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Old February 26th, 2006, 11:19 AM
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Location: Australia
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Terry has updated again

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TALES FROM THE SET
Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season


A tip to any screenwriters out there, if you're ever on a set. Get hold of one of the crew walkie-talkies. That's where the fun is. A constant stream of chatter. "Picture's up." "What's that noise? Someone get on that." "We need more dead readcoats." "Reload." "Five minute warning for Johnny." "We need the monkey on set." "Is that the swinging monkey or the running monkey?" "Swinging monkey." "Copy that." "Where's Kevin?" "Catering tent. At the desert table." "Francine, go to two." "That's a Bahama wrap for Johnny." "Or as some might say ... a Bahamian Wrapsody." "Do we need the writers for the walk through?" "I don't know. Checking. Negative on the writers." "If we don't shoot this soon, I'm going to ... cry." "Red Bull, Red Bull, Red Bull" "Too early!" "Just waiting on a cloud, then we go."

Gore and the Producers have moved heaven and earth with the schedule so Chow Yun-Fat can play the role of the Captain Sao Feng in P3. It's an intense combination of juggling Chow's schedule, set construction deadlines, ship construction, crew arriving at location, actor availability, and finding the money in the budget, etc. The studio folk seem curiously nonchalant about getting Yun-Fat on board, but in this case, the producers are doing an excellent job of looking out for the studio's financial interest. And Chow is only, like, walking film history, and it's a huge win when he commits to the film.

So now a writing deadline. Chow Yun-Fat needs to have his scenes delivered as early as possible -- his process is to memorize his lines phonetically as well as have them translated. This means we have to have the Singapore sequence (12 pages!) finished -- and locked down, meaning we don't have the luxury of making a final pass the day before, or even last second changes at rehearsal or on set.

We resume shooting in Los Angeles and sadly, the schedule shifts so that our summer hiatus ends early, and key scenes are being shot the week of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. Our Group's six months of preparation for the theme camp, 'Chain of Thought Video Experience' are in danger. My girlfriend Jocelyn and I help drive the truck and RV north to the celebration on the weekend, then fly back from Reno, intending to return as soon as we can. But then we have to postpone our Wednesday return flight due to script revisions needed on Pirates, then a story meeting pushes the Friday flight to Saturday, which is really too late. Finally it sinks in: no Burning Man this year! A huge disappointment, apologies to our team who made the camp happen. Next year ...

We move to Universal Studios, to the huge Soundstage 12, and view what even veterans are calling the most gorgeous set they've ever seen: the Singapore set. The original Jack Sparrow line was a throwaway, "Clearly, you've never been to Singapore!" and who would have thought it would lead to such a mammouth, glorious, expensive construction. I take my daughter and her boyfriend onto the lot for a visit, and we have the thrill of walking across a lovely arching Chinese bridge ... until a crew member mentions, "Don't touch the railings, the whole thing is rigged to explode." Nice!

The Singapore set is built on a water tank and boasts an outdoor market, a prostitute ally, and a working bathhouse set. I'm reminded of the scene in THE STUNT MAN where the screenwriter confronts the director over moving his scene to a new, more vulgar, location, "My wife cried when she first read that scene ... how is it that your tawdry *****house version has so much more depth, drama and humanity?" (Or along those lines, going from memory here.) Our original scene was set in a temple, and Gore requested the change to a bathhouse, complete with giant water ladles, fat men in towels and rancid mushrooms growing out of the wood ...

Funny thing about this who-knows-how-many-milllions-of-dollars Singapore set, the sequence is being shot under the myth that 'there is no screenplay for P3.' Of course there is a screenplay for P3, there has been four drafts of the screenplay for P3, not to mention mutiple highly-detailed outlines ... there just isn't a screenplay that Gore, and Johnny, and Jerry, have approved. Our fault, in a sense, as many key scenes just aren't good yet. So far, the production schedule has been kind to us -- the only P3 scenes that have had to be shot are ones that are finished and correct. Like they asked in Shakespeare in Love, how can this possibly all work out? "It's a mystery ..."

Rumor has it that one of the ADs brought in a sushi chef to be one of the background actors on the Singapore set ... so in between takes the crew could eat the sushi that the chef created during the shots ...

My girlfriend Jocelyn and her mom Joyce (visiting) hang out with some of the CGI actors at breakfast ... interesting to see the film from their perspective, they get a call, they fly first class seats, they're flown to Los Angeles ... and there are six limos, one per actor waiting to pick them up ... they get put up in the Hilton ... which is great, but several of them are starving actors, and would have preferred one limo shared and less expensive rooms, and keep the difference and be able to afford dinner ... for a couple days they have no idea why they are there, then a call sheet under the door in the middle of the night, omigod, find a way to the studio and to the set ... where they each get a small dressing room, though one large one shared would have been better ... it's not that Disney isn't spending money, but there are some ways the money could be spent better ... not to mention they're several months into the film and have yet to be given a copy of the screenplay, they have no idea what the overall story is ...

Chow Yun-Fat is so incredibly charming! Upon meeting him, he bows, and in broken English says ... "I am the luckiest man," then smiles and points to the heavens, shouting: "I'm the last person invited to the party!" I learn that his first name is Yun-Fat (you can tell by the hyphen, which usually indicates a first name, and Chinese names commonly list the surname first).

File this under, 'Great Moments in Life': we arrive today at the Singapore set, and Kiera is moving a long boat through the water, lip-syncing a song. Blasting over the sound system is a playback of Keira's recording of "Hoist the Colors" ... when the production needed a song, Ted and I wrote the lyrics, Gore Verbinski and Hans Zimmer worked out music and the arrangement, and here it is playing throughout the stage ...

Little known fact, director Gore Verbinski used to play in a hair band in San Diego, and still travels with several guitars -- off days he's up on his balcony jamming, I will testify, the dude can play ...

Back out to the Bahamas, and finally we get a look at the infamous 'tank.' Or, as someone on the production has dubbed it, the 'wave generator.' The way it is supposed to work, an underwater sea wall protects a man-made harbor from the ocean swell, and in the protected area, an underwater gimble is built, where the ships are attached. Long cables are then connected to the hull and can alternately pull the ship, rocking it back and forth. In reality, it seems as though the shallow water of the tank actually causes waves to grow larger, and the gimble has yet to be tested. Water does not exit the tank properly, and instead of a beach, sand has washed away leaving a sea wall, which during high winds and surf, plumes water thirty feet into the air.

We begin by shooting Black Pearl out at sea, in the supposedly uncontrolled Caribbean waters ... which, ironically, often look too calm, with a glassy flat surface just like the big tank at Universal Studios. One solution is a 'wave boat' or even several, which zoom past just ahead of the shot, creating background chop to match shots shot on days when the ocean was choppy ...

What's that on the horizon? Another ship to add to our fleet ... the Flying Dutchman arrives, in full rancid splendor, and gives everyone a lift. It's the most fantastic prop I've ever seen, a genuine ghost ship, tattered sails, barnacle-coated, forward gatling cannons, human forms imbedded into the hull, lines made of seaweed, amazing detail throughout ... you look at it and just have to ask: who would win in battle, the Black Pearl or the Flying Dutchman? For the answer to that question you have to wait for P3 ...

Chow Yun-Fat, following a tradition in his home film industry, always takes the time to thank each and every member of the crew at the end of the day's shooting. Part of his particular thank-you style is often an embrace and big kiss, and some of the more manly men of the crew have been taken to ducking out of range after that last shot ...

**** Cook, top Disney brass (as they say), is visiting the set, and will get to witness our efforts to break a ship in half. **** is one of those professional men who at first, seem too good to be true; too nice, to smart, too gentlemanly, too sincere to ever be successful. You think there must be a catch, some hidden dark side, a painting in the attic. Then you start to suspect it's possible he's successful because he's so genuinely good-natured, genuine and sincere. He tells us a story about how Johnny Depp was so generous as to make an appearance as an industry trade show. Now only did Johnny participate, but he walked out on stage in full costume -- and the (normally jaded) industry types all roared, rose to their feet, and gave him a standing ovation. "Interest for this movie is HUGE," **** warns -- implying, 'don't screw this up.' Yeah, we know that ...

**** Cook story ..2: talking shop, **** told us how he had seen an early cut of the computer generated animated film CHICKEN LITTLE. He had recently read about a technique used in the old days of animation. What you do is take each character and put his or her name at the top of a large piece of paper. Under the name, you list all the lines of dialogue from that character. Completely out of context, even 'shoe leather' lines like, "close the door" or "pass the salt," etc. Then you read down the list -- and ask whether each character has a distinctive voice, if some of the lines could do double or triple duty -- invoke drama, move the story forward and be funnier. "It was a technique from the old days," Cook admitted with a twinkle in his eye, "but I let them think it was my invention."

An extraordinary amount of work gets done on the bus ride from the hotels back and forth to the set. Each day everyone gathers at the bus at some ungodly hour (usually 5:30AM). It's rare if anyone is even two or three minutes late. As screenwriters, we sometimes join, if there are revisions to approve or if there are story issues to work out. During the ride, each department has a chance to get the director's attention before the madness of the shooting day takes over. Today, one of the main topics of conversation is a mysterious fog that showed up in two of the dailies reels. A very slight vertical light band down the center of each frame. Laptop computers are handed around as the bus rumbles along so everyone can see. The problem is not so bad that it can't be corrected, and no footage is lost, but it's not something to repeat, either. It's not likely a lens flair because those are usually irregular, changing as the camera moves, points in a new direction, or also changing with different lenses. On the other hand it seemed unlikely to be a lab error (not all reels were affected) but also not likely a batch error (two reels were affected, not just one). I never found out the answer ...

On this set, it's all about the heavy equipment. We've got backhoes digging and bulldozers moving mountains of sand. Trucks and buses and tractors. Cranes are lifting cargo. Battering rams are shoving pylons into the ocean. Other huge cranes lift men in the air to set rigging on sails, or lift cameras to shoot from on high. There seems to be one forklift that zooms around the camp endlessly with the forks jutting out at eye level just to keep everyone on their toes. Constant beep! beep! warning of vehicles backing up. At one point I counted eight different construction-type vehicles all operating at once, different colors -- bright yellow, bright orange, bright green, bright blue. Caveat: don't come work on a film set unless you enjoy the smell of diesel.

Getting out to set, around the tanks or to the different docks, even just from base camp, is accomplished with a variety of vehicles. Including an array of small ATV jobs that constantly zip around at high speed, and one must be careful to dodge. "Anyone who wants to drive one of those," Ted observes, "should not be allowed to drive one of those."

The catering tent is a marvel: it houses a huge buffett, a drink station, salad bar, and dessert table, as well as six rows of eating tables thirty seats on a side. Air conditioned and tied down, secure against the wind. A point which is about to come into play: I'm sitting here at breakfast with the cast and crew, and the producers step up and get everyone's attention. This never happens, so the tent is suddenly quiet. There is a hurricane headed out way: Wilma, now forming off the Yucatan coast, building to an eventual Class 5. It's expected to turn and head east, crossing southern Florida and into the Bahamas. All equipment needs to be moved inland to safety, all ships stored in harbors or inland waterways. We're particularly concerned about the Flying Dutchman, too delicate to withstand a Class 5 even tucked away in St. Charles Bay. We're to leave our belongs behind, in our hotel rooms, as long as they're not on the bottom floor. Each department is to track their own personnel and make sure that they get safely off the island. The producers offer to answer any questions. One crew member immediately pipes up "Is the off-day party still on for Thursday?"

The catering food is the best food on the island; steak, pork chops, chicken, au gratin potatoes, lasagna, mexican, day in and day out, the variety is amazing ... because of the remote location, the menu has to be set a month ahead of time, for the food to be ordered and flown in ...

More on catering: what can we do to help? "Push your chairs in," says one of the crew, "It takes a half hour to push all the chairs in." Also, we learn that two 50-ish women spend 12 hours a day washing dishes, causing us to switch to less-environmentally sound paper plates and plastic forks ...

Due to scheduling issues, the studio must have Keira on set, but Kiera has already commited that time to doing promotion for her previous film, Domino. Solution, Kiera attends the film's premiere, flies the red-eye, and makes it on set for rehersal the very next day -- still wearing the makeup she wore on the red carpet the night before.

Gore is a mad-man. Passed him at the hotel on our one and only off day of the week. What does a director do after six grueling days of early calls, dawn to dusk shooting, post shooting meetings, reviewing dailies and CGI, and endless prep shooting on two 200 million dollar back-to-back films? Anyone else would need a day of sleep, massage, or therapy. Instead Gore is carrying his snorkeling equipment and fishing rod and cooler of beer, headed out to sea for a full day of skin-diving ...

Some of the reviews are in on Domino and Elizabethtown, movies starring Kiera and Orlando, and the reviews are not all good. Johnny Depp dismisses any concerns, says, "I had that for seven years, didn't bother me ... I think like seven people went to see Cry Baby."

When we land the corporate jet in Florida to clear customs, into the United States, I am told to carry my bag off the plane and into the U.S. Customs office. "They like when you carry a bag. They like when you take it seriously." I have no idea what this means, but I do as I am told, and am accepted back into my country.

Executive Producer Mike Stenson slips a surprise into tonights dailies. He's found an old episode of Rocky & Bulwinkle, where they travel back in time in the Wayback Machine. They end up on some British ship, pursed by Captain Kidd. The contested treasure is a slot machine that Kidd's instinct says will pay off on the next pull, but he's run out of quarters. Our heroes walk the plank and step off onto a desert island -- which turns out to be the island of Manhatten, where they hail a cab to Tortugo ... after shooting two pirate films for a years, all of it makes surrealistic sense ...

In between takes, Geoffrey Rush paces the deck, practicing his lines, over and over. After his shots are completed, Rush stays to feed lines, off camera, to the other actors. This guy is a gem, a true pro.

I'm sitting on the Black Pearl, and next to me is Orlando Bloom's very attractive girlfirend, and it occurs to me that she looks very much like his old girlfriend, the one with him on the first Pirates movie. Maybe Orlando has a particular type? (In a rare unguarded moment, one of Orlando's bodyguards admitted that it's usually blonds he has to fight off for Orlando, go figure.) In any case, the woman sitting next to me is blond, and looks just like Kate Bosworth ... and then it hits me, it is in fact Kate Bosworth. So I'm sitting on a pirate ship next to Lois Lane, how cool is that? Wait a second, her film opens opposite us next summer, she's the enemy -- walk the plank!

We get a couple of off days, and I get the bright idea to charter flight for Joceyln and I to nearby Harbor Island, a resort location on the neighboring island of Eleuthera. We park our rental and walk out onto the tarmac ... all these beautiful planes lined up ... and there is our pilot, he grins a bright smile, and points to our plane, a silver WWII vintage transport, yikes. But the pilot exudes confidence and we climb in, and 'Old Faithful' (as the plane is affectionately nicknamed) dutifully buzzes along in sturdy fashion over the glassy seas ...

We arrive at Eluthera, and this is more like it. Whereas Freeport feels like a run-down suburb of Miami, with the occasional Burger King dotting a flat landscape covered with sickly trees (or as Michal, Orlando's assistant describes it, "Like Fort Lauderdale coughed up a lugy fifty miles"), here it is tropical, hilly, and quaint, with white beaches and tall palm trees. And everybody waves to us. We travel by plane, rental car, boat taxi, and golf cart. I see the pink sand beach, with horses running free, and the amazing resorts, and realize, this the island everybody imagines we're at when we say we're at the Bahamas. This is what honeymooners hope to get when they're picking from the brochures. We rent a room that is a cute little loft looking toward the water and suck up the air conditioning ...

Day Two on Eleuthera: the hotel internet connection is one dollar per minute. Explore the town on our little golf cart. Buy some reggae CDs from a local guy, who I note seems to have, for rent in his little shack, a pirated version of every film ever made. I see neat magic-marker labled versions of films by screenwriter friends of mine, Cold Creek Manor by Richard Jeffries, and Sky High by Paul Hernandez ... and even a few films of my own ... I don't begrudge the pirating, because it's so far away from home and the handwritten lettering is done so neatly ...

Night on Eleuthera: questinging the locals leads to a late night snack -- barbecue ribs at Brian's Place. Open air cooking, delicious, amazing side dishes, and open all night. Why is this island so much better than Freeport? Colonia design? Palm trees? I figure it out: a lack of four lane highways.

Wake up to high winds. Call airport ... it's just a cold front, no problem. Of course ... At the airport, there is our shiny WWII 'old faithful' plane and our smiling pilot. I ask whether he uses radar to get from one island to the next. "No," he says, and points to a hand-held GPS system, "this, and dead reackoning." The plane darts in and around, under and over the clouds to keep visibility and avoid down drafts. Landing in 20 mph cross winds, our pilot wrestles the plane down. He's still smiling. "I needed the practice." I ask what the cross-wind limit on the plane is ... "35 mph." Arrive just in time for a story meeting with Gore.

There is a gradual exodus of people away from our hotel, Pelican Bay, when it's learned that there is good wi-fi at the nearby Westin. But Pelican Bay is pet-friendly, ane we have Phoebe the cat with is, so we will stay.

At lunch, in the big tent, David (who plays Cotton) has taken photographs of the island devastation, and set them up in the lunch room and is taking collections for a local church. Way to go David. Because he plays a mute so convincingly on screen, I have to remind myself that David can talk!

Script revision required. For you screenwriters out there, in the editing room, it's a constant battle between story logic and 'throws'. A throw is a filmed line or situation that compels the story to the next sequence ... which sometimes can take you to a place that defies story logic ('wait! there's no time for that ship to get there if this happened that day and this person was there that night ..." Gore has had a few days in the editing room to look at some cut P2 footage. Need to reorder one sequence ... some times it's impossible to predict how something will play when you view it ... with the new throw, we need a new logic to how Bootstrap knows his son is on another ship ... scene will shoot in a few days ... must write, can't blog ...

Bus ride in ... Gore is exhausted from late dinner with Jerry ... he likes the new scenes. Only one line revision. Still several hours work doing technical work, making sure the scene numbers, A/B pages, omitted pages, are correct, and the drafts are updated, including creating a 'Black Page' for Gore's reference only. (If you're directing a 200 million dollar film and you're not completely sure on the sequence order, best to give yourself a safety, not an official part of the shooting schedule but it could save a day's reshoot.)

The call sheet, which arrives on set every evening, lists the next day's work, and also a 'look ahead' section, so departments can prep for the next several days. There is also a 'second unit' section, so people can understand what those people are up to -- the second unit commonly shoots smaller, less complex insert shots, stuff like a hand picking up a sword, or a carriage wheel rolling through the mud. On this production, though, second unit might also shoot rather spectacular establishing shots, like a ship sailing into port in early morning sunshine, or barrels expoading in mid-air ...

Added to that, there is now an 'elements' shot list. 'Elements' are photographic images that are to be used in conjunction with CGI in special effects shots; turns out it's often easier, and more believable, to shoot real stuff and composite it into a CG shot rather than generate the image from scratch in the computer. Elements can span anything from splashes to clouds to fireballs exploading. A scale model of the Flying Dutchman is being built, so it can be put in the water to help make element shots. I bring it up because the list of these shots is astonishing -- many pages long, it's like a whole other movie with its own full crew. Add to this the 'making of' documentary, tests being shot, ILM people recording events on video, and the first unit with its many cameras, and seems like there are cameras everywhere ...

The per diem people show up usually at lunchtime at the end of the week with these neat little yellow envelopes. The eye gravitates toward them the way a dog salivates at the dinnertime bell. I get what seems to me a lot of money each week ($780.00) especially considering that you can eat breakfast and lunch on set every day. My girlfriend and I have taken to dropping in at the local Casino and playing roulette -- but only with per diem money. As a stats lover I fully understand that this is a nonsensical thing to do, but so far, ten our of eleven trips have resulted in us being $20-$70 dollars ahead on each trip. What we do is play until we are up, even a few bucks -- and then quit. I wonder if a computer model would show that this is a successful strategy? It seems not, but, just maybe, the beta factor of naturally occuring ups and downs, based on a set (somewhat large) amount of money to bet, could result in a high chance of at some point betting that amount being 'up' on any one session -- and then the choice to stop at that point gives the player an advantage. Or, maybe we're just lucky.

So I have to be in Los Angeles, but Jocelyn decides to stay with her visiting mom in the Bahamas. The plan is to drop down south to Nassau and avoid the brunt of the attack. But then the hurricane is delayed, and there is concern about Phoebe the cat staying alone too long in our hotel at Pelican Bay. Yes, the cat now officially has her own hotel room, and rented vehicle, and crew members looking in on her. So Jolly and her mother fly back to Freeport -- just ahead of the hurricane. Deadly flying roof tiles, power out for days, trees uprooted, flooding, the whole thing. Phoebe survives, though she is reduced to dry cat food for a few days.

Results of the hurricane: the ship we broke in two, and was supposed to be dressed and used as a different, ship, has been damaged. In other words, we have sustained several hundred thousand dollars of damage to our broken ship. "That there is what you call ironic," Ted notes.

Name-dropping time ... one of the Those Great Moments Being a Screenwriter ... I'm on the Black Pearl, and I look down ... and there performing our scene is: Johnny Depp. And Orlando Bloom. And Kiera Knightly. And Chow Yun Fat. And Geoffrey Rush. Any one of those actors could open a film, and there are five of them, all together on deck. And with them in the scene is Naomi Harris, who in my opinion is as good as anyone there. The same applies for Lee Arenberg, and Mackenzie Crook, and Kevin McNally. Wow, this is the first time, in any of the films, where all those actors are all together at one time. Dazzling.
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