BURBANK, California — When last we saw the Pirates of the Caribbean, things weren't looking too good. Captain Jack Sparrow had been swallowed whole by a giant sea monster, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann's romance was on the rocks, and the evil Captain Barbossa had once again risen from the dead.
But judging from a stunning visit to the set of the third movie, "At World's End," things are about to start looking much, much better (see "Keira Knightley Could Tell You About 'Pirates 3,' But She'd Have To Kill You"). "I think you'll notice right away that we're not in the Caribbean any longer," Rick Heinrichs, the production designer for all three movies, beamed last year from the set, which doubled for Singapore. "We're on the other side of the world."
"Welcome to Singapore!" chimed in visual-effects supervisor John Knoll, looking over the small fishing town of cobblestone roads, precarious bridges and wares-selling huts. "This is a set that we spent two-and-a-half months building."
The wicker-and-water set is the primary location for "World's End," which sails into theaters May 25. In the film, the pirates travel to Singapore in their quest to find the literal end of the world, save Captain Jack and reclaim the Black Pearl. First, however, they'll need to grapple with Captain Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), the Pirate Lord of Singapore.
"It was a lot of fun for us to research and come up with a new way of telling the story of pirates and what a pirate looks like in 1720s Singapore," Heinrichs said. "There's not much documentation about it. It's different shrubberies, Chinese and southeast Asian architecture, and so we came up with this Chinese/Malaysian mélange."
"Although we didn't have a direct reference from Singapore in the early part of the 18th century, we did have other stuff from the 19th century, the early 1800s, photographic-type research," Knoll added. "Singapore, anyway, is kind of at a crossroads in Southeast Asia, with many different cultural references. So we have Indonesian, Malaysian and Chinese — it's a melting pot."
But when most people think pirates, they imagine peg legs, parrots and pointy hats — not rainforests, roundhouse kicks and sticky rice. It goes without saying, then, that the new locale will result in a decidedly different pirate tale.
"This set is designed for an action scene right here, when all heck breaks loose," Knoll grinned like a proud papa, looking at the 3-foot-deep water and the narrow bridges hanging over it. "The Chinese pirates, our pirates, and the East India Trading Company troops all converge and fight, and people fall in the water and things get blown up."
Looking over at a small shanty, he added: "That's a fireworks hut right there, so I don't even need to tell you what happens to that."
The set was reinforced more than any of Knoll and Heinrichs' previous "Pirates" structures, in order to contain the quasi-kung-fu fighting that breaks out when all these enemies engage in their 17th-century Mexican standoff.
"We're not doing the Hong Kong high-wire stuff," Heinrichs cautioned. "There's no 'Crouching Tiger,' but we have a lot of Chinese influence in there ... that dictated how the sets were built. ... Our sets were built to withstand quite a bit of violence."
Once the sets were constructed, the stars came to play. On the afternoon we visited, director's chairs could be seen for all the major stars except Depp; Keira Knightley and Chow-Yun Fat shot scenes in a closed-off "bathhouse" just a few feet away. But, according to Heinrichs, even the on-set A-listers had stars in their eyes when a rock legend showed up to film his cameo.
"Everybody wanted to meet Keith Richards," he remembered. "But there was a policy thing. It would have been a big distraction. Still, everybody was trying to walk past his trailer, and I actually got to shake his hand — the guy is such an icon."
Heinrichs didn't get to speak with the Rolling Stones guitarist, but he said that's just as well — because he wouldn't know how to begin the conversation. "I wouldn't really know what to say to him," he shrugged. "When you actually meet a hero, it's a little difficult to just say, 'How's it going there, Keith?' "
The production designer was thrilled to create several "period" guitars for Richards to play (including one with a sea turtle's shell) and said that the crew was in awe while watching Johnny Depp and his "dad" play pirates.
"They're very talented, these pirates," Heinrichs grinned.
Check out everything we've got on "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."
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