Interview:Pirates of the Caribbean directors talk Dead Men Tell No Tales, Sir Paul McCartney and more

After 2012’s Kon-Tiki went down in history as the first Norwegian film to pick up nominations for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg were well-placed to score a job helming one of the most ambitious franchises in modern mainstream cinema: Pirates of the Caribbean.

Disney’s monstrously successful billion-dollar string of high-seas adventure films, all of which are anchored by Johnny Depp as a charismatic (and frequently drunk) pirate, now has a fifth entry thanks to this directorial duo. To learn a bit more about the process behind the film and what Rønning and Sandberg hoped to bring to the film series, we caught up for a brief chat with both directors, tracking their progress from when they first landed the film right up to the much talked about cameo from none other than Sir Paul McCartney. Read the full transcript below to learn a bit more before you head on out to see the film, which is now screening in cinemas across Australia.

How long after Kon-Tiki was released were you approached by Disney to helm this massive approach?

We approached Disney! We got a hold of the script and just loved it so we called Disney and Jerry [Bruckheimer] and [told them that] we were going to direct it. We started taking meetings with the lower ranking people, and in the process of pitching Kon-Tiki got Oscar nominated, which really helped. So then we got to meet with Jerry and Sean Baily, and eventually Johnny.

Having worked on a high seas adventures [Kon-Tiki] before, was there anything in particular you learnt during Kon-Tiki that you feel helped you for Pirates?

I think that every movie you do regardless gives you an experience, and you know a little bit more going into the next movie. But then also every movie has new challenges, especially a movie like Pirates which is so big in scope and production. But some of the know-how from shooting out on the ocean and all that, shooting with ships – it definitely helps. Also Kon-Tiki actually did have a lot of effect shots in it, and of course [Pirates] has over 2000 effect shots, so that’s also great experience to have. It was a good movie to have under the belt going into this.

I imagine joining such an enormous franchise for Disney brings its own unique set of challenges, but you each weren’t tackling it as a solo director. How do you guys feel working as a directorial team helped you undertake this project and is there anything unique to working as a team as opposed to working solo?

For us it’s a natural process in a way. We grew up together and have been making films together since we were 10 years old. I guess it’s never going to be the size of a movie or the complexity that draws us into something, it’s the story and the characters. Somehow I believe that the principles of filmmaking kind of stays the same regardless of budget, so for us it’s a very natural process; it’s a collaborative one, I think we do invite everyone – actors and crew – in to the conversation and discussion to create an environment where ideas are welcome, at the end of the day we’d just pick the best one!

A lot of franchises struggle to keep up quality by the third, let alone their fifth. What do you feel are the unique strengths of this installment and what does it add to the franchise that may not have been there before?

We love all the other movies, but I think the one that we fell in love with was the first one. We really studied that to find out what it has – such a unique balance between the spectacle and the drama, the humour and the horror, and the heart. We were very careful in the process of developing the script to make sure that we had all those ingredients while at the same time pushing the envelope and bringing the story some unique things that all fans – new and old – would appreciate.

One example is the backstory of Jack. We wanted every character to have a strong journey and interesting character arc, but Jack Sparrow doesn’t really have a character arc; he doesn’t learn anything at the end of each film. So we created a backstory to get to know more about how he became Jack Sparrow, and then we added [Captain] Salazar to that to make sure that the story between them was a personal one.

On that note, the technique of digitially de-aging an actor has only really emerged in the past few years for film. What was behind the decision of having Johnny play a much younger version of himself rather than using another actor?

Well I think that was a big part in what we brought to the table, wanting to learn more about Jack Sparrow and now having the technology to do it. As you say, we couldn’t have done it in the previous Pirates movies but we’re doing it now because we can.

I guess working with Johnny [Depp] and Geoffrey [Rush] and plenty of the other actors who have been around since the first film, they must have their own ideas and own ways of portraying these characters. How did you guys balance this with the need to tell the story through a fresh pair of eyes.

Well you’re right; these are some of the world’s best actors and they’ve been doing these characters for a long time. They know their characters, and that kind of makes our job a bit easier to be honest. For us it’s more to work with them on the dialogue, especially with Johnny, and working with him in regards to making the scene as funny as it can be, and the sense of the scene – where he’s coming from and where he’s going.

What do you feel the new actors bring to the film?

I think Javier Bardem rings us a really intriguing new villain; the franchise has of course had some great ones before, but we worked really hard together with him to make sure Salazar is on par, and he delivers such a great performance, such a layered performance. He’s both scary and funny and he also has that pain that really makes you feel for him to a certain extent, and I think that’s part of what has made the other villains successful in the past too.

And of course Kaya and Brenton are very important. They are sort of the normal people in a pretty crazy world, but they have a balance that fits them in this historical setting while also giving it a contemporary feel. I think they are very talented actors and I believe the audience will connect with them.

One thing in particular I love about the film is the design for Captain Salazar and his crew. What was the thinking process behind the creation of that crew?

What was important for us in having Javiar, a world-class actor, was not to obscure his performance or his face or his acting too much, but at the same time creating a ghostly appearance. I think that having his character kind of dilapidating and falling apart became part of that process. We spent a lot of time designing him together with Javiar, the production designer, the effects supervisor, to create a great villain worthy of the franchise.

We also wanted [the audience] to be able to tell how they died so to speak, and that was also a way to carry on why they want revenge on Jack, because he was a part of why they died.

I guess the cat’s out of the bag and it’s big news that Sir Paul McCartney makes a cameo in the film. I understand this was shot after the film was wrapped up. What’s the story behind that and how did that all come together?

Well we really wanted him in a movie. Keith Richards was part of the previous ones and we really loved that, but he couldn’t make it because of a tour. So we made a very short list of people who we wanted in this one, and Sir Paul was at the very top of that list. Johnny Depp has his number so he just simply texted him. They texted back and forth and we were a little bit a part of that, and their lingo got more and more pirate-y. That was just amazing and then we had a few days of shooting in Vancouver so we could fit that into the schedule for everybody. He came and it was just an amazing shoot.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is out in Australian cinemas today