After breaking out big with the sensational Beasts of the Southern Wild, writer/director Behn Zeitlin has returned with the magnificent Wendy. A thoughtful deconstruction of Peter Pan, the film follows Wendy (Devin France) and her brothers as they follow Peter (Yashua Mack) to a place where they could stay young forever, but once there they learn some hard lessons about growing up.
I caught the film at Sundance back in January and thought it was excellent, so I was excited to talk to Zeitlin about the project. We talked about the process of making the movie over seven years, how he and his sister/co-writer Eliza decided which elements of Peter Pan to keep and which to discard, the unique casting process, tackling VFX for the project, and more.
Check out the full interview below. Wendy is now playing in limited release and expanding to more theaters in the weeks ahead.
BEHN ZEITLIN: It was surreal and great – I remember running to wake up Quvenzhané and tell her she was nominated, too, and it’s so early in the morning when they announce the nominations and she wanted to go back to sleep but we jumped up on and down on the bed to celebrate.
What was it like returning to Sundance after 7 years?
ZEITLIN: Sundance is, of course, where my life changed when Beasts premiered, and I’ve attended the Labs – so in a lot of ways it felt like a homecoming. I’m very grateful to the festival.
When you started in on this project, did you know it might be a while before it finally reached screens?
ZEITLIN: We always say that the work takes as much time as it needs to take – that’s definitely a deliberate part of the way I work, and the way my collaborators work. We knew we needed non-professional actors to play the kids’ roles, so then you have to factor in time to cast the kids, and to work with them on building their characters. They also had to learn skills like sword fighting, swimming — so to that end, we cast the kids about two years younger than we wanted them to be on screen, knowing it would take time to work with them.
How did you choose which elements of Peter Pan to keep and which to discard?
ZEITLIN: My sister and I have always been obsessed with Peter Pan – with the idea of never having to grow up. There were elements of the original myth that we had to explore – the nature of childhood, what happens to a child to turn them into an adult, the eternal allure of Neverland. But there were also elements we needed to re-myth. Peter, for example, had always been portrayed as a pre-teen (or adult woman) British aristocrat prancing through a colonialist vision of the Caribbean islands, willfully ignorant that all the ladies were just trying to get a kiss from him. Our Peter had to be a real child for whom joy and play rule every moment, frozen at that delicate age just before you accept that with total freedom comes total loneliness. He had to be from his place, and deeply connected to his natural environment. Wendy had been a figure of maternity, but it was a very specific kind of maternity that we didn’t relate to – she was the one who stayed behind to take care of everyone. We wanted our Wendy to be active, to be off running around in the mud and climbing trees, as well. So it was about reconceiving that femininity – Wendy’s heart, her love for other people, are part and parcel of her ferocious strength – as is her love of wild adventure.
Were you worried that there may be too much overlap between Beasts and Wendy in terms of the coming-of-age themes?
ZEITLIN: It’s not something any of us were worried about – actually the experience of watching Quvenzhané experience so much during the release of Beasts drove home even further this idea of what happens to us as we grow up – watching this little girl become a young teenager was really fascinating and illuminating.
What was the casting process like on this movie?
ZEITLIN: Although no one is playing themselves in the film, everyone in the cast had an inner spirit that spoke to the wildness of their characters. Both with the adults and children in the film, they had to be people who, given the choice to follow Peter to Neverland, would say “yes.” Like with Beasts, we did a grassroots casting search of South Louisiana at schools, community centers and churches. Devin is very ferocious and also the most sweet-hearted. And those qualities aren’t two sides of her, they come at you simultaneously. She’s incredibly open and vulnerable and bursting with curiosity – it was seeing the visceral joy she got from acting that convinced me she was collaborator we were destined to find for Wendy. Unlike previous depictions of Wendy Darling, our Wendy goes on the adventures with the boys – she doesn’t wait at home, fixing their socks and cooking their meals. So we needed our Wendy to have that fire that Devin has.
To play Peter, we knew that we would need a child who comes from the terrain where we were shooting on Monserrat – which is a very tricky terrain with lots of mountains and an active volcano. We had to find a child who had this level of connection to the specific environment; Peter would have lived there for hundreds of years and would be able to move through these treacherous landscapes with fearlessness and ease. It was honestly incredibly difficult to find children that still had a passion for playing outside. We consistently found that kids’ imaginations where dominated by technology and whatever they were experiencing on their phones. Then one night we were talking over our plight with Anderson T. Andrew (a local filmmaker and production manager on the film), and he said, ‘You’re gonna find him.’ The next day he brought us to the Nyahbinghi Rastafari compound, which is in the forest off a dirt road in the neighboring island of Antigua. After negotiating an audition with the leader of the camp, we met this five-year-old kid. He was the last kid we auditioned and he was younger than anyone we’d considered for the role, but he has this sparkle of mischief in his eyes that was as dangerous as it was joyful. As he was giving us a tour of his best hiding spots around the compound, I got that crazy feeling that I’d just met Peter Pan. Still, given his age I thought there was no way he could actually play the part. We decided to try an acting game with all the kids. Out of nowhere Yashua dropped into character and improvised a scene with a poise and intensity it takes people years to learn. My heart just started pounding out of my chest.
What’s your process like working with actors and getting the performance you want?
ZEITLIN: I think it’s really important to not talk down to kids – they can always tell and it’s insulting to them. I absolutely approach working with kids knowing they have incredible wisdom and especially with a film like this, making sure to keep the joy and the fun on set. Sometimes that would mean waiting 20 min to start shooting so we could play handshake games and get them in the right headspace -or playing specific music to set a tone on set.
Can you talk a bit about moving into VFX a little bit and the design of Mother?
ZEITLIN: My sister Eliza was the production designer on the film (in addition to co-writing the script with me) and she and her team did a really incredible job crafting this 30-foot underwater puppet in a way that the kids could interact with it. We worked a team of miniature-makers led by Jason Hamer who did Ghostbusters, and VFX specialists led by Jasper Kidd to create a miniature of the creature to shoot in a tank, and a full-scale version for interactions with the actors. We always believe that there’s no substitute for the real thing – so the kids interaction with her was paramount. After working for some time on a metal framework, we realized the beauty and majesty of the creature had to do with every part of her moving all the time. She needed to be organic and fluid, so we began working on a softer face that had to be underwater in order to take its shape, almost like a blob fish. The lighting and “The Mother’s” blood were shot in real life underwater. We used a pyrotechnics group called Coatwolf in Ventura, California to burn a substance called thermite underwater and then shot the burning iron as it descends through the water in super slow-motion and then used those glowing rocks to show “The Mother’s” blood, and the glowing laughs she collects from all the children. The final result is a combination of the miniature made by Jason Hamer, and the full-scale face made by Eliza’s team on the film. Break / Enter and Jasper Kidd brought those elements together, created the environments around her in the water, and reworked a lot of the underwater lighting concepts they designed for the miniature and face.
What did you learn on this project that you hope to take with you into your next project?
ZEITLIN: Making this film was a lifelong dream. Looking back at the naive defiance with which we undertook making Wendy, it’s hard not to second guess how much easier it could have been if we’d taken a sane approach to telling our story. But in making the film the way we did, we discovered that growing up can mean living the stories you could only imagine as a child. Wendy taught us to look toward our future selves with a joy and wonder we thought was reserved only for children. In the end, we have loved growing up with this film, and managed to do so while never giving up the belief that anything is possible.