LOS ANGELES Not even the notion of a flying boy is as surreally fantastical as the Hollywood casting system. Director P.J. Hogan's live-action adaptation of Peter Pan is a good example. Traditionally, Pan has been played by women — most famously by Mary Martin in a 1955 live television broadcast that, through subsequent re-airings, has become a touchstone of pop culture. Hogan wanted to cast a boy in the title role of his new version of the classic tale, which opens nationwide on Dec. 25.
Peter Pan is a boy, after all — a sweet, delightful one who likes to fly around Neverland, believes in fairies like Tinker Bell, fights pirates like Captain Hook and swears to his enchanted, devoted friend, Wendy Darling, that he will never grow up. Hogan figured he should cast for authenticity, even if the film — a live-action/special-effects extravaganza — is very much a fantasy.
So where did he look for such a charmingly innocent, fun-loving boy? His answer is surprising: Frailty, one of the darkest, most disturbing horror movies of recent years.
In that creepy 2002 release, Bill Paxton (who also directed) played a loving widowed Texas father who one day tells his young sons an angel has ordered him to start killing demons. He then forces his trusting children to help him murder his seemingly random victims; the scenes are grueling and terrifyingly realistic.
Jeremy Sumpter, who now at 14 has become Hogan's happy-as-a-lark Peter Pan, played Paxton's youngest son; Matthew O'Leary played the older one.
"My nanny is a big Bill Paxton fan," recalls Hogan, an Australian director (Muriel's Wedding, My Best Friend's Wedding) who now lives in Los Angeles. "When Frailty was released, she went to see it. I was casting Peter Pan at the time. She came home and said, 'There's a great kid in Frailty who seems like he's 12 years old, and you should get him in.' " She meant O'Leary.
Hogan recounts all this in a private suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. Thin and dressed in shades of black — black Mephisto shoes, jeans and leather jacket over a gray, woolen T-shirt — he looks like an aging, Gene Vincent-worshipping Teddy boy. He speaks with the convivial, reassuring manner of a guy having fun, appropriate for the director of Peter Pan.
"What we didn't know was that Frailty had been made two years prior to its release and had been held off for some reason by the studio," he explains. "So when I asked (casting director) Billy Hopkins to bring in the kid and he found that out, he said he's probably too old for the part now. I said to bring him in anyway.
"He delegated it to somebody else, and they brought in the wrong kid — Jeremy was the kid who played the younger brother! But when Jeremy strolled in, he now was 12 years old and perfect for the part. So Jeremy was really it!"
He's also, as far as Hogan has researched it, the first boy to play Peter Pan in a major production.
James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan's creator, was born in Scotland in 1860. After a stint at newspaper work, Barrie moved to London to write for the theater. He adopted five young brothers when their parents died, and the stories he told them inspired him to write Peter Pan.
The character first appeared in a 1902 novel, but fully blossomed in the play — "for children and for those who were once children," Barrie wrote — that debuted in London in 1904. (He later wrote the novel Peter and Wendy in 1911.) The play was an instant success and has been revived constantly. There have been several films, too, the first a 1924 silent version.
"Barrie wrote it for a boy — he did not write it for a middle-aged woman," Hogan says. "I think if Barrie had been able to, he would have cast it for a boy. He couldn't because of child-labor laws. It was not possible to work a child past 9 p.m. And it was not considered appropriate to have children onstage at that time. I think it was the tradition that children's parts were played by women, so Peter Pan was played by a woman. And then it became that way.
"But why take a part written for a boy and not cast a boy? It seemed ridiculous to do that," he says. "And I wanted to see what would happen with the material if a boy played it. How would it change? What would a boy bring out in it? Certainly he'd bring out the spirit of youth."
Hogan's first two movies were influential romantic comedies set in contemporary times and featuring female stars: Muriel's Wedding with Toni Collette in Australia and My Best Friend's Wedding with Julia Roberts in Chicago. Both revealed a deft, sympathetic understanding of character and a flair for using Pop music. Muriel set the stage for ABBA's revival. My Best Friend's Wedding had several comic interludes set to Burt Bacharach songs.
After 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding, Hogan seemed like a hot, in-demand director. But his next movie, Unconditional Love starring Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett, got lost when its studio changed executives. It eventually was released straight to DVD.
He admits to frustration about this, since few people even know he made a film after 1997. "I made a film nobody's seen. I was very pleased with it and when I make a film, I commit to it wholeheartedly. So I was really ready for this," he says.
"I never thought I would do a special-effects film, and I was little worried about my abilities to deal with special effects. But I worked with people who had a lot of experience and who really demystified the process for me." (Many of the scenes of the film, set in a cosmic Neverland and a more placid Edwardian London, were filmed against a blue screen.)
While Peter Pan has never grown up or changed, the world around him has. So it's unclear how he will rate as a children's movie favorite in a post-Harry Potter world.
Hogan isn't worried. He thinks the film will attract more than kids.
"I think adults will respond to Peter Pan," he says. "Barrie wrote it for everybody. Barrie himself was a child inside a grown man's body. He wrote about the joy of being young and the energy of youth, but he was looking back on what he had lost and what he had gained. So it's very, very rich. I think it has a lot for everybody."
But that raises another issue. For adults, the central Peter Pan credo — never grow up! — has taken a few hits. It's been used to describe Michael Jackson's strange, pathetic adulthood (Jackson's California ranch is called Neverland). And in 1983, author Dan Dekiley turned Peter Pan into a post-feminism symbol for dysfunctional, relationship-scared men in his best-seller, The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. In short, Peter Pan is now seen in some quarters as shorthand for a guy problem: a male hang-up.
But Hogan, as one might expect, actually sees this as helping his movie. "I think it's a problem maybe all men have to varying degrees. Who wants to grow up? When a guy has a Peter Pan syndrome, no matter how old he is, he won't grow up. He wants to be a boy.
"It's one of the reasons that I think the material is still potent. I know when I've seen this film with audiences, one of the things adults really appreciate is when Peter and Wendy have their first fight. Peter says, 'I will not grow up. You cannot make me.' And I always hear the laughter of women at that line."
Cincinnati native Steve Rosen has written for The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Denver Post. He is currently a freelance journalist in Los Angeles.