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Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” and How to Make Your Own Mythology

Director Benh Zeitlin: “Life should be a great adventure!”

Wendy is now available on all streaming platforms.

There are caves and mermaids and battles and underwater spirits. But this time, the magical story of Peter Pan has been reimagined from the perspective of the young Wendy, a heroine fighting to save her family, her freedom and the spirit of youth from the deadly peril that comes with growing up.

Director Benh Zeitlin (who also helmed Beasts of the Southern Wild) has long been drawn the allure of freeform filmmaking and the whim of take-a-chance adventures even when there’s no net underneath, particularly when it came to imagining how to recreate J.M. Barrie’s story of Neverland.

(From L-R): Yashua Mack, Devin France, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross, Ahmad Cage and Krzysztof Meyn in the film WENDY. Photo by Jess Pinkham. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“My sister Eliza and I grew up in a house of folklorists,” Zeitlin explains to Cinefex. “Our parents implanted the idea that myths are an important aspect of how we understand the world; how myths are passed down, retold and reinterpreted as time goes on. Those ideas have always been very close to me. And more than any specific version of Peter Pan, we were influenced by the character and the myth of Peter.

“The bones of this story are so timeless they continue to exist in people’s imaginations,” he continues. All our lives, my sister and I dreamed of having a chance to reinterpret this story. For us, this story was not about escapism, which is often interpreted as the central idea of Peter Pan. We wanted to tell a story about growing up, and how complicated that is. We were 30 and 28 years old, and there were many themes that were cresting for us that felt universal – about how to grow up and not grow old.” To read the full interview, click here.

“On every birthday of our childhoods, my sister  and I wished as we blew out the candles that we would never grow up,” he says. “We were terrified of our older selves and desperate to determine what kind of loss turns kids into grown-ups, before it was too late, and that door closed forever.

“In many ways, we ran from the specter of lost childhood by modeling our lives on [Peter Pan] — dodging structure and responsibility at every turn,” he said, “creating a band of lost boys who lived for adventure through our films and art projects.”

That might sound ironic coming after the success of Beasts, which earned $23 million in the box office and garnered four Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture and one for Best Director. Despite its success, however, film itself was made with the same cozy-with-chaos ethos Zeitlin employs with Wendy. And after the success of Beasts, his team had the opportunity to jump on the project.

It hit me that the time had come to tell the story we’d always dreamed about, Zeitlin says. “Only it wasn’t Peter’s. Ours was to be the tale of the one who experienced the Neverland but had to leave it behind: the story of Wendy.”

Devin France in the film WENDY. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

When the film begins, a cherub-faced toddler watches the train tracks from her mom’s Louisiana diner when she sees a local child climb aboard and travel away from town. Years later, as that disappearance remains unsolved, Wendy continues to watch the train from that same window and hear her mom tell wistful stories of her own adventurous past. One evening, Wendy sees a shadow on her bedroom wall. She heads out the window and aboard the night train that’s roaring past, followed by her curious twin brothers.

As the train chugs along, the landscape begin to morph and the three arrive in Neverland, an island alive with rumbling volcanoes; mermaids; a joyful Peter Pan; and a glowing, gentle undersea being known as Mother who seems to be the source of the island’s magic.

What the filmmakers were searching for in writing and filming Wendy was a story that told that your life could, and should, be a great adventure.

(From L-R): Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in the film WENDY. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“We realized we had this opportunity to make something impossible,” Zeitlin tells Emily Buder with No Film School. “Wendy always felt like the impossible project given the process that we wanted to execute on it.”

The filmmakers had specific plans when it came to making this film. They wanted to work only with non-actor children. They wanted to build a 35-foot underwater sea creature. They wanted to shoot it primarily in the actual ocean.

“These were very challenging ambitions. Everyone had told us that it couldn’t be done, that would take too long,” Zeitlin admits, whose sister Eliza is co-script writer and served as production designer on Wendy. But they found that the utopian, defiant filmmaking process that had worked well with Beasts was conducive to filming this much-anticipated second film. As Zeitlin tells The Daily Cal, Beasts had been made in a state of total reckless abandon, artistic freedom and without any sort of outside influence. Then, as he contemplated filming Wendy, it felt as though the whole world was watching.

All these external factors forced us to think about what it means to be grown-up and practical, Zeitlin recalls. “We saw this parallel between what we were going through and the themes of the Wendy story: the battle to keep your freedom and your joy in spite of having to grow up.”

A traditional film production is stratified, hierarchical and structured, he explains to Carlos Aguilar with MovieMaker. “Everything is about control and not having any variables that could go wrong. Trying, as tightly as you can, to control what’s going happen.”

For Zeitlin, that was all wrong: “My methods were all about inviting massive risk into the process,” he says.

As a result, Wendy was created in the vein of a community art project rather than as a film set. “When you have to be playful and to just laugh when things go wrong, I find that there’s imagery, story beats and a feeling there that I’m always chasing when I’m making a film,” he explains.

One of the ways that Zeitlin retained that sense of authenticity was to cast young children who were not experienced actors. For Zeitlin, the reality and heart of the story was conveyed by kids who were unrehearsed and less practiced, meaning they were able to bring more of their own authentic personalities to their roles.

Devin France and Writer/Director Benh Zeitlin on the set of WENDY. Photo by Jess Pinkham. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“My process is really to stay open and to be agile, and knowing that the cast is going to teach me who the characters are as much as I’m able to teach them,” Zeitlin tells The Daily Cal. “[We were] looking for a certain spirit.”

Even the key role of Peter, led by the young Yashua Mack, hadn’t previously appeared in a major role before. According to Zeitlin, this was much more of an asset rather than a detriment. “We were looking for kids who were really living their childhoods to the fullest,” he said. “I think our band of Lost Boys, in a way, truly felt accurate.”

Zeitlin also shot the film entirely on location. That involved taking on the rugged cave-strewn Caribbean location of Monserrat, a pear-shaped jungle island that had never before been home to a movie set.

“It was like the Mike Tyson quote, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face,” Zeitlin tells Cinefex. “That was our daily experience. I meticulously storyboarded every shot. I had those boards on separate cards, and I made notes on the back of each one, summarizing what I needed for each shot.

“When we got to set, half the time the cove where were supposed to shoot had turned into a whirlpool of whitewater; or a beach had been washed away. Our plans were constantly dismantled, and we had to figure out how to adjust on the fly. That same principle applied to how we worked with our child actors. If one of them became tired, or got in a bad mood, I’d maybe give their lines to another character. Every day of shooting, we had to be very agile to get what was essential for our scenes while facing a great number of unpredictable elements that you would normally never design into a filming process.” To read the full interview, click here.

The film reveled in its ability to pull off a list of other firsts: A gang of children performing involved roles on location. A film crew that was more like an adventure group. The creation of a 35-foot underwater, human-operated sea creature.

“We took the opportunity of Beasts to confront things everyone tells you to absolutely never try for very good reason,” he tells Film School Rejects. “There has to be a real commitment to spending the amount of time necessary to overcome obstacles that would otherwise be considered impossible,” he said.  “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.”

The filmmakers took a simple approach to the film. According to cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, everything was filmed with a handheld camera and at the kids’ eye-levels. “It’s tricky in the sense that I couldn’t have the camera on my shoulder if I wanted to move around,” Brandth Grovlen notes. “We’d shoot at hip-level so I had this handle rig that I’d hold so the camera would be eye-level for them.”

(From L-R): Director of Photography Sturlen Brandth Grovlen, Writer/Director Benh Zeitlin, Devin France, Krzysztof Meyn, Gage Naquin and Ahmad Cage on the set of WENDY. Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

He also revealed that digital was really never part of the discussion. Rather, Wendy is shot on 16mm. “[That] gives a lot of texture,” he says. “It also works as a kind of a time-pocket. Sometimes digital can be seem too modern, and Benh is very interested in a timeless feel. Sixteen millimeter is richer and has more texture; the grain is dustier. It feels more lived-in, in a way.”

There’s also a lot of natural light in the movie to give the movie as natural a feel as possible. And the film is peppered with gentle melodies, one sung by the Lost Boys — a key that is used to unlock the world of Neverland. This idea of a lullaby was really important, connecting back to the idea of mothers,” Zeitlin says. “And we knew that there were going to be these two central lullabies that define the score. It’s almost like at the beginning of the film, they’re opposing melodies that pull Wendy in different directions.”

Read more: Ruy Garcia Mixes Wendy With NUGEN Audio

The film also makes allusion to Captain Hook, though according to IndieWire, the true nature of this well-known antagonist arrives from an unexpected place.

Throughout it all, the looming, terrifying threat that remains is one that all of us face: losing faith in the magic around us and turning into grownups yourself. Toward the end of the film, a lost and now elderly Lost Boy arrives, reminding the children that sometimes the world catches up to your desire to stay eternally young.

But for Zeitlin, the resulting film—and the message it sends—is that we all must live life as though it is an adventure in itself.

“We were driven by a conviction that we all have as children: you can be anything you want to be, and anything is possible,” he said. “But that beautiful concept is chipped away as we grow … with each failure, disappointment, and compromise…”

“Our film was created in utter defiance toward that notion,” he said. “We structured our production to fly against every tenet of practical filmmaking; we combined non-professional actors, adventurous children, unreachable locations on remote islands, a thirty-foot underwater sea creature, a sailing sunken ship, and forged an adventure as grand as anything that Peter could ever dream of.”