Director's Chair: Joe Wright - 'Pan'
Issue: October 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Joe Wright - 'Pan'

British director/producer Joe Wright first grabbed Hollywood’s attention with his debut film, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, which won a raft of awards and four Oscar nominations. He followed up with the Oscar-winning war drama Atonement, and in 2012 reunited with his Atonement star Kiera Knightley to remake Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina. 

Now, the master of period pieces has taken on a very different challenge — the VFX-heavy live action adventure Pan, an origin story about J.M. Barrie’s beloved characters. Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) is a mischievous 12-year-old boy with an irrepressible rebellious streak, but in the bleak London orphanage where he has lived his whole life, those qualities do not exactly fly. Then one night, Peter is whisked away from the orphanage and spirited off to a fantastical world of pirates, warriors and fairies called Neverland. There, teamed with the warrior Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and a new friend named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), Peter must defeat the ruthless pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) to save Neverland and become the hero who will forever be known as Peter Pan.

Wright’s creative team includes Oscar-nominated DPs Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina, Atonement) and John Mathieson ( The Phantom of the Opera, Gladiator); Oscar-nominated production designer Aline Bonetto ( Amelie); editors Paul Tothill ( Atonement) and William Hoy ( Dawn of the Planet of the Apes); and VFX supervisor Chas Jarrett ( Sherlock Holmes).

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the director talks about making the 3D film, all the effects, and his love of post. 

This is a beloved classic, how nervous were you to take this on, and what sort of film did you set out to make? 
“A little nervous. I set out to make a big action-adventure that fulfilled all those expectations and also delivered an emotional impact, which I don’t see much in movies for kids nowadays. I also made it specifically for my son, who’s four, and for the kid in me.” 

What were the technical challenges and how was the learning curve on working with greenscreen and VFX for the first time?

“It was pretty steep, as not only was it my first time, but I’d always avoided VFX and greenscreen. So I was very skeptical, but I found that I’d underestimated myself. I felt I’d probably be terrible at it, which is why I was so nervous of it all. I’m not a very tech-y guy, but I met this great VFX supervisor, Chas Jarrett, who did the Sherlock Holmes movies and CG work on Harry Potter, and found I could communicate easily with him, and he really persuaded me that I could do this. So it was a pivotal, very close relationship. I did a massive cramming course on VFX and learned all the language, which is the important thing. You don’t need to know how to write code (laughs), just how to communicate your ideas. The biggest shock of the whole experience was suddenly finding that you’re the CEO of a giant pop-up corporation — all the politics and diplomacy involved with all the moving parts and departments.” 

How tough was the prep and shoot?

“Prep was very fast for a huge movie like this — just 16 weeks, half the usual time — as it was all timed to the October release date. We built a lot of sets — the whole forest, the village and so on, and despite the rush, I kind of enjoyed the process. We did a lot of improvising with ideas and concepts, and there simply wasn’t time to second-guess ourselves.”

How early did you integrate post?

“From Day 1, and while that’s different from other films I’ve made, I’ve always storyboarded, so the process is the same — especially with the action sequences. It’s far more detailed. So I’d start with the storyboards and then do previs.”

Did you like previs?

“I did and I didn’t. It’s the first time I’d used it, and I found that it’d often give me a false sense of security, as you’d previs something and think, ‘OK, that’s what we’re shooting.’ But then you’d realize that what you’d previs’d was impossible, and not what you could do at all. So I found the actual previs process quite challenging, but very useful for things that involved the Kuka arm and motion control working in sync, which we used a lot for very complex stuff, like Peter’s flying and the mermaids.”

It’s a 3D release, but you shot 2D?

“Right, and we converted in post. I can’t really see the benefit of shooting in 3D to be honest. We had a lot of discussions with 3D stereographer Chris Parks, who did Gravity, which was the first 3D film that really impressed me, and that was more cramming for me before the shoot. But I love 3D, because it’s a medium purely for children. Optically, children are suited to 3D in a way adults no longer are. So it’s like this exclusive children’s club.”

Do you like the post process? 

“Love it, and I like the whole filmmaking process. There were times when I found the post very frustrating, but that’s also true of shooting. I absolutely love that last, final five percent push when the shots you’ve been working on for a year suddenly come together and Peter’s really flying. It’s a huge thrill.”

Where did you do the post? 

“All in London. I cut it at my house, and Chas and the VFX department had an office 'round the corner. I like to keep that feeling of a ‘handmade’ film, and that’s one of the things I most wanted to get out of all the huge VFX shots on it — the sense that it’s all made by hand, which was quite a challenge for Chas.”

How did that relationship work with editors William Hoy and Paul Tothill? 

“Paul, my long-time editor, had never done a huge action film with tons of VFX, and like me, he’s a bit of a Luddite. So Bill, who’s incredibly talented and proficient, came in on post to work on all the action sequences and help us, while Paul was on-set all the way through. Bill was very open and generous, and they worked very well together, although I’d been slightly dubious about having two editors.” 

There’s obviously a huge number of VFX shots. How many are there?

“About 1,600 — a lot, and we had a lot of VFX companies working on it, including Framestore, Scanline, Rising Sun Pictures and MPC.”

You jumped in deep with the VFX — did you love it or was it a hard slog? 

“No, I loved it, as the possibilities are infinite. It’s like electric guitars and rock ‘n’ roll. The technology opens up and refreshes the medium, and unless you embrace that, you’re not going to be able to explore the outer limits of your imagination and the craft. But I did find working with all the vendors quite challenging. I really liked working with the VFX houses in London, but dealing with places in Australia or Canada was difficult, as trying to communicate your ideas via Skype or video conference isn’t easy."

What was the most difficult VFX sequence/shot to do and why?

“The mermaid stuff was so complex, as we shot them dry-for-wet, and one actress played three and she was on the Kuka arm and the camera was on motion control, and the moves had all been choreographed in previs. Then we had to add all the VFX in post, like the simulated hair and the tail and lighting underwater and diffusion and so on. I believe it’s one of the most complex VFX sequences ever done, which is ironic as this was my first time working with them. Then also all the big battles on the flying sailing ships, because although we built complete ships' decks, we didn’t build masts or hulls and so on, and the ships weren’t in a physical relationship with each other, so that whole sequence was incredibly technically challenging.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?

“Sound is 50 percent of the experience, and when I was at art school making little art films, I made them without any picture at all, as we couldn’t afford to shoot them (laughs). So it was all sound, and that really taught me a lot about the way sound and image work. 

"For me, a lot of filmmaking is about rhythm and time, so it’s crucial to get the sound and music right. Craig Berkey, who did my first film and every one since, was our supervising sound editor, and we mixed in the fabled big room at De Lane Lea in London, which was very exciting. And we mixed in Atmos which was just fantastic. We recorded a 90-piece choir for John Powell’s score.”

The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 

“We did it at Technicolor in London, with colorist Peter Doyle, who has a very subtle hand and eye. I really enjoyed that process as well. It’s always been very important to me, and exciting.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would? 

“It did, although it’s always different from the way you originally pictured it.”

What’s next? Will you be taking on the next Fast & Furious film?

“Certainly not! But I’ve discovered that I really like making these huge movies, so that’s very exciting. But then I’ve also discovered that I miss intimate dialogue movies as well, so I’m not sure what’s next. I’ve promised my therapist I won’t decide on what’s next for a few months.”