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Benh Zeitlin on shooting Wendy: ‘Sometimes a catastrophe, sometimes a miracle’

And the infinite complications of making the film Peter Pan would make

A young, tousel-headed girl peers cautiously from behind a fern in Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy. Photo: Searchlight Pictures
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

When writer-director Benh Zeitlin made his feature-film debut with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a lot of the critical response amounted to, “Where did this guy come from?” The film, which ultimately earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress, is strange and poetic, but its magical-realist story about childhood and nature is told with a compelling specificity and utter confidence.

Zeitlin has been quiet since the film’s release, for reasons that become clearer whenever he talks about his new film Wendy, a modern Peter Pan retelling filmed in the West Indies, with the same kind of reckless confidence and obsession with the natural world. Zeitlin and his sister Eliza (who co-wrote the film and handled production design) developed Wendy over a period of years, retooling and reshaping the story while location scouting in remote, nearly inaccessible places. They both drew on their own childhood fears and fantasies to shape the story, which has the Darling siblings Wendy (Devin France), Douglas (Gage Naquin), and James (Gavin Naquin) joining Peter Pan (Yashua Mack) on a midnight train to Neverland. There, they encounter the Mother, a glowing whale-like creature that confers immortality upon its charges.

While visiting Chicago just before Wendy’s theatrical release, Zeitlin talked to Polygon about the film’s “reality over effects” mentality, the design complications behind the Mother, and how relying on nature meant constantly retooling the film.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

A grubby-faced, wild-haired young girl laughs with a man carrying a camera and wearing a wide-brimmed hat on the set of Wendy.
Actor Devin France and Benh Zeitlin on the set of Wendy
Photo: Jess Pinkham / Twentieth Century Fox Film

You and your producers have repeatedly mentioned in interviews that you shot this movie guerilla-style, that it was all a non-traditional process. What was so unusual about how the film was shot?

Benh Zeitlin: Probably the biggest thing is just the amount of unpredictable, risky elements we brought to the process. Common logic when you’re making a film is to make sure to minimize anything surprising, and I think we invited in a lot of chaos, and let the real elements lead the film, guiding how things went. We worked with kids, with non-professional actors. We were very much trying to have what was happening onscreen be as close to reality as possible, even when it’s larger than life. Working with real trains, shooting on an active volcano, going to these very remote locations — you don’t always know what’s going to happen on any given day. The challenges pushed the shoot and the culture of the project to be very spontaneous, constantly having to adapt. That hopefully gives an energy and a feel to the film that’s different from a more tightly controlled film.

What kind of happy accidents did you end up with?

We were constantly dealing with shifting locations, because we were shooting in very volatile environments. We planned a whole scene to shoot on this remote beach, we built a stairwell down to it through a cliff face, over the course of several months. And we got to the beach on the day, and that beach was no longer there. It was just the ocean. Things like that would happen on a daily basis. Sometimes it was a catastrophe, sometimes it was a miracle.

One of the times that worked out — we had this cove where originally we’d written the scene where Douglas, one of the twins, disappears in the water. Part of the group thinks he’s dead, part of the group thinks the Mother saved him. That scene was written for a specific location. We got there a couple days out from shooting, and that cove, which had always been calm, was just a torrent of white water. We dove under it and found a sea-urchin nest that could not be cleared. It was completely untenable to shoot there. And I had no idea how we were going to solve the scene, as the shoot was getting closer and closer.

So one of the crazier things we did was to sink a boat, the Mañana, intentionally, near there. It was a huge adventure, trying to put that boat down safely. We got the boat sunk, and had a huge celebration out in the water. I had never even considered the idea that it could be a location — we were sinking the boat for the exterior. But we swam inside it — it was an incredible moment as the crew was celebrating — and then it struck me, “If this boat was here, this is exactly what the kids would do. This is exactly how Douglas should disappear, trying to swim through the bowels of the ship.” That’s just one example of how a whole scene rerouted based on discoveries, and the nature of shooting a film in a place you can’t control.

You have a lot of underwater shooting with kids. How did you coordinate that safely?

We had an amazing stunt team, obviously. Anytime a kid is underwater, there are several divers offscreen, ready to help them if anything goes wrong. And just an enormous amount of practice. We met the kids in 2014, 2015, and at that time, some of them didn’t even know how to swim. So we spent the better part of two years doing a tremendous amount of training in the water, getting everybody swimming to a level where they’d be safe.

Particularly with Devin, the process of learning how to act underwater is about as difficult a thing as you can do. You start with just opening your eyes. Then it’s like, “Can you emote? Can you learn to hold your breath long enough to get to get the shots?” There was a tremendous amount of rehearsal in pools. For the whole development process, I remember always being soaked. You just start every day in a bathing suit. And you know you’re going to be wet all day long.

In some ways, it was a really great thing, because kids love to swim. One of the biggest challenges of the film was keeping it fun. These weren’t actor-children, they didn’t have any ambitions to be actors. They’re all non-professional actors. They’re real kids, and they want to have fun. So to be able to say, “Rehearsal is in a pool today!” was always a great thing, because it kept them wanting to show up and do the work. A lot of those scenes were incredibly challenging for the crew — underwater shooting is extremely complicated — but I think for the kids, it actually was a highlight to get to perform all these moments in the water.

A girl and a boy stand on a barren reddish rock cliff at sunset, arms out as if they intend to fly, silhouetted against a mostly empty sky.
Devin France and Yashua Mack prepare to fly in Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures.

A lot of the early attention went to your casting of Yashua Mack as Peter Pan. How did you envision the character? And is it true you found him “in a Rastafarian compound deep in the forest”?

That was sort of misquoted, honestly. It wasn’t deep in the forest, their community is just off the main road in Antigua. It’s in the woods, but not deep in the woods. But one of the key things we were looking for, one of the main early ideas, was that we wanted Peter to be very, very young, as young as we could possibly cast him. So much of what we wanted to bring forward from the original story has to do with this kid who’s still frozen at this moment before you start to realize your actions have consequences, and before you care about anything other than just having fun. We wanted him to be at the edge of that age, and experience that growth in the film, and we wanted it to feel quite real. So we were looking at very young kids.

The other central idea was, this movie leans so far into natural magic. We wanted to take the magic of Peter Pan, take away the fairy-tale stuff, the fantasy stuff that felt kind of distancing, and make all the magic come from nature. So we needed a kid who loves to play outside, whose playground and toys could be the environment, all the different natural surfaces, the water, the trees, the ash fields, lakes, rivers, mud. It had to be somebody that would feel fearless and at home in a forest playground.

When we started to scout out there, and get a sense of how challenging it would be to navigate some of the places we were going to shoot, we came to the idea that we should try to cast that character locally, and have it be someone intensely familiar with playing in that way, who would plausibly feel like he had been living in this place for hundreds of years. Those were the central concepts, and we never really knew if we’d be able to pull it off.

Casting out there was extremely challenging. A lot of times we were literally going door-to-door to see if people had kids who were the right ages, and wanted to audition, and we would run the auditions right outside their house. Then we found this miraculous kid. When I first met him, honestly, I thought he was too young. He was five, and it was like, “Well, this is going to be impossible.” But when he did that first audition, when he dropped into character, that was the miracle of making the movie, to me. I just could not believe how natural and poised and in control he was, how able he was to perform somebody other than himself. That was the moment I knew we were making the movie.

Five kids sail on the ocean in a battered, rusty blue dinghy, with vast white clouds overhead.
Yashua Mack as Peter Pan and the cast of Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

You’ve said in interviews that one of your principles was, “If Peter Pan was making a movie, what would he make?” How did you enact that?

We had to really live the story. We didn’t want to fake anything. We could have built a set of a boat, and shot on a green screen, and composited the ocean into the back. It would have been more efficient, and we’d get exactly what we imagined, and it’d be easier. That’s the grown-up version of shooting a scene on a boat in the ocean.

But what would Peter do? Peter would get that boat and sail it out into the middle of the ocean with all of his friends, and really go on the adventure. It’s all choices like that, where you veer away from what would be easy, what would be fast, what would be clean, and you go toward actually living the story you’re telling. Hopefully what you get is scrappier, it’s messier. It’s not exactly what you imagined, oftentimes, but you get a sense of reality and spontaneity, and this thrill of a real adventure.

A lot of stories for kids, the myths that form childhood, are told in an incredibly antiseptic way. Like, [the 2016 Disney live-action movie] The Jungle Book takes place in the jungle, but that kid probably never went outside the entire time he was making that movie. There’s no real connection with the planet, or the danger of going on adventures as a kid. We wanted to bring childhood to life, and make a film that celebrated actually going outside and connecting with nature.

What went into conceiving the Mother?

A lot of it was personal mythology between me and my sister Eliza, who was the real mother of the Mother, both conceiving it and building it with her team. We were trying to figure out where the magic of youth in the film comes from. It started with the volcano, and the idea that it’s a real source of youth on the planet. A volcano is sort of where the earth is being born. It’s connected almost all the way down to the magma, the center of the earth. And we started looking at microscopic creatures that breathe off of hydrothermal vents at the center of the earth. We imagined this magical creature that was almost the heart of the planet, the protector of joy, the protector of the planet. We imagined an eruption where she was spit up from the center of the earth, and she found this child who was the last survivor of a volcanic eruption, and she became his protector. That was the mythology around the creature.

And then there was the idea that the film is an experience of the freedom of youth, the ability that small children have to just play with reckless abandon, and not care about anything. That’s a freedom you only have with the protection of your mother. You only really get that sort of childhood when you’re protected and taken care of. So we wanted to take that idea and project it into a mythic version, a connection between Peter and this creature who’s protecting him and keeping him young.

One of the original Mother props from Wendy — a kind of large orange rock, textured like a coral reef, all in oranges and browns with sleepy lidded eyeballs in the middle — sits in Louisiana’s Audubon Aquarium at the Wendy premiere party.
One of the original Mother props from Wendy
Photo: Josh Brasted/Getty Images for Searchlight Pictures

How much of the creature ended up being a practical effect, rather than CGI?

It’s almost all practical. There’s a lot of compositing involved to put her into new environments, and work done on the surface corrections. But we really set out to push the limits of what can be done with practical underwater puppetry and photography. The film definitely comes from me and my sister’s childhood, sitting in our basement watching VHSes of The Princess Bride, and Willow, and NeverEnding Story. We wanted to make a tribute to the creature work in those films, to the world of artists making these incredible real creatures and props and sets for films. We wanted the Mother to have that reality. We didn’t want the film to feel like it was built inside of a computer.

So over the course of several years, we tested and developed puppetry methods where you could operate creatures underwater. There were divers on respirators, puppeteering underwater. We wanted her to be fully kinetic, which was a huge challenge. Every single part of her had to be moving all the time, so you could feel the movement of the water, and the practicality of the puppet. Then you take that into the effects world, trying to figure out how to place her in her environment. It was actually very hard to do significant effects on top of this creature, because you have a moving camera, and a puppet that moves at every single inch of its surface, so to track anything on top of that was an incredible challenge. We had an amazing VFX team that did incredible work, but we had to build around what we could shoot in reality.

Wendy is so unrelentingly grim about adulthood. There’s a sense that once you get there, your life is over. You’ve said you conceived this film as a kid, when you and your sister were obsessed with not growing up, but do you feel that way as an adult?

Our intention was to make a film that looks toward adulthood with hope. I think that’s the journey of the film. It certainly begins with these ideas, close to my experience of being a kid, of fearing what’s going to happen to you, seeing the way adults act, the way they don’t play, the way that they don’t imagine. Me and my sister both had — and have! — this sort of terror that at some point, the magical way you experience the world as a child just goes away, and you don’t know why, and no one really tells you what happens, or how those things get taken from you.

But hopefully the journey of the film is Wendy solving that. That was the question we set out with — by the end, could she realize that the journey of growing up can be as much of an adventure as being a child? Certainly that was the experience we lived making the movie. Through making art and making films, we’ve realized that the beauty of growing up is that you get to live what you imagined as a child. You gain the power to actually create your own reality and experience it. That was our experience in making the film, and hopefully that’s the journey Wendy takes people on, from this grim, hopeless look at the loss of growing up to something that has all the same hope and joy and freedom of childhood in it.