Johnny Depp doesn’t watch his own movies. And after I dragged myself to an 8:30 a.m. screening of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I could only think that his morning was better spent than mine. The experience didn’t start well. The damn 3D glasses weren’t working. I wondered, how could that be? First I thought it was the projection, but none of the other several thousand journalists at the screening were fumbling with their glasses. After 20 minutes of dark, blurry images, I left the theatre and handed my glasses to an usher, muttering that they didn’t work.“Oh, monsieur, vos lunettes ne clignottent pas!” Telling me my glasses weren’t blinking. Huh? Then he handed me a fresh pair and, holding them up to the light, showed me that they were were blinking. These are not your granddad’s polarized 3D shades. They’re active-shutter X-pand 3-glasses with lenses that alternately flick on and off at a rapid rate.
So I returned to my seat and found everything crystal clear, including the French subtitles, which hovered annoyingly within touching distance. Regardless, the movie, directed by Rob Marshall, is an unsightly mess. Don’t get me wrong. I adore both Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz. Throw in Geoffrey Rush and Ian McSwane and this is one fine cast. But it’s a shame to see actors wasted. Amid the two-hour-plus barrage of chaotic action, there’s scarcely an intimate moment between them. How many swordfights can anyone be expected to endure and not be bored silly? Seen one, seen them all. And why does every Pirates movies need such a baroque tangle of plots with three gangs of people fighting over . . . in this case, the Fountain of Youth. The latest additions to the monster menagerie, by the way, are mermaids. One of them falls in love with a Christian missionary. But most are man-eating vampires that churn up the sea like extras in an over-populated Jaws sequel.
Pirates 4 joins a growing genre of sideshows at Cannes afflicted by the-press-conference-was-more-fun-than-the-movie syndrome. And you can’t not like Johnny Depp, who is as charming off screen as on. Aside from the fact that he’s a close friend of Keith Richards, and has lived to tell the tale, he’s one of the few superstars who can express a humility that is both genuine and insightful. At a jammed press conference for Pirates, he sat next to Penélope Cruz, his partner in grace, and fielded even the dumbest questions with generosity and wit
. I thought of asking him if he longed make a Pirates Unplugged, where the ratio of action to acting would be reversed, so dialogue would dominate. But I already knew the answer. He would laboriously have to defend the process, and the movie. So instead I asked, “When you were making little, idiosyncratic films with the likes of Jim Jarmusch, did you ever dream you’d be commandeering a franchise like this? And do you miss the intimacy of those smaller films?”
“I’m lucky. I try and work out a balance, angling toward doing what is true to me. And it just so happens that for 20 years or so I made these films that were considered for the most part failures. Flops. I built a career on flops, so I was quite comfortable in that arena. Then a couple of things hit. It’s a very strange little ride and you get used to it pretty quick. You’ve got a film coming out, ooh, he’s on the list again. Maybe he’s on the list. Producers you haven’t talked to for 15 years call you: “How have you been?” Then that film takes a dump, and then they never call you again til the next one.”
I also asked about Keith Richards, who reprises his role as his dad in a fleeting cameo. “He’s amazing to share a trailer with. I could write a book on that myself one day.”
One journalist asked Depp what it takes to be a good pirate. “I can only speak from my experience,” he said. “I suppose you have to be willing to get fired. The only reason I’m still around is that I was so supported by Jerry Bruckheimer and the director on the first one, Gore Verbinsky, in terms of what I was bringing to the table, character-wise. Let’s say there wasn’t a group of the Disney echelon who had any enthusiasm for what I was doing. They wanted to subtitle me.”
Deadwood‘s Ian McShane, who plays Blackbeard in Pirates 4, offered this note on how he prepared: “I used to play a lot of music, especially Bob Dylan’s song, Boots of Spanish Leather. The way you act any character, you look at the other character in the eye and try not to trip over your sword. My sword is three times as big as anybody else’s. It was also nice to play an evil character–I’ve played quite a few–but one I could actually see with my grandchildren.” Then he added: “We don’t call them evil characters; we call them complicated characters.”
Inevitably, the stars were asked to compare the experience of working on a low budget and big budget. The answer is always predictable. If you’re promoting a low-budget film, it’s kosher to crap on the whole blockbuster ethic. But if you’re promoting the blockbuster, you say the experience of acting is essentially the same, no matter how many trailers are lined up around the block. Denying there was any difference between acting in a $12 million movie like The King’s Speech and a gazillion-dollar movie like Pirates, Geoffrey Rush noted, “Whether it’s playing the speech therapist or the pirate, it’s good that I keep working with people called King George.
As for Penélope Cruz, she and Depp said lovely, flattering things about each other. Johnny, who’s happy to keep making these movies as long as the audience will have them, said he’d be happy to have Penélope in all of them, if she were willing. But what spoke louder than their public testimony were the shy, electric glances that flew between them, and whatever it was they whispered to each other off-mic.