From the Set of Joe Wright’s Pan (as in Peter Pan)

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Peter Pan

There have been so many different incarnations of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan story, from the classic Disney animated feature to numerous movies to versions on stage, including a musical that got a high-profile television broadcast last year. There have also been several new approaches to the material from the Oscar-nominated J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland to the Steven Spielberg-directed Hook, starring Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts.

Bearing that in mind, one would think that all that could possibly be done with the iconic character would already have been done, which is why Warner Bros.’ upcoming feature Pan, opening in theaters this summer, seems like it’s facing an uphill battle.

At least that’s what I thought before visiting the set last summer.

For the most part, Pan owes more to the latter group of movies rather than to any of the more faithful Barrie adaptations, since it’s essentially a prequel to the classic fairy tale where we get to see how Peter Pan came to Neverland. Think of it like what Oz The Great and Powerful was to the better-known story in Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. 

Based on a script by Jason Fuchs that was popular enough to make it onto the esteemed Black List, the film shows the beloved character of Peter Pan arriving in Neverland and meeting a younger Captain Hook (played by Garrett Hedlund), who acts as an ersatz mentor to young Peter. They have to take on the dastardly pirate Blackbeard, played by Hugh Jackman in a rare turn as a villain. Directing the movie is Joe Wright, the British filmmaker who made a name for himself with early films Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, the latter which scored seven Oscar nominations.

Easily Wright’s biggest movie to date, Pan is a period film that opens in 1926 London before cutting to the start of World War II where the 12-year-old Peter is living in an orphanage raided by Pirates who kidnap kids and take them to the fantastical world of Neverland. It promises to be as visually exciting as some of Wright’s earlier films but on a much grander scale.

ComingSoon.net traveled to London where Wright was filming the movie with our tour guide being Sarah Schechter, who is producing the film with Greg Berlanti (“Arrow”) and Wright’s usual producing partner, Paul Webster. She would walk us around the various soundstages that have been used to bring Peter Pan’s fantasy world Neverland to life with our tour starting at Warner Bros. Studio Leavesden, which has become Warner Bros.’ go-to location for making their bigger movies since production ended on the “Harry Potter” movies.

Finding Neverland

As with Wright’s other movies, production design is key, and in this case he had a chance to create the worlds of Neverland with Aline Bonetto, who has received two Oscar nominations for her work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on many of his beloved films going back to Amelie. Bonetto got all of her inspiration from the book, which she found to be a lot more surrealist than we’ve seen in other adaptations, including the classic Disney animated feature. In fact, Bonetto said they deliberately avoided that beloved film, because Wright’s vision of the film is so different.

She walked us around one of the production offices lined with concept art with models of various locations sitting on tables in the middle of the room, and it was impressive way to get us up to speed on the film’s visuals with some of the designs for key locations from the movie including a mine set, something called the Crystal Cave–based on real caves in Mexico–the Mermaid Lagoon and more. Not only were there scale models, but also original concept paintings and photos of the real world inspirations for the look of the film.

Joe Wright really wanted to embrace the colors which is why the skies of Neverland are similar to that of an Aurora Borealis. When natives are stabbed or killed, they don’t bleed, but they explode into colors, which are two things that separate Pan from the Disney movie.

During this introduction to the world of Neverland, we also got our first (and only) look at the Croc, which looks far more vicious and menacing than previous incarnations, and the Neverbird, both which will have physical representations on set, presumably using puppets and animatronics, before being replaced by CG.

Garrett Hedlund Gets the Hook

pansetvisit6garrettBut let’s get to the real reason why most people will want to see Pan, and that’s the fantastic cast Wright has assembled. One of the first actors we spoke to was Garrett Hedlund, who is no stranger to big movies based on iconic characters, as some might remember him from Disney’s TRON: Legacy a few years back. We were herded onto an odd dinette bus lined with tables where the cast eat their catered lunches where Hedlund joined us, still partially in costume from shooting.

Hedlund thinks that Barrie based the Hook character on one of his classmates and gave an overview of his version of Hook. “What [screenwriter Jason Fuchs] managed to do within the origin narrative—Hook is still very selfish and has his best intentions at hand, his priorities first and foremost, but he’s a little maniacal. He’s crazy in this one, which is fun. Very energetic, quite adventurous. It’s a very fun place to start with Hook in this, especially working together with Peter to find their way off this island–that’s where we’re at in this story. There is some fun stuff in there–knock on wood–about the future.”

“I don’t really remember the first time I saw Peter Pan–maybe it was the version that Robin Williams had done,” Hedlund would tell us, elaborating on the themes that got him interested in the project. “I think the things that attract you the most and you gravitate toward the most is the idea of never having to grow up and living forever. The fantasy elements of this, that there is some place you can go to where it’s all communal. It’s an environment of people that are also never going to growing up. So you never have to deal with the pains and fears of losing someone, of people dying, of getting older. Never need to stop having fun and enjoy the youthful side of childhood, fascination and wonderment. Those are all elements that I gravitate toward most. I think most people do. 

Hedlund had some kind words to say about his significantly younger co-star Levi Miller, who he found to be quite fearless. “Believe it or not, this is his first film. He’s extraordinary. He’s such a smart boy, completely has no fear, no qualms whatsoever about entering into this. I remember this moment when we were rehearsing where Peter has to accept his destiny. Joe is like, ‘You know, this is very stressful, something very big to take on. There are a lot of people around you. It’s a very big film. Do you feel fear about that?’ and (Levi was) like, ‘No, not really. Sometimes I feel fear when we have to go swimming and stuff in class.’ But taking on this Warner Bros. epic Peter Pan, any stress? No. That’s what he brings to the table. He’s wise beyond his years. There are so many elements that he shares that are going to be what attract people most to his version of Peter.”

“Being in a harness all day, having fight choreography with pirates, you forget that someone is 11 years old and start speaking to them like an adult,” Hedlund continued. “I always try to make certain things fun. Like if Levi has to crash down on certain sets and knock over boxes, I say, ‘Well, it’s like 10-pin bowling. I bet you can’t get all seven of those boxes down.’ If he gets all seven, ‘All right, strike. Let’s work our way up to a turkey. I try and have fun myself. We work great together.”

Introducing Levi Miller

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So that brings us to the 11-year-old Australian newcomer that Joe Wright and the producers discovered to play their title character. Because Pan would be Levi Miller’s first movie, Wright was keen on trying to shoot in some sort of sequential order that would make it easier for Miller to follow the story, which is extremely hard to do on a big movie like this.

“When I got the phone call that I was told I was Peter Pan, I freaked out,” Miller admitted about the lack of fear his co-star noted. “Because I was like ‘Wow! How does that happen?’ but pretty much, from there on, everyone’s been so lovely. In the last audition progress I saw other kids my age, so it was nice meeting them, especially when I met Louis my friend. We were in the hotel and I thought he was auditioning for Peter but I knew there was something about him that seems like non-competitive, so I talked to him and he was auditioning for Nibs, so it was all fun.”

“He’s kind of a normal 19th Century boy I think,” Miller mused philosophically. “He’s adventurous, he’d pretty much do anything, but it’s like in a wire when you plug it into a connector, there’s the round thing and that’s his life, that’s kind of what goes around him and what he has to do, but then there’s the middle of it, which is the base of what he’s doing which is trying to find his mother.”

Despite his lack of experience, Miller already knew the game of dealing with press, being particularly coy on whether his Peter Pan will be flying in this introductory film, although he did enjoy getting involved in the action, which involved some swordfighting and doing martial arts on trampolines. 

After sitting down with Hedlund and Miller, we would watch them shooting a pick-up scene with 2nd unit in which they’re trying to escape from the mines. Hedlund was dressed a lot like Indiana Jones with a similar hat and vest but he was absolutely filthy due to the dust in the mines. Basically, Hook and Peter have just met and are on the run through the mines when they get to the edge of a cliff, but they had rebuilt a small section of the original mine set for the scene. 

It was a short scene, where they arrive at the ledge and Pan says, “If I’m going to trust you, I at least need to know your name,” to which Hedlund responds, “It’s Hook, name’s James Hook,” before he pushes the boy over the edge and then jumps after him. They rehearsed this scene a few times with Hedlund at least one time jumping with his arms outstretched in a rather un-Hook-like way.

Roughly 45 minutes from Leavesden was Cardington Studios, two enormous plane hanger buildings where some of the bigger sets for the movie had been built, particularly the Neverland forest and village, as well as a number of full-scale pirate ships. But first…

The Lunchtime Costume Parade

Now, normally, having movie set catering isn’t something particularly memorable except that this time, we were literally surrounded by hundreds of extras dressed up as pirates and natives, all in spectacular costumes designed by Jacqueline Durran, who has worked with Wright on many of his previous movies and having won an Oscar for her costumes on his Anna Karenina.

The pirates and natives offered lots of variety, some of them even being covered in feathers, because hey, if you’re going to be a pirate, who is going to tell you how to dress? There was a giant guy with a beard who looked more like a Viking and an albino with blonde hair, another with a Mohawk and a fourth who seemed to be wearing a hoop skirt and a Spanish veil, each of them looking different and unique.

The natives of Neverland have also been given a different look rather than just being made to look like American Indians, since they’re presuming that the people living in Neverland probably came from all over and that should be reflected in their wardrobe and make-up.

Earlier in the day, we had a chance to chat with Durran about her inspirations for those costumes, and she mentioned that she tried to avoid the 18th Century altogether just because it’s been so overused in period films. 

Rooney Mara, who plays Tiger Lilly in a fairly controversial casting move, was quite impressed with what Durran came up with for her character, which was more inspired by punk rock with her wearing plaids and Doc Martens as opposed to the traditional Native American garb Tiger Lilly normally wears. “The costumes are so incredible. Jacqueline, she did such an amazing job,” she would tell us later. “I mean I couldn’t pick a favorite. I love the pirates. The pirates are my favorite as well. I wish I was a pirate, but my costume’s amazing. I’ve been wearing it for however many weeks now so I never want to see it again, but all of the costumes on the film are just extraordinary, they’re incredible.”

(Incidentally, we think that if any movie is going to give Disney’s Cinderella and its costumes by Sandy Powell a run for the Oscar this year, it will be Pan. Mark it down!)

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

As much as they’re going to use CG to enhance some of the Neverland environments to make them more magical, Wright’s background in theater–he grew up in a puppet theater run by his parents–makes him a stout believer in building as much as possible for real. Because this was a set visit, we did indeed end up visiting a couple of the still-active sets.

Schechter walked us through the forest that had been built in the middle of one of Cardington’s soundstages where hundreds of plants had been brought in to give it an authentic look. The forest had been put up in the space that used to house the native village location of the fight sequence (one of many) between the pirates and the natives, which would involve the swordfighting and martial arts acrobatics that Levi Miller was so excited to take part in. 

We also walked by what was left of the Mermaid Lagoon where British fashion model Cara Delevigne was cast in the role of all the mermaids for a few days of intense filming. Delavigne previously appeared in Anna Karenina but she’s also playing the role of Enchantress in Warner Bros.’ upcoming Suicide Squad as well. 

They really wanted to do something different with the pirate ships, mainly because there have been a couple other pirate movies you may have heard of and they wanted to get away from that. One decision they made was to have Blackbeard’s ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge have these long spikes coming out of its front, basically the mastheads from other ships that his crew have boarded and pillaged, their mastheads kept as trophies.

We were able to climb on board Hook’s Ranger ship The Jolly Roger, although well-placed signs warned us not to sit on any of the cannons. (Those who did were probably forced to walk the plank.)

It was a busy day on the main set, Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, where they were shooting a big fight sequence between Blackbeard’s pirates and Tiger Lilly and the natives of Neverland. It’s in the shadow of the ship where we would sit down for an interview with Rooney Mara, and she was joined by Wright midway through the conversation.

Rooney Mara on Her Unconventional Casting

pansetvisit7rooneyAs mentioned before, there was a slight bit of controversy about Mara, star of David Fincher’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, playing Tiger Lilly, since previously, she’s been depicted as a Native American. As we learned earlier, the Neverland natives will come from all over so they’re depicted differently, but even Mara had trepidations about taking on the role.

“When I heard Joe was doing it and that he wanted to meet with me, I was like how is that going to work? I can’t play Tiger Lily because I always thought of her as a Native American, because that’s always how she has been portrayed,” she said. “I met with him anyway, because I love him, and I was like so how is this going to work? Then he showed me all these images that he had of all these different cultures around the world and he explained to me what his vision was for the native village and it just made sense to me. You know they’re natives of Neverland, and it’s a completely made-up place. The costume stuff all kind of came later. I remember he called me up before I auditioned for it and told me that he kind of wanted her to be like a treehugger but also a punk, not dirty but a little bit of a hippy but also punk, like those two things kind of smashed together.”

Mara also mentioned how the best-known version of Tiger Lilly didn’t speak, which was not going to be the case with her version, although you wouldn’t know it from the scene we watched of her earlier, which was basically a shot of her looking concerned about something. Apparently, this was her reaction to the arrival of Blackbeard during a fight sequence on the Queen Anne’s Revenge which would lead to the two of them facing off on the ship’s aforementioned mastheads.

“There is a fear factor, because I have never done it before and I’m not really good at it,” Mara would tell us about taking on a role that would require more action than she was used to. “I don’t really like doing things I’m not very good at I try not to do those things. So it has been good for me in that way and also I’m terrified of heights, I had to do a lot of things that are up high so that’s been scary.” (Wright was surprised to learn this of his star, because he did not know she was scared of heights.)

“I have spent hour and hours and hours with the stunt team just learning the choreography and stuff of the fights and I have never done anything like that before, so it’s been really challenging,” she said about her process for getting into such a physical role, noting that she didn’t have much time to prepare, having come directly from another movie.

When asked, Mara compared working with Joe Wright to Fincher saying they’re the most similar despite being completely different directors. “Joe is very specific and we do a lot of takes and he’s very visual and he’s also really articulate about the story and about the characters,” she told us.

Joe Wright is Exhausted

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Earlier in the day, Schecter told us that the director of Pride and Prejudice, Hanna and other films was interested in taking on Peter Pan after reading Jason Fughs’ first draft but that he added so much to it when he came on board, having been very familiar with the ‘40s time period from directing Atonement. The very first image he created for the film was an 18-foot banner that illustrated some of the key moments from the screenplay including the sequence of the pirates taking the orphans into Neverland.

It obviously has been hard work to bring that original art to life and after 15 weeks on the biggest shoot of his career, Joe Wright is admittedly tired. “Making the film is kind of like labor in the sense that during the pain of it you kind of think you never want to do this again and then somehow you come out the other side and something really weird happens–you forget all about the pain,” he joked as he joined Mara during her interview.

Knowing that Wright had such a good sense of humor, we were wondering if that’s translated into the movie. “Hugh has brought a lot of humor to it as well–Hugh is very funny. Rooney is funny also in her own little way and Garett (Hedlund) is very funny. Usually with a lot of my films I kind of feel like I have to kind of hold myself in a bit really where as with this it really felt like what’s the stupidest possible idea, lets do that one. It’s really been an opportunity to be as playful as we can possibly be but it’s a very emotional and moving script actually. I, in fact, shed quite a few tears when I first read it, but I also think there is lots of opportunity for fun and humor and I like making myself and hopefully other people laugh.”

Wright also addressed the casting of Mara, since that’s been such a big deal to so many people. As a white woman, she’s not necessarily representative of all of Neverland’s natives. “In the book, the natives are described as being redskins, which is a term I don’t really recognize so I couldn’t work out where they were natives of. I thought should they be Native American or African or Mongolian and then I thought well better if they are just sort of from everywhere and that they are all natives of planet Earth and so that’s what we did. It was a bit of a gamble really because they still needed to feel like a cohesive community, so I was a bit worried about whether that was going to work, but the supporting artists that we had were an amazing group of people and they did become their own little community and really inhabited that space.”

How it All Comes Together

It’s not often you visit a movie set when you’re allowed to watch footage. Very often, there isn’t enough ready to be shown, but after 15 weeks of shooting, they had cut together enough that Schechter could show us an extended sequence from the opening of the movie, essentially the pirates taking the orphans to Neverland, which was what Fuchs originally pitched to her and Berlanti to get them excited enough to commission his screenplay.

The sequence they showed began in the orphanage where Peter’s been placed where some of the other kids have been disappearing—Peter thinks they’ve been sent to Canada, oddly enough. At night, we see what is happening to them as there’s a great hall filled with beds in which the orphans sleep and the pirates descend on wires from the high glass ceiling to snatch them up. Although some of the kids try to escape, they’re pulled up to the roof where Blackbeard’s flying ship is docked. That’s followed by an amazing aerial scene over ‘40s era London where the ship is being shot at by WWII spitfires as it tries to escape and it does so by flying straight up into the sky going all the way into space where it goes through some sort of warp to come out the other side in Neverland. Once it comes out the other side, the ship crash lands down into the water.

Even without finished visual FX, we could tell from watching this sequence that this is going to be very different from the classic Peter Pan tale. Schechter mentioned that while Peter’s first sight of Neverland from the sky will fill the boy with awe, he’ll soon realize it’s a far more dangerous place than it looks from above.

Lights, Cameras… Hugh Jackman!

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At this point, you’re probably wondering, “What happened to Hugh Jackman?” We’d certainly be remiss if we didn’t at least mention the film’s big name star. Even though he didn’t have time to sit down for a full interview, we did get to see Hugh Jackman in action as Blackbeard.

Oddly, the last time this writer visited the set of one of Jackman’s movies, he had shaved his head for a role and the set itself involved a giant tree. (And if you’ve seen Darren Aronofksy’s The Fountain, consider yourself awesome.) Nearly ten years later and you probably already know that he has once again shaved his head to play Blackbeard, although you might not know why. It became clear to us on our second day as we watched him on set. Apparently, Blackbeard had an altercation with the natives and let’s just say that they didn’t leave him with much hair, hence the different look for the actor. 

Let’s make something very clear if it’s not already public knowledge: Hugh Jackman is the nicest man on Earth. We kind of already knew that from interviewing him a half dozen times over the years, but every single person we interviewed on the set made sure to confirm that. It got to a point where we wondered how much of what Jackman was getting paid to make Pan was going to pay-off bribes to his fellow cast members to make him seem even nicer. 

Indeed, Jackman came by to greet us and then he was off to the set where he was hoisted way above the Queen Anne’s Revenge on a harness, and when Wright called “action” the pirates and natives on board started to fight as Blackbeard was gingerly lowered to the ground like he was Errol Flynn as he came right up to the camera, ready to join the fight. We watched this sequence a number of time with a stuntman in the background falling off the edge of the ship to an air mattress below, and then it was time to go.

Before we left, we looked back to the set where Jackman had already been hoisted high overhead for another take and seeing us leaving, he waved his sword to us as a “Goodbye” and then Wright called “action” and he was once again lowered gracefully to the ground.

Pan opens in North American theaters on Friday, July 24 and in other countries starting on July 15. Check out the new poster below and look for the new trailer on Thursday, April 16! Also, be sure to explore Neverland at PanMovie.com.

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