UltimateDisney.com > Interviews > Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio

An Interview with Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, writers of Pirates of the Caribbean

By Aaron Wallace

Good writers often come in pairs. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have proven that time and time again with a number of screenplays-turned-blockbuster films. Over the last two decades, they've made a name for themselves by turning out some of family entertainment's biggest financial and critical successes, including four of the highest-grossing films of all time. Their achievements began with the 1989 Fred Savage vehicle, Little Monsters, and continued in 1992 with their second film, Disney's Aladdin, which became an instant classic and dominated the box office for the year. DreamWorks nabbed them by the end of the '90s and the duo delivered Small Soldiers, The Road to El Dorado, and the mammothly successful Shrek (which they also co-produced) in a four year period, even assisting with Antz and Sinbad and delivering Godzilla and The Mask of Zorro for Columbia-TriStar in the same stretch of time.

They returned to Disney in 2002 to work on Treasure Planet. It struggled at the box office but their next effort for the studio, 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, most certainly did not.
Instead, it climbed the charts and spurred a pop culture phenomenon. Following their consultation work on 2004's Shrek 2 and story input on 2005's The Legend of Zorro, Elliott and Rossio saw the release of the second Pirates film, Dead Man's Chest, shatter one box office record after another. With their latest effort (the Touchstone thriller Deja Vu) now in theaters and At World's End, their highly-anticipated third installment in the Pirates franchise, heading there soon, Elliott and Rossio clearly remain in demand by Hollywood and with good reason.

Meanwhile, Dead Man's Chest recently arrived on DVD, with early sales numbers reflecting the series' continued popularity. On the morning of this release, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio chatted with UltimateDisney.com about the creative process that led to the Pirates trilogy, the success it has seen, their thoughts on the rest of their repertoire, and what the future may bring in the way of pirates.

UltimateDisney.com: I guess I should start by congratulating you. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is Disney's highest-grossing film and the sixth highest-grossing film of all time... that's got to be a great feeling, right?

Ted Elliott: You know, just the fact that we get to make a living making pirates movies here in the 20th century... that in and of itself is absolutely terrific.

Terry Rossio: I like big numbers (laughs).

Curse of the Black Pearl was extremely successful so a certain popularity was expected for Dead Man's Chest, but did you anticipate it sweeping the country as it did?

Ted: Um... the world? (laughs). You know, you can't anticipate that level of interest. Well, I guess Disney can, but we didn't (laughs).

Terry: I thought the numbers from the very opening weekend were a bit shocking, just relative to what was the previous record for a three-day weekend, and to trounce it; it just had to be this confluence of events: Johnny Depp's popularity, the popularity of the first film being out on DVD, kind of an amazing trailer, a great title, a bit of the competition backing off. It was a sort of perfect storm of events coming together.

Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio discuss making the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie on its best-selling DVD. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) uses Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) as a way to escape in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl."

...And of course the attraction, too, which was already popular. I wanted to ask you about that; it's usually described as an experience rather than a story. How much of a story were you able to find in the ride when you first started working on Curse of the Black Pearl?

Ted: Well, there actually is a story to the ride. It's about a crew of pirates who find a treasure and then discover it's cursed and it turns them into skeletons... It's told in reverse. You see the end of the story, all the skeletal pirates with the cursed treasure, and then you see their hunt for it. In Disneyland Paris, they've actually flipped it, so that it's in the right order. I can't believe that the French went linear. It's just so bizarre (laughs).

Terry: There were many times in the design of Curse of the Black Pearl where we would reach an impasse or get stuck on finding a solution and turn to the ride and get the solution there. Those vignettes are such that they're captured moments, always in some sort of larger situation. So it doesn't look like a movie but, in a sense, it really is, because it's just like freeze-frames from a film.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Action Figures

And now the characters and story elements that you guys added and created for the films have come back and been added into the attractions. Does that give you a sense of legacy?

Ted: Yeah, you know, there was a period when I was a kid where what I wanted to do was be an Imagineer. I was very much into the whole Disneyland experience and to have actually contributed back to the park in this way, it makes me very happy.

Terry: Wait, you work for Disney?

No, we just cover them.

Terry: Darn, because I was going to say -- an official Disney representative has said that characters we created are actually in the rides. (Laughs) I was going to have our legal team get on that right away (laughs).

Sorry I can't help you out there (laughs).

Terry: No, like Ted says, it's amazing. I'm a little torn on that because I'm enough of a purist and, having been on the original ride so many times, that I may have been in the camp that appreciated Marc Davis' work and the Imagineering work so much that... [it was] like, couldn't we just do a new version somewhere else and keep the original? On the other hand, I thought that the work done was pretty fantastic and I guess it's continuing. You know, going through the Davy Jones character in the mist there is just a highlight.

Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott recount a tense moment in pre-production in the featurette "Charting the Return", found on Disc 2 of "Dead Man's Chest." Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) tries to nab keys from Davy Jones' tentacle beard in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

Yeah, well I have to tell you that I'm a very big fan of the theme parks as well and somewhat of a purist normally, but I've ridden the new versions at both Disneyland and Disney World and I honestly think that it fits right in, and it's a testament to the job you guys did in making the movies fit in so well with the original attraction.

Terry: You know, one of our original..

Ted: ...sort of creative edicts we gave ourselves...

Terry: ...Yeah, in the very, very beginning, was we wanted to... have it be possible that,
I don't know, fifty years from now, somebody might look at the ride and not really know and say,"Well, gee, was this ride based on the movie or was the movie based on the ride?" Like, most of the time, rides are based on movies and the ride comes second and as kind of a tribute to the ride, we wanted to imagine that maybe that could actually be a possibility.

Ted: Yeah, "What is the movie that this ride might have been based on?"

Jack Sparrow has easily become one of the most popular characters in movie history. How different was the character on paper before Johnny Depp came into the picture?

Ted: Well in terms of the characterization, they're the same character. We created this kind of trickster, fast-talking type of character or rather, just somebody who you didn't know -- was he actually a good pirate who was pretending to be bad at what he did or was he actually bad at it and lucky? -- and using a lot of language to kind of confuse people and keep them off guard. But I've said this before, Johnny's performance of that character, I could not have imagined that. It's just amazing. It took the characterization we created and took it to a whole other level (laughs).

Terry: One of the joys of filmmaking -- and it is just pure joy -- is how different disciplines are brought together, so you can take writing, you can take the design of the character, you can take lines of dialogue, and execute those according to an intent. And then a director can come along and a costume designer can come along and execute their fields and then an actor comes along and brings all that knowledge, and ability -- capability -- of the world of acting to the role as well and in that mix of expertise, when everything works right, you can come up with something that does endure, hopefully, or enters into the popular consciousness. But it's just a joy to have things come together like that. It doesn't always happen but when it does, it's just amazing to be a part of it.

Dead Man's Chest introduced several big twists in the Pirates saga. How much of the trilogy was planned out from the beginning?

Terry: We had everything worked out in complete detail from the very start (laughs).

Ted: (Laughs). Terry's lying.

No sarcasm there.

Terry: The first film was designed to be a complete experience and at the time, we thought it might be the last pirates film ever made and it felt that way as we were doing it and so we tried to put everything we could think of into that film. Then, based on the popularity, you get the opportunity to do two more and it was not planned. I don't think we gave five minutes to thinking about what might go beyond Curse of the Black Pearl because the intent at that time was to get that movie done and have it be as good as it could be.

If one wants, one can draw parallels between Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Sultan and Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, and Governor Weatherby Swann. Pirates, claw arms, and apple-eating baddies? Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio dealt with such themes for Disney before "Pirates of the Caribbean."

This isn't the first huge hit you've delivered for Disney. There was also a movie called Aladdin back in 1992. Just like Pirates has, it helped to define a generation. So I'm curious as to which you are proudest of?

Ted: Which one that we're prouder of? Oh no. Totally unfair question (laughs).

Terry: You know, every child is loved in their own way.

Ted: And I'm still pretty happy with Aladdin. I really liked that movie. But I mean, there is always the next movie. [That's] kind of how you have to look at it: "We'll get it right next time. Well those are good, but there's a perfect one yet to be made."

Terry: I think for me, the thing that will always be amazing about Aladdin is that it was our first hit film and it was the first time where you opened up and you're number one in theaters and you know, the world is watching your film... it's an amazing feeling. And that turned out to be the #1 film of the year in 1992. We've reached that later, other times, but to do it for the first time was kind of a crazy thrill. You don't even think it's possible and then it's happening.

And then you also turned out Treasure Planet for Disney, so you already had some experience with writing about pirates before the Pirates films, so did that experience come in handy for the trilogy?

Ted: Well you know Treasure Island, which was the source for Treasure Planet, that is the pirate genre right there. A lot of the things that we're playing with in all three of the Pirates films come out of just that very simple premise of is Long John Silver a delightful Falstaffian character or a contemptible villain (laughs)? That's sort of something we carried into Jack Sparrow.

You've done a lot of work for Disney, but interestingly, you've also done a lot for DreamWorks, including Shrek, which kind of pokes fun at Disney's whole library in a sort of playful way. In turning out major hits for both of these competing studios, do you ever feel any tension on the corporate level or from the fans?

Ted: I think ... what we were doing [with Shrek] was kind of more playing with the audience's own knowledge of these fairy tales and Disney has done such an excellent job of sort of claiming that middle real estate as their own, that if you're looking for just instant recognition, you have to kind of play off of those Disney places. But there were a couple of shots at the park, but [they were] shots at the park as they had become under Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, so I feel okay about that (laughs).

Terry: Our technique is to just let the giant corporations fight over us, so we work for Disney and then DreamWorks pulls us over there and then Disney pulls us back and it's not the worst thing to be courted by these two behemoths in the business.

Even a 100-day shooting schedule on back-to-back sequels can't keep Terry and Ted from smiling on one of the islands where "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies are made. What is ahead for Captain Jack Sparrow?

At World's End is just a matter of months away now. Is there any chance that there will be a fourth Pirates film? Or is that definitely the final chapter?

Well you know, never say never, but right now we're just kind of looking forward to taking some time off (laughs). We've been all working on these movies for over two years now and it's about as close to honest work as I ever want to have to do.

Terry: I imagine that there might be some forces in play that might want there to be a fourth movie but I think there's truly no guarantee and there are actually also forces in play that would make it not happen. So for the purposes of At World's End... certainly on the set as we shoot out each actor, there's a sense of high school coming to end, you know, like summer is upon us and we're all going out there and graduating and this actually could be it. I think there's a chance of that. Certainly, At World's End is designed to finish the story. This trilogy was designed to be complete and I think that's part of what gives At World's End its power... that sense [that] this could be it -- this is the last of Jack Sparrow that you'll see. Right now, it's designed to be the last of the trilogy.

Well, gentlemen, Aladdin and Treasure Planet are among my personal favorites and I've been delighted by the Pirates films so far and am eagerly anticipating the next one, so I want to congratulate the both of you on a job well done and thank you for taking some time to talk with me today.

Ted: Thank you.

Terry: Thanks, Aaron.

Related DVDs - Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's Career Highlights:

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) Treasure Planet (2002) Shrek (2001) The Mask of Zorro (1998) Small Soldiers (1998) Godzilla (1998) Aladdin: Platinum Edition (1992) Little Monsters (1989)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Also in Gift Set
Treasure Planet (2002) Shrek (2001) The Mask of Zorro (1998) Small Soldiers
Godzilla (1998) Aladdin: Platinum Edition (1992)
Also in Gift Set
Little Monsters
The Legend of Zorro (2005) Shrek 2 (2004) The Road to El Dorado (2000) Antz (1998) The Puppet Masters (1994)

Related DVD Reviews:
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - 2-Disc Special Edition Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - 3-Disc Gift Set
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End - 2-Disc Limited Edition Aladdin: Platinum Edition & Collector's Gift Set Treasure Planet
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - 2-Disc Collector's Edition

More Interviews:
Gore Verbinski, director of Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (November 2007) Vince Papale, the inspiration for Invincible (December 2006)
Jim Kammerud, director of The Fox and the Hound 2 (December 2006) Moira Kelly, voice of Nala in The Lion King (December 2006)
Irene Bedard, the voice of Pocahontas (May 2005) Don Dunagan, the voice of Bambi (February 2005)
Michael Angarano, star of Sky High (November 2005) Angela Robinson, director of Herbie: Fully Loaded (October 2005)
Priscilla Weems, star of "Five Mile Creek" (October 2006) Jim Brickman, The Disney Songbook (October 2005)
Don Grady, former Mouseketeer, "My Three Sons" star, and current Disney musician (November 2005)
Don Hahn, veteran Disney producer (October 2006) Leonard Maltin, film critic/historian and author (December 2005)
Ilene Woods, the voice of Cinderella, and Disney producer Don Hahn (September 2005)
Taylor Lautner, Sharkboy of The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (September 2005)

Related Pages:
Pirates of the Caribbean: DVD Easter Eggs
Pirates of the Caribbean in UD's Top Live Action Disney Movies Countdown
Top 30 Disney Villains Countdown featuring Captain Barbossa
Complete List of 1980-Present Live Action Disney Movies

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Interview conducted December 5, 2006 by Aaron Wallace. Published December 19, 2006. All images copyright Disney.
Thanks to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio for their time and to Buena Vista Home Entertainment for making it possible.

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