With author J.M. Barrie’s classic tale as the primary inspiration behind the story of Pan, 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 colour and texture and strange, wonderful images that hopefully feel like they’ve come from a child’s imagination.”
Film and television screenwriter and actor Jason Fuchs makes his live-action feature screenwriting debut with his original screenplay for Pan
Fuchs, who graduated from Columbia University in 2009 with a B.A. in Film, made his feature screenwriting debut in 2012 with the animated Ice Age: Continental Drift.
Fuchs was taken by the character at an early age—an enthrallment that never left him. “When I was nine years old, I was on a Peter Pan ride with my dad and we got stuck in a flying pirate ship over a miniature London,” he recalls. “It was literally the best 25 minutes of my life, up there with LED stars twinkling above us and Peter and Wendy flying five feet away.”
Those moments engendered the youngster with questions he would spend years hoping to answer. “At the time, I kept asking my dad, ‘How did Peter get to Neverland?’ ‘Why can he fly?’ ‘How did he and Hook meet for the first time and why do they hate each other so much?’ I read the original book in search of answers but found only hints, and I always thought it would be great to make a movie that told the full story, that answered at least some of the questions I had that day.”
Drawing on a line in the book about Hook training under Blackbeard, Fuchs expanded the role of the infamous pirate, making him Peter’s prime nemesis in the script and Hook a younger, two-handed adventurer looking for a way out of Neverland who realizes Peter might just be the ticket. The story Fuchs devised is the untold tale of how a young orphan named Peter would become the hero known forevermore as Peter Pan.
“This was Jason’s passion project, to reintroduce Peter Pan and his mythology to the world,” says producer Greg Berlanti. “Every generation deserves its own Peter Pan story; it was exciting to me to re-examine what we think we know about Peter and Hook and Tiger Lily, and to twist and turn those notions around. I think Jason and Joe executed it all brilliantly.”
“I’d never read a script like Jason’s, and I’ve read a lot of scripts,” director Joe Wright says. “But this one had a heart to it that I hadn’t really found in others for movies of this scale. And I have a son, so I really wanted to make this movie for him.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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, the 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.”
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.
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.”