Joe Wright is an expert in bringing literary classics such as Anna Karenina and Pride & Prejudice to gorgeous life on the movie screen, infusing each frame with dazzling color and coaxing moving performances from his casts. But while Anna Karenina and Pride & Prejudice followed the basic storylines crafted by their original authors, his upcoming film Pan presents a new vision of Peter Pan as realized by screenwriter Jason Fuchs (Ice Age: Continental Drift).
We spoke with Wright in a phone interview about Pan, the evergreen appeal of J.M. Barrie‘s timeless character, and the film’s lush visuals.
IMDb: This is Jason Fuchs’ first live-action screenplay. Can you talk about what it’s like to develop this new take on the Peter Pan mythology with him?
Joe Wright: I think maybe because of his youth, he brought a wonderful exuberance and energy to the screenplay and the project. These ideas have been building up for him for a long time, so finally he was able to see them come to fruition and realized. There was a lovely, excitable kind of energy to him, and that was great to ride along with.
IMDb: Is this a story that you have a personal connection with, or was your decision to take on the project purely about the screenplay?
Wright: I had a big response the screenplay. It just delighted me, and also moved me. But I read the novel of Peter Pan when I was a kid, and then I went back to it, having read the screenplay, and found such a wonderful, strange resonance within it. Also, you know, now I’m a parent. It had a new kind of meaning for me, and it was something I wanted to bring alive for my own children as well as for the child within myself.
IMDb: What do you think it is about this story that lends it to so many instances of reinvention in cinema through the years? It’s a timeless tale, but so many writers and directors have wanted to look at it in different ways.
Wright: It has a kind of wonderful strangeness to it that feels very specific, and at the same time, universal. It’s an odd book… and I think it was one of the first books that I read as a child that didn’t talk down to kids, and it allowed their sometime ambiguous reactions to the adult world to be vindicated and heard.
IMDb: One of your recent films, Anna Karenina, provides a prime example of your strong emphasis on visual aesthetics. Can you talk about your viewpoint and influences that you called upon to bring Pan to life?
Wright: I knew I wanted a lot of color, and I knew I wanted to try viewing the world from a young perspective, a kind of pre-adolescent perspective as well. Things didn’t need to be cool, they needed to be extraordinary. I watched my son, as well. …There’s a whole fight sequence on a trampoline, for instance, that was inspired by my son bouncing up and down on a tiny little indoor trampoline. I was interested in seeing what inspired him.
IMDb: Another aspect of your films is that you really take great care with very specifics color palettes. How does that play into the visual style of Pan?
Wright: The film starts off in London in the 1940s. It starts off with a sort of green, muted, almost a monochromatic palette. Suddenly there’s the arrival of the pirates, and Peter and his friends get whisked off to Neverland, which is an explosion of color.
…I wanted the film to have a kind of handmade feeling about it, in the way I hope all my films feel handmade. So the colors are natural dyes rather than synthetic dyes. And then the world itself is inspired by the natural world. So instead of relying on fantasy illustrators, our (visuals) were born straight out of National Geographic … the idea of surrealism is putting disparate elements together to get something new. The idea of finding the amazing crystal caves in Mexico, then putting them next to the exquisite coastline of Vietnam, and seeing what they do to each other …It’s really about trying to examine the world around us, and allowing that to inspire our imagination.
IMDb: Can you talk about the usage of realistic sets in the film versus relying purely on CG?
Wright: Well, it’s kind of based on real stuff. For instance, the forest that we built, which I think is the largest indoor set that’s ever been built in the U.K. We felt like we needed to build that so that all the kids and everyone had a sense of place, really. And then we can kind of use CG to expand out, but we really enjoyed those sets.
…I wasn’t sure that I was going to like it at all, working with all of that stuff. I like to shoot stuff physically. And yet what I found, using some of the digital processes, is that actually they were quite freeing. One can kind of go anywhere with them. And the level of photographic realism now is so fine that it doesn’t pull me out of the movie like it possibly used to.
IMDb: You were the first person to cast Cara Delevingne in a movie. Considering the experience she’s amassed since then, what would you say that she brought to Pan versus her prior work?
Wright: In Anna Karenina…it was very very quick and a very important role, because she had to, in Anna Karenina’s imagination, be everything that was threatening her and her relationship. But in this film, her role is more developed. In fact, there’s three of her in this film – the three mermaids, and she plays all of them.
That wasn’t the original concept, but when you’ve got Cara, I’d rather have three Caras rather than one. She’s such an amazing force of nature, and I guess the mermaids had to be a kind of force of nature, too. She’s an amazing kid, Cara. She’s got this whirlwind energy.
Wright: He’s got very broad wings, and he took the entire unit under his wings. He’s a brilliant company leader, and I mean that in the old fashioned, theatrical sense of the word. He arrives on set, and he makes sure everyone is OK, makes sure the cast is OK. He’s incredibly supportive of young talent, and kind of makes it not about him — which of course has the magical effect of everyone wanting to support him to the best of their abilities.
He is one of the most generous, enthusiastic and supportive actors that I have ever worked with. He’s extraordinary. I really can’t talk highly enough about him. And yet he’s someone who enjoys being directed as well. He enjoys the collaboration between actor and director, and he trusts the director to take him to places he hasn’t gone before… He’s just a joy.
And certainly, Levi really looks up to him and there ended up being, between the two of them, pretty much my favorite team in the way that Levi stopped being aware of anything other than Hugh in most scenes, and wanted to give his best for Hugh in those scenes. And that was brilliant and amazing.
IMDb: When people walk away from seeing Pan, what feeling are you hoping to leave them with?
Wright: A belief in their own potential, and a love for their fellow travelers. And a big smile on their faces.
Pan is currently set for wide release on October 9 in the U.S. and Canada.