James Clay// Film Critic
Director Behn Zeitlin’s career trajectory is surreal. On a phone call before the New Orleans premiere screening for his second film WENDY —-a reimagining of the children’s classic Peter Pan —-there’s an air of relief in his voice. This story has been gestating for the seven years since his debut feature BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD charmed during the festival and awards season. Who could blame him? Zeitlin is a thoughtful artist with a meticulous approach. Today, when films rotate in and out of multiplexes weekly, there is something to be said for a director inclined to take a breath.
Operating outside of Hollywood with a crew based out of New Orleans, Zeitlin hit big out of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival with BEASTS. The magical realism film set in a swampy wasteland stars non-actors, and captures a world so rich the scrappy indie went on to secure four Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Zeitlin, Best Actress for Quvenzhane’ Wallis and Best Picture. Accomplishing this feat by 30 suggests a hardworking creative, but whether Zeitlin’s ambition intentionally led him to all these accolades, or if it was the Hollywood Hype Machine hungry for the next young filmmaker of the moment, none of that mattered. He had broken through, and then he disappeared.
Some may question his decision to base his second film after a preexisting property, but WENDY’s story holds a special place in Zeitlin’s heart. The follow up to the monstrous success of BEASTS was always going to be WENDY, which he collaborated on the screenplay with his sister Eliza Zeitlin (who also served as production designer).
His sense of personal responsibility to authenticity is on full display in his casting. Again he chose non-acting children to play his leads, offering Devin France the titular Wendy Darling role and Yashua Mack Peter Pan. He mentioned the catharsis of the film finally making its way out into the world, “it’s good. Just so good, and I’ve been with him for a long time. But the real pressure wasn’t the external expectations of the world, or the studio. It was the kids growing and my hope was that they could still experience this as children.”
General film-going audiences are well aware of the story of Neverland, and the radical measures Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up, will go through to keep from losing his innocence. However, Zeitlan’s perspective shifted to focusing on the moppet like Wendy’s perspective, and it wasn’t just the point of view he was trying to subvert, but the very nature of fairy tales themselves.
France, who carries the film with a sparkle in her eye and zero cynicism, acts as the surrogate for all the adults watching along. At the same time, Mack’s Peter is the petulant voice in our ear whose confidence is endearing and somewhat convincing. With WENDY, Zeitlin wasn’t worried about feeling too precious over the material, and he certainly didn’t feel like either of his leads was a surrogate for his collaboration with his sister. The film is about continual growth and relinquishing control.
“Conflict between freedom and love and care,” said Zeitlin. “We wanted to blend those themes together through each of those characters. We definitely brought ourselves to each character, but we didn’t feel connected to either character more than the other.”
To bring his version of Neverland to life Zeitlin and his crew put in extra leg work reminiscent of Hollywood’s bygone era. He scouted the Caribbean Island of Montserrat, a location known for its mountainous terrain and low population. This is where he discovered Mack, a native to the territory. The conviction in his performance blurs the line between acting and performance art. Zeitlin’s took the approach, in his own words, of having “no brakes” when it came to pushing his child actors, and it shows in the enigmatic energy he was able to capture on film. He wanted the picture to have a sense of authenticity
“One thing we really wanted to do in this film is to make a real adventure instead of a synthesized story,” noted Zeitlin. “We didn’t want this to feel like it was made inside of a computer, or a green screen.”
He continued by mentioning inviting challenges to his method of filmmaking. “We made a movie that existed outside of the modern world and escaping from technology. Everything we used had to be brought in on boats and harkened back to an age of filmmaking that’s pretty much extinct. And that’s something both lost from filmmaking and childhood where kids just don’t have that experience anymore.”
All of the effort the Zeitlin siblings and their production crew went through to bring the hidden island of Montserrat to life would have been lost without a fine-tuned script. Zeitlin worked on finding an angle to the story that was unique to his vision, yet retained the spirit of J.M. Barrie’s original book.
In an age where time moves faster than ever, Zeitlin was able to find many nooks and crannies in the thematics elements that play both as an existential folk tale and as a double for how we take our time for granted in the digital age. It’s as if he was protecting his work from being contaminated by the outside world.
“It’s a tragedy that is universal and compromising our dreams by limiting to who we can be,” lamented Zeitlin. “You know, giving up our freedom and sacrificing things for somebody can be heartbreaking.”
As a filmmaker who was fresh-faced eight years ago, he took his time with he wanted to bestow upon the contemporary artistic landscape. As grand as a pronouncement as Zeitlan’s film may sound, it is void of any pretension. WENDY is that reassuring pat on the back we all need. Zeitlin said it best, “WENDY is about learning to love again.”