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From Indie to Tentpole: New ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Director on What It’s Like to Make the Leap

"Dead Men Tell No Tales" co-director Joachim Rønning talks about what it's like to make the transition to a franchise film costing a reported $230 million.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" Director Joachim Rønning with Johnny Depp

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” Director Joachim Rønning with Johnny Depp

Peter Mountain

Norway is not known for its blockbusters, but “Pirates of the Caribbean” director Joachim Rønning has always made big movies. His last two features, co-directed with partner Espen Sandberg, weren’t the intimate stories of arthouse filmmaking: “Max Manus: Man of War” was an action drama about a World War II saboteur, while their Oscar-nominated 2012 breakout, “Kon-Tiki,” detailed the journey of a Norwegian explorer who crossed the Pacific Ocean in 1947 on a balsa wood raft.

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“Even making films in Norway, I never felt I made small films,” said Rønning. “I’m drawn to big stories, and big emotions, because I love making movies for the big screen. I like to be engulfed in the theater and make stories that takes you places.”

Nonetheless, there is a matter of scale. In an age dominated by the international blockbuster, and with  medium-budget movies becoming an endangered species, directors like Rønning are taking the enormous leap from a resourceful “Kon-Tiki,” with a reported $16 million budget, to “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” with a reported budget of $230 million.

IndieWire recently caught up with Rønning to find out what making that transition was like.

"PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NOT TALES: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa) and Director Joachim Rønning

Joachim Rønning on the set of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

Peter Mountain

Getting the Gig

We chased the project for months, and when Disney and Bruckheimer were in the middle of making the director’s shortlist, our film “Kon Tiki” got nominated for an Oscar – which catapulted us to the top of the pile.  Then we had to do some meetings, where we presented our vision for the film.

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Similar, Just Bigger

I do believe the principles of filmmaking stays the same, no matter the budget. The big change with more money is a bigger crew, more shooting time, and extensive VFX. There’s also more boxes to be checked in regards to aiming for as many quadrants as you can. Coming from the indie world of filmmaking, I’ve always respected the financials behind any movie. My goal will always be to not go over budget and to recoup the money spent, but I also believe that if you make a great movie, people will come.

Trusting others to help you do your job. We’ve always done everything ourselves. On “Kon-Tiki,” I even made the poster. On a production like “Pirates,” with tons of resources, you are surrounded by the best people in the industry that know what they’re doing and that will carry you forward.

Actions Set Pieces and VFX

I always storyboard extensively. Then I sat with the pre-VFX [previsualization] team for months. We planned using extensive pre-VFX and many, many meetings with all department heads. Also, the design process with production designer Nigel Phelps was a long one, but great fun. It was a great process, one I had never had the resources to go through earlier on any of our previous films.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

Of course, on a movie like this you have the best stunt and VFX teams in the world — and the resources to go with it. I felt at times that my job was to hold back and not lose the storytelling in the middle of everything.

I felt that Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer gave us a lot of freedom to execute our vision for the movie. I never felt forced into anything. Bruckheimer is very creative friendly; it’s always a conversation. “May the best idea win” is his motto.

READ MORE: How ‘The Americans’ Turns Brooklyn Into an ’80s World of D.C. Espionage, All on a Basic-Cable Budget

There’s Still Never Enough Time

Making any movie is a challenge. You will at one point always run out of time and money. Yes, “Pirates” is high- budget moviemaking, but it is also an expensive story to tell with a tremendous amount of VFX shots and set builds.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” opens in theaters today, May 26, 2017.

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