Well, no surprise here, but I am back on the same Pirates of the Caribbean research excavation that I just can’t seem to quit. –sue me, I’m a nerd.
It’s been over a year since Dead Men Tell No Tales was released, but recently, pirate lore and historical details have proven a necessary re-entry into my life because of a few exciting upcoming projects on my horizon!! That’s why yesterday, I found myself poring through some biographies of the Golden Age of Piracy for some legitimate historical context and, of course, any remnants of Pirates of the Caribbean production details. However, I soon was sucked into a veritable internet rabbit hole, and therein stumbled upon a downloaded PDF of an early draft of the script of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (hereafter referred to as DMTNT) from August 2012, written by franchise regular Terry Rossio.
Needless to say, I freaked out.
However, I also was wary–was this legitimate? How did this get leaked? Also, why did the file have an “_8” in the document title? Was this copy #8, or was this truly the eighth version of the script they were working on?
But as soon as I began digging into it, I instantly recognized it as a legitimate document. It seems too well-written to be fan-made and holds a lot of the trademarks of a Rossio script, with far too many specific callbacks to the original trilogy to be anything but authentic to my eye. Beyond several Pirates fans having found and commented upon this draft’s existence though, there was no explanation as to how it got out there.
What was the most interesting to note in this process was how far this story progressed from this document to the final film, completed and distributed five years later. It’s virtually unrecognizable, with but only a few key elements remaining into the finished product. Given, this is because of some internal shifts in command and resulting artistic liberties (the production decided to have Jeff Nathanson ultimately write the screenplay, with Rossio helping him with the story), as well as the simple fact that movie scripts typically undergo constant rewrites even as production is underway.
Further, as a sixth film is presently in the planning stages, I believe this script could give some clues as to the future of the Pirates franchise, should it indeed go on.
Before we proceed, spoilers for the entirety of the Pirates franchise to date, as well as possible future films of the series.
Let’s get into it!
The film opens practically on Philip (played in On Stranger Tides by Sam Claflin), now a cartographer looking for the mermaid who saved his life at the Fountain of Youth, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). Yep, the original intent was to expound upon the mermaid narrative, with Syrena and Philip’s love story once again as our central romantic duo.
Here we come upon our key similarity between the screenplay and its final film – the McGuffin. In the first film, it was the Black Pearl, in the second the heart of Davy Jones, and in the fifth, it was a mystical trident of a sea god (in the screenplay, Neptune’s, in the film, his Grecian counterpart Poseidon). Both versions have Jack Sparrow seeking out this trident, which contains significant power over the sea and resultantly has many people after it, thus the source of our conflict. Rossio’s screenplay shows us a mermaid kingdom at one point, introducing us to different varieties of brightly colored mermaids who would have been an Art Department’s dream to design and claim various sea territories.
While this new world would have been interesting to explore, as well as having closure on what ultimately happened to Philip and Syrena, it was also a nice deviation to move onto some new mythology in Nathanson’s story.
Though we ultimately got original Pearl crew member Marty (Martin Klebba) and our bumbling Navy guards Murtogg and Mullroy (Giles New and Angus Barnett) back for DMTNT, this draft of the script saw the return of many of our favorite characters either presumed dead or simply absent from the preceding fourth film, On Stranger Tides, including Cotton (and his scene-stealing talking parrot), Tai Huang from Sao Fang/Elizabeth Swann’s crew, and my personal favorites, Pintel and Ragetti. There also was a very intriguing scene that brought back three other OG trilogy characters back again, but we’ll get into that a bit later.
But, as Philip and Syrena remain our primary romantic couple, gone is DMTNT’s Henry Turner and Carina Smyth. And even if you thought Henry Turner was the most lackluster character ever put to screen (like…some people did. Cough), his importance was very much apparent to me in reading this draft. Even though everyone’s OTP Will and Elizabeth had an elapsed total of five minutes of screen time in DMTNT, having Henry as such a prevalent character was an extension of them and a much-needed throwback to the original trilogy (and to the characters who I truly believe are the protagonists of the franchise, but that’s just me).
The Female Villain
Now, typically I would feel it wrong to differentiate something as the “female” anything, but here I believe it necessary as the villain’s original gender and subsequent omission caused quite a stir in the press once this information became public knowledge.
The villain was intriguing. Her name was the Sea Widow, this eerie ghost who, as ever, has it out for Jack Sparrow. However, there is an interesting third act twist with her character, where she is revealed to also have been two other characters in the film that you don’t exactly see coming.
I believe this is the character that received a lot of press just weeks before DMTNT was released, when Rossio made it public that it was Johnny Depp himself who shot down this idea.
My version of ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ was set aside because it featured a female villain, and Johnny Depp was worried that would be redundant to “Dark Shadows,” which also featured a female villain.
I really do hope that there is more to this reason just than, “That was a girl, now this is a girl,” especially as I don’t find a ton of similarities between Eva Green’s Angelique Bouchard and the Sea Widow, but who knows–maybe some later rewrite made the Widow’s character a bit more personally connected to Jack and therefore caused this concern.
This screenplay was surprisingly dark, and had some rather gruesome imagery. Like, I mean I know before we’ve seen spooky skeletons, severed and/or broken off toes, and icky fish people in this franchise, but here we would have seen a terrifying sea serpent, kid skeletons, talks of child cannibalism, and a lot of severed hands.
I think there’s a happy medium between this darker tone and what ultimately we got in the finished product. On Netflix presently at the time of this writing, one can instantly access both Dead Man’s Chest and DMTNT. Just go into both films, pick a five-minute segment in both and watch them sequentially. You should find that the tone of DMTNT is extremely different from one of the original movies. The first franchise takes itself seriously in a way that wasn’t replicated in the latter two. They are still a fun romp, but there’s a certain pomp to the first three–they know what they are making is impressive.
Rossio’s screenplay seems to be in this same family, with expensive-sounding, elaborate set pieces and major spectacle, and a bit of a more convoluted plot. Perhaps this was the reason it was scrapped, as I know the production had a very strict budget from Disney, and I will agree that at times I felt as though this screenplay would have been almost too ambitious for its own good. What DMTNT ended up being was a bit dwarfed in comparison, but critics really liked the pacing and how easy it was to follow as compared to its predecessors.
The Ending…and plans for the sixth film?
Much like the finished film, the script ends on a nicely wrapped-up sail into the sunset. However, Rossio also leaves room for a sixth movie with a post-credit scene, a common trope of the series thus far. This one features the always unpredictable Captain Barbossa planning another mutiny against Jack Sparrow, featuring a sword that is supposedly, “destined to kill him.” If you’ll recall, DMTNT also ended on a cliffhanger, though in a very different way. There, Will and Elizabeth just can’t have a happy ending and it is revealed that Will has Davy Jones nightmares…OR ARE THEY? The camera pans down to a wet floor and barnacles on the ground, revealing that Jones is….ALIVE?!??! Yeah, I don’t get it either, but hey. Maybe #6 will explain.
Therefore, a sixth film seems to have always been the ambition. That brings me to a huge question I have regarding a scene that takes place two-thirds of the way through the script:
After a massive tsunami strikes, Jack suddenly finds himself in this hallucinatory dream-stage where he is swimming aimlessly, surrounded by fog. There, he encounters a skeletal Barbossa, cackling “Here there be monsters,” the bloated, crab-ridden corpse of Cutler Beckett stating, “Currency is the currency of the realm,” and finally…
…ladies and gentlemen…
JAAAAAAAAAAMES NORRINGTON!!! [Cue: Jon Cena theme blaring]
Now, it’s no secret that I absolutely adore Norrington’s character, so I was thrilled to see this. However, they way he resurfaces is just so bizarre, I’m just going to insert the scene here (please note, the use of the name JACK to indicate the character speaking is a mistake. It’s supposed to read NORRINGTON or JAMES. This must have been a simple mix-up, as the name of Norrington’s actor is actually Jack!):
Before I get into this, Jack Sparrow then encounters a vision of his father, Captain Teague, and all of a sudden, the Black Pearl is inexplicably returned to normal, free from its bottle prison.
So here’s some things I don’t get about this moment:
1) The lines that Barbossa, Beckett, and Norrington say are all lines spoken in the previous films, but Beckett’s and Norrington’s are only ever spoken only to Elizabeth, not Jack. Why would he be hallucinating them then?
2) Why is Norrington in a boat and no one else is?
3) Why is Norrington beckoning to Jack? That is so outside his character.
4) Why, in the official concept art for James, does he look like this:
That’s right. Scruffington from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I mean, there’s no complaints on my end, but still. If we’re going for ghost-Norrington, why is he not appearing as he died, be-wigged and in his Admiral uniform?
Also what strikes me curious is that this artist, Didier Konings, who has designed for movies like Rampage, Wonder Woman, and Thor: Ragnarok, also designed some of the final looks for DMTNT‘s ghost crew. So how far did Norrington make it in pre-production? That’s where I have to go back a bit further to discuss other, later versions of the script that are public knowledge.
- In September 2013, many film-related news outlets reported on some plot details revealed by the site Bleeding Cool, who supposedly got their hands on Nathanson’s early screenplay. Here,
- The first version of Carina was actualized, still as the daughter of Barbossa but rather as a love interest to Jack, not Henry (who does not appear)
- The Bermuda/Devil’s triangle is first mentioned
- And, here’s the rub:
It’s this character, a former member of the British military now sided with Barbossa on a revenge mission, that gives the film its title.
- Later that year, Moviepilot reported (in a page that is now sadly gone) that the original script was to have Cortes’s undead crew who cursed the treasure in the first film show up again to harass Jack and Barbossa. They were going to team up with Will, now the Captain of the Flying Dutchman, to end their reign of terror. They also mentioned that once they had scrapped the Will idea, they moved onto ghost pirate Captain Brand. Brand more or less made it into the final product, however, as he was given only a name and country change in the form of Captain Salazar when Christoph Waltz, who had been cast as Brand, had to drop out of the project.
- In 2014, I found a piece of IMDb trivia on the DMTNT page that read as follows:
“This will be the first Pirates of the Caribbean film to have Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow), Geoffrey Rush (Captain Barbossa), & Jack Davenport (James Norrington) teaming up together.”
All of this said, the strange appearance in Rossio’s screenplay, the concept art, the numerous mentions of Norrington’s reappearance in the franchise… I can’t help but wonder if this was a legitimate plan.
This therein begs the question of if we could see any of the elements from this unused screenplay coming back into the franchise? After all, unless something even more drastic happens to our lead actor in the coming years (TBD), #6 is rip-roarin’, ready to go. They’ve got a team, they’ve got a director, they’re good to go. According to the film’s IMDb page at the time of this blog’s writing, Rossio is back as a co-writing credit with Nathanson, not just “screen story.” He could very well bring some of this back in.
Though Jones is presumably back (and apparently might need to be recast, which I am not okay with), could we see a female villain? How about an intimidating sea serpent? Could Norrington make a reappearance? What about the old crew, or Philip and Syrena? And, most importantly, would Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom be willing to come back for a larger role in this one (oh please oh please…). Only time…and money…and scheduling…and casting will tell.
Admittedly, I wasn’t a huge fan of what DMTNT turned out to be, but in reading this early draft, I was fascinated by some of the changes and held more appreciation for the final product as a result. In the meantime, all we can do is keep a weather eye on the horizon for whatever the future of this franchise has in store.
Header image and concept art image found online, created by artist Didier Konings. The remainder of his work can be found on his website, https://www.didierkonings.com. All gifs from giphy.