Finding a New Hook: Joe Wright helms origin story of orphan destined to become Peter Pan

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Epics with emotional heft being a specialty of Joe Wright’s, it makes sense that the 43-year-old British director would skipper the pirate galleon that brings Peter Pan sailing back to the screen. His latest film, surnamed simply Pan, is a lavishly nuanced heart-tugger that pretends to be the backstory of J. M. Barrie’s eternal boy. When Warner Bros. docks it nationally Oct. 9, it will weigh in at $100 million and some change.

“That’s four times more than I’ve ever worked with before,” admits Wright, a mite overwhelmed by those big numbers. “This job had elements of becoming the CEO of a giant pop-up corporation, but if you can keep focused on the work itself and not let the periphery stuff get in the way, then it’s terrific and exciting—plus, you get to practice your craft at a higher level than you have ever been able to in your life.”

In a full decade of directing features, he has been down this road before on a more modest scale, starting small with four British miniseries but filling the screen with a humanity that stood out from richly detailed backdrops. That approach served him well when he stepped up to the big screen, debuting in 2005 with a remake of Pride and Prejudice and following it two years later with his Oscar-contending Atonement.

Wright’s ability to breathe life into bygone English eras brought him to Hollywood where, inexplicably/unsuccessfully, he was put to work on a contemporary L.A. story of a homeless musician. The Soloist was hardly his métier, so he beat a retreat back to Britain and his period-piece comfort zone, regaining lost ground via Anna Karenina.

But it was in Hollywood that someone waved the Pan screenplay under his nose. An original by Jason Fuchs, it did time on 2013’s Black List of “most liked” unproduced scripts of the year, but, coming when it did, Wright was enthusiastically susceptible.

“I immediately wanted to do it,” he recalls. “I found that the script spoke to where I was at in terms of new parenthood. It reminded me of myself as a boy and, also, of my son. It was as if the two of us were superimposed over the Pan character. I could see there would be a potential for some emotional truth in this great big action film.

“That was really the challenge that I set for myself—to create a film that ticked all the great big action boxes but also told a story that comes from the heart. I don’t think that big budgets and heartfelt films are mutually exclusive. Spielberg manages to pull it off regularly, so I set myself that high goal—and I think we achieved it.”

Wright’s upbringing in London was inevitably fantasy-riddled, what with parents who were puppeteers and co-founders of Islington’s Little Angel Theatre. “Growing up in England, you’re very aware of the Peter Pan myth—it’s just everywhere.” His chief cinematic memories? Disney’s animated feature of 1953, Peter Pan, and Spielberg’s live-action remake of 1991, Hook, with Dustin Hoffman as Hook and Robin Williams as Peter.

There are scores of other movies that played around with the Pan myth—and even a popular musical version that enabled Mary Martin to fly into the living rooms of America via the TV set—but, plot-wise, they’re all post-Pan. This new addition, says Wright, “explains how Peter became Pan. It’s the origin story of Peter Pan, if you like, which means it has quite a different take on it than what you’ve seen before.”

The “Early Years” approach to Peter Pan gave screenwriter Fuchs a free slate on which to draw and invent. Gleefully, he clanged together an assortment of eras just for the fun of it. “There’s no specific reason that the film starts in World War II other than the fact that that’s what came out of Jason’s imagination,” says Wright. “I think the film is quite surreal in its use of disparate elements and putting them together.”

Previously, Wright has been very precise and pronounced about his period pieces, but here he throws caution to the wind. “I was very excited about this idea that Neverland, once you got there, was a place that kind of existed outside of history—a place where different cultures and ages collided, where characters walked out of Elizabethan times as easily as the 1940s. There’s even a Nivana song, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’—and The Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and two new Lily Allen songs.

What the film does not have is a single Darling on the premises—not a Mr. or a Mrs., not Wendy, not the boys, not even Nana, their Newfoundland nursemaid dog. The film’s action is everything that came before Peter swooped into the Darlings’ home.

“The main thrust of the story now,” explains Wright, “is Peter trying to find his mum, and through the process of finding out where he comes from, he discovers who he is and who he will become. It’s a very simple story about the love between a mother and son. I see that love every day with my wife and son, so I really connect with it.”

The title character was not easily cast. “We did a global search for Peter and had representatives out in every English-speaking country in the world canvassing all over. Finally, after watching thousands of taped auditions, Levi Miller’s face popped up on the screen, and there he was. It became quite obvious he was the right kid.”

It was an early calling: The chosen 12-year-old Australian had actually won an acting award playing Pan as a five-year-old. He did plays at school and commercials in Australia but had never acted professionally. The marinating obviously helped.

Wright has had remarkable luck coaxing extraordinary performances from untested teenagers. (Look no further than Saoirse Ronan, whom he picked for the 13-year-old lead in Atonement. She is now filming Nina in The Seagull, her 23rd screen credit.)

“I have great casting directors—Jina Jay and Dixie Chassay,” he’s quick to credit. “Ninety-nine percent of directing is casting. You just find someone with a natural talent. I quite like directing kids because they come without any baggage or ego. They’re very open to being directed. That’s a great position for a director to be in.”

Two other characters from the classic tale pop up in the picture, although not so you’d really notice: Tiger Lily, the near-mute princess of the Piccaninny Indians, is presented here as a native of various indigenous cultures rather than strictly as a Native American—she’s played by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara—and the nefarious and epicene Captain Hook here steps out of an almost heroic mold wearing the name of James Hook and is played by hunky Garrett Hedlund (TRON: Legacy, On the Road) as a swashbuckler who has yet to see the error of his ways and manages to escape from the film with both hands intact (“only just, though” qualifies Wright).

“Jason wrote Hook in quite an American voice, and so I went with that,” explains the director. “This Hook is kind of a good guy, although there really aren’t any pure goodies or baddies. He’s much younger than the Hook we know of and someone searching for a home for himself. In doing that, he’s incredibly selfish and self-centered—but, against his better judgment, he can’t help but be friends with Peter.”

Occasionally, the writer or the director will toss the audience a bone for being familiar with these characters’ previous lives. “There’s a sequence where they’re in a raft and Hook is trailing his hand in the water rather romantically—until Tiger Lily warns him that there are crocodiles in the river, and he quickly pulls his hand out of the water. There are a lot of little winks and nods to the narrative as we know it.”

Taking up the slack for a neutered and made-nice Hook is a proper cutthroat—none other than the legendary Blackbeard, for whom (according to a single line in Barrie’s book) Hook once worked as a boatswain. Mustache-twirling and sword-swinging, Hugh Jackman does a deep dive off the high board into the character’s black heart.

In Pan, Blackbeard has moved from plundering ships to kid-trafficking, snatching boys from their beds in the orphanage where Peter has been placed and whisking them off in his flying, sky-worthy galleon to work his fairy-dust mines in Neverland.

“Part of the reason that I wanted to make this film for my son was that he was experiencing night terrors at the time,” says Wright. “They were very scary for him, and I wanted a villain to represent those nightmares he was having because, in watching the film, he could see—through intelligence and cunning and bravery and the support of friends—that he could overcome all these fears that besiege him.”

Neverland, in reel life, is the largest set ever constructed indoors in the U.K.-–Warner Bros. Leavesden Studios—a cavernous World War II-vintage airplane hanger about the size of a couple of American football fields, situated in Cardington, England. It’s an enormous forest of trees, vines and peat—making the perfect playpen for boys of all ages to get down to some serious games of playing pirates.

For Wright, it has the added edge of minimizing the computer-generated imagery. An established staple of big-buck spectacles, CGI was the director’s most nagging concern. “In a way, that was one of the things I wanted to try out with this film. I’ve always been terrible at math and science, so I was worried I’d be terrible at visual effects somehow. I’m not particularly good at computers, but the good thing is you don’t really have to know how to write computer codes to tell whether a shot is working or not. And, actually, I ended up really loving the process—to my great surprise and to everyone else’s around me. Anything is possible, and that’s thrilling. It’s arduous at times, but when you see the results on the big screen, it’s worth it.”

Wright has been working rather constantly for more than two years to bring Pan to the screen, and six months ago his family increased a son. (His wife is sitarist Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of Ravi Shankar.) “The irony of making a film for your children,” the director notes wryly, “is you don’t get to spend much time with your children, so now I’m just going to spend some quality time with my family.”