PAN – Director Joe Wright interview

From director Joe Wright comes “Pan,” a live-action feature presenting a wholly original adventure about the beginnings of the beloved characters created by J.M. Barrie.

Peter (Levi Miller) is a mischievous 12-year-old boy with an irrepressible rebellious streak, but in the bleak London orphanage where he has lived his whole life those qualities do not exactly fly. Then one incredible night, Peter is whisked away from the orphanage and spirited off to a fantastical world of pirates, warriors and fairies called Neverland. There, he finds amazing adventures and fights life-or-death battles while trying to uncover the secret of his mother, who left him at the orphanage so long ago, and his rightful place in this magical land. Teamed with the warrior Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and a new friend named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), Peter must defeat the ruthless pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) to save Neverland and discover his true destiny—to become the hero who will forever be known as Peter Pan.

PAN - Director Joe Wright on set

QUESTION: What attracted you to the idea of bringing an original story to the screen inspired by the classic novel, Peter Pan?

JOE WRIGHT: The script. It was a really beautiful script, great story, great characters, and I identified with those characters. Someone quite clever once said to me, ‘If you’re trying to decide between different scripts, if there’s one you know a secret about then that’s the one you should do.’ I felt like I knew a kind of secret about this movie. I felt I knew how to do it, and knew that I could do it differently from anyone else, which isn’t always the case.

QUESTION: Did you have any preconceptions about the world of Peter Pan?

JOE WRIGHT: One knows the classic things: he can fly; there’s this baddie called Hook; there’s this fairy called Tinkerbell, and so on and so forth. You think you know it, but when I went back to J.M. Barrie’s book, I found that it’s far stranger and more complicated and more wonderful than the simplistic idea I had of the material.

QUESTION: Had you seen any stage productions or the famous animated version of the story?

JOE WRIGHT: To be honest, I can’t remember. It’s so part of our collective cultural consciousness that I’m not sure where I got it from. I knew the statue in Kensington Gardens. People talk about the Peter Pan complex. It’s just part of our lives really isn’t it?

PAN - Levi Miller

QUESTION: Tell me a bit about finding Levi Miller following what sounds like an exhaustive search for the perfect Peter?

JOE WRIGHT: We saw thousands and thousands of kids in every English-speaking country in the world. But then suddenly Levi popped up and it was like, ‘Oh there he is.’ It was very easy, after all of the work and effort that had gone into it, to actually say, ‘Oh right, yeah, that’s the one.’ I think if a decision feels simple then it’s often the right one. He just had that spark about him.

PAN - Hugh

QUESTION: Blackbeard is truly villainous but certainly flamboyant as well. How did you decide upon Hugh Jackman, who is well known for playing good guys?

JOE WRIGHT: When it came to Captain Blackbeard, I wanted an actor who had some theatre experience. I wanted someone who could bring extravagance to the role, who is going to be unafraid, and who wasn’t going to try and be cool. And there’s something wonderful about Hugh. He’s an enormous film star and yet he doesn’t try to be anything more than what he is. He’s very genuine, and I was interested in taking Hugh to some of those darker places because everyone talks about him being this kind of amazingly good person, and he’s one the nicest people I have ever met in my life. So I was interested in seeing where his imagination might go if asked to go somewhere dark. Hugh understood the psychological implications; he understood the sadness that Blackbeard felt; he understood the death wish that Blackbeard maybe has.


QUESTION: You cast Garrett Hedlund as Hook, who is a legendary villain-to-come but, in this film, he is a friend and ally to Peter. That is a very intriguing casting challenge.

JOE WRIGHT: It was really difficult, not least because he couldn’t be Blackbeard 2.0. He had to be clearly defined. I met a lot of actors, and I didn’t know which one I was going to go with. Then I met Garrett, and he popped out as a character that a kid in 1940s London might imagine. There’s something heroic and very old-fashioned about him.

QUESTION: Your Hook certainly has a cowboy feel to him.

JOE WRIGHT: He’s what 1940s kids would have thought of as an American. I liked that idea and just went with it. How he’ll get to be the Hook that people know from the original, well, we’ll just have to see…

PAN - Tiger Lily

QUESTION: Tiger Lily presented her own unique challenge. What drew you to Rooney Mara?

JOE WRIGHT: Tiger Lily was challenge in terms of not only Tiger Lily herself, but also in the context of her community. I had to think about what that community was. Barrie is unspecific in his book about Tiger Lily’s nationality. He gives conflicting ideas of what they are, other than he calls them natives. I decided I was going to create a community of the indigenous people of the world, which then meant that I was able to look for an actress from any nation and, indeed, met with actors from all over the world. Rooney just had a kind of regal quality, an otherworldly quality, but she is also fierce. You don’t mess with Rooney. The description was a warrior princess and she felt like she was the perfect warrior princess.

QUESTION: Your films have been primarily grounded in reality. How did you find the experience of creating a fantastical universe for the first time?

JOE WRIGHT: One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about making this film was that I’ve had the license to be as silly as I like — the wildest and silliest idea has usually been the one that I have gone with. There is a great freedom in that. I also think that the world in which we are lucky enough to live is far more extraordinary and beautiful and strange than anything my imagination can come up with. So, what we have tried to do throughout the process is to base things on real places or geography or actual phenomena. Then, in a classic surrealist way, take these disparate elements and put them together in strange, new, exciting ways, rather than relying on a fantasy aesthetic.


QUESTION: Did you come up with your own idea for where or what Neverland is?

JOE WRIGHT: In my own head, Neverland is a projection of Peter’s imagination, which is why everything that appears in that world is somehow tied to either something that Peter sees in the opening sequence, or something that Peter could have seen while growing up at the London orphanage. To me, it’s a dream space, but it doesn’t matter because it’s also kind of whatever you want it to be, and I hope that the audience will project their own ideas on to it. I always try with my films to make space for the audience to use their own imaginations as well.

QUESTION: Once you conceive of Neverland as a dream space, there are no limits to what you can do.

JOE WRIGHT: Totally, and that’s one of the really fun elements of making this film – one was able to let the imagination free and enjoy other people’s ideas. And as I said, the craziest, silliest ideas would often be the ones that went into the movie.

There’s a moment, for instance, when Hook and Pan are flying over a wall in a stolen pirate ship to escape. They just about make it over the wall and then the spike of the chasing ship comes through the wall.

QUESTION: Did you find that the scale of the production, in terms of special effects, required you be more disciplined that usual?

JOE WRIGHT: Actually, I found it more liberating. I found that it was just more pencils in my pencil case. Normally when you’re making a film, you really do have to tie everything down because your imagination is tied to what is physically possible. With this, we could really dream up anything.

QUESTION: While Pan is this big visual effects movie, you have been determined to do as much of the stunts and effects practically, building incredible sets and mounting huge battles all for real. What does that give you?

JOE WRIGHT: There are certainly more visual effects in this movie than I’ve ever done before, but I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist really. I’m a craftsman, and find it quite difficult to get my head around visual effects. I wanted to know what was going to be in the frame when I was shooting. I like the tangible quality of film sets; I like building worlds in 3D, and those worlds give me ideas. I respond to what’s in front of me, and what’s in front of me tells me how to shoot it.

PAN - Croc

QUESTION: How did you find the experience of then augmenting what you were shooting practically with CGI?

JOE WRIGHT: As I mentioned, what we did was base it all on reality. For the pirate ships, the decks were built for real and the rest of the ship was built as a physical model. That model was then photographed and used as the reference for the CG. There is a crystal cave sequence near the end of the film that references the amazing crystal caves in Mexico. We went to Vietnam and shot plates for all the jungle stuff there. So, it was a process of basing everything on distinctive real world photographic references or models that we then combined to create strange other things.

In a way, that harks back to the idea that everything is coming from Peter’s imagination, so everything is grounded in what he would have seen in the real world. The ships he sees in a bottle early on, the mermaid he is drawing in the yard at the very beginning – everything felt like it had an organic starting point.

QUESTION: Alternatively, you have orchestrated some thrilling and wildly imaginative set pieces for the film: pirate raids, a battle for Tiger Lily’s village, sword fights on the prow of a ship. That must have been extraordinary fun?

JOE WRIGHT:  It was just so much fun.  I started wanting to make films when I was very young and I loved those big Hollywood movies that you’d see on Saturday television, and I wanted to make one of those.  It is incredibly scary, but I worked with some of the best people in the business – especially the stunt co-ordinators – and I was able to lean on them a bit.  I really enjoyed shooting the action myself, which is not the usual route.  I wanted to feel what it was like to do one of those action sequences.


QUESTION: Even though this is a large-scale studio production, based on a very famous character, what makes this a Joe Wright film?

JOE WRIGHT: Surprisingly, I feel like this is probably one of the more personal films I’ve made. I think it comes down to the script. One of my reasons for doing it was because I identified with the characters, but I also wanted to make a film that represented something of my experience of fatherhood and watching my son grow — and also his relationship with his mother. To see my son and his mum have this intense, passionate love they have for each other – I found it very moving.

At the end of the day, this is a story about a boy looking for his mum and he goes on wild adventures and meets extraordinary characters, and if these worlds exist or not doesn’t really matter. I think what audiences might be surprised by with this movie is — touch wood — that it delivers all the thrills of a big action-adventure movie, and there’s a lot of comedy in there too, but it is emotional too. That’s something I try to bring to all my work and, for me, that’s what makes it special.

Pan opens on 8 October 2015.

Pan also covers #68 of F*** Magazine, on newsstands now! Preview the issue here.