Interview with Stunt Coordinator George Marshall Ruge

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With Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest set for release in just a few weeks, it’s time to grab the popcorn and get ready for the return of the best or — depending on your point of view — the worst pirate in history. Yes, Captain Jack is back, with Johnny Depp taking another turn as Hollywood’s most eccentric but best-dressed pirate, and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) along for the ride in another adventure full of intrigue, comedy and the supernatural. Among the many pleasures of the first Pirates film, aside from Johnny Depp’s deservedly Oscar-nominated performance, were the cleverly staged sword fights and action sequences which were often as witty and elegant as they were thrilling. The man behind the action is George Marshall Ruge, sometime poet, screenwriter and actor, and the stunt coordinator on both the Pirates films already in the can and the third one to come. Ruge’s previous credits include National Treasure and all three of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “The whole cast and crew have really poured their hearts and souls into the Pirates films,” says Ruge, who talked to us about heat, humidity, Johnny Depp’s skills with a sword and the perils of working on water.


How would you compare Dead Man’s Chest to the first Pirates of the Caribbean film: The Curse of the Black Pearl?
A. I think people will be surprised by Dead Man’s Chest. This second film is visually stunning and the action is unique and oftentimes epic in scope. It’s a bit darker in some ways perhaps, but it’s also got all the charm, wit and good fun that made the first film so memorable.


As for your involvement in the film – action and stunts — did it seem challenging to top what you did in the first film?
I think it’s a huge mistake approaching work from the aspect of trying to top yourself, particularly in terms of action. If you take that approach, you’re simply creating action for action’s sake. It’s gratuitous. The challenge in this film, as in any film, was to create action that’s part of the fabric of the story


Well, the first Pirates film certainly had some amazing action sequences, like the opening fight between Captain Jack (Johnny Depp) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). Do you have a favorite scene in Dead Man’s Chest?
There’s a 3-way swordfight that was the most challenging and personally rewarding scene in the film. It involves Jack, Will and Norrington (Jack Davenport) fighting with each other along a white sand bar in the middle of the ocean. The scene has a real panoramic look. The fight leads them to an abandoned church and continues along the ruined, skeletal walls and they end up on this huge mill wheel, which breaks free and rolls through the jungle, eventually landing them all back on the beach.


It sounds exhausting just hearing about it.
It wasn’t easy, but we’re all proud of the result. The actors and stunt doubles had to endure sand the consistency of a milk shake, intense heat and humidity, working high up with an elaborate overhead cable system, and dealing with the mill wheel, which was eighteen feet across, weighed eighteen hundred pounds and did a complete revolution in sixteen seconds.


Is it possible to quantify how much work goes into a scene like that?
Literally months of prep, training, rigging, rehearsals, etc., and it felt like twenty-four hours a day to me because it was never out of my mind. As for the filming itself, between the first and second units it probably took the best part of six weeks.


Both Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom have had experience of sword fighting before, and not just on Pirates of the Caribbean. Are they old pros at this point?
Every film presents new challenges but Johnny is a natural athlete and fortunately a very quick study because the demands on his time, as with all of the principal actors, limited rehearsal opportunities. I’ve now done six films with Orlando, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he is very comfortable and skilled with the sword.


Do you try and design things so Captain Jack and Will Turner fight in a way that reflects their characters?
Absolutely. I focus on character first. For example, although we all know that Captain Jack can and does fight, I want there to be the overriding sense in any fight that if there were an easier way out of a situation, then he’d take it. Captain Jack has no interest in being a hero for the sake of it, whereas with Will Turner there’s no hanging back. He’s unafraid and willing to die for what’s right. Johnny starts tweaking his physical action to suit Captain Jack, processing and incorporating his character into every movement and detail from the very beginning, which is fascinating to see.


Are Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom enthusiastic about the action scenes?
Both of them want to do the best they can and they both approach the action scenes with great passion. On the other hand, I’m sure there are days when they would rather be doing dialogue in a scene that’s purely romantic or comic than being strapped inside a giant rotating wheel in 120-degree heat and humidity! That’s sort of a no-brainer.


Keira Knightley expressed frustration that she didn’t get to do enough action in The Curse of the Black Pearl. Does she make up for it in Dead Man’s Chest?
Keira certainly can’t be frustrated over a lack of action anymore! She is as much an action hero in this film as anybody and a very bright blade. She had worked on King Arthur prior to the start of Dead Man’s Chest and she’s simply a great athlete and has a near photographic memory in terms of learning choreography. To be honest, I think she was probably just a bit apprehensive when she saw the extent and complexity of the scenes we had put together. But Keira being Keira, that apprehension quickly transformed itself into determination and she pulled it all off fantastically.


Given that classic sword fights are less common than they were in Hollywood’s Golden Age, is it hard for you to find the additional actors and stunt doubles you need for a film which is on as big a scale as Pirates of the Caribbean?
Yes, it is hard. There was a time when all trained actors and stunt performers had a background in “stage combat” and fencing, now they just say they do! On the other hand, we’ve just gone through a cycle of period films inspired by films like Gladiator and the Lord of the Rings trilogy and that’s given performers a good reason to become better versed in the art of sword work.


How many stunt performers did you use for Dead Man’s Chest and do they substitute for the principal actors where possible?
There were over 80 stunt performers, and it’s hard to generalize about when they stand in for the lead actors. There are so many factors involved, with safety being the main consideration, as well as actors’ willingness to perform their own stunts. Luckily, all the leads on the Pirates films have being willing and able.


How does working in or on water complicate what you do?
Wind, rain, waves and tides can turn a good plan into a disaster! On this film we had hurricane evacuations and some very rough seas. When we had a rolling swell, the ships would sway wildly – the masts would go backwards and forwards as much as 40 feet. During what we called the Scuttled Ship sequence the crew had to find space on the partially submerged end of the ship and most of us were knee high in sea water and had a hard time standing up in the swell. By the end of the night the seas had worsened, everyone’s rain gear was wet through, we were frozen to the bone and our feet were pickled from being in the salt water.


How do you think the Pirates films sit in relation to the rest of the films you have worked on? The most interesting? The most challenging? The most enjoyable?
It’s an interesting question and one I should probably answer when we complete the third film! To put it in perspective, when the Pirates’ trilogy is complete, I will have spent over three years of my professional life devoted to its well-being and success. For all of us who committed from the beginning and persevered to the end, it’s without a doubt a significant piece of our lives and a professional milestone. Has it been interesting? Definitely. Challenging? Enormously. The most enjoyable? Certainly not! [laughs]. But the question you didn’t ask is, Has it been worthwhile? And there’s no doubt about that. I think all of the trench warriors of the Pirates cast and crew have been through so many emotions and had so many varied experiences making these films, but the finished films are the ultimate reward.


Finally any clues about what we can expect from Pirates of the Caribbean 3?
Another magical ride!


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