Interview | Joe Wright on ‘Pan’ and Astrology
Director Joe Wright is no stranger to adapting beloved classics that have already been seen in previous incarnations, having started his film career with a new version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley. They reunited years later to make the seventh movie based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Wright’s new movie Pan isn’t another retelling or reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” as much as it’s a prequel origin story of Peter himself, played by newcomer Levi Miller, who is kidnapped from an orphanage at the height of World War II, to be brought to Neverland as a slave to the dastardly pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). There, he meets James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and a native girl named Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara) who team with him to help find his mother and get back home to London.
This is the second half of an interview that began over on ComingSoon.net. Pan opens on Friday, October 9.
Crave: When you did Hanna, that was your first real action movie in some ways. This movie continues that tradition but with different types of action. You have a trampoline fight, for instance. How have your skills directing action evolved from doing Hanna and how you approach it?
Joe Wright: Hanna I found really frustrating in terms of the action, because what I didn’t realize embarking on Hanna was that action took a really long time to shoot, so I never quite had the resources to do the action I wanted to do with Hanna, and felt kind of slightly like I was working with one hand tied behind my back.
So when it came to do this one, I was very excited to kind of play with action. The action in Hanna is much more close-up, almost more like kind of Bresson’s The Pickpocket, which is the big reference for me with the action in that movie. So the action in Hanna is much more close-up. With this one, I got to play kind of Hieronymus Bosch, Bruegel scale of action, which I loved.
I really enjoy action. It’s kind of like pure cinema to me. It’s the element of cinema that can’t be done in any other medium apart from maybe sports coverage on TV. You can’t do it in the theater. You can’t do it in painting or literature. It’s the only bit of filmmaking that is entirely cinematic.
When I visited the set you had been talking about your background in theater and puppets, and you have the Neverbirds and the crocodile which look like they could be puppets. I was curious about this combination of puppets and CG and deciding which one to use for which. It’s also interesting the way you mix the ships you built on set with CG elements, and I wondered how you approached combining the actual sets with CG.
I wanted the film to have a very handmade feel, as if it had almost been made in my mom’s workshop at the puppet theater. I wanted it to feel hand-stitched and hand-painted rather than computer-generated. So working with Chas Jarrett, the Visual Effects Supervisor, who’s very brilliant, we developed characters like the Neverbird, for instance, was a maquette that my sister, who’s a puppeteer, developed. She’d got a parrot skull and she got some raw chicken feet and she kind of put this thing together, this kind of assemblage, if you like, rather like, another reference was Jan Svankmajer animations, the Czech animator.
Then once we had these maquettes, we then photographed them, and then those textures were used by the 3D animators, so that they were mapped, basically, from real objects. I found that a really exciting way to work, rather than stuff that was completely computer-generated.
Did you have something physical on set for Levi (Miller) to interact with?
Then with the birds, we had something else. That’s really for the actors rather than for the CGI guys. Then the sets, generally, all had at least some foreground practical element. So we had the giant forest set, but also, there was always something. The CG often was used as an extension, rather than completely generated, apart from the fairy kingdom at the very end, which was a CG environment. Everything had some kind of physical aspect.
There was one scene where they arrived someplace that literally looked like a large canyon somewhere but it didn’t look like England, so did you go somewhere outside of England?
Yeah, and that was Vietnam. We went and did a lot of plate shots in Vietnam. It’s the second biggest cave in the world. It’s incredible and it was quite a trek.
How’d you end up there? Who put that idea out there?
During the prep of the film, I was looking at a lot of National Geographic magazines, which I love, because I had this idea that Neverland, it’s from the imagination of Peter and it should be based on disparate elements from our planet, put together in strange and unusual ways. So the Neverbird is road kill. The forest is, he might have seen etchings of exotic parts of the world. But it’s something because I think that’s how the imagination works. It kind of cherry picks reality and creates strange juxtapositions.
I was a little worried because for a moment, I thought maybe it was going to end like it was all a dream and it was all in his imagination, his way of escaping from World War II.
In a way, that thing of it being from his imagination, I never wanted to say that explicitly. That was just the kind of construct I created for myself, so that would guide me through the process.
There’s been a lot of talk about Rooney Mara’s Tiger Lily and the fact that she has more of an action role than we’ve seen in Tiger Lily in the past. I think it’s really exciting for people, especially this year with “Mad Max” and how much people loved that. Can you talk about that? Was that in the original screenplay pitch that she would be more involved in the action, or was that something you developed more?
No, that was certainly something that was in the screenplay, and that Sarah Schechter, the producer and I really pushed to see realized. I felt that the central character is a boy, and therefore, I wanted to tell a story to the boys in the audience, and it was important to represent the girls, too, and to make sure that they had a heroine for their time.
I’m not sure if you ever realized it or someone pointed it out, but do you realize that all of your female actors are Aries? Keira, Saoirse and Rooney are all Aries.
Yeah. I’m surprised no one’s mentioned it to you.
That’s really odd.
I was wondering whether anyone mentioned that or if you noticed that was something you were drawn to while casting?
No, I never knew that. I’m just going to ask actresses as soon as they come in for a meeting, “What star sign are you?”
I think you have to. It’s one of those weird things that most modern day people don’t think about, but out of curiosity I looked it up when I realized Rooney was an Aries.
Yeah, well I’m Gemini and I think Geminis are supposed to get on with Aries, aren’t they?
Apparently so. There’s obviously room for more, because Pan doesn’t end right where the J.M. Barrie starts. Do you think you’d want to direct a sequel if that happens because you worked so hard to establish something with this one?
I have no idea. I have no idea. I embark on every project with a desire to learn and it’s what I can learn from a project that draws me in. So the question would be whether I can learn something from doing a sequel and continuing in this world. If I can’t learn anything, I won’t do it. But if it’s something I feel I can learn, then yeah, I’d do it.
So with that in mind, do you have other things you already know you want to start working on or developing?
Yeah, there’s a few, at the moment, so I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do next. But I quite like doing these bigger movies, and I’d quite like to do another one.
Right away, or do you think you’d like to do something smaller?
I don’t know. It depends on my family, probably. (Laughs) This whole process took two years. The irony, of course, is that I was making a film for my kids and it meant that I never got to see my kids!
Hopefully they enjoy it. Have they seen it already?
Yeah, no, my older came to the premiere, and that was just amazing.
Did you think that now you can do some more movies like Atonement and not worry so much about your son for a while?
Maybe, maybe. I mean, it was interesting, doing a film that could reach a very young audience as well. Sometimes, that kind of felt frustrating. I couldn’t go as dark as I would’ve liked at times, and so, maybe I might want to do something for not quite such a young audience next.
Have you talked about doing a sequel to Hanna or doing more with that character?
Yeah, there’s been discussion about it and there’s been discussion about doing a TV series with Hanna, which might be fun. But I haven’t been too involved. I kind of just keep moving forward, really.
You’re kind of in an interesting position right now because you took on the challenge of making a movie with a lot of visual effects you accomplished that now. People could see this movie and go, “Okay, we can have him do some other big franchise thing.” But would you want to do that or tackle another existing property? Or do you think at this point you need to look at more original ideas and new things?
Well, to be honest, the challenge I set myself when I took on this film was I wanted to make a big action adventure movie that fulfilled all of the expectations that come with that, and also, at the same time, make a film that has a very emotional, personal story about a boy looking for his mom and discovering himself. So if I can find a personal touchstone within the narrative, then it can be anything. Do you know what I mean? I don’t kind of go by genre or by types of material. It’s really about my emotional response to the material.
What if someone offered you a James Bond movie? Do you have a connection to James Bond like a lot of people do? And is it something you’d want to do?
Oh, I love James Bond. I think doing the James Bond after Sam (Mendes), who’s a friend, would be challenging, because he has done such an incredible job with it. So maybe down the line, I’d do a Bond, but not straight after Sam.