First Assistant Director Peter Kohn laughs when asked what it is with him and water. "I have spent a fair bit of time around islands," he admits, after having gained some measure of seafaring glory overseeing all four installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, shot on location from Hawaii to Puerto Rico to St. Vincent.
"The stress level of having 400 people spread out on boats is high," he says with characteristic modesty. "You have to make sure everyone has understood the instructions and allow the marine department to watch over safety, which is always the prime concern when working on water."
Kohn’s most recent film, The Rum Diary, which he co-produced, brought him back to Puerto Rico with star Johnny Depp. "It rained every day there," he laments, "and since most of the film takes place outside, we just had to wait the water out. It was basically a rain forest."
Patience was something Kohn leaned early in his career while working on Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes on location in West Cameroon. The large African crew and extras refused to board the ship they were to shoot on without the river being blessed. "I was taken downriver on a small craft to carry the blessing back from the chief," Kohn remembers. "The ritual to purge away the river spirits involved the chief dipping branches and twigs, bound with cloth, into the murky brown river, then slapping and spitting them across my chest while incanting his blessing. And, oh by the way, he was completely naked."
Such experiences only add to Kohn’s cherished book of movie memories, which began on the world’s most famous island, England, where he grew up and spent the first decade of his career. "Those days in the U.K.," he recalls, "the 2nd AD did all the casting. Working on fantastic period projects [The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Riddle of the Sands, A Handful of Dust, The Duellists] came back to serve me well. Gore [Verbinski] wanted a specific British look for all the pirates, and I was able to draw on all those little details I had absorbed working in the BBC sort of school."
Kohn has also dabbled in a "bit of espionage" to get the job done. "We shot Pirates 2 and Pirates 3 simultaneously, and the scripts were not finished," he continues. "I had an office for each movie, where [Verbinski] drew storyboards with slugs for the bits where we thought the stories were going. And the writers had their own room with index cards. So I would sneak into their offices at night to help myself schedule the next day. Later on, I found out the writers were sneaking into my room as well."
After working with the likes of Ridley Scott, Alan J. Pakula, and Alan Parker, Kohn says his biggest take-away has been the one-of-a-kind experiences his craft provides. "I got to work very closely with the United States Secret Service on a Blake Edwards movie [Curse of the Pink Panther] because Patti Davis Reagan was cast as an extra," he recalls. "I was a 2nd at that time and working with all those Secret Service guys was great training for my American debut as a 1st AD on [Wolfgang Petersen’s] In the Line of Fire because I knew all of the Service’s code words and transportation moves that would surround the president.
"Then on Air Force One [also directed by Petersen], we flew on the Warner Bros. jet to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a private tour of the real Air Force One, underbelly and all. My only regret from that experience is that we had to leave before President Clinton arrived."