Writing the Screenplay for Pirates of the Caribbean # 5

Inheriting one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises

When Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney got set to jump into making Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, the fifth chapter in the $3.7 billion Pirates of the Caribbean franchise,  they began a search for a new story that would take the series a few steps forward, while at the same time harken back to the elements of fantasy, action, comedy, and elements of the supernatural that had made the first film such a sensation.


With the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl back in 2003 came the dawn of Jerry Bruckheimer’s most successful franchise, one of the most successful series of films in the history of the Disney Studios. The film series was to become a game-changing, culturealtering, zeitgeist-boosting, history-making phenomenon, with the first film followed by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011). Collectively, these four films have brought in over $3.7 billion of worldwide box-office receipts, but, more importantly, inspired and delighted audiences of all ages around the globe.

Now, the rip-roaring Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge finds down-on-his-luck Captain Jack feeling the winds of ill fortune blowing strongly his way when deadly ghost sailors, led by the terrifying Captain Salazar, escape from the Devil’s Triangle bent on killing every pirate at sea—notably Jack. Jack’s only hope of survival lies in the legendary Trident of Poseidon, but to find it he must forge an uneasy alliance with Carina Smyth, a brilliant and beautiful astronomer, and Henry, a headstrong young sailor in the Royal Navy. At the helm of the Dying Gull, his pitifully small and shabby ship, Captain Jack seeks not only to reverse his recent spate of ill fortune but to save his very life from the most formidable and malicious foe he has ever faced.

Searching for a screenwriter for Pirates # 5

The search for a screenwriter eventually led them to accomplished and talented screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, who began to develop the story for Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge with veteran “Pirates of the Caribbean” screenwriter Terry Rossio, who shares a story by credit with Nathanson, and wrote the screenplays for the first four films of the “Pirates of The Caribbean” Series With His Writing Partner, Ted Elliott.

Terry Rossio (Story by/Executive Producer) co-wrote Shrek, the first ever Oscar winner for Best Animated Film. With writing partner Ted Elliott, Rossio also co-wrote the Pirates of the Caribbean” series, featuring two billion dollar grossing entries, Dead Man’s Chest and On Stranger Tides. Other credits include: Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Déjà Vu, and Disney’s The Lone Ranger. Rossio is currently ranked behind George Lucas as the second highest grossing screenwriter in Hollywood.

While fully respectful to all that came before in the first four films, Nathanson—who has written the likes of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Catch Me If You Can” and “The Terminal” for Steven Spielberg—was eager to make his own mark.

Jeff NathansonJeff Nathanson has written three highly successful films for director Steven Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal and the story for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. His other credits include director Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist and the Rush Hour series. Nathanson also wrote and directed the dark comedy, The Last Shot. He is currently writing Disney’s new live action version of The Lion King, which will be directed by Jon Favreau and will be released in the summer of 2019.

“Jeff was unencumbered by the history of the franchise,” explains executive producer Chad Oman. “He was able to objectively look at the series and bring a fresh imagination and creative point of view. He’s also a very funny guy who brings a lot of humor to his writing.”

“I’m a big fan of the franchise and have enormous respect for what Ted and Terry have created,” says Nathanson. “It’s such a rich and wonderful world to step into, with so many great artists in front of and behind the camera working to bring it to life. I felt my job as a new writer coming into this established family was to both honor the spirit of the previous films while giving a new generation of fans a movie to call their own. ‘’

“The ‘Pirates’ franchise is very tricky,” continues Nathanson, “because it combines huge action with supernatural suspense, romance and comedy. It’s also a highly researched pirate epic that attempts to stay very true to the period. The key is to balance it all while telling an emotional good story, and finding ways to use these characters in ways we’ve never seen before.”

POTC Salazars Revenge PosterPirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge would continue what had become a subtext in the tradition of the previous “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies—a story about parents and children.

“It’s a theme that has given emotional backbone to the entire series,” explains Jerry Bruckheimer.

“The story of Elizabeth Swann’s sometimes trying but tender relationship with her father, Governor Weatherby Swann, is dealt with in the first two films. Will Turner’s desperate attempts to free his father, Bootstrap Bill, from bondage aboard the Flying Dutchman, is a crucial element of the second and third movies. Angelica’s tormented relationship with her father, Blackbeard, is an important element of the fourth film. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge  both Henry Turner and Carina Smyth are either trying to liberate, or search for, their fathers. ‘’

“And meanwhile,” Bruckheimer continues, “Captain Jack shares moments with his pirate dad, Captain Teague, in the third and fourth films, and with his long-lost Uncle Jack in Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge . The ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies really are a family affair in more ways than one.”

Bruckheimer adds, “And speaking of family, we also wanted to bring Captain Barbossa, Will Turner, Gibbs and other old favorites back into the picture, but also invent a riveting new antagonist and other new characters to refresh the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ world.”

Like Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio before him, Jeff Nathanson also studied the original Disneyland attraction for tone and ideas.

“I have three kids,” he notes, “so it wasn’t hard to get the family on board for research trips to Disneyland. The ride is an incredible source of inspiration, and it’s hard not to use elements when writing the movie.”

And, in fact, the title of the new film would harken right back to the ominous words frequently and darkly intoned on the original attraction: “Dead Men Tell No Tales.”

As a result of his skill and appreciation for the franchise, Nathanson’s screenplay is laced with the massive action set pieces and comedy that have become the hallmarks of the previous “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies—with a considerable dollop of emotion and heart.

Captains At The Helm: Two Scandinavian fans of Hollywood cinema inherit one of its most successful franchises

While Jeff Nathanson was busy bringing the filmmakers’ vision and the spirit of the new adventure to life, the hunt for a director began in earnest. What no one quite expected, however, was that they would wind up not with one, but two. Or that they would hail from Norway, more than five thousand miles from Hollywood, a country with its own historic tradition of seafaring pirates…although they were better known as Vikings.

In truth, the Norwegian directing team of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg—who had impressed international audiences with their Academy Award-nominated epic tale of real-life ocean exploration, “Kon-Tiki,” followed by the highly rated, big-scale Netflix miniseries “Marco Polo”—aggressively pursued the job, having been fervent fans of the franchise.

Joachim Rønning and Espen SandbergGrowing up in the 1980s in Sandefjord, a small town south of Oslo, Norway, Joachim Rønning and his childhood friend Espen Sandberg spent their free time making short films with Joachim’s dad’s 30-pound home video camera—one of the few burdens for being the first of the video generation. In 1992 they both attended Stockholm Film School in Sweden, and graduated in 1994. Later that year, they served their mandatory time in the military making “propaganda” films for the Royal Norwegian Army. In 1993 they founded their own company. They called it Roenberg— their last names put together. Early in 1996, they began directing commercials and music videos professionally in Oslo. Their debut film was Bandidas (2006), a comedy/western, written and produced by legendary French helmer Luc Besson. Their second film was Max Manus (2008), a World War II drama telling the true story of famed Norwegian saboteur Max Manus and his battle to overcome his inner demons. Max Manus rose to become the highest grossing Norwegian movie of all time, shattering box office records by selling over 1.2 million tickets in Norway alone—meaning 25% of the country’s population went to see it in theatres. Rønning and Sandberg recently won the 2017 International Filmmakers of the Year Award at CinemaCon. Rønning recently completed directing the ABC drama pilot Doomsday and will next be helming Methuselah starring Tom Cruise, and the high-concept thriller Micro, based on Michael Crichton’s final novel.

Explaining his choice of directors, Jerry Bruckheimer says, “When you bring Academy Award- nominated filmmakers who are young, aggressive and hardworking to tell a story that’s been told four times before, they have a fresh approach. And that’s what we wanted. We wanted them to come in with their creativity and their great film vocabulary to make this ‘Pirates’ really special and really fresh.”

Continuing, he adds, “They bring a lot of style and a lot of flash to the film. It’s a whole reinvention of the making of a ‘Pirates’ movie, in the way that they approached it, how they did it and how they do the music. Everything is moving very fast.”

“Espen and Joachim are big fans of the franchise,” comments executive producer Chad Oman, president of Jerry Bruckheimer Films. “They bring a lot of enthusiasm and a youthful sensibility to the project, and are used to working on water and under difficult circumstances. Although Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is on a much bigger scale than their previous productions, their background really lent itself to help them accomplish the huge tasks they would be faced with on this one.”

For the directors, the opportunity to be part of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise was a dream come true.

“It’s the kind of movie we grew up with and love,” Sandberg says. “That mix of adventure, action and comedy is what we’ve always loved about big American movies.”

Confesses Rønning, “The Pirates films remind me about the kind of movies that inspired me to become a filmmaker when I was a kid. Now that I have kids of my own, it’s great to make a movie that they can watch, too. It’s a true family movie.  We know that trying to do something original with the fifth instalment was going to be a challenge, but that was important to us.’’

“It’s an amazing franchise, and a great responsibility for us,’’ says Rønning.‘’There are so many fans around the world, and we were fans as well watching the movies in Norway.”

Rønning and Sandberg were also somewhat astonished to find themselves in the employ of a producer they had admired for years. “When we were kids, we watched Bruckheimer films,” says Rønning. “But being from Norway, those kinds of movies felt very far away from us. I remember our first meetings with Jerry, and it was insane for Espen and me, because he’s a hero. We’re working with someone we grew up idolizing. He’s a legend.”

It was important to the directors that Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge  would be as fun for viewers who had never seen a “Pirates of the Caribbean” film as it would be for long time fans of the franchise.

Sandberg comments, “We made sure that we introduced all the characters and presented them in a thorough way. We also have two new main characters in the movie and a new villain. So it’s very much a movie that you can enjoy even though you haven’t seen the other movies. But if you have, it will definitely generate more depth for you. So it works on several layers.”

On their approach, Rønning says, “They’re all great movies, but the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ was special. We wanted to try and go back a little bit to that to make it a little darker, a little raunchier. It was also very important for us that Jack Sparrow is always Jack Sparrow. We wanted to try, like they did very much in the first ‘Pirates’ movie, to create real characters that you can identify with. There’s a real love story and then Jack Sparrow comes in and crashes the party. That dynamic and that structure was something that we really went for and then at the same time keeping the darker elements intact.”

Sandberg adds, “We wanted to make the script and the movie, like Joachim said, in the spirit of the first movie, which had inspired us. But we were also really inspired by the ride at Disneyland because when you take that with a kid, it is fun but it’s also very scary. So we wanted to get that same thrill.”

Working on a movie of such grand scale and production value was new for the directors, but they approached it with confidence.


“All the ‘Pirates’ movies are epic,” says Sandberg. “We wanted this movie to feel just as grand and be a fun ride. We wanted it to feel like the ride, to be fun and scary and emotional, and that means huge action pieces that are all very original and unique that you haven’t seen before. Also we wanted it to be up close and emotional, and have some touching scenes in there as well. Of course, it’s very, very funny thanks to Johnny and the other actors. It is a huge group effort, and we have an amazing team both behind and in front of the camera to make this into an epic, fun ride of a movie.”

Adds Rønning, “As Espen was saying, there’s a great tradition in the franchise to find that grand action piece that can go on for a little while and that you’ve never seen before, and that’s original. I remember in one of my first meetings with Johnny Depp, he was talking about the character Jack Sparrow and what inspired him, and he was talking about Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. So what we set out to do was to give him some of those Buster Keaton-esque comedy action moments, but for a modern audience.”

Summing up the experience of working on the film for both of them, Rønning says, “It was like a surreal moment every day on this shoot because not only is it huge in scope, production-wise, but we’re also dealing with iconic characters and iconic ships and elements that have meant so much to us growing up with this franchise as well. So, for us, it became more like a proverbial sandbox in a way, in that we had all these insanely big toys to play with. I felt there was some sense of magic walking onto that set and having these characters around. That was fantastic.”