With Pan opening this weekend in theaters, I recently sat down with director Joe Wright for an exclusive interview. During our wide ranging conversation he talked about getting to make his first big scale studio film, what it is about the story of Peter Pan that has fascinated generations, his use of 3D, deleted scenes, what the studio asked him to cut, future projects, if he’ll direct a superhero movie, and a lot more.
If you’re not familiar with Pan, which is a re-imagining of the classic J.M. Barrie story, the film takes an origin approach to Peter Pan, as we follow newcomer Levi Miller and other young wartime orphans being kidnapped by the men of the dreaded pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), thus beginning a series of adventures in Neverland that shape the boy into the hero known to generations as Peter Pan. The film also stars Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried, Cara Delevigne, Adeel Akhtar, Jack Charles, Taejoo Na, Nonso Anozie, Kathy Burke, Kurt Egyiawan, Lewis Macdougall, and Leni Zieglmeier. Pan opens in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D on October 9th.
Here’s my interview with Joe Wright:
Question: What do you think it is about the Peter Pan story that has fascinated generations of people?
JOE WRIGHT: I think [J.M.] Barrie wrote a very honest portrait of childhood couched in this fantastical world that pictures a quite clear reflection of myself, and therefore of many other people as children. He’s not very nice a lot of the time, he’s very self-willed, he lies, he can’t read and write and thinks he’s above it all. And yet he also has an extraordinary imagination and enthusiasm and courage, so he’s kind of quite a balanced character like that.
Was this a project that had been something that you’d been thinking about for a long time, because obviously it’s a 2-3 year process to make a film of this scale and scope?
WRIGHT: I’m quite spontaneous in my decisions often. Your career is kind of what happens whilst you’re busy developing other screenplays, and so it came out of the blue. I was sent the screenplay by Jason Fuchs, and he’d written it when he was like 25, and I started reading it one morning and couldn’t put it down, and thought it was one of the most original screenplays I’d read in a long time. And also I kind of felt an immediate personal attachment to it having just become a dad and being interested in kind of rediscovering the child within myself, and also was looking to try making a bigger-scale movie. I’ve made a lot of movies that are around a certain level, and I was interested in kind of playing with visual effects, and experimenting really.
One of the things about this film is you also do a great job with 3D. I think sometimes, for me, some of these 3D movies are a fucking horrible wasteland of opportunity, but you really pushed 3D and I really enjoyed it. Did you shoot it in that specific way, and is this one of these films you’re really encouraging people to see in 3D?
WRIGHT: Certainly encouraging people to see it in 3D, especially kids. One of the things I really love about 3D is that because as we grow older on eye weakens more than the other, 3D becomes more difficult for adults to watch than it is for children who have very balanced eyes often. So it’s kind of like a secret club for kids, and I kind of really like that idea. We post-converted it, but I was thinking about 3D all the way along. It’s the same guy, Chris Parks, who did the 3D conversion on Gravity, which was for me about the most successful 3D I’d seen. And so I was really excited to try 3D and play with it really, again, experiment formally with that extra dimension.
When you were experimenting with it, were there one or two things you learned that you wished you had known at the beginning when you were filming? What did you learn about the process that you will incorporate in future endeavors?
WRIGHT: I was known for a while for doing very long takes, especially after Atonement, and I didn’t really see long, single takes being kind of the style of this movie. But actually they work most effectively in 3D, because it means your eyes have time to adjust to the depth and therefore you kind of get more out of the 3D. So 3D doesn’t work quite so well with quick cuts and I probably would have done some longer takes had I really taken that information onboard. I knew about it, I just didn’t apply it.
How long was your first cut Pan compared to the final release?
WRIGHT: 3hrs [Laughs], compared to 1hr 50min.
Was that an assembly cut or was that your first…?
WRIGHT: No, that was an assembly cut. My first cut that I showed the studio was probably 2hrs 20min.
Ok, so there’s some stuff that was cut out.
WRIGHT: Yeah, definitely. But there always is, and there was nothing apart from one shot that I cut out with protest. Or … there’s only one shot that I wish I kept in.
Shot or a scene?
WRIGHT: A shot.
Can you reveal it?
WRIGHT: Yeah. It was a shot of a child falling a very long way to his death [Laughs].
[Laughs] That’s a pretty good shot.
WRIGHT: [Laughs] Yeah. And I completely agreed with the studio but when I showed them that shot they went, “You can’t do that to kids. It’s just too terrifying” and I totally agreed, but that’s the only one I miss. And to be honest it’s only about 18 frames, he falls quickly [Laughs].
[Laughs] Little kids getting killed, I understand, it adds a little more realism.
WRIGHT: Yeah. It just heightens — because it’s the kid prior to Peter on the planks — so the kid that goes off before Peter, you saw him go all the way down and I thought that kind of upped the tension for Peter facing the same fate. But it was a bit too brutal.
I would say that there’s also the possibility of parents groups coming out and saying, “That’s too much.”
WRIGHT: Yeah, way too much. Although the first test screening we did with kids and parents, we hadn’t completed the visual effects on the mermaids and so Cara Delevingne’s, not her nipples, but her breasts were kind of revealed, and she had tapes over her raspberry ripples, and we had some very outraged parents over that.
WRIGHT: “How dare you? This is so inappropriate to show my child breasts.” Which is weird, “I don’t mind the kid being thrown off the plank” but…
This was in America, right?
WRIGHT: Yeah, mammaries are out of the question.
Don’t get me started on my thoughts on…Let’s just leave that out of the way.
WRIGHT: [Laughs] Ok.
I am curious though, do you have a group of people that you show your movies to before the test screenings, like a friends and family screening?
WRIGHT: I do.
And if it’s the same group, do they give you honest feedback?
WRIGHT: I do and the group varies, and they give me enthusiastic, constructive feedback. They’re kind of … kind but thoughtful.
So they’re very careful what they say.
But you still learn from their…?
WRIGHT: Totally because they’re between the lines, you know?
I get it. Did you learn anything from the first tests screenings where people don’t know you and are willing to say…?
WRIGHT: Yeah, very much so.
And did that impact the final release?
WRIGHT: Yeah, certainly.
What were some of those things?
WRIGHT: The film was a lot more scary and had some more violence in it when I took it to the first test screening, and even before the film started I walked into the cinema and saw these kind of expectant, happy, shiny faces and realized I was about to do something very bad [Laughs] and sort of scare them. And so even then I knew we had to tone down the violence and the intensity, which we did, and reached a level we felt was appropriate for kind of 6 [year olds] and over.
So on the Blu-ray there will be the family-friendly version and then the scary version?
WRIGHT: I don’t think there will actually. I kind of don’t like the whole deleted scenes thing.
I was making sort of a joke about it.
WRIGHT: No, I know, but genuinely I don’t. I mean, there was a version that was a lot more frightening, certainly, and where the pirates were more weird and twisted.
I’m always curious about seeing those versions of films. I speak to directors all the time and they tell me about these alternate versions and then it’s like, I hear about it, I will never see it.
WRIGHT: Yeah [Laughs], it’s probably for the best really.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this movie is that it doesn’t feel like something that could’ve been created on a TV set. This is a full-on movie, with the scale and scope that is deserving of paying money to go see it in a movie theater. This is your first time playing in this universe of huge scale and scope, what surprised you about the process, what did you learn about the process, what did you take away?
WRIGHT: I think managing a project like this is like being the CEO of a giant pop-up corporation, there’s so much politics and management involved. And so the real kind of challenge was staying focused on the story and the simple kind of, “This is about a boy who goes in search of his mom and on that adventure discovers his identity, and himself.” And just remaining focused on that, not being kind of too distracted by all the bells and whistles.
Did the process kick your ass to the point where like, “Yep, I’ve done my big budget, I’m going back to what I’m comfortable with”?
WRIGHT: No, I quite like it. I don’t ever want to go backwards, I quite like it. I like the freedom and I like the – What I set out to do was to make a big action-adventure movie that ticks all the boxes in terms of audience expectations and spectacle, and yet also make a very personal film and it feels like I’ve gotten away with that, I’ve managed that. To me, it still feels like a Joe Wright film. And having achieved that, I’d like to do that again and more so. I think maybe I might tackle something that doesn’t reach down to a very, very young audience as this film had to, like more of a kind of teenager and upwards.
My sister has a lot of kids, I think this is gonna play huge for her family, they’re gonna go in and have a great time. But I understand what you’re saying that maybe you’re next one is more for what, 17 and up?
WRIGHT: Yeah or even 15 and up. But that kind of realm where you can see that kid falling and die [Laughs].
[Laughs] I understand completely. When did you wrap on this, have you been reading scripts, are you starting to think about what you wanna do next?
WRIGHT: Yeah I have been. But I only finished the 3D about 2 weeks ago. But I am beginning to wonder what I’m gonna do next and I’m not sure and I’m a bit confused about it and a bit worried about it and bit stressed about it really.
I have to ask you because it’s the most popular genre on the planet, is a superhero movie something that you actually want to do or are you sort of like, “I’m good”?
WRIGHT: I don’t know, I mean, I was never a kind of superhero fan much growing up, I’m not a kind of comic book kid. So if it were the right one with the right atmosphere, I might, but it’s not something that I have to do.
I would almost say that Hanna is a bit of a superhero movie, in a way.
WRIGHT: I think Pan is a superhero movie; I mean, the kid flies in the end.
I’m not gonna argue with you, that’s a very good point.
WRIGHT: But it’s not the kind of superhero movie that we see so much of at the moment.
If you missed our Pan set visit coverage, be sure to check out 50 Things to Know, plus onset interviews with Wright and Rooney Mara, Garrett Hedlund who plays Hook, and Levi Miller who plays Pan. You can also watch the trailer, a 3D featurette, or check out 40 images here.