Last August, I had the chance to visit the set of the Peter Pan origin story Pan with a group of writers. Directed by Joe Wright, Pan tells the story of how Peter (Levi Miller) arrived in Neverland and his first adventures with Hook (Garrett Hedlund), Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), and Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).
Wright’s parents ran a puppet theater, so he sees Pan as an opportunity to go back to the pure fantasy of his childhood and express that to his 3-year-old son. Mara was surprised that Wright wanted to meet with her for the role, but she had always wanted to work with Wright so she took the meeting. Mara came around when Wright described his vision for a Neverland where the natives are a diverse group inspired by many cultures, not strictly Native American. In the interview, Mara and Wright talk about the Tiger Lily casting controversy, action scenes and stunt work, how color and 3D will be used when the film gets to Neverland, the possibility of sequels, and much more.
Question: Your interpretation of this character seems to be the most drastic of what we’re seeing because we knew so little about Tiger Lily. You are able to bring a whole new interpretation and approach the character with a fresh palette.
ROONEY MARA: I feel like there hasn’t really been a proper interpretation of the character. At least in the cartoon anyway, right? She doesn’t even speak. But really it was in the script. I was really lucky that there was such a great female character that they created for the film. I don’t know how much I brought to it. It was really in the script.
How much did you know about this interpretation in terms of the punk rock elements and the costume and the boots, versus the iconic image of her coming into it?
MARA: No. When I heard Joe was doing it, I have wanted to work with him for a long time now. And when they told me that he was doing it and that he wanted to meet with me, I was like, “How is that going to work? I can’t play Tiger Lily.” Because I always thought of her as a Native American, because that’s always how she has been portrayed. I met with him anyway, because I love him, and I asked how this is going to work. Then he showed me all these images that he had of all these different cultures around the world. He explained to me what his vision was for the Native Village and it just made sense to me. They are natives of Neverland, and it’s a completely made up place. Then it just made sense to me. The costume stuff all came later. I remember he called me up before I auditioned for it and told me that he wanted her to be like a tree hugger but also a punk. Not dirty, but a little bit of a hippie and also punk. Those two things smashed together.
Does she get to talk a little more than she does in the cartoon? Does she have more lines?
MARA: Yes. I haven’t had a line in three weeks, but yeah, I do have a lot of lines. The last few weeks have just been all fighting stunt stuff so I haven’t spoken in a few weeks.
How does that change your process when you don’t have to prepare for dialogue, when you are physically out there, but not talking?
MARA: I have spent hours and hours and hours . . . I basically have spent the whole movie with the stunt team. Just learning the choreography and stuff for the fights. I have never done anything like that before so it’s been really challenging. It’s fun. I just feel like I’m with the stunt people all the time and that’s really fun. It’s fun to have a whole new little crew to hang out with on set. But learning lines, I don’t know. It doesn’t take me that long to learn lines so it doesn’t really change anything about my process. It’s just a different way of thinking and it’s just something totally new to me, being so physical.
Do you use an accent?
MARA: Yeah, I’m using an English accent
Can you tell us a little bit more about the stunts that you’re doing? Is it martial arts? How did you prepare coming into it?
MARA: I didn’t have that long to prepare, which was part of the problem because I came right from another film. I only had a few weeks really before we started shooting. I have been training with them the whole time we have been shooting, but it’s been difficult because I’m working. But we just learn the choreography. We did a little martial arts. We kind of did a little bit of everything. There has been weapons training. There is a lot of stuff on wires. Me and Hugh have this huge fight that is really challenging. I don’t think I should talk about it specifically where the fight takes place, but it’s really cool and it was really, really hard. Because he’s amazing, and he has been doing this kind of stuff for a while now. It was really hard for me and it made it feel even harder seeing how good he was at it.
Can you compare the directorial styles of Fincher and Wright?
MARA: Every director I have worked with has been completely different from the other. I am lucky that, especially in the past few years, there hasn’t been a director that I have worked with that I wouldn’t want to work with again, or that I didn’t just really enjoy working with and learn something new from. I love working with Joe. I’m having such an amazing time. Especially I love watching him direct Levi. He’really good with talking to all the actors, but especially talking to Levi. I’m fascinated watching him direct Levi. I don’t know how I would compare the two because they are so different. I guess maybe working with Joe is the most similar to working with Fincher out of anyone else I’ve worked with, but they’re not similar. They are completely different directors. But Joe is very specific and we do a lot of takes. He’s very visual and he’s also really articulate about the story and about the characters. So in that regard they have similarities but they are both unique in their own way
Talk about the physicality of the character. How does this Tiger Lily move? Is it animalistic? Is it dance?
MARA: I don’t know. I will have to see how they cut it together. I can tell you what we wanted it to look like. I don’t know it will look like that because, like I said, I didn’t have that long to train, and my experience with being this physical was really limited. I didn’t want it to feel super martial artsy. I wanted it to feel more animalistic. Not dancey, but . . . I don’t know how to describe it. If it was dancey, more modern dance. We wanted there to be something kind of odd about the way she moves. But definitely to have it feel a little more animalistic. She’s supposed to be an incredible warrior. We wanted her to have kind of something a little odd about the way she moves.
Does Tiger Lily have any signature weapon that she uses?
MARA: Yeah, I’m fighting with an axe. It’s like a boomerang axe.
You said that when they first talked about you playing Tiger Lily, even you were sort of surprised. So when the headline came out and the reaction was really negative, because you understood it, did you want to respond and explain?
MARA: No, because people are going to react how they are going to react and they have the right to do that. It will be fine. They will go see it and they’ll either still feel that way or they will feel better about it. I just remember when we were shooting in the Native Village, which was so amazing. This set is amazing too but that was the most incredible set I have ever seen in my life. There were over 150 extras and they were there every day and they were so amazing. They were so passionate. They loved being there. [Joe Wright joins the group] Everyone was from every different part of the world and it was amazing. [To Wright] I’m talking about the other day. Remember that beautiful speech you gave on the last day?
JOE WRIGHT: I can’t remember what I said.
MARA: You said that whenever you were imagining it you weren’t really sure what to do at first. And then you thought, “Why don’t we just all be natives of Planet Earth?”
WRIGHT: Oh, yes! Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MARA: And everyone started cheering.
WRIGHT: Yes, it was very rousing. In the book, the natives are described as being redskins, which is a term I don’t really recognize. So I couldn’t work out where they were natives of. So I thought, should they be Native American, or should they be African, or should they be Mongolian? And then I thought, well, better if they are from everywhere, that they are all natives of Planet Earth. So that’s what we did. It was a bit of a gamble really, because they still needed to feel like a cohesive community. I was a bit worried about whether that was going to work. But the supporting artists that we had were an amazing group of people, and they did become their own little community really and inhabited that space. It felt like on that last day it really worked, didn’t it? It was great. It was lovely.
I know you have had fantasy elements in some of your previous movies, like Hanna. Can you talk about getting into these fantastical worlds?
WRIGHT: I guess a lot of my work has been a kind of a pull between Alan Clarke Bristish realism, which is a lot of the stuff I love, but then also my background in puppet theater and theater in general. And the films of Powell and Pressburger and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The films are often kind of pulling between those two poles. This was an opportunity to really go into the fantasy area. It’s getting back to my childhood and maybe expressing that to my son as well. This is for my son. He’s not really into British Realism. He’s three.
We saw pictures of 1940s scenes that has a monochromatic look and there is much more color as things go along. Can you talk about your approach to the expanding color palette?
WRIGHT: It seemed a lot of very brilliant fantasy films these days are often in kind of grays and blues. Whenever you see fantasy illustrators they work in gray and blue a lot. I just wanted to make it a lot more colorful. I didn’t quite understand why if you are doing visual effects why they have to be gray and blue. So it was quite interesting because it took some pushing of those illustrators when we first did the concept art and stuff, to really get them to use pinks and oranges and purples and play with color in a way. When I think of my son, I think of bright colors. I don’t think of gray and blue, you know? But it also afforded us the opportunity to . . . London in the 1940s I think probably was quite a monochromatic world. Then when we go into Neverland it explodes in color and also explodes in 3D as well. I’m thinking, I don’t know if it’s for sure now, but I’m thinking the opening sequence of the film would be mainly 2D and the 3D stuff will kick in when we exit to Neverland.
Can you talk about the visual effects palette? I know you’re shooting anamorphic and then going into 3D later. Are you going to do long shots?
WRIGHT: There aren’t so many long shots. I feel a little bit with those long Steadicam shots that I ran a course with them and I don’t find them so interesting anymore. Not least because Alfonso [Cuarón] really sealed it with the opening of Gravity. But I do think that the 3D does work better in longer takes. I’m more classical really. We haven’t used any handheld. It won’t be that cutty. I like to create the kinetic energy within the frame. Sometimes it feels artificially induced by editing rather than what happens within the frame.
We saw your nod to Gravity earlier when we saw the footage.
WRIGHT: Yeah, it’s our little piss take at Alfonso. Not a piss take, an homage. I thought that film was one of the most extraordinary bits of filmmaking I have seen in a really long time. He upped the bar and that’s really exciting.
There were two things that seem to be part of the tone: a sense of adventure and a sense of humor. There has been humor in your other films but this seems like a full out sort of physical comedy. How much is this geared toward kids?
WRIGHT: Hugh has brought a lot of humor to it as well. Hugh is very funny. Rooney is funny also in her own little way and Garrett is very funny. I usually, with a lot of my films, feel like I have to hold myself in a bit really. Whereas with this it really felt like, “What’s the stupidest possible idea? Let’s do that one.” It’s really been an opportunity to be as playful as we can possibly be. I think that it’s a very emotional and moving script, actually. I find it so. I in fact shed quite a few tears when I first read it. But I also think there is lots of opportunity for fun and humor. And I like making myself and hopefully other people laugh. Again, I like making my son laugh and I find him really funny.
Is he in it?
WRIGHT: No, no, go no you couldn’t control him
Rooney, is Tiger Lily funny? Is she playful? Are you funny? Are you playful?
MARA: I don’t know if I’m funny.
WRIGHT: I think she is. She is funny in a serious way
MARA: She’s funny but not on purpose. Not funny like the way Garett is funny.
WRIGHT: No, sometimes he tries to make jokes. Tiger Lily never makes jokes.
MARA: Yeah, I don’t make jokes.
But she brings humor to the piece even if she’s not funny
MARA: I mean, I don’t know.
WRIGHT: Yes you do.
Do you have a lot of scenes with Levi and what is it like working with a younger actor like that who doesn’t have the experience like some of the other actors you have worked with?
MARA: I love it. I have worked with little kids before, every time people are like, “Oh, you have to work with little kids.” I love working with little kids. I find it so refreshing. And Levi is just so sweet and so open. I love watching Joe direct him, he really just takes everything in and he listens. He’s wonderful. I love working with him.
Rooney, you mentioned earlier that your stunt work and wirework is completely different from anything that you have done before. Is there any fear factor associated with that? And can you tell us a little bit about what you were doing today? We saw you hanging off the side of the boat and you were pretty high up there.
MARA: Yeah, there is a fear factor. Because I have never done it before, I’m not very good at it. I don’t really like doing things I’m not very good at. I try not to do those things. So it has been good for me in that way. And also, I’m terrified of heights. I had to do a lot of things that are up high so that’s been scary.
WRIGHT: I didn’t know that.
MARA: I’m terrified of heights.
WRIGHT: That’s funny.
MARA: I shouldn’t have told you that. But I think it is good to challenge yourself in those ways and I think it’s good for me to get more in my body and learn how to do it. It’s been really good.
You also mentioned going head to head with Hugh. Obviously, he’s had lots of experience with action, so did he give you any tips? And what was it like going up against him in that scene?
MARA: We’re still in the midst of it but Hugh is one of the nicest people I have ever met in my entire life, right?
WRIGHT: Yeah, weirdly nice.
MARA: So hardworking. Thank God I’m fighting against him because he’s so lovely and generous. He’s a great person to try and model yourself after.
It’s been suggested that they might want to continue telling more stories with these characters. Is this a franchise you might lock yourself into?
WRIGHT: I’m on week 15 of this shoot.
Bad time to ask?
WRIGHT: Yeah. Making the film is kind of like labor in the sense that during the pain of it you think you never want to do this again. And then somehow you come out the other side and something really weird happens. You forget all about the pain. So who knows? Let’s just do this one. I feel like this is a very complete story in and of itself. So if that were to pass I don’t think that would be a terrible thing. We’ll see.
You did actually have a taste of that in Hanna. Here you’re on a much bigger scale in terms of action. Was it something that you enjoy so much you wanted to do more? And how has it been with these bigger action scenes?
WRIGHT: Terrifying. Really scary. This last sequence is about 10 minutes long and I think we’re about to do the hundredth setup on this scene. And so trying to keep all of that in your head is quite challenging. And I think we’ll probably reach 200 setups by the time we finish it. So it’s challenging. Hanna wasn’t scheduled or budgeted like an action movie. So it was quite challenging from that perspective. This obviously we’ve been given the resources . . . There’s never enough, but we’ve been given the resources to spend some time doing the sequences properly. And so I’m enjoying them. Actually it’s kind of like pure cinema. There’s nothing like it in any other art form other than maybe sport. You can’t do it on stage and you can’t do it in any other form. And so that’s kind of exciting. I don’t really watch a lot of action movies so I’m just making it up as I go along really. I should have really slipped it up a little bit.
We were told that you called Levi personally to tell him he got the part. What did you say to him?
WRIGHT: “You’ve got the job.”
How did he react?
WRIGHT: At that point he started screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming. And actually I just hung up the phone after about five minutes of this screaming.
Did you feel like you’d made a mistake at that point?
He called you back and kept screaming.
WRIGHT: No and then he was crying. Bless him. He’s a very sensitive kid. He has a very sensitive heart and a very open heart. He doesn’t have any of that kind of . . . He probably does have it somewhere, but he doesn’t try to be tough. He’s not trying to be tough or cool, really. He’s just very much himself and so it’s really nice to work with him. I guess he hasn’t gone through the teenage angst bit yet.
He seems very uncynical.
WRIGHT: Yeah, it’s lovely. He’s not cynical at all.
MARA: No he’s so pure.
WRIGHT: Yeah. It’s weird. But it’s lovely. And I think he’s really enjoyed it, which is nice, which infects us, when he sees things for the first time. It’s lovely to see the world through his eyes. And a lot of the film is exactly that, is seeing the world through Peter’s eyes, through Levi’s eyes.
Out of the group of really marvelous costumes what would you say is the one piece you could pick out that you admire the most?
WRIGHT: That I would wear? I like some of the pirate’s trousers, the jodhpurs. In fact I’m getting a pair made for myself. I like the pirate’s jodhpurs. I like Blackbeard’s costume a lot but I certainly couldn’t pull it off. I’d look ridiculous in it.
MARA: You tried that jacket on.
WRIGHT: Yeah, I looked horrendous. It was too big for my shoulders and too small for my tummy. It was just embarrassing. But I think the Blackbeard outfit is probably the coolest. But then I really also like Hook’s kind of cowboy—
MARA: How about mine?
WRIGHT: I wouldn’t wear yours. I like It. Also my son has got this thing about girls’ tummies. He loves girls having their tummies out. And he’s three, right? And if you’re walking down the road and there’s a girl with her midriff showing he goes, “Daddy look, she’s got her tummy out.” And mermaids. You know the thing about mermaids? So if the tail is above the tummy button he doesn’t like that mermaid. If the tail is below the tummy button he really likes that one. So Rooney specifically had her costumes made with her tummy out. So it’s for Zubin, really for my son. And he actually dresses as Tiger Lily himself.
MARA: I’m going to tell him that you did this one day.
WRIGHT: One day. [Wright shows the group a picture on his phone.] That’s my son as Tiger Lily.
There is a conversation about female-driven action characters and movies like Lucy, and there’s the whole question of “Are we ever going to see a female-driven superhero movie?” Do you think Tiger Lily is an answer that? Was that even a concern of yours when you took this on?
MARA: I mean there’s always the thing about “There’s not enough parts for girls and blah, blah, blah…” There’s always that and I think there always will be to a certain extent. But I mean when I read the script I thought the Tiger Lily part was a fantastic part for a girl. I mean I have more action than Garrett.
I mean you’re like the concluding fight too. That’s a big thing.
MARA: Yeah and I think it’s great. I love it. I think audiences will love it too. I think young girls will love it. I think young boys will love it.
Can you talk about your favorite parts of the costume? Is there one part that you really like?
MARA: Of all the costumes? The costumes are so incredible. [Costume designer Jacqueline Durran] is, she did such an amazing job. I couldn’t pick a favorite. I love the pirates. The pirates are my favorite as well. I wish I was a pirate. But my costume’s amazing. I’ve been wearing it for however many weeks now so I never want to see it again. But all of the costumes on the film are just extraordinary. They’re incredible.
MARA: There’s part of the film where I’m pretty much barefoot. I just have these little kind of lyrical dance shoes on and I wanted to wear them for the whole thing. And then Joe had this brilliant idea that I maybe took my boots off a pirate. Thank God because if I was barefoot I don’t know if I’d be sitting here right now.
Joe, you talked about how Levi’s innocence has sort of infected the production. Several people have told us about Hugh being the nicest man in the world that seems like pretty high praise. What does it do to the production sort of having the big star at the top of things be the nicest man in the world?
WRIGHT: It just means that everyone is relaxed. I think people are at their most creative when they’re relaxed. I don’t believe that tension is good for creativity. Everyone is relaxed and therefore can feel able to express their own individual creativity and lots of ideas come in. It’s a joy like that.
I’m assuming that the ships are at sea?
WRIGHT: No, no, no. They’re in the air. They fly. There’s one crashed in the sea at the end, but Hook finds the ship, the Jolly Roger in the sea.
It seems like there are places the story can go as long as you don’t end right where the known Peter Pan story begins. So, for instance, Hook still has his hand.
WRIGHT: There’s lots of little references or allusions to Hook losing his hand and stuff like that. So there are moments where the audience might think, “Is this when Hook loses his hand?” And so we kind of played with expectations like that quite a lot.
How are aware of you with that? Because obviously if you get to the known Peter Pan story, you can’t make another movie between in some ways. Do you keep that in mind?
WRIGHT: Yeah. I mean I guess. I think it’s quite far off the beginning of the Peter Pan story. I don’t think we get very close to it at all. I think they’re probably safe for a little while yet.
Is there a lot of pressure knowing that Peter Pan is so close to so many people’s hearts? Or did that make it more exciting to take it on?
WRIGHT: I have a bit of a habit of that because Pride and Prejudice was quite close to a lot of people’s hearts. Atonement was as well and Anna Karenina was as well. So I try not to really think about it and really just make a film that is representative of my own feelings about the book and my relationship with the book. And not worry too much. I try not to worry really.
In this there is so much more imagination as well so it had to be so much more fun.
WRIGHT: Yeah. I think the book is strange and wild and beautiful and surreal and dark and kind of extraordinary. And so that kind of opens the door to all sorts of wonder and mischief.
For more of my Pan set visit coverage, click on the link below: