If you're going to mess around with a beloved children's book like James M. Barrie's "Peter Pan," you need someone who's willing to take some risks -- or, perhaps, just Willing.
In the case of "Neverland," a two-part Syfy original movie premiering Sunday and Monday, Dec. 4 and 5, that would be Nick Willing, the British writer and director who already has done some memorable Syfy deconstructions of "The Wizard of Oz" (2007's "Tin Man" with Zooey Deschanel and Alan Cumming) and "Alice in Wonderland" (a gritty "Alice" in 2009). This new one may be his most audacious project yet, a rambunctious, surprisingly dark meditation on how Peter Pan and Captain Hook "got that way."
The film opens in Edwardian London, where a crooked Fagin-like fencing instructor named Jimmy Hook (Rhys Ifans) mentors 14-year-old Peter Pan (Charlie Rowe) and his fellow street urchins in the fine art of crime. When Jimmy accepts a mission from shadowy Richard Fludd (Charles Dance) to steal a mysterious artifact, however, he and his gang find themselves hurled into a strange new world populated by Indians, mutant crocodiles, a tree spirit named Tinker Bell (voice of Keira Knightley) and seductive pirate Capt. Elizabeth Bonny (Anna Friel, "Pushing Daisies"). How their experiences transform Peter and Hook into "the boy who never grew up" and his archnemesis form the heart of the film, which unfolds with eye-popping imagery and, most importantly, most of its magic intact.
It probably helps that the 50-ish Willing, who made his first splash with the 1997 fantasy "Photographing Fairies," freely admits that to some degree, he never fully grew up himself.
"Sometimes it's funny living in a fantasy world, and I've lived in many of them: Oz, Neverland, Wonderland," he reflects. "On a more serious level, though, it's also a fun way of exploring emotional issues and stories which you wouldn't otherwise get a chance to explore if you were making realist films.
"I always wondered where Peter Pan and the Lost Boys came from, why they ended up in this place called Neverland and why there are pirates and fairies and crocs there. Since I was 10 years old and read the book, I'd always kind of fantasized about all that."
It was important to Willing that Peter and Hook's transformation stories carry equal weight in the film, and Ifans was the first person cast.
"Rhys is one of those unusual actors who can make villainy sympathetic, who can explore the dark recesses of a person's soul and come up with something acceptable that we can all identify with," Willing explains. "The first night of 'Neverland,' you see him as this tough, rigid, controlled, repressed Edwardian gentleman who is gradually liberated by this very sexy pirate woman and transformed into this other character. She helps release his passion, what he has always wanted."
Casting the even more iconic role of Peter proved trickier, although Willing almost immediately thought of Rowe, with whom he had worked four years earlier on a BBC film called "Muddle Earth." Concerned that he was taking the easy way out by going with the familiar, however, Willing looked at more than 500 other teenagers before finally settling on Rowe just two weeks before production started, when the young actor came in to read for one of the other Lost Boys.
That worked out nicely, since Rowe, who turned 15 last spring, now admits he already had decided he would settle for nothing less than the role of Peter anyway.
"It's exciting, but it's also quite daunting," he says. "This story is very different to the Peter Pan that people know. Nick's version is very dark and dangerous. This is a completely new Peter Pan, a different character, and that's quite lucky for me because I can make my own unique version of him."
In the final weeks of filming, that meant spending exhausting and frequently painful hours in a flying harness that cut off circulation to his lower extremities, forcing Rowe to hang upside down, batlike, at regular intervals to allow his blood flow to redistribute. On-screen, however, the results are exhilarating.
"Charlie had to sword-fight while he was flying, and Peter Pan has a short sword, like a dagger," Willing says. "Rhys and the other pirates have (much longer) rapiers, and none of them were experienced swordsmen, so Charlie had to be right on the button (with his flying) so as not to lose an eye."
But Willing had his own daunting challenges, even after his experiences with two other high-tech Syfy projects.
"If 'Tin Man' out of 100 was a 60, in terms of difficulty, and 'Alice' was a 40, 'Peter Pan' was 128," he says with a weary laugh. "We were shooting part of it in Ireland, which is lovely, but it rains a lot, and ... there was no studio, so we had to work out of a warehouse. Every day there was a new riddle to solve, compounded by the fact that I was only allowed to shoot the kids for 4 1/2 hours a day. I could have them on set for seven, but I could only shoot for 4 1/2. That's a very short day, especially given that Charlie is in almost every scene, as were the Lost Boys for a lot of the film. It was a scheduling nightmare."
Happily, simply watching "Neverland" is a much happier experience for "Peter Pan" fans, who no doubt will appreciate the last line of the script, with which Willing very cleverly dovetails the story into the beginning of James M. Barrie's original.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun