Joe Wright gives Peter Pan a new spin on the set of ‘Pan’

LONDON, ENGLAND. Since J.M. Barrie birthed the character in 1902, Peter Pan has been imagined in myriad forms. He's been featured on-stage in plays and a musical. He's been the focus of live-action movies and animation, of wild reimagination and strict Barrie-inspired adherence. Everybody has a first image of Peter Pan that springs to mind, whether it's Disney, Mary Martin or even Robin Williams.

It's a property accompanied by expectations, which makes it familiar ground for director Joe Wright.

“I have a bit of a habit of that because, you know, 'Pride and Prejudice' was kind of quite close to a lot of people”s hearts. And 'Atonement' was as well and 'Anna Karenina' was as well,” Wright says. “So I try not to really think about it and really just make a film that is representative of my own feelings about the book and my relationship with the book. And not worry too much. I try not to worry really.”

It's August 2014 and it's Day 72 of the mammoth 91-day shoot for “Pan,” Wright's ambitious Peter Pen origin story.

Big things are happening on all fronts of the multi-unit “Pan” shoot as a group of reporters descend. 

Over at Leavesden Studios, just down the way from a new live-action take on “Tarzan,” stars Levi Miller and Garrett Hedlund are shooting pick-ups for the conclusion of a chase through a mine. It's a second unit crew and Miller and Hedlund are on a small wooden platform preparing for a leap into the great unknown, or at least a leap onto a blue padded mattress only a foot below. It seems like an unimportant moment until Miller, playing young Peter, begins to talk.

“If I'm going to trust you, I need to know your name,” Miller's Peter tells his fellow escapee. 

Hedlund pauses. “My name's James Hook,” he replies.

Well that seems like an important moment.

An hour away, in Bedfordshire, towering sheds build for the construction of World War One airships are housing most of the production. While they can't officially be designated as soundstages (something about soundproofing or lack thereof), the sheds cover roughly five acres of production space, larger than any soundstage in the world. They're mammoth. 

The actual production offices are more reasonably sized, with producer Sarah Schechter on-hand to explain the origin of “Pan.”

“It started with Jason Fuchs, the writer, who was 27 at the time, and he came in for a general meeting with me and I said, 'If you could write anything in the world, what would it be?' And he said, 'Well, I really wanna write this 'Peter Pan' movie, but I've pitched it to some studios and they all passed because other studios have competitive projects.' I said, 'Well why would yours be different?' And he basically pitched me the opening of the movie, the first sequence actually that you're going to see,” teases Schechter, taking us around a room of concept art, including flying pirate ships and at least one long-fanged reptile.

“And it was so fresh and it was so smart and interesting and he was just so passionate about it that I said, 'Let's just take a chance and let's do it anyway and let's just not tell the press' — no offense to you guys — 'because if it became announced, then it would spur competitors to get anxious and then you can see that everybody has competing project.' So we just quietly went about our work and worked really hard on the first draft with Greg and the first draft was pretty much what got greenlit and what got Joe Wright and then of course Joe came on and added so much to it and we're just so lucky to have him. And so that's sorta the story of how it came to be, which is that it wasn't sorta calculated, it wasn't about capitalizing on any trends. It was a bout a writer's passion for material and then the ability for us to help him harness that into a screenplay and then to help gather a lot of other talented people to get involved, so it's quite an organic process, where it came from.”

As promised by Schechter, longtime producing partner with Greg Berlanti on the small screen and now big, even though we're visiting the set nearly a year ahead of the July 24, 2015 “Pan” premiere, we're being treated to a surprising amount of footage.

Although the effects are in predictably variable degrees of completion, we're able to watch nearly the entire opening section of the film, in which Peter and his orphanage in a monochromatic World War II are beset upon by pirates in soaring vessels, vessels that engage in high-flying combat above a rough animatic version of London.

“We actually were very lucky and we were able to shoot the movie pretty much in sequence, which is a really sorta rare treat,” Schechter crows, explaining the rare ability to show this much footage at a set visit. “I think it was really helpful for Levi, who's Peter, as well. This is his first movie, so to have that chance that helps him to modulate his performance.”

In addition to the nervous Peter, thrust into the pirating world, the clip introduces many of the movie's pirates. The aesthetic for both the pirates and also the “Indians” is one of “scavenging” and seeing these swashbucklers in context only adds to the amusement of having shared lunch with them.

[Standing in catering lines with costumed casts is one of the great pleasure of movie set visits. In this case, we had Smee in shorts an pilot's cap, lots of guys in hoop skirts and bowler hats, one Asian marauder with wings and a red top coat, another with flowery epaulets and a wedding veil. The pirates in “Pan” will only be uniform in their lack of uniformity. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran uses words like “patchwork” and “salvage” to describe the look.]

“For him to have the opportunity to work on a canvass of this size, which is at least three times what he's ever had before, has just been so much fun to watch,” Schechter gushes.

Indeed, it's hard not to be impressed by the size of Wright's canvas. 

Actually, it's hard not to be impressed by the size of Wright's artist's studio. Each of the Cardington Airship Sheds is 247 meters long, 84 meters wide and 55 meters high. One of Christopher Nolan's favorite shooting spaces, the sheds are the largest freestanding buildings without pillars in Europe, though I'm not sure what that designation means. 

Schechter leads us on a tour, including a long walk through the Neverland forest, a work in progress transitioning from the “Indian” village. The air in the cavernous shed is a mixture of natural, because much of the earth and some of the foliage is real, and industrial, as paint and plastic smells have their own layers. It's not uncommon to avoid tripping over a fibrous root and, instead, to catch your foot on a power chord.

“Many people on this set, including myself, have completely gotten lost in this forest,” Schechter admits.

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At some point, something bad happened in this forest. There's a field of discarded tents and the forest walls are splotched with bursts of colorful paint, the detritus left by dying Neverlandians.

“All our tents looked better before the war,” Schechter says ominously.

The man in charge of the canvas is overseeing a fight between pirates — led by Hugh Jackman's wicked Blackbeard — and “Indians” — the whole “Indians”/Native Americans controversy is a subject for a different story — and, with some prodding, reflecting on how this fits into his oeuvre. 

It's not a small battle that's being orchestrated and although Wright proved his action chops on a smaller scale in “Hanna,” this is not a smaller scale.

“Terrifying. Really scary. This last sequence is about ten minutes long and I think we”re about to do the hundredth setup on this scene,” Wright says, sitting down with reporters between set-ups.

He continues, “'Hanna' wasn”t scheduled or budgeted like an action movie. So it was quite challenging from that perspective. This obviously we”ve been given the resources — there”s never enough — but we”ve been given the resources to spend some time doing the sequences properly. And so I”m enjoying them and actually it”s kind of like pure cinema, you know. There”s nothing like it in any other art form other than maybe sport. You can”t do it on stage and you can”t do it in any other form. And so that”s kind of exciting. I don”t really watch a lot of action movies so I've just sort of made things up as I go along really.”

So “Pan” will be a large deviation for Wright, but at least he knows where his old and new inspirations are coming from.

Wright observes, “I guess a lot of my work”s been a kind of a pull between sort of Allen Clark British realism which is where a lot of the stuff I love [is], but then also kind of my background in public theater and theater in general. And the films have kind of, you know, Powell and Pressburger and 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks.' And so the films are often kind of pulling between those two poles. And this was an opportunity to really go into the fantasy area, it's kind of getting back to my childhood and maybe expressing that to my son as well, it”s for my son. He”s not really into British realism. He”s three.”

The director talks about his son Zubin in a number of contexts relating to almost every aspect of “Pan” production. Some of his son's influence will infuse the color palette of this world.

“A lot of very brilliant fantasy films these days are often in kind of grays and blues,” Wright says. “And whenever you see fantasy illustrators, they work in gray and blue a lot. And I just wanted to make it a lot more colorful. And I didn”t quite understand why if you”re doing visual effects why they have to be gray and blue. So it was quite interesting because it took some pushing of those illustrators when we were first in concept art and stuff to really get them to use color pinks and oranges and purples and play with color in a way. And again it”s just when I think of my son I think of bright colors. I don”t think of gray and blue, you know. It also afforded us the opportunity to London, you know, in the 1940s, I think probably was quite a monochromatic world. And therefore and then when we go into Neverland it explodes in color.”

But some of Zubin's influence is more frivolous. 

“My son has got a thing about girls' tummies,” Wright says, offering quotes that will surely embarrass Zubin decades from now. “He loves where girls having their tummies out. And he”s three, right. And if you”re walking down the road and there”s a girl with her midriff showing he goes 'Daddy look, she”s got her tummy out.'”

And that's why you'll see that many of Rooney Mara's Tiger Lily costumes are tummy-exposing.

“So it”s for Zubin, really for my son,” he laughs. “And he actually dresses as Tiger Lily himself.”

[Maybe this is why in celebrating Durran's costumes, Mara praises the pirates noting, “The pirates are my favorite as well. I wish I was a pirate.  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.”]

The belly anecdote hints at Wright's in-person silliness, a quality that really hasn't been a part of his movies.

“Hugh has brought a lot of humor to it as well,  Hugh is very funny. Rooney”s funny also in her own way, Wright says as Mara, sitting next to him, looks uncertain (“She”s funny but not on purpose,” she later says). “And Garrett”s very funny. And no, I usually, you know, a lot of my films I kind of feel like I have to hold myself in a bit really. Whereas with this it really felt like, 'What”s the stupidest possible idea? Let”s do that one.' It”s really been an opportunity to be as playful as we can possibly be. I think it”s a very emotional and moving script actually.  I find it so. I, in fact, shed a pile of tears when I first read it.  But I also think there”s a lot of opportunity for fun and humor and I like making myself and hopefully other people laugh. Again I like making my son laugh and I find him really funny.”

While “Pan” introduces Peter and Tiger Lily and James Hook, it doesn't take us anywhere near the events in the Barrie play/book or any of the beloved retellings. It's also hard to know how close we'll get to “Peter Pan” in “Pan.” Hook, for example, is hookless here and while there will be joking teases, I can't say if Hook's hand-loss will take place here. Many people associated with “Pan” are hoping it will be the start of a franchise, in the heart of production, Wright doesn't sound ready to commit.

Wright reflects, “You know making a film is kind of like labor in a 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. And so who knows? Let”s just do this one. And I feel like this is a very complete story in and of itself. So if that weren”t to pass, I don”t think that would be a terrible thing. We”ll see.”

“Pan” opens on July 24, 2015.