Peter Pan

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Chapter and Verse

“J. M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan during a period that’s endlessly fascinating to me,” said director P. J. Hogan. “When I started looking at artwork from that time, I got very interested in the Romantic period, particularly the work of John William Waterhouse and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. The colors are very bright, people appear to be illuminated from within. And I thought, ‘These are the paintings J. M. Barrie would have been looking at, paintings he would have seen on exhibition.’

“When I describe the film as looking very romantic,” he continued, “it’s not in the strictest sense of the word. It’s more that everything is bigger than life, the colors are brighter and warmer, everything is very rich.”

To give Peter Pan the visual mood he desired, Hogan assembled a team of award-winning behind-the-scenes artists. Long before that, however, he laid the groundwork by building a book of images that suggested aspects of his vision.

Film - Peter Pan - Trailer Clips
Film - Peter Pan - Trailer Clips
Film - Peter Pan - Trailer Clips

“P. J. has a very precise visual sense of how a story needs to be told,” explained producer Patrick McCormick. “His book of references covered every detail of the story – London streets, Neverland, cloud sequences. We created everything in this movie. There isn’t any moment or sequence where we said, ‘Okay, we have that location, or it’s easy for us to build a set like that.’ Everything is fabricated to resonate with the rest of the movie.”

In the early days of pre-pre-production, the filmmakers had considered shooting Peter Pan on location, which would have meant filming in a jungle, aboard a ship, at sea and on the streets of London. But because so much of the story takes place at night and so many cast members were children whose schedules were governed by strict child labor laws, location plans were abandoned. Instead, production was based at Warner Roadshow Studios in Gold Coast, Australia (Queensland) and the film’s sets were constructed on a number of massive soundstages. The only exception was the London streets set, which was built outdoors on the lot in Australia and occasioned the schedule’s single instance of night-shooting by the main unit.

At times, Peter Pan occupied all eight of the facility’s stages. In addition to answering concerns about the children’s schedules, shooting on the stages allowed production to create and execute the elaborate locations under controlled circumstances, unhampered by local exterior conditions such as cyclone season. It also allowed the filmmakers to set the story in a larger-than-life world of heightened reality.

Hogan’s early research gave his team the much-appreciated chance to hit the ground running. “P. J. must have spent a year pulling together what we call the bible,” said production designer Roger Ford. “Most of it was culled from paintings or illustrations in books which expressed his feeling for how he wanted to see the film. The time it takes to find out a director’s vision when a document like this doesn’t exist is considerable. I’ve never come across a director who had gone this far before the team was put together.

“ Peter Pan is a designer’s dream,” Ford continued, “because it’s many films in one: Edwardian London, pirate ship, tropical jungle, an ancient castle with dragons and water – any of these settings could be a film on its own. The whole thinking behind the look was to start with reality, then push and exaggerate it to get to the level of magic – to push the most extreme things you’d find in nature. You’d never get the combination of things in a real forest that we have in ours. And you never know if it really happened or was a dream.”

Director of photography Donald McAlpine, who shot the visually daring Moulin Rouge, elaborated on how the bible enhanced this process. “P. J. presents you with an image that may be a glorious golden glen but through that you realize what he really needs is a dark blue back-lit scene,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s about color, sometimes it’s design, but it’s always about the emotion that the vision has stirred in him and he hopes will stir you. It’s the old picture and a thousand words thing. Words are so limiting in communicating visual concepts.

“Roger Ford designs sets that seem to be made to shoot,” McAlpine added. “When you get the camera on the set, you find he hasn’t just put elements there, he has visualized how things may be shot. When you walk onto a really well-designed and constructed set, you are inspired to do something. With the pirate ship, there’s just no way that somebody won’t do their absolute best to make this wonderful piece of construction look great.”

Early on, the filmmakers had considered building the Jolly Roger at sea. Instead, the deck of the beautiful but neglected old vessel that Hook captured from Spanish or Portuguese sailors came to life on a soundstage, with early design concepts hatched at ILM in Northern California. “Every time they sent us something, we asked them to push it,” said Ford. Naturally.

Set designer Jim Millet oversaw the ship’s construction. At 85-feet – 90 with the rigging at the ends included – it was the maximum length the soundstage could accommodate. It was built on a gimbal to simulate the movement it would have had on water. Meanwhile at ILM, a staff of carpenters and designers replicated its own 20-foot version of the ship, adding the keel and the hull, for effects shots.

“ I do believe in fairies! I do, I do!”

In the hundred years since Peter Pan was first performed on a London stage, technological advances have occurred that would have sounded like science fiction in 1904. Even 20 years ago, when Lucy Fisher first acquired the Peter Pan rights, a live action film could not have been made that depicted the story’s fantasy elements with the surreal seamlessness that the filmmakers had in mind.

Donald McAlpine’s experience on the lavishly designed Moulin Rouge, which included many effects shots and was also filmed primarily on soundstages, aided the Peter Pan team immensely. “There are massive logistical, financial and creative implications when a truly human, dramatic story has to be told with the technique of today’s computers and computer graphics running all through it,” said the cinematographer.

The filmmakers took full advantage of technology to hit their marks – but not at the expense of the story’s heart. After all, Peter Pan is not science fiction. Hogan was also adamant that the signature fantasy elements of Peter Pan be depicted as a child might imagine them.

“I wanted to work with people who are interested in magic over technology and the people I found at ILM were the right people for this,” said Hogan. “Scott Farrar really gets it and loves the material.”

Farrar was a key member of the team from pre-production through post. “It’s a difficult style of film to do, because it really isn’t fantasy,” he said. “It’s very much photo-real, but told in a storybook fashion. Everything is based on our real world, except it’s larger, more colorful and more dramatic. P. J. had it in mind to be very painterly in the style of this story, so that was a huge cue for us. I knew from the outset that he loves strong color.”

The film ultimately used approximately 1,200 effects shots with the majority produced by ILM. Teams at Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks also handled significant work. R!ot Pictures, Pacific Titles and CIS Hollywood contributed additional shots.

Striving to craft a world that reflected the unlimited possibilities of a child’s imagination, Farrar and his ILM team took pleasure in realizing how much their work would thrill the children in their lives. “Kids will carry these visual images with them for a long time, and there’s a huge amount of satisfaction in that,” Farrar reflected. “I love thinking about my kids – or anybody’s kids – looking at this film.

“There was a period in my life when I felt like the master of disaster – one blow-them-up picture after another,” he continued. “Those are fun, but this one has been completely new and different. It is so rich in its imagery. You’re not restricted in your thinking about design issues because you’re asking yourself, ‘What would children think?’”

Practical know-how allowed the magic to reach the screen. “No matter how good the animation is, no matter how good the model is, if you don’t light it right, it will never work in the film,” Farrar allowed. “So we record everything that is done on the set – how it’s lit, how far away the lamps were, what the gels were, everything. Otherwise our shots won’t cut in.

“P. J. has wonderful ideas and anytime there’s a problem, he usually has a better idea as a solution,” Farrar reflected. “He had not done a lot of blue screen work, so we helped with that, but he steers the ship and it’s always about the performance.”

Farrar’s expertise was critically important with Tinker Bell’s scenes, but his early opinion about how to depict this small twinkling character changed. “Initially, I advocated a full CG character for Tinker Bell,” Farrar recalled, “because we were talking about controls of flight and that sort of thing. That scenario still required an actress for building and capturing performance.

“But then P. J. found Ludivine Sagnier, who is fantastic. She can do faces and portray emotions in a kind of silent era sense, and her talent lends itself to physical comedy. So now we have the wonderful personality of Ludivine on-screen, primarily in close-up. If she has to fly around and do a lot of very fancy stuff, that’s her CG character, but wherever we can have Ludivine act, we do.”

In several mid-distance shots, Tinker Bell is actually a hybrid that features Sagnier’s head on a CG body.

“ Happy thoughts and fairy dust …”

The moment that Peter, Wendy, John and Michael form a human comet and burst through the stratosphere on their flight to Neverland is truly exhilarating. Making that flight credible was a team effort requiring ingenuity from the stunt department, magic from special effects and intense dedication from the actors.

“Practice, practice, practice – that’s the key to flying,” said Jeremy Sumpter, who logged more time in the air than anyone in the cast. “Peter Pan is a perfect flyer. His body is perfectly straight and that’s hard to do. I had to lie flat in a harness. I’d use the strength of my back to keep my feet from coming down. I spent months training to get my back muscles strong enough to hold myself straight for longer.”

Stunt doubles were rarely used for Sumpter’s flights. “P. J. didn’t like using them because I fly differently than everyone else.”

Like Wendy, Rachel Hurd-Wood took her flying very seriously, but could also enjoy it. “It can be really hard, but if you’re laughing and having fun, then it’s great.”

Second unit director-stunt coordinator Conrad Palmisano and his team were responsible for getting the actors into the air and spent months preparing them. “We wanted a weightless look to the flying,” he explained. “It’s not like some of the other more recent cartoon-type characters who can fly at will and that’s part of who their character is. We said, ‘How does fairy dust make you fly? Is there a learning curve?’ We spent time developing that nuance of when they’re not flying so well – without having it look like we’re flying them poorly.”

There’s much more to it than happy thoughts and fairy dust.

“Trying to get four or five kids flying perfectly in one shot is quite a challenge,” Palmisano continued. “If they’re on blue screen, we have what we lovingly refer to as the blueberries – guys dressed in blue suits who run around and grab them here, turn them there, lift just so until we get them all in perfect position.”

Training began at ground level. “We started the kids on trampolines and other gymnastic equipment to get them used to their bodies in the air,” he said. “We took Jeremy to a circus in the States and had him fly off the trapeze so he could get a sense of what it really felt like to fly and fall. On the Russian Swing, he’d shove off on the forward push and fly 25 or 30 feet through the air, then land on an airbag. Then we’d put him in rigs and asked him to recapture that feeling.”

Farrar’s ILM team also played a major role. “Very few live-action pictures have really achieved good flying,” Farrar acknowledged. “In an aerial shot, when you’re photographing a plane flying against buildings in a close background, there is a very tied-together relationship between the camera’s pans and tilts on the foreground subject and what is happening in the background. If that doesn’t lock, it doesn’t look right. In the past, you had to do the best you could with an aerial plate that was pre-photographed and get the essence of the plate, the motion and maybe a broad sweeping pan or sudden dive down. But it’s very difficult without actually manufacturing the background. Now, we try to get good choreography with the foreground subject (our heroes), and tie the background in to what the camera is doing.”

The backgrounds Farrar had to match in Peter Pan included the streets and rooftops of London, clouds, planets, the landscapes of Neverland and the Jolly Roger.

En garde!

The filmmakers had very definite influences in mind when they set about establishing the tone of the fighting in Peter Pan. “Some of my favorite films are the Errol Flynn movies of the 1930’s and ‘40’s and I thought if I could equal or top those sword fights, I’d be very pleased,” the director said. “They are marvelous fun and the actors really know what they’re doing. So when Captain Hook and Peter Pan were dueling, we wanted them to recall the flash and fire of actors like Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn.”

To achieve this end, the crew was fortified with a trio of today’s top action experts: second unit director Conrad Palmisano, fencing master Gary Worsfield and fight coordinator Brad Allan.

The duelists in Peter Pan fenced, using swords with points. “It’s not the type of swordplay where they slice at each other until somebody gets it,” Palmisano explained. “They tell a story in the fight choreography with a series of attacks and parries and retreats, all aimed at getting the opponent to do something. Gary is a wonderful swordmaster who gets people to work very fast and tight. It’s very, very fast-handed and close contact, which is exciting. When Hook has Pan cornered or in trouble, then Pan does something special to get out of it, and that’s where Brad comes in. The whole end battle is done in the air, amidst the sails of the Jolly Roger. Some of this is like an aerial dog-fight for brief moments. Pan’s advantage has always been his quickness and ability to fly—but we’re taking that away from him at the end, raising the stakes of the final battle between him and Hook.”

Worsfield savored the opportunity to bring the beauty of swordplay to the screen. “We’ve put in almost every fencing action there is,” he said. “There’s rapport or communication through swords, as well as insults, humiliation, disgust, anger, deception – much more than brute strength. There’s been no film that I know of with sword-fighting and flying together. Fencing is very linear but Pan can fly so the possibilities are mind-boggling.”

Brad Allan, who has worked with the Jackie Chan stunt team for seven years, maximized the impact of the flying fights. “The Hong Kong style is not congruous with the look of Peter Pan, but the filmmakers wanted to add some airplay to the Errol Flynn style,” he explained.

“I think Jeremy wants to be the next Jackie Chan,” Allan added. “Sometimes we have to hold him back – he’s really good.”

For four months before production began, Sumpter devoted four hours a day to fencing. “Peter controls his fights – he’s skillful, he’s smooth,” said the young actor. “I learned proper fencing with the mask. Once you do that, you can work on your feet and knees and how your body position and lunges are supposed to be.”

Jason Isaacs came to the project experienced in swordplay, but did not have as much advantage as he expected. “I’d done sword-fighting in a few films. I was a little bit cocky about it, until it became clear that I had to sword fight with my left hand – because Hook has a hook on his right hand.”

Ultimately, it only increased his ferocity. “Jason has a great deal of dexterity with his hook,” said Palmisano. “He’s like the Mix Master of cutting edges coming at you when he makes the moves. Trying to rehearse him, about three moves into it, you just want to drop the sword and run outside and wait for it to be safe again.”

Wendy and the Lost Boys were less threatening, but all received serious training. “We’d bring the Lost Boys into the rehearsal stage with 10 fully-grown adult stuntmen,” said Palmisano, “and hand them all metal swords and say, ‘Here, attack those guys!’ For months, we’d do practice and play routines and each boy found something that he really liked to do the best, and we’d work that into their fight scenes.”

Actor Bruce Spence, who plays the pirate Cookson, dueled with Wendy. “The crew here are great swordsmen and now when I observe people like Errol Flynn, I’m thinking, ‘Tsk, tsk, is that really all you can do, Errol?’ Of course, fighting Wendy is a little different than fighting Errol Flynn, but when Wendy is up against it and has to get her courage, it’s a moment I really enjoy. She has to move from being the little girl she was to being more grown-up and take control.”

Accidents? A few. “Sometimes you get hit fencing and it hurts,” Sumpter reported matter-of-factly.

“Yes, we’ve gone wrong a few times sword-fighting, Jeremy and I,” Isaacs concurred.

But both actors were always ready for more. “Jason and Jeremy trained very hard to be the guys actually performing the stunts and we’re very proud of them for that,” said Palmisano.

“As a 30-year veteran of the stunt field,” he reflected, “I think there’s a little Peter Pan in all stuntmen. We don’t live in Neverland, but we really don’t have to grow up. We still get to play with boys’ toys, they’re just bigger than usual.”

Still, Sumpter’s fearlessness surprised even this seasoned risk-taker. “I was always the first kid in the neighborhood to jump off the bridge into the water, but I always went down and looked in the water first. Jeremy might just jump.

“Casting him was a sharp move. He is a pied piper of kids. Even around the studio lot you’ll find them all kind of running around after him.”

“ A pink dress to die for …”

Dressing the Peter Pan cast was another massive undertaking with aesthetics, authenticity and practicality all demanding their due. Like the sets, the clothes had to underscore the contrast between the chilly constriction of Edwardian London and the fantastically liberating atmosphere of Neverland.

Costume designer Janet Patterson’s production headquarters was packed with the appropriate turn-of-the-century velvet, silk and satin gowns, elegantly cobbled shoes and cozy children’s pajamas. She also maintained a large supply of wetsuits (the pirates had to wear them under their tattered costumes). And there were dozens of bonnets – for Nana.

There were also hundreds of nightgowns for Wendy. “That’s what she wears throughout most of the film,” Patterson pointed out. “Some of them are specifically for flying and there’s a beautiful big silky one for dancing.”

Patterson cast her net wide to gather what she needed for Peter Pan – London and Paris for fabrics and trims, Italy for shoes and hats, embroidery from Pakistan. All the socks were knitted in England.

The ladies in the cast were particularly thrilled. “Janet Patterson is a design genius,” said Lynn Redgrave. “The costumes are beautiful to wear. Everything is based on history and research. We are wearing the correct corsets, real antique jewelry, beautiful things of the period, which imbue it with a reality. It does a lot of the acting for you.”

Olivia Williams agreed. “Little girls of any age or time period love a pink dress and I am no exception,” admitted the actress. “I have a pink dress to die for in the ballroom scene and that was my happiest moment in the film.”

That pink dress made Patterson happy, too. “Mrs. Darling is a fantasy figure for a little girl – the prettiest mother in the world,” said the designer, who has been Oscar®-nominated for three different period films. “All of her clothes reflect her warmth.”

Hook’s wardrobe was the most elaborate of all. “Hook’s a splashy boy,” Patterson acknowledged. In addition to dressing him as the dandy he is, Patterson wove subtext into his garments. The coat and vest he wears when Wendy visits his cabin, for example, are the same velvet as Mr. Darling’s dressing gown.

A Century Ago

J. M. Barrie was born in the tiny Scottish town of Kirriemuir in 1860 and moved to London as a young man to make his mark as a writer. His earliest stories were colorful newspaper pieces about a fictional version of Kirriemuir. He also contributed to the National Observer, along with such contemporaries as Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells and W. B. Yeats. Later, with several successful plays and novels to his credit, he lived across the road from the Kensington Gardens, where he took daily walks with his St. Bernard. It was during these rambles that he met the Llewelyn Davies children, the five brothers who inspired him to create Peter Pan. When the children’s parents died, Barrie adopted all five boys.

Peter Pan first appeared in J. M. Barrie’s 1902 novel, The Little White Bird, as the hero of a story the book’s narrator tells a child. Barrie was already a popular novelist and playwright in London when his Peter Pan play debuted on December 27, 1904 at the Duke of York’s Theatre. The premiere was not a children’s matinee, but a glittering West End opening night for an audience of sophisticated Londoners who had come to see the latest work by one of the top writers of the day. The patrons had no idea of what to expect from Peter Pan, nor did anyone feel prescient enough to predict the fate of the thematically daring and technically demanding production. But the producer’s faith in Barrie, and Barrie’s faithfulness to his own unique vision, made Peter Pan an immediate classic.

Barrie refined the play’s text for many years after it debuted and expanded the story for his Peter Pan novel, which was published as Peter and Wendy in 1911. The play was not published until 1928, after a full 24 years of stage productions – and revisions. Thanks to writer Andrew Birkin, a comprehensive volume of Barrie’s notes and drafts as he conceptualized, wrote and revised Peter Pan over this long period was collected in one massive document, affectionately known among the Peter Pan filmmakers as ‘the tome.’ ‘The tome’ was an invaluable aid in making this film.

An Ongoing Gift

Peter Pan is cherished around the world for its promise of an awfully big adventure, but in Britain there is something more. Several years before his death in 1937, Sir James Barrie donated all rights from Peter Pan to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH). The charismatic boy who would not grow up has been helping to save the lives of very sick children through this bequest ever since.

Built by Dr. Charles West in 1852 with just 10 beds, Great Ormond Street Hospital was London’s first hospital specifically designated for children. Charles Dickens lived nearby and read a chapter from A Christmas Carol on the front steps to help raise funds for expansion. The hospital was able to buy the house next door, doubling its size to 20 beds, and it has grown from there to 350 beds.

A National Health Service hospital, GOSH is funded by the government for day-to-day operations, but not for its many critical care specialty areas. “We get the sickest children, if their own doctor and district hospital can’t help them; it’s a place of last resort,” explained Kit Palmer, who looks after Peter Pan rights issues for GOSH. “We have 22 different specialties and offer the widest range of pediatric specialties under one roof in the U. K. Most patients see at least two specialists, some as many as five.

“The message of the play is eternal,” Palmer continued. “Who hasn’t worried about growing up and what the world has in store for us? This play has something to say to any nation, any individual.

“We at the hospital had always hoped to have the classic Peter Pan on film, based on Barrie’s original work. The timing is so wonderful, so now I hope we’ll have another hundred years of sharing this film.”

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