It’s Peter’s origin story and a classic hero’s journey set in a big, beautiful, bold world.
With author J.M. Barrie’s classic tale as the primary inspiration behind the story, director Joe Wright says he embraced the author’s “sense of strangeness. It’s a very odd book. It doesn’t underestimate children’s intelligence; there are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies,’ everyone is flawed, even Peter. I loved the duplicity of all the characters.”
Wright’s son was having nightmares, and by making the film, he wanted to show him that “nightmares, no matter how dark the fear, can always be overcome.”
Though the character was created more than a century ago, Wright says, “This is Peter Pan for 2015, a complete reframing of the story as we all know and love it. It’s Peter’s origin story and a classic hero’s journey set in a big, beautiful, bold world.”
“I really just wanted to make an exciting, entertaining film, and have as good a time as possible doing it,” Wright conveys. “It’s a pleasure making a film for kids because you can free yourself of too much seriousness. It’s a mad world we’ve created, full of color and texture and strange, wonderful images that hopefully feel like they’ve come from a child’s imagination.”
To create the landscape he envisioned, Wright opted to build much of the world of “Pan” on practical sets, in order to provide not only a sense of realism for his actors, but, in an effort to reaffirm the childlike environs of Neverland and give them an actual playground to, well, play in. In England, the cavernous stages of Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden and hangars at Cardington Studios provided enough space to service everything from the bleak London orphanage to Blackbeard’s vast quarry to the Neverwood and the natives’ Tree Village, to two full-size pirate ships, a mermaid lagoon, and more.
Wright offers, “The scale of our sets allowed Neverland to feel real and our incredible cast to come to work every day ready to play pirates, warriors, adventurers—everything we do as kids in our own minds, but in a physical setting that makes it a real adventure, in a kind of 3D, kaleidoscopic world of color.”
Wright is well known as a filmmaker who enjoys intense prep work and active collaboration with his crew, often recruiting the same talent behind the camera from film to film. This creates a familiarity and the feeling of a “company” of players—an important personal and professional link to the world of theatre he grew up in, and a vital part of his moviemaking process.
Producer Paul Webster expounds, “Joe believes filmmaking should be as enjoyable as it is artistically stimulating. He’s very detail-oriented, and when it comes to the design of his films, he works hand-in-glove with his crew, which frees the imagination and becomes a creatively rewarding experience for everyone.”
Wright’s usual behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography Seamus McGarvey, editor Paul Tothill, costume designer Jacqueline Durran and makeup and hair designer Ivana Primorac. They were joined on this film by DP John Mathieson and editor William Hoy and, for the first time on a feature with Wright, production designer Aline Bonetto, who had worked with the director on his commercial vignettes for Chanel.
It was important for Wright to have physical sets on which to shoot, a rare treat for members of the cast and crew who have worked on many productions that rely on huge green screen stages. As one might imagine, on a story of this scale, the set pieces were massive. Therefore, Bonetto and her team were given the enormous challenge of designing and building the spectacular and sometimes surreal environments in which nearly all of the action takes place. The sets were created almost entirely on soundstages at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden and Cardington Studios, one of the largest indoor spaces in Europe.
The film offered an opportunity for Bonetto and her gifted team to run wild, and she was excited by the scope of the job. “I love working with Joe because he is such a visual director, and it was especially exciting to work with him on a film where we had to completely create the world in which it is set. It was a huge task but nonetheless a thrilling one.”
From the get-go, Wright had a very clear vision for the film. “Because the story begins in the late 1920s, and then jumps 12 years later to World War II, I was looking for a very Fritz Lang-inspired aesthetic,” he says.
The task, embraced and realized by his team, was to take the audience on an extraordinary journey as much through his visual choices as the story itself, using a color palette system which purposely changes from one environment to the next. It starts with the noirish 1920s and shadowy 1940s London, then onto Neverland, which is at first as dreary as the drudge work the children must do, before becoming a rainbow of color and vibrancy—an opening of the imagination, the extraordinary and the fantastical, free of any seriousness despite the importance of Peter’s mission to save the fairies from Blackbeard.
The film’s opening sequence was accomplished on location over one week, with shooting taking place in such iconic locations as Kensington Gardens, the famous London Park, full of wooded idylls and graceful gardens close to where author J.M. Barrie lived and which provided him with the inspiration for Peter Pan; the Royal Albert Hall, one of Britain’s great Victorian splendors; and Blythe House, Kensington, another Victorian building. From there, the company settled in at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden and, six weeks later, moved to Cardington Studios.
There were two primary builds at Leavesden. For the bleak London orphanage, Lambeth Home for Boys, Bonetto devised a dark, monochromatic, color scheme of blues and grays to convey a world without imagination or hope. The design for the hellish world of Blackbeard’s pixie dust mines was inspired both by Brazilian goldmines as depicted in Sebastiao Salgado’s extraordinary photographs, and a microscopic image of the cell structure within the human body: a vast labyrinthine structure of tunnels going in every direction, seemingly never-ending, rendered in muted browns and oranges.
Moving to Cardington, the first day on the multi-colored Tree Village set was a particular thrill for everyone since it was the first time the majority of the cast saw the finished set, and with all the background artists dressed it was a spectacular sight. One of the two hangars there provided the massive space for the trippy set, the original reference for which had been a Brazilian favela, or shantytown. During the pre-production process, Wright felt the Village should feel more multi-cultural in its design, though still transient in its nature, as if the natives, fearing pirate invasion, could pack up and leave at a moment’s notice. So the team went from designing wooden tree houses to making tents, a cultural mix, including Mongolian yurts, Inuit tupiqs, Native American teepees, and even circus tents, as well as tribal shelters from Papua New Guinea and Africa. For the various abodes, Bonetto sourced an array of fabrics that could easily be dyed any color.
Set on platforms on various levels and linked by bridges and stairways, The Tree village was built from rustic timber sourced from off-cut old oak planks from lumberyards throughout the country. It took 13 weeks to build and measured a whopping 328 feet-by-164 feet along the floor, and 147 feet high, and was structured around the village’s centerpiece trampoline—which sees the fight with Hook and Kwahu take place. It was a liberating environment in which Wright and his creative department heads could collaborate with freedom and extraordinary attention to detail, resulting in the elaborate set decoration particular to each tent and every section of the village.
Adjacent to the Tree Village, Bonetto and her team built the enchanted Neverwood, a forest so big over the course of the shoot it developed its own eco system, becoming home to many different spiders, crickets and other insects, along with birds and even the occasional visiting bat. Wright wanted the flexibility to explore the forest with the camera rather than be limited by the build, so the art department gave him a series of intricate passageways and runs, which offered so many possibilities that cast and crew would actually get lost on set.
Amongst the sculpted fiberglass trees, some reaching up to dizzying heights of 50 feet, the forest contained thousands of real tropical plants, between 20 and 30 different species. They had been brought in from Italy, Belgium, Holland and Malaysia, where the art department and their greens team had found plants available in sufficient quantity and which had an otherworldly appearance, to dress amongst more familiar foliage. The tropical plants, which needed temperatures of 80 degrees to thrive, were slowly dressed in as the finishing touches were made, and grow lights were put in place so that the plants could survive in their new environment. Eight dedicated greensmen tended to the forest.
“I loved building playgrounds for us all to play in,” Wright says of the expansive set, one of the largest ever built in the UK and which many of the cast and crew described as their own theme park.
The adjacent Hangar also offered a gigantic area in which to house Blackbeard’s ships, The Queen Anne’s Revenge and The Ranger, as well as the vessel well-known to Peter Pan fans, The Jolly Roger. Designs were informed by historical references found at the Maritime Museum at Greenwich and the HMS Victory in Portsmouth, and took eight weeks to build and dress.
The two smaller ships were actually one build: The Ranger being the flying ship that arrives at Lambeth to sweep away a cargo of orphans, and The Jolly Roger, an abandoned flying ship from Blackbeard’s fleet that Hook discovers in Neverland’s Mermaid Lagoon. Once shooting was complete on The Ranger, it was revamped into the The Jolly Roger. Both looks were modeled after 100-foot, eight-gun, 18th-century galleon-class ships, and the overall set measured approximately 60 feet long-by-23 feet wide. Constructed from a steel framework with timber decks and fiberglass cladding on the sides and corrugated railings, The Ranger was dressed with frivolous items, such as a carousel horse, that the pirates—air gypsies and scavengers of the skies—might have stolen in their travels. Bonetto’s team then used paint, dressing and different rigging to turn it into The Jolly Roger.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s floating command center, was meant to mirror an 18th-century, 100-gun ship, and was in actuality almost 100 feet long-by-40 feet wide. The giant galleon, the pride of the fleet, was dark and moody, pewter in color, and intended to reflect the power of its captain. It was built only a third of its imagined size—the limit that could be safely rocked on its gimbal—with different levels and walkways to allow Wright the ability to move the camera and choreograph interesting sequences.
The real challenge was to get the boats rocking and rolling and, while moving like boats, also appear to float like airplanes, since they are flying ships. To achieve that, and at the same time provide a safe and efficient environment for cast and crew to work in, was a massive undertaking. Special effects supervisor Mark Holt and his team devised the substructure that allowed the pirate ships to appear as if in flight, while really rotating on gimbals operated by a programmable robot arm system he developed and perfected on prior films.
Weight had to be kept to a minimum because of the engineering involved, so the decision to build in fiberglass was made, with the plasterers and painters working wonders to create an old and weathered, wood-like finish to the galleons. A team of nautical riggers was brought in to rig the boats with working accuracy and authenticity.
“One of my main goals with all the sets, and a reason why I really wanted to do as much practically as we could, was to give Levi a fully immersive environment that would help him understand who Peter is and where he comes from,” Wright says. “Our teams were incredible and I feel that what they accomplished made us all feel like we were truly in Neverland.”
The Neverbirds, Nover-Crocs and Enchanting Mermaids
Amidst the lush flora, the peaks, jungles and waters of Neverland are swarming with fantastical creatures, including multihued Neverbirds, mammoth Never-Crocs and enchanting Mermaids.
Peter, Hook and Smee encounter the Neverbirds almost immediately upon landing in the Neverwood, when the 12-foot-tall winged predators, which resemble a rainbow-feathered pterodactyl, swoop down on them.
“The Neverbirds are inspired by the novel,” Wright says. “They are big and quite terrifying, and although they’re scary, they’re also very clumsy and uncoordinated, like a bag of bones, which makes them even more unpredictable.”
These days, such feral fowl would ordinarily be conceived of in a computer. Though ultimately realized by visual effects supervisor Chas Jarrett and his team, the Neverbirds were designed by Wright’s sister, puppeteer Sarah Wright.
“I come from a family of puppeteers,” offers the director. “When we were trying to come up with the right look for the Neverbirds, I just wasn’t finding it. I asked Sarah to come up with something we could workshop.”
Sarah built a mock-up of the bird and used it to create its movement and characteristics. “She put together a little model using a seagull-type skull attached to a long neck made of several discs, a strange, skeletal ribcage, chicken feet and colorful feathers,” he continues. “She started operating it for us, and it was brilliant, so that became the model for our Neverbirds.”
While the crocodile that made off with Captain Hook’s hand is well known from the book, the Never-Crocs who lurk in the waters of Neverland in “Pan” are perhaps far more vicious than anything Barrie imagined. The massive beasts inhabit the Mermaid Lagoon, and, Wright describes, “They’re about 30 feet long, comparable to prehistoric crocs, albino, because they live in the dark, scared of light and nearly blind. They are most unhappy creatures.”
Oddly enough, the Never-Crocs’ greatest foe is not man, but Mermaid. As Peter, Hook and Tiger Lily seek out the mythic Fairyland, they arrive at the Mermaid Lagoon, where the beautiful, luminescent Mermaids swim playfully. And, luckily for our heroes, their incandescence frightens away the monstrous crocs because they are also capable of stinging the beasts with their electrified tails.
Playing the three Mermaids Peter encounters is just one actress, Cara Delevingne. Wright had worked with her before, on “Anna Karenina,” and hoped to lure her back for the pivotal cameo in “Pan.”
“I called her up and asked her if she’d like to come be a Mermaid,” he says, “but rather than casting three different actresses, I thought Cara could just be all three.”
A relatively new arena for Wright, the director was excited to work with his visual effects team, lead by visual effects supervisor Chas Jarrett, who, among many other feats, turned Delevingne into three underwater sirens with long, swirling locks and glowing tails, and created countless tiny fairies in the form of tiny specks of the brightest light.
The film also contains three unique animation sequences: the “Prologue,” “Memory Tree” and “Underwater Flashback.” Wright remembers as a kid “being fascinated by the idea that when you cross-section a big tree, the rings could be counted as years. I’d seen one tree that had a pin in one of its rings that marked the Battle of Hastings, and when that happened in that tree’s history.”
That memory gave him the idea to incorporate some of Peter’s family history in the rings of a tree. “I was looking at some wonderful work by Andrew Huang, who did some music videos for Bjork and Radiohead, as well as some amazing short films. So I called him up and asked if he would come do some animated sequences for ‘Pan.’ He’s incredibly talented.”
While plunging Peter into his past, present and possible future, Wright also sought to bring audiences into Peter’s world in as all-encompassing a manner as possible. With the help of stereographer Chris Parks, Wright turned, for the first time as a filmmaker, to 3D technology.
“What we’ve tried to do with ‘Pan’ is to create a completely immersive world, for kids and adults,” Wright asserts. “I’ve never worked with a better canvas for 3D than Neverland, so I knew it was time to give it a go, and I think that audiences are going to experience this world of wonder in ways they’ve never imagined.”
Costume designer Jacqueline Durran and hair and makeup designer Ivana Primorac, along with Julie Dartnell, who handled Jackman’s makeup and wig styling, had the mammoth task of creating looks not only for the principals, but also for the hundreds of extras. They, too, worked closely with Wright, embracing his vision of an explosive show of culture, color and texture.
When Wright first met with Hugh Jackman about playing Blackbeard, the actor recalls, “He showed me the image he had in mind for the character, and it was a picture of my face superimposed on the body of Louis XIV, with a Marie Antoinette wig on, and I said, ‘I’m in!’”
Durran crafted a very specific look for each of the principal characters, savoring the process of building character through costume. Former French monarchs aside, “there were certain givens to Blackbeard’s costume, which evolved as we started the fitting process, one of course that he would wear black,” she notes. “We also wanted to create a very interesting silhouette for him.
“Another idea was that, because of his pixie dust-enhanced immortality, he has lived over centuries,” Durran goes on to say, “so there are elements that make up his costume that come from different periods. But he has decided that they’re his ‘look,’ and he’s carried them on through the ages.” Feathers also figure into Blackbeard’s appearance, and wigs, which cover his baldness and dreadful scalp marks and help to serve the youthful facade he strives for.
Jackman was thrilled with what Durran achieved for his character. “Jacqueline has an incredible eye for detail, a great sense of humor, and eccentricity that, whilst elevated, is not over the top,” he says.
Primorac says, “Joe and I had a great time amalgamating different elements from history into this very scary pirate who we wanted to look very different from any other pirate we’d seen before.”
For Durran, that excluded certain eras, mainly “the majority of the 17th and 18th centuries, because that’s been done so often and so well.”
The natives’ wildly original and playful looks are a merge of costumes from different cultures from around the world. A great deal of work was involved in researching various clothes of indigenous peoples and combining them in a multitude of different ways to create unique looks. Wherever Durran came upon cross-cultural elements—for example, a similarity in the way two different cultures would tie belts or sashes around their waists—she subverted it, instead combining elements that didn’t go together and couldn’t be traced to any one particular group.
Particularly influential were the costumes of the Yoruba people from West Africa, one of the largest African ethnic groups south of the Sahara Desert. Their traditional clothing, still worn on important occasions and in rural areas, is very colorful and elaborate, using block prints with geometric designs. Sourcing a Yoruba costume from a gallery in the United States, Durran says, “It was a representation of what we were aiming for. Two of our dancers wear the costume during the ceremony and it was fantastic to have the foundational idea represented.”
For the natives’ hair and makeup, Primorac referenced Chinese and Indian makeups, particularly the Kathakali makeup from Southern India, which she describes as “a binding element” for the group. By bringing in makeup specialists versed in this ancient art, her team learned how to apply it and how to adapt and design their own version of it. “We also decided that, in order to have variation from character to character, we would have experts in those fields work alongside us, which really enhanced the whole look of the tribe.”
Tiger Lily’s style is similar to her tribe’s garb, with elements taken from different ethnicities and makeup influenced by Chinese Opera. Primorac offers, “Tiger Lily is a warrior who wouldn’t really be thinking about makeup, but I wanted a visage that would combine that with her more feminine, ceremonial look.”
“I had my first fitting with Jacqueline and Ivana, and we talked about the wig,” Mara recollects. “They knew what they wanted, but I had brought some pictures to give them some input, and it was exactly what they’d been thinking. Usually, there’s a lot of back and forth and finessing, but what we decided that first day is what made it into the movie.”
The team also approached the look for the pirates by subverting the conventional look one expects, on the basis that they have come from different places in the real world, and different times in history throughout hundreds of years, so their costumes cannot be attributed to any particular time. Durran took inspiration from some early research Wright had done into a maverick group of Sierra Leone rebels, known for their bizarre clothing, including women’s makeup, and with a particular fondness for wearing wings. Thus, unconstrained by a period in time, Durran was free to take the iconic elements of a pirate—belts, swords, boots, hats—and mix them up. A pirate wearing a 16th-century hat also dons a pair of 20th-century pants.
“Neverland gave us the freedom to pick from 400 years of costumes, and the only rule we were bound by was to avoid the 18th century, so we didn’t end up replicating pirates we’ve seen so often before,” Durran states. She also used lots of tartan, a nod to an ideology that the pirates were punk rockers of their time, refusing to live by society’s rule.
Wright expands, “The pirate crew are made up of a motley bunch of punks, really. I felt that they needed a kind of toughness, so one day during rehearsals, we did a sort of pirate boot camp. I encouraged them all to pick out colorful stuff to wear, while I was trying to find what might be the music that they’d listen to. We listened to all these sea shanties, but they were all too lyrical and lovely. I ended up putting on some old-fashioned punk music, and that seemed to hit the spot.”