When your feature film debut becomes an international sensation, pulling in four Oscar nominations, the conventional wisdom is to quickly produce a follow-up to cash in on the first movie’s success.
That is precisely what director-screenwriter Benh Zeitlin did not do after 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a remarkable film about climate change in the Louisiana bayou as seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old. Instead, he tackled his dream project, a retelling of Peter Pan with an emphasis on the Wendy character.
He knew it would be an arduous shoot, set partially on the side of an active volcano with a cast of young novice actors. In fact, it took seven years to complete, but the results – titled simply Wendy, opening this weekend in South Florida – are as original and compelling as his earlier film.
Zeitlin’s desire to make Wendy goes back to his childhood, a project he long talked about tackling with his sister Eliza, who became the film’s co-writer. “When we were kids, we dreamed of retelling this story in our own way. It was always our dream project. And we also knew that it was the most difficult choice that I could imagine I could make,” he says. “So, on the tail of ‘Beasts’ it was like, ‘We’re finally going to get this opportunity to really make whatever we want, however we want to make it.’ So we sort of jumped on it. I thought I would never make this film.”
Cast in the title role is Devin France, 12, whose character hops a freight train that transports her to Zeitlin’s version of Neverland. A complete novice at acting, France was just a 7-year-old second-grader when she learned of the role from a handbill circulated by the film’s casting director. She auditioned and won the part of Wendy, says Zeitlin, because she had a quality about her that was “exactly what I had envisioned all these years ago.”
Based on the success of Beasts, Zeitlin got a first-look production contract with Searchlight Pictures that allows him to continue making films his way, but with a financial safety net. Crucial to his process is a dedication to being open to momentary experiments as they present themselves.
“It was a battle to maintain this process, for sure,” says Zeitlin. “But it was an absolute necessity.” Zeitlin took his cast and crew to shoot at an active volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 2017. “If I tried to find a more treacherous site to film at than this, I don’t think I could,” says Zeitlin, with pride of achievement in his voice.
“I call what I do guerrilla filmmaking. And with the studio backing me, I was able to do it on a grand scale,” says Zeitlin. “It felt like what we were able to do on ‘Beasts,’ but on a giant canvas. All of my work so far you could call being in a kind of Neverland. The difference this time is people were aware of what we were doing and eager to see the results.”
As Zeitlin readily concedes, he has a personal identification with Peter Pan, a disinterest in growing up. “In a way, that explains the career I chose, or that chose me,” he says. “Both movies were hard to make with a lot of built-in challenges, but that’s the adventure of filmmaking. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Because I retained a childlike perspective, my sense of wonder and curiosity, I was able to make ‘Wendy’ and see its events from a child’s point of view.”
With his seven-year journey with Wendy about to come to fruition with the film’s release, Zeitlin looks back on it with awe and amazement.
“Bringing ‘Wendy’ to the world will be as mind-boggling to me as anybody else, I think. This shoot was so challenging, it could have gone wrong so often, but that it what made it worth doing,” he says. “Whether or not people like it, well, that is out of my control.”
WENDY. Director: Benh Zeitlin; Cast: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, Romyri Ross; Distributor: Searchlight Pictures; Rating: PG-13 ; pens: Friday at the Classic Gateway Theatre, Fort Lauderdale