Interview: ‘Wendy’ Director Benh Zeitlin On The Rooted Philosphies In His Long-Awaited Return

Seven years ago, Benh Zeitlin burst onto the independent film scene with his breakout Sundance hit Beasts of the Southern Wild. Capturing childhood and magical realism in ways not seen before by modern audiences, the film received great acclaim and Zeitlin was noted as a director to watch. And watch we did. As we waited, Zeitlin was busy creating his next piece, rooted in childhood trauma and focusing on the relationships that anchor us and keep us whole. The result is Wendy, a modern retelling of the Peter Pan story through Wendy’s eyes, rooted in Americana.

Shot in New Orleans, Antigua, Mexico, and parts of the Caribbean, Zeitlin once again incorporated non-actors into his casting process, allowing the characters, actors, and locations to inform the story. I sat down with Zeitlin to talk about the film’s writing and directing process and ended up having an enlightened conversation on the trauma of growing up.

It’s been seven years since Beasts of the Southern Wild came out and was a smash hit. It was nominated for four Oscars, but then you kind of took some time away and disappeared into the background. I’ve been waiting for you with bated breath. I know the film world has been waiting for you with bated breath, but you come back with this film, Wendy. Can you talk to me a little bit about the inception of this idea? I know it kind of overlapped a little bit with Beasts but where it all fall in the timeline?

Yeah, I mean the story had been with me and my sister Eliza forever. This was like our dream project from when we were little kids and, you know, we never really thought we were going to be able to make it honestly, because it was by so far the most difficult film I could ever conceive attempting to make. But then on the heels of Beasts, a couple of things happened. One was really, I got really, really reinterested in it because as I was doing exactly this [a press tour], seven, eight years ago with Quvenzhané Wallis, watching her go from…it’s like a really interesting transition when children go from around six years old to around nine years old cause they go from totally just doing whatever they want, whenever they want to and totally not caring what anybody thinks about them to suddenly realizing like the eyes of the world and who people expect them to be and getting judged and like it’s a really different feeling that changes you at that age. And I felt like I was going through a similar process honestly because I had always been making films in like just complete obscurity with my friends and family, never expecting anybody to ever see them. And that was all changing for me. I got really, really interested in this story for that reason. Specifically the story of Wendy, who’s the one that goes to Neverland but then has to leave and like how do you not allow that change to break you? And how do you not lose what makes you free and makes you wild as that happens. But really it was right at Sundance when I decided that we were going to make this film. And as soon as we finished doing a lot of press, I was wanting nothing more than to get back to work. I got home, I very quickly wrote the first draft of the script and that got me scouting. When I went out to find a volcano, basically that is when the film started to really transform. So we ended up really just on a journey where we were out in the most remote parts of this region in the Caribbean finding places to shoot. I was rewriting the script each time I find a place. We were finding actors, rewriting characters, just like taking the story apart, putting it back together. Once we had the actors, you know, they were very, very young. The kid who played Peter was five years old when we found them. Wendy was seven years old. They had never acted before. There were kids who didn’t know how to swim.

Kids who didn’t know how to read.

Yeah! All those things and we really had to start developing all these things, figure out how we were going to make a film in these places where no one had ever made a film before and it’s almost impossible to do it. Um, And all those things along with the kids’ ages all had to come together at the exact right point for us to actually shoot the film. And that turned out to be around 2017 so, when we shot it, that took around six months on and off and then writing the music, post production, editing, the effects, all that is what takes us to now.

You mentioned that all your actors there were non-actors. Devin France plays Wendy and Yashua Mack plays Peter, brilliantly. Talk to me a little bit about your process of finding actors. Are you just sort of in these places and as you’re a location scouting, you’re also looking for humans? Tell me a little bit about that process for you.

(Laughs) Well there were two sort of different processes. Most of the cast comes from South Louisiana. I live in New Orleans and we have an amazing casting team. Our Casting director, Jesy Rae Buhl, also our producers, Nathan Harrison and Michael Gottwald sort of led up an operation that was very similar to Beasts. It’s based on how you get out the vote honestly, but you do it with kids. So you’re just canvassing in places. What’s really different about how we’re doing it is we’re not, oftentimes we’re looking for actors in places where there’s absolutely no access to acting classes, theater arts, like those aren’t parts of the curriculum in schools oftentimes. And so we’re just going to schools and we’re talking at each class of the age range that we want trying to get every kid possible to come out. And we have an audition process that lends itself to sort of figuring out if a kid likes to act and if they have any talent at it. And then more importantly we’re looking for who they are and we’re trying to find people and kids whose spirit connects to the spirit of the film. For this one in particular, it’s like a sense of spontaneity, sense of adventure, bravery-

If Peter came through their window, would they go.

Exactly. So that was sort of the Louisiana part of it. In the islands it was much different and much more complicated, because there often wasn’teven really a structure to what we had been doing. We were there in the summer so there was no school, so we, me and Nathan Harrison who was out there, we literally go door to door, knocking on doors, seeing kids that wanted to come out and audition right in front of their houses. We ended up getting a tip actually to, um, to go to this Rosta camp. Yasha is part of a Nyabinghi Rastafari community in Antigua. And we went into the community and talked to the elders, got permission to work with the kids and then auditioned all the kids in this community and found him, when he was five.

You also have twins in this film, Gavin and Gage Naquin. And you wrote the film with your sister. I mean, obviously motherhood and family is a big part of the story, but we haven’t really seen an adaption focusing on sibling-hood. Talk to me a little bit about, first of all, writing something with your sibling and then also how those themes made their way into the script.

The film, like you were saying, is very focused on family and a lot of it is about the tension between freedom and family. You know, to be totally free is often to be totally alone. I’ve experienced that and when I go start working on a film, I just go somewhere by myself and I’m there until I figure it out. I’ve got no friends, I’ve got no family, and there’s an incredible thrill in that. But this film is also about how to sort of continue to find that freedom within caring, within particularly loving your mother, your family, your siblings and all that. It’s a big part of it. I think that, you know for me and my sister growing up was always like this terror. For her, she’s told me that every year when she blew out the candles on her cake, she wished never to grow another year, secretly and never told anybody. We played so closely as kids and also we’re making plays, we were writing things constantly as kids. It’s a really tragic moment and really traumatic moment, I think probably for every kid, especially the youngest one, when their older sibling starts to move out of the phase of childhood that they’re in and become a teenager and they stop to want to imagine and stop to want to play and then you’re left behind. And so I think that was one thing we wanted to explore within Wendy. In our film this doesn’t happen when someone goes through puberty, to age and our film happens incredibly rapidly. So the loss of someone who’s still there but is no longer who they were, you know? And I think that happens among siblings. And it was a big inspiration for me and the film in general, because living in a community of artists when you’re young, when you’re 18 through 25 years old and everyone’s just living with reckless abandon and then that starts to change and it’s like people that you know who you thought were going to be your partners and your teammates and your artists forever suddenly change. Suddenly their priorities change, they move somewhere else, they get married, whatever it is, it fundamentally changes priorities and that feeling of “you’re still here but you’re not still here.” And then what that feels like and how you overcome that with something is something we wanted to explore.

I think it’s safe to say that you definitely have a fascination with childhood. You’ve done a couple of short films that also focused on this idea and obviously, Beasts did and now Wendy. Talk to me a little bit about what draws you to this time.

I look up to children and I really respect children and I think we have an enormous amount to learn as adults from them. I think there’s like a coping mechanism in adults where we decide that children are less than us and we tell them this constantly and we tell them, “Grow up.” We tell them, “Be realistic.”

“You don’t understand. You’ll get it when you’re older.”

Exactly. But like actually that just means, “You’re going to compromise and give up on your dreams,” when we’re telling people that. And that’s a terrible thing to tell someone. And I think often, children think more freely. They believe more passionately. Like their faith is more pure, their love is more pure and they have not learned to compromise in the way that we are continually told to in order to go from being children to being adults. And so when I’m telling stories that are about imagination, about bravery and courage and endless possibility, when I, when I go to work with kids, I’m learning and remembering how to think in a way that’s more liberated than had been told to as an adult. For me, that was hugely thematic to the film and also the message of the movie. And just on a personal level in my life, like spending that kind of time with kids continues to connect me to the idea that anything is possible and to not curb myself and to continue to kind of live for the cause, live for joy, live for freedom. And those things I find, keep my life being wonderful. So that’s a reason to just hang with kids, man, and forget all these grown-ups! (Laughs).

(Laughs) What’s the thing you learned? I know this is really cliché, but teachers say it all the time, “They learn stuff from me, but I really learn from my students.” What’s one thing you learned from the kids on Wendy?

I think particularly within the character of Wendy, that character was, you know, you’re always kind of writing from yourself and Wendy is someone that I want to be. When I started this film, kind of like raging not to grow up and find every loophole I could get to not engage with like things grownups do, which I haven’t totally given up (laughs) Peter refuses to compromise in one way. Like he’s not going obey anyone and he’s going to not accept structure and limitation. For Wendy, her defiance is almost more powerful because she refuses. Because Peter accepts the fact that in order to be totally free, he has to be totally unconnected and if a friend of his is going to challenge his ideology, they are going to be cast off and grow up and then he’s just going to have to find a new one. Wendy refuses to accept that sacrifice and she is going to keep her love for her family and her brothers and she’s going to care and she’s going to take care of people and she’s going to not just live for herself, but she’s also going to learn and experience that freedom and wildness that Peter has. To not make that compromise and to try to find that type of liberty and freedom within love and care and family is something that I sort of set out to try to figure out on this film. I’ve learned about it from the character Wendy but also from Devin France, who so much embodies that. She’s just the craziest kid who also has the biggest heart and those two things aren’t a contradiction for her. She would never question that. And when I met her, I was like, “I gotta learn what this girl knows.”

I, like most people, obviously grew up with the ‘Wendy’ from the Disney film who was very prim and proper and really mother-like to the Lost Boys. This is such an interesting adoption because your Wendy is very feisty and oftentimes she’s the first one to do something and the first one to run down the Hill, the first one to like interact with the volcano. She also really, really cares, as you mentioned to me before. Talk to me a little bit about how you as a male director, find such a strong female voice in your films.

First of all, I should credit my sister who I wrote it with and who in many ways understands better than I do. Also, Beasts was written with Lucy Alibar, so part of it is not to my credit for sure.

But I feel like very few male directors, not just with the writing, I can think of two other people, maybe like Jason Reitman and Bo Burnham, have gotten young women right.

I mean it was a huge priority for the story because Wendy is just such a gash in the myth of Peter Pan because she’s just such a docile character. Her role in this story is to just kind of have a crush on Peter and fix his clothes and I think the essential thing for us, for me and Eliza in this film, was that we really wanted to make a story that was like an ode to motherhood in particular. The way that Wendy has been framed in Peter Pan, she’s the mother of the lost boys. That means that she doesn’t get to go on the adventure. Essentially, she waits for them to come back and you know, wanting to sort of empower that, not just take Wendy and make her one of the lost boys, not just give her a sword and let her fight like the boys. But to sort of take the power of care, the power of motherhood, and the qualities of her that are stereotypically feminine and not make those weaknesses, make those the essential power that has the ability to save her, to save her family, to save her friends. That was a central way that we felt we had to revise this myth in order to retell it. Then in terms of just getting characters right, to me a huge part of the art form is just, is getting to know people that are not like you and taking the time to listen and to understand and to be flexible enough. You know, the, the way our script is never set solid. Every time we meet someone, we have to let them inform who their character is and it’s a collaboration. Honestly, for each character, whether they’re a boy or girl, I spend months and months getting to know them and working on the script. And if they tell me that they wouldn’t say something in that way or they would not do this, I’m going to change that. And so it’s really about listening and it’s about responding to the amazing places and people and things that end up being part of your world as you make a film.

A D.C area native, Cortland has been interested in media since birth. Taking film classes in high school and watching the classics with family instilled a love of film in Cortland’s formative years. Before graduating with a degree in English and minoring in Film Study from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Cortland ran the college’s radio station, where she frequently reviewed films on air. She then wrote for another D.C area publication before landing at Punch Drunk Critics. Aside from writing and interviewing, she enjoys podcasts, knitting, and talking about representation in media.