lot in the way of restaurants. We ended up having cookouts on the beach every night.

With the exception of Johnny Depp, almost the entire cast of the first Pirates film was British and for Dead Man’s Chest you’ve added Bill Nighy, Tom Hollander and Naomie Harris. Are you a particular fan of British actors?
I’ve always liked working with British actors. Orlando Bloom was in the cast of Black Hawk Down years ago. On Pirates I think Gore was looking for wonderful character actors and in America unfortunately I think that a lot of our great character actors are chewed up on television and you see them every week. British actors are really fresh to American and worldwide audiences. Whether it’s Jonathan Pryce or Jack Davenport a relative newcomer like Naomie Harris, these actors are just terrific. And as for Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, it’s worth the price of admission for him alone.

Johnny Depp says he based the character of Jack Sparrow on Keith Richards. Is it true that Keith Richards will have a role in the third movie?
Yes, we are planning to shoot with Keith in September. In the third movie there’s a pirate’s council and he’s going to be one of the pirates at the council. We’ve had him in costume already and he looks fantastic.

You have an extraordinary track record for picking hit films. How do you explain that success?
I make films I like. I don’t know what you like: I know what I like. So I make pictures that I want to go see. I also think a producer has to be good at recognizing talent. You look at Gore Verbinski — he’d done Mouse Hunt and The Mexican when we hired him and The Ring wasn’t completed at that point. But I felt he was enormously talented. We – I mean myself and the team I work with — had Eddie Murphy in his first really big hit. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence came off television and we made them movie stars. Tom Cruise, before he became Tom Cruise, did Top Gun with us. We championed Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale, and directors like Michael Bay. We did Michael Bay’s first movie. I did Michael Mann’s first movie. So recognizing talent is a huge part of it.

How many films are you working on at any one time and do you consider yourself a workaholic?
Between film and television we have about 35 to 40 projects in development at any one time. And I do work hard — I got four hours sleep last night for example — but I don’t really consider it work. I mean, there are days when you don’t always want to do some of the things you have to deal with, but my dad was on his feet for twelve, fifteen hours every day selling clothes – that was work. Any guys who work labor, construction guys, that’s hard work. People in factories work. This isn’t work, this is fun.

And after so much success what continues to motivate you?
Like I said, I love the work, I love going to movies, I love working on movies. On Dead Man’s Chest I’ve been to every test screening so far except one because I love audiences’ reactions, I love to watch people get frightened and laugh and applaud. That’s what gives me the satisfaction that I’ve done something good.