Benh Zeitlin was always going to take his time. Seven years ago, his dazzling first feature “Beasts of the Southern Wild” became the breakout story of the year, premiering to raves and a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It scored distribution with Fox Searchlight and a first-look deal for its director, who eventually landed an Oscar nomination. The success was unusual considering that the dreamlike project had been made by Zeitlin and his New Orleans-based Court 13 collective on a shoestring budget with non-professional actors, mostly children. But the next step in his story was even more unconventional.
Once the excitement around “Beasts” died down, Zeitlin went right back to work, and never really stopped until a few months ago. At this year’s Sundance, he’ll finally premiere “Wendy,” a freewheeling, ethereal reworking of “Peter Pan” with a cast of energetic children making their acting debuts. Shot at the base of an active Caribbean volcano in 2017 with his usual ragtag team of collaborators — as well as side trips to Mexican caves and Louisiana train tracks — “Wendy” once again combines haunting and awe-inspiring rhythms to convey a child’s view of the world. The vision is so consistent with “Beasts” that it could have been made in its immediate aftermath. So why wasn’t it?
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The answer has much to do with Zeitlin’s meticulous approach, which demands patience and a willingness to experiment without draining the bank, as it was presented to the studio from the start. While nobody could have predicted the timeline that played out, Zeitlin never really veered off-course. “We never had hard deadlines,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “It was a battle to maintain this process, for sure. But it was an absolute necessity.”
In the ensuing years, Fox Searchlight dropped the “Fox” in its name at the direction of new Disney ownership, and Zeitlin went from a fresh-faced outsider artist in his late 20s to an elusive auteur on the verge of 40. “Wendy” brings him back to the place it all started.
“I was at Sundance realizing that everything was about to change,” Zeitlin said, reflecting on the aftermath of the “Beasts” premiere. The New York native had become well-entrenched in the Louisiana film community and started contemplating a return to smaller-scale projects after the swampy “Beasts” production consumed so much of his life. But the sudden support from Searchlight changed his perspective. He thought back to his childhood in Queens, when he and his sister Eliza had become obsessed with the “Peter Pan” saga, and how that evolved into ideas for their own adaptation. “I had this conversation with my sister and my producers,” Zeitlin said, “where I told them, ‘We need to skip these other films. This is our moment to make ‘Wendy.’”
“Beasts” ultimately grossed over $23 million on a $1.8 million budget and scored four Oscar nominations, including one for its eight-year-old discovery, Quvenzhané Wallis, still the youngest nominee in history. When the hysteria died down, Zeitlin launched into years of production and post-production that made his “Beasts” approach look miniscule. On “Beasts” and earlier Court 13 endeavors like the similarly expressionistic short “Glory at Sea,” Zeitlin developed a penchant for burrowing into scenic environments, working with locals to blend documentary realism with lyrical extensions of it. “Wendy” gave him a chance to do that on studio dime, while forcing his team to confront a Peter Pan complex of their own.
“Benh forces you to think differently as a producer,” said Paul Mezey, who served as an executive producer on “Beasts” before stepping into a broader role on the new project. “We’re all personally growing up, so this question of how you approach the world with curiosity and wonder even as we age and gain responsibilities in adulthood is something you think about when you’re making films.”
Whenever an artist vanishes from the scene, rumors abound. Ask around about Zeitlin, however, and no “Apocalypse Now” horror stories take shape. Zeitlin didn’t embark on temporary retirement like Terrence Malick, or spend 30 years chasing windmills akin to Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote saga. In the aftermath of “Beasts,” Zeitlin had no time or interest in auditioning for franchise gigs or ingratiating himself to Hollywood A-listers.
“Benh never considered an alternative methodology to his filmmaking,” said Dan Janvey, one of Zeitlin’s longtime collaborators from Court 13. “There was no transition period where he changed his way of working on movies. He didn’t take studio meetings or start working with professional actors. I think because we all were involved with ‘Beasts,’ it was a remarkably efficient conversation to go to the studio to say, ‘This is exactly what we know about how we’ll embark on this adventure.’”
Of course, Zeitlin saw potential in greater resources. “I thought that we could actually do something bigger, but still do it guerrilla style,” he said. “We had this chance to really dictate a process that’s unprecedented, to take principles that existed on ‘Beasts’ to the highest scale possible.” Nevertheless, he wasn’t quite ready for the pressure that entailed. “Basically my whole life I’ve been making art projects, and there is this sort of utopian feeling of being in a Neverland,” he said, invoking the themes of “Wendy,” and not for the last time. “I’d been in a place where all that matters is adventure and creativity.” In the wake of “Beasts,” Zeitlin faced questions about his next move from every direction. “it’s just a different sensation,” he said. “We’ve been through this several times, but no one cared before.”
Having settled on directing “Wendy” next, Zeitlin waited until “Beasts” hit theaters in June 2012 to pitch the concept to executives at Searchlight, emphasizing the loose production timeline that allowed “Beasts” to thrive. “The expectation was to some degree what happened,” said Searchlight president of production Matthew Greenfield. “It was going to be a creative exploration and take the time that it took for that process to happen.”
Zeitlin spent a year promoting “Beasts” before diving into a complex research phase, getting familiar with the Caribbean islands, casting, and rewriting based on his familiarity with the backdrop over the next four years. The 60-day shoot took place intermittently between February and November 2017; Zeitlin reconfigured the story in post-production, as one editor replaced another, over the next two years. In October 2019, Searchlight finally announced the February 28 theatrical release. “Our rule is that we don’t date our movies until they’re pretty much done,” said Greenfield. “Every movie is on a different timeline.” He chuckled. “Benh is obviously a more extreme version of that.”
Nevertheless, most studios prefer some assurance of a return on investment. “Beasts” was made with a grant from New York non-profit Cinereach, while the paychecks for “Wendy” came from a corporate entity with bottom line concerns. That’s where the Court 13 ethos came in handy. While the filmmaking team declined to comment on the budget for “Wendy,” sources close to the production estimated it at a little over $6 million, significantly less than many mid-level studio efforts with stars. (Much of the production was non-union.) “It was neither cheap nor expensive,” said Greenfield. “We made a plan at the beginning about what it would cost to get this done. That allowed for a non-traditional process and post-production process that gave us great flexibility.”
Despite the idiosyncratic setup, “Wendy” did have a script, and some measure of a traditional storyline. The movie follows adolescent daydreamer Wendy (Devin France), the daughter of a waitress at a grimy New Orleans train station where she watches the cars speed past. When she spots the mischievous child Peter (Yashua Mack) riding the train late one night, she chases him onboard, while her twin brothers (Gavin and Gage Naquin) follow. The journey takes them to the mystical Neverland, where Peter displays supernatural powers at the behest of a glowing undersea being he’s dubbed Mother, and obviously nobody grows old. The adventure only gets stranger from there, as the children face the literal fear of adulthood destroying their bonds and the nefarious Captain Hook emerges from an unlikely place.
Even “Peter Pan” fans will never predict where “Wendy” is heading, and Zeitlin didn’t always know, either. He shot the movie so far off the grid that the studio had to wait around for updates. “We had the script, but we didn’t really know what he’d be shooting every day,” Greenfield said. “He’s trying to meld the plan with the discovery. I found it moving to watch it evolve and grow.”
Part of that involves Zeitlin’s relationship to the material itself. Despite a romantic obsession with Peter Pan in his childhood, the adaptation turned into a repudiation. “As we went back and looked at every version of Peter Pan we’d ever experienced, it had nothing to do with the story we wanted to tell,” he said. “They’re all sort of bogged down in some really sexist archetypes. So much of that story is really about adventure for little boys. The girls make them pockets and stay in the house and wait for them to come home.”
He was especially bothered by the way Wendy came across. “In every version of Wendy, including the one in the original text, she just has no agency. She’s this girl who has a crush on Peter.” In Zeitlin’s version, Wendy grows to distrust her troublemaking guide and take control of the situation once Captain Hook becomes a threat. “We wanted to create this strong little girl who we were going to make the hero in the film,” Zeitlin said, “as opposed to the brazen recklessness of Peter.”
Naturally, Zeitlin saw himself in the material as well. “A lot of our core group was moving from being in our twenties to our thirties, and our dreams are changing,” he said. “Our priorities were changing. Thematically, all these things sort of collided.”
The bulk of “Wendy” was shot on the island of Montserrat, two-thirds of which had been destroyed by the volcano that features prominently in the movie. The entire production could only access the island by flying into Antigua and taking a boat. Once Zeitlin settled on the backdrop, his producers spent two years figuring out how to shoot in an active volcano zone, and built an extensive road to reach the base of the mountain.
“Your first instinct is that this is impossible,” Mezey said. “Benh delights in that. He rallies people around the challenge.” For Zeitlin, the volcano — which blows its stack more than once, often at the behest of a telekinetic Peter — “became a central organizing principle of what the magic in the film would be,” he said. “The whimsy and the fairy magic in ‘Peter Pan’ feels very distant and very fantastical, not real. But these phenomenons that are natural of the earth are as mind-boggling as any sort of fairy dust could ever be.” The Mother figure, a creature that recalls the giant aurochs in “Beasts,” became a billowing aquatic creation pitched somewhere between a jellyfish and a large iguana. “The idea was that the magic of youth and joy was contained within this creature that Peter has sort of decided is his mother,” Zeitlin said.
The most unorthodox aspect of “Wendy,” however, involved the casting process. As with “Beasts,” the centerpiece of “Wendy” is a black child — in this case, Antigua native Mack, whom Zeitlin found in a Rastafarian compound deep in the forest. While some may question the nature of that decision, charges of cultural appropriation associated with Zeitlin’s process tend to ignore the organic approach to production and the way the surroundings inform the result.
Casting the six-year-old Mack came only after his team back in New Orleans spent a year auditioning some 1,500 kids. During that time, Zeitlin befriended an Antigua local who took him around the islands. “In the traditional story, Peter Pan has always been represented as this sort of aristocratic British kid who’s just sort of prancing around this imaginary Caribbean landscape,” Zeitlin said. “But these environments are incredibly difficult to navigate. They’re between the trees, the vines, the rocks, and these ash fields, crazy volcanic beaches, and water — and all these elements. Our Peter had to be able to navigate this terrain with such a level of knowledge, agility and fearlessness that we were never going to be able to bring someone who hasn’t experienced this before. That all led us to this idea that Peter should be cast in the region that we were going to shoot this film.”
Zeitlin also wanted a nimble performer as a reaction against Hollywood storytelling. “I thought about films like ‘The Jungle Book,’ where all the nature is synthesized and you’re just running around on a giant green screen,” he said. “This is the sort of the adventure that kids movies are allowing us to experience these days, and they’re totally divorced from my experience, or I think a lot of people’s experience of childhood, where the greatest thing you could do is go break all the rules and get absolutely filthy in mud, in water, in nature.”
Production on “Wendy” was a messy and even dangerous undertaking, so open-ended that even Zeitlin’s infectious journeyman attitude couldn’t smooth every wrinkle. “When things got difficult, things were difficult,” he said. “We were in places where there were no laws, or they were writing the laws of how to permit a film shoot for the production, because it had never been done before.” Studio executives couldn’t visit the set. “It was so challenging to get to the places that we were shooting, that there was no way that there could be an actual physical presence of anybody who wasn’t essential to shooting the scene,” Zeitlin said.
And while the studio may not know exactly how “Wendy” will pay off in the long-run, Greenfield said he had no regrets about taking on Zeitlin’s follow-up back in 2012. “All filmmakers have a process that they do their best work in,” he said. “It would be insane for us to take a filmmaker and say, ‘We love your movie, but do it our way.’”
Still, Zeitlin has a hard time believing he made it this far. “Man, it’s surreal,” he said. “Bringing it to the world will be as shocking to me as anybody else, I think. You have this relationship with this film — the dreams and the expectations, the blood, sweat and tears of all the people that helped you make the film — and the pressure to finish it was around that feeling. I was not going to leave my best friend behind.”
Needless to say, Zeitlin’s back to where he started seven years ago: Heading to Sundance and contemplating another project. “I think it’s going to be a lot smaller in some ways,” he said. “I want to be able to continue to improvise, make things freely in a way where it is an exploration and I don’t necessarily know where it’s going.” But there has been a crucial shift in his fixations. “I think now that we’ve grown up making ‘Wendy,’ there’s a lot to think about being an adult,” he said, and laughed. “I might take a break from working with children.”
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