The Wilderness of ‘Wendy’: A Conversation with Benh Zeitlin

“No one had ever made anything like this before…”
By  · Published on February 29th, 2020

Writer-director Benh Zeitlin has made quite the name for himself considering he’s only directed one film up until now. Most of that attention came in 2012 after the beauty of Beasts of the Southern Wild struck and all fell prey to its floating expression of magical realism, which feels simultaneously ethereal and indestructible, rigid and free. The rest of that attention came from the realization of Zeitlin’s singular filmmaking style. In a sense, it carries the filmmaking ethos all auteurs probably wish their sets were defined by—shooting that makes room for new thought, reorientation, the amorphous artistic mind, and the kind of trial and error that leads to measured brilliance. What director in their right mind wouldn’t want to work on a shoot that allows the creative process to spread its wings and the final film to flourish, as a result? But Zeitlin’s approach goes beyond the average auteur’s.

For starters, he’s not interested in major stars, storied screenplays on the blacklist, or blockbuster budgets. In the case of Zeitlin, the duration of the process doesn’t even correlate to the budget. His new film, Wendy, was produced over a period of seven years, but only cost an estimated $6 million, which is saying a lot given the context of the production. The Sundance film is a modern take on Peter Pan with old, realist roots. It required, per Zeitlin’s vision, an isolated island shoot comprised almost entirely of children and an ever-changing narrative. That doesn’t scream “convenient,” or “predictable,” or any of the other words studios love to hear that Zeitlin doesn’t.

The focus of the story is the familiar name that forms the title, but there’s almost nothing familiar about her or the tale she inhabits. Peter Pan is a black boy. Neverland is bursting with volcanic action controlled by the kids. There’s a mythical creature called Mother that watches over the children from the water. The list of differences is much longer than the list of likenesses. But the wondrous, reflective style and tone of Zeitlin’s storytelling mode is as present in Wendy as it was in Beasts, solidifying Zeitlin’s ability to milk his open-ended method for all its worth. As for the rest of his approach, I’ll let him do the talking.

One of the biggest stories around this movie is the time it took to make it. You spent five years in pre-production from 2012-2017. What were you and your team doing that whole time besides casting and location scouting?

Those processes and the script. But what’s really different about how we do it is that all of those processes radically affect each other. Every location, every new character cast radically effects the screenplay in ways that are much more drastic than another film where you would sort of finish your script, then go look for the locations, then go look for your cast. I mean, you really sort of go on this exploration of trying to discover where your story exists on the planet, and sort of telling a story as wildly fantastical and traditional as the story of Neverland and Peter and Wendy. People that really spoke to these characters and places that were as awe-inspiring as fairies and crocodiles and mermaids. That was an immense undertaking.

Another immense undertaking was trying to figure out how to rewrite our story to move through these sort of tangible places and people that we found whose spirits spoke to the locations and characters of the film. They were all radically different probably from what we initially imagined, so that process sort of begins with scouting and casting, and the initial exploration of the island took about a year and a half. Then, we got deep into casting. Once we found our cast, that process of re-writing and rehearsal and developing took another two years. That process was interesting because we really cast the kids younger than they could actually play the roles in the film. Yashua Mack who played Peter was five years old when we met him. He was just learning to read. He didn’t know how to swim. He certainly had never acted or even had a concept of what it would mean to be in a movie. And then we cast Devin [France as Wendy], and there had to be this incredible chemistry between the kids. So, there was a long process of taking trips with all the kids out to the island, and having these long adventures and explorations and rehearsals on location so the kids could learn how to sort of play and perform in what were incredibly challenging and hostile environments.

You know, we had this incredible opportunity after Beasts to take time to do things that were really unprecedented in movies. There was no example of this level of a gang of children performing involved roles on location. We took the opportunity of Beasts to confront things everyone tells you to absolutely never try for very good reason. There has to be a real commitment to spending the amount of time necessary to overcome obstacles that would otherwise be considered impossible. Like the construction of the 35-foot underwater, human-operated sea creature—another thing that didn’t have any precedent. There was no way to say, “Well, this should take six months.” No one had ever made anything like this before, so we commit to the process and go into the unknown. That was the experience of making the film.

Did you have any concern about casting Peter as black boy? That he might become a trope and get labeled a magical black character?

We were obviously aware that that would and should be scrutinized. There’s a long history of white male directors creating two-dimensional people of color, two-dimensional women, and one of the tropes is just there to assist the white character in the movie and has no actual history or personality or role or complexity of any kind. It presents the same challenge as you have with any character. The goal with nay character is to create extremely complicated people. I think our Peter can in no way be simplified. To sum up his identity, he’s a truly idiosyncratic kid with dreams and fears and strengths and weaknesses. You can be aware of the conversation and history of a character like that, but you can’t let that mean that Peter Pan has to be a white boy from Britain. We wanted to give this kid the great honor of playing Peter. You think about it and also you think about how to do better than film and literature historically has.

It seems like you were constantly making decisions that would’ve been advised against on set. And creatively. Another one of those is the voiceover, which you used a good amount in Beasts, too. Outside of Jack whispering in The Tree of Life, there aren’t very many cases of well-used voiceover. Why do you find it works so in the stories you’re telling?

You know, it’s just part of cinema language at the end of the day. Like any piece of the language, it’s good when you use it well, truthfully, and honestly, and it’s terrible when you don’t. For me, these two films are intensely involved in the psychology and the point of view of their main characters. They’re very subjective movies that live inside of them. The main characters interpretations of the events are as important as the events themselves. And in both films, the story or journey is not the plot of the film. It’s the trajectory that our character is going on and the evolution of their understanding of what’s happening around them.

In my own head, there’s always voiceover. As I walk down the street every day, I’m interpreting what’s going on around me and my thoughts are a huge part of my reality. So, as I go into expressing a character, I want the audience to really understand and see deeply, you know, and understand everything about their interpretation. Voiceover is an incredibly useful and beautiful way of illuminating what’s done inside the soul of the character whose eyes you’re experiencing the story through.

With both Beasts and Wendy, they have what feels like an introduction to a philosophy that leads into the title card and then this big, sweeping hope. Did you set out to introduce a philosophy?

I think the films both center around questions, you know? I wouldn’t say they center around philosophies. You know, I think that there’s a journey these characters take in relation to a central question. Beasts was really asking a question about what home means, and what home means when your home is going to die, and how that connects to family. That early statement of purpose about home and how home is unbreakable feels like a philosophy at the beginning of the film. But then we see that evolve in Hushpuppy’s understanding as her home falls apart. Wendy is built around early thoughts about what it means to grow up, and the need to escape and how growing up is the most dangerous thing that could happen to you. And that evolves over the course of the film. So, I think both films start setting up a question that our character is wrestling with that they think they understand, and then that understanding gets kind of dismantled and we can see them as they go on their journey.

What about the hope? Am I accurate in calling it that? Is that what you’re going for?

In this one, I don’t think so actually. I think Wendy at the beginning of this film feels very stuck. She sort of sees something closing in on her that’s hard to articulate. I thought about it a lot as I was growing up and looking at adults and wondering how and what and when something was going to happen to change me into a grown up, that being this very mysterious—well, when I was a kid I thought of it as like some sort of affliction that would happen and change me. I think that’s where Wendy sort of begins her journey in the film—looking at this ominous thing she sees that changes people’s dreams and changes her ability to be wild and free. She feels this inexplicable pull to run away from that and to go into the unknown and experience wildness and freedom before it’s taken away from her forever.

There’s also a lot of talk about “belief” in Wendy, which makes me think of the character Mother. There’s a lot of religious language attached to her. “She has always been and always will be,” etc. Did you have a religious myth in mind when you were creating her?

Not explicitly. I think that the way we thought of Mother was very much an expression of nature and the planet—something that’s very much at the heart of creation, in a natural sense. And I do think we sort of thought of her as a bit of a goddess and something that’s larger than life. I think that faith is a big part of the story of growing up for everybody, but I don’t think it’s necessarily religious or connected to any particular religious text. For me, that came into the story a lot in interviews, especially with adults. All of our auditions sort of begin with interviews about people’s lives to try to get to know them. And one of the things we asked all the adults that came in was, “Is there a moment in your life that you felt your life change and you felt like you grew up?” A lot of that has to do with loss, or tragedy, or getting hurt in some kind of way. And that brings fear into your life. People would talk about, like, “I wanted to be a motorcycle rider and then I got in an accident, and then I could never get back on and my dreams changed in that moment,” or “I lost someone in my family, my dad, my brother, my mother. When I suffered this loss I never could reconnect to this sense of joy and freedom again, and I felt that was a moment of growing up.” It was really interesting thing for me to think about, and when I talk about belief and faith, it’s not particular to religion. It sort has to do with belief in yourself, and faith in being able to do the impossible and being able to live your dreams. You lose faith in your dreams and lose hope that you can achieve these things. And then you start to doubt yourself and be afraid. Those are things that can change us and cause us to age in ways that are destructive and unhealthy. I think that theme is really important to the film—that Wendy is trying to figure out how to overcome loss and tragedy and heartache without those things breaking her spirit and causing her faith in herself to break.

You have this very loose, languorous filming style. And you talk about how it goes against the grain of how Hollywood works and how it hasn’t been done before. Do you study other filmmakers to achieve that or is it more auto-didactic?

I absolutely, fanatically watch films to try to prepare for my own, and I’m taking things from all over the place to bring into the style. A lot of times we’re trying to figure out how to tell these sort of larger than life stories and give them a sense of reality, so I study a lot of documentaries. For this film particularly, I looked at a lot of Les Blank and the Vittorio De Sica docs. [De Sica] has this collection called Il Mondo Perduto. These documentaries that are verité in many ways, but also larger than life. Sort of studying how the camera has to operate, and how it has to behave when the filmmakers don’t know what’s going to happen. I also looked at a lot of portrayals of joy that felt real, which I think is a very hard thing to capture in film because of how structured a normal film shoot is.  It’s very difficult to achieve true wildness and spontaneous joy. One of the most difficult things to do on set. Certain films that I felt like achieved that: some of the work of Cassavetes, Fireman’s Ball from Milos Forman. Films that achieve a level of chaos that’s so challenging to actually make happen in the context of shooting a film. So, I certainly studied a lot of how those themes operate, and tried to kind of look at the processes of those filmmakers and what differentiated them from other filmmakers who haven’t been able to capture that.

How did y’all decide what to take out of the original Peter Pan story?

Well, we wanted to bring the story to a place of realism. I think traditionally, the experience of Peter Pan has a lot to do with escapism. You run away from your life, have this great time, and then come back home. And we wanted to strip away things that felt really distancing. You know, I think one of the first things I remember learning as a kid is that I couldn’t fly. Everybody wants to fly, but as some point you jump off a roof with an umbrella and realize very viscerally that it’s not going to happen. This adventure that Wendy goes on is something that I have no access to. We tried to take those elements and re-express them in ways that were possible because we wanted to sort of feel like—you know, we lived this experience. We jumped on trains, we took boats to this remote island, we hiked out to this spectacular volcano. The adventure portrayed in this movie—if you are sick of your life and you want to get away in a real way, you know—you can go find this Neverland. We wanted that sense of real plausibility and accessibility to exist in all the elements. So, the first real process was to kind of take anything that made Peter feel like a world that wasn’t ours, and try to find places and things in our world that express the same emotion but are of this Earth and accessible.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.