Film

Interview: Filmmaker Benh Zeitlin on Growing Up, Working with “Wild” Kids and the Wait for His Next Film

Considering that filmmaker Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, was one of the most celebrated indie discoveries of 2012 (the film also was also nominated for four Academy Awards), you’d think the writer/director would want to capitalize on his early success and jump into production on this next project. And in Zeitlin’s mind, that’s basically what he did. But his definition of “jumping into” something took about 6-7 years because he believes nothing about his process should be rushed if it means making the exact film he wants to make.

Wendy

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Even before Beasts was made, Zeitlin and his sister Eliza had ruminated on making a different, more realistic and, at times, sinister version of the Peter Pan story. The idea that his latest film, Wendy, is that tale told from the lead female character’s perspective isn’t exactly accurate, since the Peter Pan book is already told from Wendy’s (Devin France) point of view. But what Wendy does is present a grimy, energetic, deeply magical story about children on a mysteriously island where aging and time have very little meaning, and Wendy is forced to fight to save her family, even if it means being cursed with growing up. In this version of the telling, Peter (Yashua Mack) isn’t necessarily the hero, and the pirates and Captain Hook aren’t necessarily the real danger.

In the interim between features, Zeitlin found time to act as executive producer on two films released in 2019—Give Me Liberty and Burning Cane—both of which were recognized at this year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards. I sat down with Zeitlin shortly after Wendy had it’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival to discuss the long gestation period to get his movie made, finding the perfect first-time actors to play these children, and his use of magical realism to tell a very down-to-earth version of this fairy tale.

I saw this film at Sundance, and you said that you and your sister had been haunted by the Peter Pan story since you were kids. What was it about the story that haunted you specifically?

A lot of it. The figure of Peter—this idea that there was a kid out there who could choose not to grow up and what a defiant and dangerous thing that could be. Our relationship to him changed over time. He was our hero when we were little kids—this is the ultimate dream to be this free and wild. And that changes as you get older, and our relationship to him changed over the years. What haunted me as I got older is this idea of heartlessness that’s connected to him. There’s a line in the book that the only children who can fly are the gay, the innocent, and the heartless, and that word “heartless” always stuck with me, because you feel, as you get older, that there’s this trade off, that you have to choose between being Peter having ultimate freedom and caring about anyone or anything, or having a family, or love in connection to your fellow people.

The world tells you that you have to choose, and at some point, you’re going to sacrifice your freedom for somebody else and give up what were your dreams, and that your dreams are going to change, and that idea is one I’ve never wanted to accept. So when we came back to the story through Wendy, it was this interest in finding a greater freedom in care and in love and in heart. She was the character that was going to guide me and our crew, and Peter was going to learn something through this character too. She was going to learn freedom and wildness from him, and she had this lesson to bring to him. So that brought us back to the story we started working on.

There’s definitely a sense that she has to make a choice in the end, and that’s it’s not a disappointment to have to make the choice she does. Deciding to care about people is not a letdown to her.

And to grow up and learn to evolve and love, yeah.

As a filmmaker, how far back does this go with you. You were obsessed as a child, but for how long as a director were you realistically developing this as something you would shoot?

For as long as I’ve been making films. I’ve been collaborating with my sister on everything I’ve ever made my entire life, before I was making films. We were doing puppet shows. From when I started making movies, we always dreamed about reinterpreting this story—really destroying this story and rebuilding it from the ashes. But it was always the most difficult film. So many people have tried and fallen on their faces with it. The scale of this and the complications of this—we wanted to make a real Neverland, find Neverland, not just synthesize it. How long that would take, how expensive it would be, it always felt totally implausible that we’d ever have the chance to do this.

It was always a film on the list of films we wanted to make, but it was really in the aftermath of Beasts that we had a sense that there would be a miraculous success with that film and we would have this Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card to make anything, so we were like “Let’s skip to the hardest one and use this opportunity to make the film we thought we’d never get to make.”

Talk about the process of tearing down and building it back up. What were some of the elements you wanted to emphasize? Get ride of entirely? There’s no Tinkerbell, for example.

There’s a lot. I think the main one was Wendy herself. I think that especially for my sister, who has lived this story her whole life, having this incredibly sexist—for lack of a better word—not even subtext. The original story and almost every interpretation of it is about adventure being for little boys, and girls wait on the sidelines. And there’s this equation with motherhood and non-participation—you take care of them when they come back home. And for that character to live inside of this story that meant so much to [my sister] was really painful. We wanted to take Wendy and not just give her a sword and have her fight Captain Hook; we wanted to take this idea of motherhood and give it the ultimate power in Neverland.

There’s this idea in the original text that Wendy comes to Neverland to be the mother of the Lost Boys, but that means she doesn’t get to be wild or be free, so we wanted to imbue motherhood with this incredible power and have it not in any way be a contradiction to wildness and freedom. And that led us down many, many paths to transforming the magic of Neverland to being sourced by Motherhood and not fairies, from Mother Nature and not fantasy rules. We wanted to bring a reality to all of those things and make it emotional.

Mother has a physical form—two actually—this volcano and this weird, shapeless undersea creature. Where did that idea come from?

It was such a journey. The thinking behind it was, to be a kid who’s that free, you do that because of your mother. Your mother protects you in those early years of your life, and when you have a mother who is there to care for you and love you and take care of you, that gives you the freedom of childhood. So this idea that there would be this creature called “the Mother” that literally is the reason the kids don’t grow up follows from that logic, and we wanted to connect that to this laughing heart of the universe. We imagine at the center of the earth there’s children’s laughter, and there was going to be this creature that lived deep at the center of the earth, breathing off of hydrothermal vents and that laughter that she gets, spat up to the surface in these eruptions, and she was going to find this one survivor, this boy, and protect him. That was our original story for how she came to be, and how she looks in this design is very inspired by microscopic creatures that live at the center of the earth.

In Beasts, you had this one central, first-time child actor, and now you’ve surrounded yourself with them, so you’re either a sucker for punishment or you have a gift. Why jump in that direction?

[laughs] I don’t know.

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

Was there ever a time where you wondered why you did it that way?

Every single day. I definitely thought I had a handle on how to direct children, but these were different types of kids. We wanted children who would run away with Peter Pan, and these kids had wildness in their eyes when we met them that made us know that they were the right people but it also meant that they were erratic, that they were kids who don’t like to be told what to do, and they had to be really playing in order to come to set. If set wasn’t fun, there was no way to direct these performances. We always had to strike this balance between the set being a playground and the set being a movie set. That was a cascading, exponential challenge.

How vast was the search that landed on Devin France, and how did you know she was the right Wendy?

It was very similar to Beasts, and Devin actually comes from a town maybe 10 minutes from where Quvenzhané [Wallis, stars of Beasts of the Southern Wild] comes from. We were very similarly canvassing. We were going into towns and school, trying to get kids to come out to audition, trying to find kids who weren’t actor kids; we were looking for wild kids. It was so clear that it was her from the moment she came in, and she was only seven years old and just had this mischief and wildness about her, but it was so full of love and heart, and her imagination was so tender and sweet, but not cute. It almost goes back to what we were talking about, this question of freedom and caring, and when we met her, these two qualities met. It wasn’t like sometimes she’s sweet and sometimes she’s wild. Her wildness and sweetness were totally one. And we knew this was the person to teach us who this character needed to be, and she very much did that.

I love that that in your version of things, growing old isn’t just something that happens; it’s a curse; it means you failed at being a kid. These pirates aren’t pirates; they’re just failed children. Where did that idea come from?

There are cliches that we wanted to “magical-ize” and make emotional. This idea that you’re as old as you feel. Basically, that idea is what we brought into the rules of our universe. The minute you stop feeling young, the minute you stop believing you’re young, the minute you start accepting limitations and the limits of what’s possible and not having faith in yourself and the magic of the world, something breaks in you and you allow aging to come into your systems. And in our world, that happens incredibly quickly. But we felt that there’s a reality to that, and a lot of it had to do with how people deal with tragedy or trauma. Something horrible can happen in your life that breaks your spirit and your faith, and it can cause you to get old, and you have to find a way to stay connected to joy and freedom in order to stay young at heart. So we wanted to take those ideas and make them the real stakes of our world.

I love that the journey to this magic place begins on a train. My dad grew up in a place in Pennsylvania where a rail line ran essentially through his backyard, and it impacted the rest of his life. How important was the train element of this story to you?

One of the most amazing parts of making this movie was our train guys. It’s very complicated to shoot on a train in America at this point, and we found this group of guys who are a true pack of Lost Boys. I’m sure they grew up playing with train sets, and now they’re 60 years old and playing with full-size trains that they keep alive—they’re called the Louisiana Steam Train Association, and they have all of these antique trains, and they’re out there driving back and forth.

To me, it connected with this sense of the unknown, especially in New Orleans. All the trains go to New Orleans; there are train line running through the city everywhere. You go to sleep at night hearing the horns and crossing bells; they’re there and then they go somewhere unknown. There’s also so much music about that too. If you want to escape form your life, you get on a train and go somewhere else—stories of boxcar children. It always connected to me this sense of, if you wanted to step out of your life and go into the unknown, you hop a box car, and that’s your portal out of there.

Are we going to have to wait another seven years for your next film? Is this your pattern now?

I hope not. This took five-and-a-half years, but no one was watching. My process is unpredictable, that’s the thing. But I want to make a lot of movies, so we’ll see.

Best of luck, Benh. Thanks a lot.

Thanks.

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