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Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara and Joe Wright re-invent Peter 'Pan' tale for a new generation

"I liked the idea that Neverland was a place where all times collided, all periods collided, so that we could have Elizabethan costumes, and 1930s costumes, and The Ramones," director Joe Wright told UPI at a recent New York press conference.

By Karen Butler
1/5
Australian actor Hugh Jackman attends the world premiere of 'Pan' at Odeon Leicester Square in London on Sept. 20, 2015. File Photo by Paul Treadway/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/1696f0617c359f6cb1977896c1d66899/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Australian actor Hugh Jackman attends the world premiere of 'Pan' at Odeon Leicester Square in London on Sept. 20, 2015. File Photo by Paul Treadway/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- The stars and filmmakers of Pan say changing the setting of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan story from the early 1900s to World War II helped them re-invent the classic tale and make it their own.

With a screenplay by Jason Fuchs, the movie is a prequel of sorts that finds young Peter [played by newcomer Levi Miller] eager to leave the London orphanage, where he was raised when he is snatched up in the middle of the night and transported to the fantastical world of Neverland. There, he meets good-guy adventurer James Hook [played by Garrett Hedlund,] the evil pirate Blackbeard [played by Hugh Jackman] and Rooney Mara's warrior princess Tiger Lily.

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Asked how changing the time period opened up the story and allowed the actors and creative team behind the scenes to make well-known characters their own, Wright told United Press International at a recent New York press conference: "The time period of Neverland is kind of non-specific, really.

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"I liked the idea that Neverland was a place where all times collided, all periods collided, so that we could have Elizabethan costumes, and 1930s costumes, and The Ramones," he said, referring to how songs by the punk band, as well as the grunge group Nirvana, are sung by Blackbeard and his pirates. "Jason can talk more about the setting at the beginning of the movie in London in the Second World War."

"I wanted it to feel like Peter was really escaping from something, so if we set it in the original setting of the Barrie book, we're talking about just the turn of the 20th century, so I thought, 'Well, if we do World War II, that's going to heighten the sense of desperation of a kid who just wants to imagine a very different world,'" Fuchs added. "And the second reason was that I really wanted to see pirate ships fighting spitfire planes. Selfishly, I thought that would be a cool sequence and in Joe's hands it was pretty spectacular. So, those were, honestly, the two main motivations."

"When I first met with Joe because, obviously, you're reading this origin story of Hook, and it's not necessarily the Hook that everybody knows and loves, and even in this version Peter and Hook are allies, so it's an interesting take," Hedlund chimed in. "I was quite curious and I met with Joe to see how he saw Hook and he said, 'I sort of see him as a character out of an early John Ford film where, if he wasn't on Neverland, he'd be happy sort of on a horse in the prairie.' He was doing a new spin on Blackbeard and Tiger Lily, as well, and I just thought it was super interesting and we had so much fun with it."

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"There was freedom to play and not get bogged down," Jackman noted. "Particularly for me. There was one line in the original book saying that Hook learned his trade as the boatswain from Blackbeard, which I presume Jason took and ran with. So, I'm the one actor here who's playing a character in terms of this beloved story who is fresh to it... But in terms of the time period, that's it: Neverland is an 11-year-old's imagination, so anything is possible."

Pressed to address the controversy surrounding Mara's casting as Tiger Lily, Wright told the assembled journalists: "When I first started considering Neverland as a world, before I started thinking about Tiger Lily's casting, I thought about the community that she is part of and I didn't want to make them one specific nationality.

"Our idea of Tiger Lily being Native American actually comes from the Disney cartoon, not from Barrie's original source material," the director continued.

"Barrie's kind of non-specific about Tiger Lily and her community's race and, so, I decided that I'd make the tribe natives of Planet Earth and the indigenous people of the globe. And that felt like a kind of opportunity then to really have all these people come together to fight Blackbeard, who is almost like a kind of colonial villain who wants to overtake their land and, so, that was very exciting. Then when I got to Tiger Lily's casting, I thought, 'Well, I can cast her from anywhere.' So, I had a lovely time meeting actresses from India and China and Japan and Africa and African-American and Native American and First Nation Australian and so forth, but Tiger Lily is described as being a warrior princess and there is something quite regal about Rooney and there is something a little bit scary, too. She is quite bad-ass. You don't want to mess with her and, so, therefore, she was the greatest actress who had the qualities described in the screenplay and that's why I cast her. I think people's concerns, which I fully understand, about the casting of a Caucasian actress in the role are justified until they see the movie and when people see the movie, they kind of understand what I am trying to do."

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So, how did Mara go about putting her own spin on this iconic role?

"A lot of [the work] was kind of done for us," the actress said.

"We had a great script and we had the amazing Joe and we had an incredible costume and hair and makeup team and I really spent a lot of time with the stunt department, trying to learn how to fight, so I could somewhat stand up to Hugh, who's just good at everything that he does," she explained. "It took a lot, a lot of really hard work to be able to come off as somewhat good at fighting. I spent a ton of time with the stunt department. Also, we were lucky enough that we got a good amount of rehearsal time and just sort of the three of us spending a lot of time together was really helpful."

Jackman said he is thrilled by the response the film has gotten from two people whose opinions he greatly values.

"My kids love it," the actor dished. "My kids are 15 and 10 and are brutally honest and kind of went, 'We actually, really kind of like this one.' I was like, 'Well, what are you saying?' But they really loved it and the ultimate compliment was [when they asked:] 'Can we have another screening? We want to bring our friends.' That's when I knew they really loved it."

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Pan is now in theaters.

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