Pan, which opens in theaters today, tells a kind of origin story of J.J. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Newcomer Levi Miller stars as the boy who wouldn’t grow up alongside Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, Garrett Hedlund as Hook, and Hugh Jackman as the pirate Blackbeard. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) created elaborate sets — check out his inspiration and how he built Neverland here — with dizzying visuals. It’s a movie full of surprises — from a chicken popping out an egg in zero gravity, to hearing songs like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” worked into the plot.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I was not expecting Nirvana to come on during this movie.
JOE WRIGHT: No, neither did I. So we had a pirate boot camp…
How does that work?
You get all your mates in who are actors and say, “Do you fancy coming in and being a pirate?” And they go, “Yeah!” Then you get them together in a rehearsal room with Hugh Jackman and you dress up and play at being pirates. [Here’s what Hugh Jackman had to say about Pirate Boot Camp.] This was during rehearsals — I like to do like three weeks of rehearsal on every film. It’s an opportunity to get to know each other and kind of relax and work out who their characters are, and eat lunch together, and get drunk together, and generally create a company atmosphere. Some of that process was playing music and trying to find something that was the spirit of the pirates. I put on some old punk and suddenly the right atmosphere emerged. Suddenly I thought, what if Blackbeard arrives to “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” And then everyone went for it! [Laughs]
You sound surprised.
I was quite surprised. When I was making this film I tried to access the version of myself pre-adolescence. And that kid called himself The Great Kazaam and he was a magician.
How old were you?
I think I was 11. I was quite fat and I wore a tailed coat and green cord flares and I’d go busking down at Convent Gardens and do magic tricks.
Did you make any money?
I used to get 30 quid a day which was really good in 1982! My mum wouldn’t let me keep real doves in the house — understandably enough even though I couldn’t understand it. I was all, “This is so out of order! This is my art!” [Laughs]. But instead, I cut out some white satin and sewed it into the shape of a bird and stuffed it and put velcro on it and stuck it to my shoulder. I was really enthusiastic about everything and very uncynical and thought everything was possible and assumed everyone was my friend. But then adolescence came along, and girls, and boys, and I decided I had to conform to other people’s ideas of what a boy should be like. So the Great Kazaam was put in a corner and told to shut up. He was told that he wasn’t cool enough. So the process of making this movie was really about reconnecting with that bit of myself and actually telling him he was actually the coolest version of myself. So whenever I had a crazy idea, I kind of went for it.There was this f—ing great review in London from the Telegraph which described the film as “joyously uncool.” I thought I want that on my gravestone.
Did having a young son at home [with Wright’s wife, Anoushka Shankar] help connect you to that younger self?
That’s kind of why I wanted to do the film. My son was suffering from night terrors. He’s scared of the shadows — really scared of them, as I was when I was kid. I wanted to not just tell him that he’ll be okay but show him it would, and that he’s powerful enough to overcome it. It’s why I still get moved when I see Peter Pan triumph. It’s my son triumphing. And it’s me.
Has he seen the film?
He came to the London premiere. He was really into it. And his mates all came. He’s only 4-and-a-half, which is a bit young. I think of [the movie] as being right for ages 6 and above. But he’d been around for so much of the process. He spent quite a lot of time on set. He even started to give notes to the actors. One day he went, “Rooney: that bit wasn’t very good, was it?” And he called cut in the middle of a take.
What if you’re raising another director?
That would be a disaster. Two directors in one house? That’s a lot of bossing around. [Laughs.] But he loved it — he got to run around the Neverland set, and was spoiled by the extras who he all found really beautiful. He fell in love with Rooney. The cuddly toy he hugs to sleep every night is called Rooney.
Were you daunted on taking on such a big project knowing so much of it would hinge on a the performance of a child actor?
Very much so. I’d had a very high bar set with [Atonement’s] Saoirse Ronan. Casting Peter was the most important decision and he was the most important person on set, but in a way that was nice because it gave me someone to focus on rather than the enormity of what I was undertaking. It was a joy. I tried to create an atmosphere where everyone felt relaxed and happy and made sure he didn’t feel the pressure on his shoulders. Just getting to watch him go through the process and be excited by everything … we blew his mind on a regular basis. It was lovely to remember how lucky we are to do what we do and he helped us remember on a daily basis.
You auditioned a lot of kids for the role?
Yes, over 4,000. It was a bizarre process.
How many of those audition tapes did you actually watch?
Over 4,000. [Laughs.] It just went on and on. We held open auditions and thousands of kids turned up — there were queues around the block. We were very far along in the process before we found him. It was kind of getting to a quite alarming point.
How many auditions did you have to watch before you started to panic?
Around 3,000. If we hadn’t found the right kid, we wouldn’t have been able to make the movie. Then he popped up and there he was. After all that hard work it was actually really quite simple.
He’s the most polite 12-year-old I’ve ever met. When I met him he got up and offered me his chair.
He’s been watching Hugh and Hugh is an amazing influence. During this press tour, someone asked what it’s like being the nicest man in Hollywood. And Hugh went, “Yup, people call me the nicest guy in Hollywood.” I was surprised — I was like, that is uncharacteristically immodest of Hugh. But then he said, “But where I come from it’s called good manners.” [Laughs.] He’s really brilliant — he makes everything feel effortless.
There was a little bit of controversy regarding Rooney Mara being cast as Tiger Lily. Did that surprise you?
No, I wasn’t surprised. Because people didn’t know what I was trying to do, and I knew when they saw the film they’d understand. Plus, I completely understand the underlying concern regarding whitewashing casting. J.M. Barrie is not specific in the book as to where the “native tribe” comes from, and so I decided they would be an indigenous people of the world who were engaged in a guerrilla warfare with the controlling power which is Blackbeard. I met actresses from China, India, Japan, Russia, Africa and Iran. But it was Rooney who felt the most like a warrior princess. My point was to make a heroine for little girls. A character that wasn’t a victim and never a damsel in distress — she’s more capable than any of the boys, especially Hook. She’s the best and smartest warrior in the film. That felt more important to me rather than placating other concerns.
The movie is sort of set up for a sequel. Would you consider returning for a second one?
I take every film wanting to learn something and I don’t know if I’d learn anything by doing another one. If I felt like I could learn something, maybe I would. For Pan, I wanted to make a big action adventure that fulfilled all those expectation and yet maintained a personal story and some emotional truths. I think that’s what I achieved and that’s what I am most proud of.