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Daily Journal
     February 26, 2020      #38-57 KDJ

'Wendy' a new look at old tale 

By Pam Powell

Benh Zeitlin, who gave us the Academy Award-nominated film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in 2012, has been working on “Wendy” for the last seven years. The film, a new rendition of Peter Pan, takes us on a journey with Wendy (Devin France) and her two brothers as they live and play in Neverland. I sat down to talk with Zeitlin, the writer and director, to talk about the making of this beautifully soulful film and his insight brought even greater meaning and beauty to the film. Responses have been edited for space and clarity.

You co-wrote this film with your sister Eliza. How did your youth together influence making this film or motivating you to do so?

We’ve been haunted by Peter our entire lives. … It’s not like we sat and watched it a thousand times or read it a thousand times, it was just him as a character. In our games we would play and the stories that we would write as children, he would show up and he was there. We were thinking about who he is, what he means our whole lives. It was always a dream to reinterpret the story and unshackle it from its history.

Tell me about finding the actor Yashua Mack who plays an incredible Peter Pan.

It was an incredible adventure. … I spent the better part of 4 years in Antigua, Montserrrat, and Barbuda. Peter is from Antigua and he’s part of a Rastafari community called the Nyabinghi. We came to the idea that Peter was going to be from our Neverland, he’s a native of there. We wanted to find a kid who’s just possessed by joy and mischief and who when he plays, his playground could be anywhere. There are a ton of kids there, about 15 kids both his family, cousins and other families that live on the compound. The way that they play is just extraordinary and inspiring. They’re here one minute and you look away and they’d be at the top of a tree 80 feet in the air tossing down fruit and then flying back down, just using nature as a playground. We felt that’s who Peter Pan would be in this version of Neverland.

I’m imagining it’s rather remote with not a lot of amenities. Were the people of this island welcoming?

The island did not have the infrastructure to make a film. There’d only be power on one side of the island or the other [so] we had to share power. We had two offices [and] we’d drive across the island in the middle of the day. There was a very much a collaboration between us and the people on the island. A lot of the areas the film is shot take place in the exclusion zone in Monssurat.

Two-thirds of the island is a volcanic exclusion zone because there’s an active volcano there. Buried cities. I linked up with these guys and anytime they were going out they would call me. I would trek out for days out into the nothingness, sleep in caves, cook with coconut water. The island shaped the film in so many ways and was so welcoming.

As a mom, I can’t imagine having my kid be where there’s an active volcano! How did you coordinate that?

With incredible effort and incredible producers! Obviously, the film had to be completely safe even though we were simulating incredible danger at all times. We had to build a road through the ash field, miles through the ash field, for evacuation routes. The volcano’s been dormant for a long time so it never really felt like there was any impending danger. It was a huge effort to simulate danger while keeping everything safe. There’s all sorts of wires removed and people hiding. There are divers hiding in the water every time you see a kid in the water. We tried to stylize the camera work to make it feel almost like we didn’t know what was going to happen before it happened. The kids didn’t know, but that was all part of the artifice of the film. It was an incredible adventure and the kids became the bravest, toughest people you could imagine.

I feel like this film punctuated the love and importance of moms.

It’s definitely a mother movie!

How about the moms on set?

BZ: We had some incredible moms. Our team of moms were as every bit as part of the adventure with the crew as us. And we spent years together. Some of these kids I’ve known for half their lives at this point. We really became a family and it was really a collaboration between us and the families. You have to keep a film set a playground in order for kids to want to be there. These aren’t actor kids. These are real kids.

You have a background of teaching kids after you finished school. How did this translate to creating both “Beasts” and “Wendy?”

I really connect to kids. I relate to them and I really respect them. I think that has a lot to do with it. I don’t “kid talk” to them. They’re peers to me. And I treat them as such and I always try to empower them. I think part of it is we really collaborate on these characters. I don’t come in with a script and say, ‘Oh, no. You have to say it this way.’ If they can’t say something or don’t want to say something the way it is in the script, I’d say, ‘Well how would you say this? How would you change this?’

It becomes something that we own together. I’m always looking to learn from them and discover my characters through them. For me it’s just giving kids agency and giving them control and power and letting them know that you respect their creativity as well as just their desires. That mutual respect is how I’ve been able to get kids to rise to amazing heights in the films.

Were there any surprises that shaped or stayed in the film?

A lot of the casting is really surprising. You don’t really know who your character is until you’re sitting in a room with them. One that is really interesting for us is Miss Darling, Wendy’s mom. We had written that character as this angel super mom, everybody’s dream mother. We met Shay Walker who ended up playing the role. She’s this incredibly brilliant, but wild, wild person who has a crazy past. The stories she had from her life are just shocking and she’d been in so much trouble, but she had come out of that and overcome that. It was an interesting shift for us. Initially, Wendy is running away to rebel against her mom and run away from this wholesome world.

It was interesting to realize that her mom could be this character that definitely would have also followed Peter, that also had this wild spirit. In some ways, Wendy isn’t running away from her mother, she’s following in her mother’s footsteps. That idea that there could be this

beautiful cycle of these women who run away and tear off on adventure but never give up their love and come back to their family and protect their family. Those two things don’t have to be an either or choice. [It’s] one really interesting and inspiring thing that happened just based on the life of the actress that ended up playing the role.

Is she an actress by trade?

No, we found her in a diner doing a really similar thing to the character — waiting tables. She’s had every job that you could imagine. Our casting director Jesy Rae Buhl went to the diner and asked her if she wanted to try out and she came in and was incredible.

“Wendy” opens in theaters Friday, Feb. 27.

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