Interview With Neverland Director Nick Willing

We speak to the Peter Pan prequel helmer about making Neverland real and why you should never wear green tights

SFX: When did you first decide you wanted to bring a new version of the Peter Pan story to life?

Nick Willing: Probably when I was a kid. I know that sounds a bit corny but it’s true. When I read the book and then saw the Disney film, I wanted to explore every nook and cranny, I wanted to figure out how Peter got there, how he got back. I tried to put flesh and bone onto all those characters, to figure out how it works – I wanted to make it more real.

I’ve made a series of fantasy movies, and after my last one [2009 mini-series Alice], I’d brought Wonderland up to date, and I thought it was fun to see how it had evolved. The one world I’d love to visit is Neverland, and I’ve always wondered how Peter got there, and who he was, and how the Lost Boys got there, and why there were pirates, Indians, fairies and crocodiles there, and why do you never get old? How do you explain it?

I got permission from Syfy in America, and then Sky Movies here, and we were away. That was 18 months ago. In that time, I wrote a four hour screenplay and shot the movie. There are more visual effects in this movie than any I’ve done, 2,500 shots, which is unheard of, I’ve never known anything like it. It’s because so much of the world is imagined.

SFX: How did you go about building your version of Neverland?

Bob Hoskins reprises the role of Smee in Neverland

NW: The first discovery I made was that Neverland was indeed a planet – two stars to the left and straight on ‘til morning – and when I started to think about it, I wondered why does time stand still for all who go there? I started to look into the potential science for that – it’s explained in the movie – and that’s one of the fun things about these re-imaginings in the modern world, that it’s kind of fun to explain that which is impossible to explain with our science.

SFX: What were the key questions you wanted to answer with your version of the Peter Pan story?

NW: How did he [Hook, played by Rhys Ifans] lose his hand? He had a fight with Peter in the story, so our Hook has two good hands – perhaps not at the end, but he starts with two good hands! Then I thought well why doesn’t Peter want to grow up? How did he get to that point, and how did Hook become a villain? Why is he a villain? I asked all these questions of myself, and made a story about that. That’s I think the fun of these things, to look back and write a sophisticated story about how these people got to where they are.

How did Peter become the boy who didn’t want to grow up? At the beginning of my story he wants to grow up more than anything, to be like his hero Jimmy who runs a rag-tag mob of street kids in Victorian London pickpocketing, like a young Fagin.

Anna Friel appears as sexy pirate lady (and wearer of elaborate headgear) Elizabeth Bonny

Peter wants to be just like Jimmy, and when they steal an artefact believed to have been created by alchemists of the Elizabethan era – one Doctor Richard Flood – they find themselves transported to another planet. They’re swiftly abducted by pirates captained by the beautiful pirate lady – Anna Friel. The young Jimmy, who was a fencing master in London and father figure to the boys, puts those pirates through their paces to save the boys because he can use his sword. She falls for him on sight of course, and asks him his name, which is James Hook.

That to me is what makes screenwriting fun. If you take something that someone already knows and turn it on its head, then they go ‘yeah, maybe that’s how it works!’ that to me is science fiction.

SFX: Were you wary of treading the same ground as Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) or Spielberg’s Hook (1991)?

No, on the contrary I wanted to make it feel real, so I don’t have Peter Pan in tights. Why would anyone wear tights if they didn’t have to? They didn’t even wear tights in medieval times, it’s just a romantic pre-raphaelite idea. What I wanted to do was make it feel real. I wanted everything to seem as plausible as it could be.

My Indians, or native Americans, are researched and drawn from real tribes. My pirates are as close as I could get them, and my lost boys are scruffy little pickpockets from the London streets, and my Peter is one too. He spends the movie in his little scruffy black and grey street suit. I didn’t want to make a fantasy, I wanted to make a film that seemed real, inspired by fantasy, and take you to fantastical world that perhaps really exist. I’m not making panto, I’m making something that feels and tastes and feels as if it could be. The fact that people fly and there are creatures with wings that look like fairies and crocodiles with eight legs, well that’s part of that world. It should feel like they really exist and live and breathe.

Neverland is on Sky Movies HD on Friday 9 and Friday 16 December at 6:30pm.