By David Landau
Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio’s screenplay for the hit film, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” crosses genres and challenges convention. Most people wouldn’t think a pirate, adventure, romantic comedy, supernatural horror film would work, much less attempt writing one. One of the things that stood out for me about their screenplay was how they utilized humor within the writing style of the script to establish the tone and allow the reader to experience the enjoyable ride they wanted the film to become. The screenplay I read was an early draft and several changes were made before the final shooting script, but in a way, it is the earliest draft that is the most important – as it is the first one that people read.
Beginning on page one, the writers use clever word play to describe their characters. “JOSHAMEE GIBBS, who was born old,” and “NORRINGTON, a dashing young man, Royal Navy to the core,” demonstrates a flare for using words to convey images and character with fast off the cuff comments. Elliot and Rossio draw the reader into the movie they see in their head with this style throughout the script.
Phrases such as, “He polishes the toes of his boots on the back of his calves, but it doesn’t help,” (9) and, “He has no choice- – – and it pisses him off,” (20) paint character and action with the humorous touch the writers want to establish as the tone of their story.
“Elizabeth stands on the stairs. Granted, the dress may be painful to wear, but holy smokes!” (10) In the actual movie, the dress is nothing exceptional. But Elliot and Rossio are writing for two audiences – the movie viewing audience second, the script reader first. By using humorous asides and offhand remarks, the writers make the script a page turner – a fun read and thus a fun movie in the mind of the reader.
Writing for the reader rather than the end movie viewer is not a new or unusual concept within screenwriting, but Elliot and Rossio go further out on a limb than most books or screenwriting seminars would ever recommend. They don’t introduce the stories true antagonist, the mutinous captain of the Black Pearl, until page 44 and they do it with “Despite the bright colors of clothing, definitely not a man you’d want to meet in a dark alley – – or anywhere, for that matter”.
The writers could have just written, “A dangerous pirate” and be done with it. But they didn’t. Throughout the screenplay Elliot and Rossio took the risk of adding “unnecessary” words and sentences, most often cute ones, to help convey the overall fun tone of the piece.
We follow Elizabeth amid foam and bubbles as she PLUNGES down though the water. Blue and clear, with streaks of sunlight cutting down: bright coral and tropical fish, and a lovely young woman in a silk dress… if it weren’t for the mortal danger, the scene could be described as gorgeous. (103)
Screenwriting books and seminars always hammer in “less is more” and “save it for your novel” when criticizing a writer who doesn’t make each sentence as succinct as possible. Adhering too close to this process risks the loss of the writer’s personal style. While that may be fine for a shooting script, it won’t help the initial story get sold. Hollywood readers are literally inundated with hundreds of scripts to read. A dry fast read will not leave as lasting a memory in this poor over worked readers mind as much as a longer, but much more fun read. A script that is fun to read is fun to recommend and succeeds better in delivering the mental images of what the writer wishes his story to look like on the screen. This is what Elliot & Rossio achieved so well in their screenplay for “Pirates of the Caribbean”. You can do it too.
David Landau has worked 30 plus years in lighting for features, TV, commercials, documentaries, industrials and music videos. He teaches lighting and cinematography at Fairleigh Dickinson University, shoots low budget features and corporate videos and summers as one of the gaffers on Project Runway. Five-time Telly Award winner for lighting and cinematography and an IATSE Local 52 member, he authored the book “Lighting for Cinematography” (Bloomsbury Press). Written by David Landau and David Bennett Carren, check out new book, “Next Level Screenwriting,” (Focal Press).
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