CS Interview: Co-writer/director Benh Zeitlin on Peter Pan reimagining Wendy
ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with Oscar-nominated writer/director Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) about his latest project, Wendy, a reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s iconic fantasy-adventure play and novel Peter Pan, which is in select theaters now!
In this wildly reimagined ragtag epic, Wendy is lost on a mysterious island where aging and time have come unglued. She must fight to save her family, her freedom, and the joyous spirit of youth from the deadly peril of growing up.
The movie stars Shay Walker, Tommie Lynn Milazzo, and Stephanie Lynn Wilson. Zeitlin also co-wrote the script alongside Eliza Zeitlin (Glory at Sea). The movie is produced by Becky Glupczynski, Dan Janvey, Paul Mezey, and Josh Penn.
ComingSoon.net: So I guess starting off, despite the fact that Beasts obviously made some coin and got a lot of awards attention, you didn’t go for the big budget for this one. You kept it pretty small and I wanted to know kind of why you chose to continue down that route as opposed to going for the big dollar.
Ben Zeitlin: You know, it’s always been kind of like my interest as a filmmaker, and I never really saw directing as like, a job that I was going to get. It was always an escape from having a job. And so, I wanted to really protect creative freedom. I wanted to keep our team intact. I wanted to really like–I felt there was something really beautiful about how Beasts was made and really how the short that I made before that, Glory at Sea was made. It was like a real continuum of a process and a community. And I felt that you know, what I loved about being a director had everything to do with that community and that process, and that knowing that that could never exist within the framework of like, how Hollywood films are done, it wasn’t a lot of–I wasn’t torn up about the choice or anything like that or particularly tempted. For us, the opportunity was to take this process and take it to the next level and tell the next story and do so with an extraordinary like, opportunity to kind of challenge like, what was possible with different parts of the process in terms of like, I’d never seen a film that had a pack of non-actor children in it performing. You’d seen it in Goonies, but that was very Hollywood. Stand By Me, those are all like, River Phoenix and I’ve never seen that.
CS: You might have seen it in some foreign movies like Small Change and things like that.
Zeitlin: Right, but that were very verité. So that I wanted to like, tell like a real adventure story with real sort of constructed characters with a pack of non-actor children. We wanted to build this 35-foot underwater sea creature that lit up, that was operated by divers. There was no precedent for building an underwater puppet, anything like that ever in any context that we could find. So it was like, we wanted to take on impossible challenges. And to me, the opportunity coming out of Beasts was that we could do that. And we could get people to sign up for that because Beasts was made completely outside of any sort of Hollywood structure. It was financed by a non-profit. We completely invented how the film was made, and we had this chance where we were going to be able to have more resources and more time to sort of take that and try to accomplish things that were unprecedented. And so, that was what I was excited about. And the idea of sort of leaving that and working for hire, like just telling a story I didn’t believe in was never something that I considered really.
CS: Right. And the Peter Pan story, that’s been a huge magnet for a lot of different filmmakers. What was it specifically about the Barrie mythology that appeals to you.
Zeitlin: I think it means a lot of things. It was always a dream film for me and my sister, particularly, who I wrote the film with, Eliza. Since we were little kids, it was like, this was our–this character, more than any of the versions or even the book, it was like the character had this huge place in our lives, in our personal mythology, and we’d invented like a thousand different stories that he was a part of. And so, it was like a dream to make that movie. And then, it also was very much like, at the point where we’d had this opportunity to make the film, we were thinking a lot about this sort of sense of like the tension between like, freedom and care, and sort of like, wildness and responsibility. And a lot of that was really palpable kind of coming out of Beasts and there suddenly being these expectations of like, well, what would we do? That exact question, feeling like there was this whole sort of outside, more grown-up, more responsible, more strategic world that was going to come into our process. And how were we going to navigate that and sort of stay free and stay wild and also sort of just knowing that we were growing up and going to grow up during the time that it would take to make this film and wanting to figure out how to like, not feel like it was a choice between being free and having like, love and family in your life. And like, how could we find one within the other? And those themes were like, questions that I couldn’t articulate an answer for, and that to me is kind of what launches me into a film project, is wanting to explore some sort of paradox or perceived paradox that I know can be resolved, but I don’t know how. And the process of making the film was that.
CS: And it’s a tricky tone, too, because if you push it too far towards the contemporary, and then you’re in like Hook territory with Lost Boys on skateboards and stuff, and then you push it too far towards the grounded, then all of a sudden it becomes like Lord of the Flies. So where did you try to sort of land?
Zeitlin: I mean, our thinking about it had a lot to do with like, we wanted to express magic through nature and not through kind of like, pure fantasy and take the emotional ideas and express them through reality, not in like any sort of like, constructed aesthetic way, but we really wanted to not build this movie. We didn’t want to build it inside of a computer. We didn’t want to build sets. We wanted to find this story that we dreamed of on earth in a way that felt tangible and possible. And so, like a lot of places in this film–and the way that we did that was by keeping our script incredibly flexible and going really on this exploration, going to the Island of Monserrat that sort of formed the basis for Neverland, exploring in this volcanic exclusion zone, where two thirds of the island is basically you know, abandoned and where you could go find these sort of untouched, surreal spaces that felt like they expressed sort of fundamental emotional ideas from the original text, and then sort of wrap our story and our script around what we could find, as opposed to what we could build.
CS: That touches up on something that always kind of boggles me, because you see in bigger and bigger fantasy movies now, something like Avatar, where it’s like they’re literally recreating earth-like flora and fauna in a computer. Was this film almost like a reaction to that, where you’re like, hey guys, look. It’s all right here. No polygons necessary.
Zeitlin: Yeah, yeah, I mean, and I love Avatar, but I do think there’s a broader thing about our increasingly digital experience of life, of disconnecting from the planet in ways that are both emotionally dangerous and like, actually dangerous to us as a species, you know? And we wanted to make a film that really reconnects with the experience of viscerally being in nature, particularly for children. I mean, this film came out long after we were making the film, but I went to see like, one of my favorite films is the original Sabu Jungle Book, which is like, the most viscerally in-nature movie you’ll ever see. And then, to see that re-made and have the main character probably never went outside, to make a film about the jungle where there’s absolutely no engagement with the actual world–
CS: They’re all in a studio in Van Nuys.
Zeitlin: Yeah, exactly. And like, that feels really bad. And to me, it feels really bad, and I had this experience casting the film, just talking to so many children and finding so few people that really even imagined things in the natural world, like in my imagination as a kid was so in–I mean, I was in Queens. It wasn’t like I was living in the forest, but like, cracks in the sidewalk where ants lived, were like, vast wonderlands to me. And I think that that visceral connection of being a little animal when you’re a kid and sort of never forgetting that you are an animal is something that we wanted to express. And to do that, we went to great length just to shoot this film in truly natural locations that were basically unmodified.
CS: Well, piggybacking off of that, to a certain extent is your fascination with the sort of natural world, does that come with the fact that you grew up in the urban environment, so to you, it feels like escapism?
Zeitlin: I don’t know. I once had a split life because my mom is from the country in South Carolina and I spent a ton of time down there. And we’d go down there and it’s like you’re chasing chickens and chasing pigs and you are out. And so, I never felt like, I don’t know, probably not. Like I never felt like so urban that I had to like, run away from that or something like that. I think to me, it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just like something fundamental. It’s something fundamental that I think we lose as we grow up or we’re told to. I viscerally remember like being a kid and coming home like, covered in like, dirt, sand and blood, and like, having no idea. My mom looking at me and being like, what did you do? And I was like, oh no.
CS: Because you had just had that adrenaline rush.
Zeitlin: Or just like you don’t feel disconnected from those things, and then you grow up and you’re like, ew. Mud. Like don’t touch a bug. Gross. Like there are germs and you were told as kids to like, disengage with the natural world. And to me, that’s like a real loss that we experience.
CS: Yeah, life becomes kind of sterile.
Zeitlin: Yeah, exactly. And I think a lot of the film is digging at the sort of ways that grown-ups force things out of children. And I don’t know why they do. You know, it’s some way of coping with ourselves that we then continue to sort of inflict these disconnects on children between nature, between their imagination, between their dreams, and like, these losses with things that we wanted to really dig into in the film in ways that were very visceral.
CS: Yeah, well, and you’re really good at capturing the exhilaration of children running wild and letting their imaginations run. And you have these sort of great sequences of manic excitement and wonder. But then, you also, you have the crashes. You have the lows. Like, how did you and Eliza kind of chart the emotional ride you wanted to take the audience on?
Zeitlin: Yeah, I mean, you always try to track an emotional spine to the film that isn’t necessarily like the plot or the events, which can be quite simple. But you know, I think we also wanted to get at when you play like that, when you’re wild and dangerous and mischievous and free like that, bad stuff happens eventually. You know what I mean? That’s the adage I remember as a kid of whatever, like it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. That’s the ultimate experience of being a kid. So, we wanted to go through the losing an eye and find a way to defy that, you know, because a lot of what we talked about, too, and this also came from a lot of casting and interviews, we would always ask grown-ups like, what do you remember a moment in your life where you felt like you grew up or where your life changed forever because of something that happened. And a lot of that was around tragedy or getting hurt themselves. They dreamed of being a horseback rider. They got bucked off one time, broke their back, and then that dream just died right there. Or when they lost a brother or when they lost a mother and they just never felt like they could connect to–it shakes your faith or something, and they never could quite feel the same after a loss. And so, one thing we wanted to explore was like, how do you overcome a loss or getting hurt like that? And there’s some characters in the film that do, and there’s some that don’t based on how they sort of process their faith after something terrible happens to them. And so, that idea is one that we wanted to explore, especially through the character of James, obviously.
CS: Yeah, and you talked a little bit about building that amazing animatronic. That is such a beautiful piece of work. It feels so visceral, so real and so like, tangible. Are the effects just sort of something that you see in your toolbox? Or is it something that you’d like to build on in future films? Because in a lot of ways it feels like an extension of what you did like, with the warthogs in Beasts. It feels like you’re sort of building upon that.
Zeitlin: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s film to film. I mean, this was a radically different challenge. On Beasts, we really used real animals and that was that challenge. This one was about building a puppet. And we couldn’t really do it animatronically, which we wanted it to be reactive to water in this way that was completely–there was no way to like, program that. You know, the way that something flows through water is so chaotic. And so, yeah, this challenge was about really pushing the limits of what could be done underwater with practical materials, you know, and with human operation. The full-scale puppet was operated by underwater divers, who it was like a very–we had to rehearse this like, flow of a breath, and it had this human–or just organic quality to it, that if anything robotic–
CS: So the divers were off-camera?
Zeitlin: Yeah, they’re inside the head. They’re like, hidden inside oftentimes. And then, we also had a miniature that was operated from above the water, but also, like, we had to build it with enough flexibility that we felt all this sort of movement that was just random essentially. And so, but yeah, I mean, it certainly comes from a lot of this movie is inspired by me and my sister in the basement with like, the six VHS tapes that we had as kids. And so, like Willow was a huge inspiration for Beasts, and then this one, some of the creatures in Neverending Story. We have like, a real love for that kind of lost era of film, where things were larger than life were built by artisans, each with their own skill set and personality. And I really miss that in sort of fantasy because when things become digital, they have a way of homogenizing, sort of the feel of what you’re looking at. And we really brought together some amazing artists, some people who worked on the mother had been on Ghostbusters, were that sort of last generation. Part of the mother was made in LA, which is where Bill Brian, who was like the plastic man of 1980s and 90s Hollywood, was located. The team brought him in, and he like figured out all these techniques to utilize plastic, to creature creatures and they’re just beautiful techniques that are just very quickly going extinct.
CS: I mean, when I see something like that, I can see you doing your own kind of Dark Crystal. I can see you doing a whole movie just like that, like totally out of your imagination, totally practical, sort of fantasy world. Is that something you could ever see? Or would you always want there to be like, the more chaotic element?
Zeitlin: I mean, I don’t know. I think I’ve gone–probably the more films I make, I’ve kind of actually gone–like, I started off as an animator. I made stop motion animated films that were purely imagined, that were all puppets, and I just spent months and months alone in dark rooms animating puppets, and I think that my imagination oftentimes comes from that in a way that I’m sort of doing things that defy the laws of physics as if I was animating, and anything could happen. But I do more and more want to tell human stories. And for me, being realistic doesn’t mean that nothing like a 35-foot underwater scene, that to me, that is still existing in the realm of realism, but I don’t know that I’d ever want to make something that’s purely fantastical. I think that I am always interested in ways that things that are larger than life touch like, real life. So I think increasingly, that’s where my mind goes.
CS: Yeah, well, it’s interesting because I remember actually, I remember even before Beasts, I remember tracking Glory at Sea and some of the other Court 13 projects and stuff. And I remember when Beasts broke out I sort of thought, oh okay, now all the Court 13 guys are going to become the new crew, sort of like David Gordon Green and Jody Hill and Danny McBride and all those guys became like, the North Carolina crew. This is going to be the Wesleyan crew is going to come in and Hollywood’s going to gobble them up and they’re all going to have a million projects. Why didn’t that happen?
Zeitlin: Because I don’t know. The way that we made films was really fun. It was really fun. And it’s fun, it’s meaningful. The process enriches your life in incredible ways. There’s like a real positivity to when we make a film in a place, it has a really powerful impact. And anybody from our crew that goes back to the Island of Monserrat, just is like, we all have a world there now and it’s like an incredible way to live. And the filmmakers that have sort of come out of it, like Jonas Carpingnano, who is in Southern Italy like, with his own version, his own process, but also very much like, working in that community making incredible films.
CS: Yeah, or like Ray Tintori.
Zeitlin: Yeah, and I think that we are sort of inspired by an approach that isn’t one that could ever be executed in like, the factory of Hollywood, the culture of that would totally dismantle all the things that I think made Beasts really good. And so, I think that–
CS: It’s just anathema to your guys’ process.
Zeitlin: Yeah, the Hollywood process has everything to do with things being controlled and predictable. That’s how movies get made. There are strict timelines and there’s processes that are not out of touch. The other reason, when you get on a real film set it’s like, no one who’s not a grip touches a light. You know what I mean? That seems unimportant, but it works against collaboration in real ways and it works against an organic approach, where the film really dictates timelines and how things are done. Everything kind of has to fit into the same sort of stratified system. And I think that there’s a lot of knowledge that came from our early work, which in some ways was just ignorant of how those things should work. But where we sort of, there’s qualities to the films that I think are impossible to create in that context. And so, we continue to sort of try to work down these roads and find ways to get films made, even though it’s a much more circuitous, unpredictable, dangerous, risky approach to making a film.
CS: Yeah. I mean, that makes sense to me because I remember David Gordon Green came to my school right after he did George Washington and he talked about the process of making that movie. And he got these great performances out of these kids because everybody in the crew and the cast lived in the same house.
CS: The guy who’s the grip made them breakfast, that kind of thing.
Zeitlin: It’s a family. You create a family. Yeah.
CS: And I’m sure now every one of those kids would be in a trailer, you know? Yeah.
Zeitlin: It wasn’t like that. We all had to hike to set, no matter where you were, like take the same two and a half hour hike to our location. And by the time you get there, it’s like, you’ve all sort of bonded on like, holy shit, that as hard. Now we’re going to shoot a movie. It’s an equalizing thing to make films in a way that kind of doesn’t fit into that system that exists.
Wendy is in theaters now!