“Beasts of the Southern Wild” writer-director Benh Zeitlin gained glory, honors ( three Oscar nominations) and filmmaking capital from that 2012 indie jewel.
And he knew just what he wanted to spend that capital on. He’d make his version of “Peter Pan.” No music, no posh British childhoods interrupted. He’d tell the story from heroine Wendy’s point of view and set it the “real” world — working class bayou, and actual deserted isle of “Lost Boys.”
He shot on the volcanic wasteland of Montserrat, used “natural” actors — untrained kids.
It took seven years for “Wendy” to make it to the screen, and he’s taken criticism for the dreamy, sensory and immersive childhood adventure that he conjured up. It’s a challenging film, I thought,but worthwhile.
Other reviews have been varying degrees of harsh. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis found him “more sentimental (than “Peter Pan” author J.M.) Barrie,” and that he “keeps the parts whirring, casting about for meaning that never fully comes.”
I caught up with Zeitlin, 36, for the first time since “Beast,” and asked him the obvious questions, and a few less obvious ones.
Question: What was the difference between “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Wendy” in terms of simple “degree of difficulty?”
Benh Zeitlin: “We did things the old fashioned way, and really challenged ourselves to make a film under circumstances that any practical person would tell you are impossible.
“Part of the fabric of the film is defying what is possible in terms of where you can make a movie.
“Crazily enough, it wasn’t a hard sell to the studio. We made ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ in a totally unconventional way. We’d invented our own process.
“When you’re doing things that far off from the way a studio would make a movie, once they sign off on it they kind of have to have faith that we would be able to do what, on paper, was completely undo-able.”
“We took the success of ‘Beasts’ and said ‘Let’s really challenge ourselves on an exponentially more difficult level.’ So we thought we’d make a film we always dreamed of without compromising.”
Q: What lessons from your no-budget/tiny (non-professional) cast “Beasts” served you best in “Wendy?”
Zeitlin: “All the work with non-professional actors that we did in that film was a learning experience. Especially working with non-professional kids. We had a lot more kids, seven — and that is, as any parent will tell not just seven times as tricky, but the chaos is seven squared.
“Every kid is their own volatile universe that you have to figure out how to wrangle on the set when you’re making a film.”
Q: The first time you mentioned this film aloud, in interviews, was back in 2013. What took you so long?
Zeitlin: Hahaha! The mere process of making the film took most of those years. It was always going to be a very circuitous, protracted adventure where we changed what we were doing — threw it out the window — and how we were doing it as we went along.
“Crazy twists and turns, which is what you get when you choose to film the places we filmed.
“We shot in a volcanic exclusion zone on an ‘active’ volcano — Montserrat. Just the locations required us to build roads (through the ash/magma field), building ziplines to move people and gear. It was an expedition, one where you take along REALLY young kids. We wanted to film a ‘Peter Pan’ where the kids were really children and not teenagers playing younger.
“We met our Peter when he was five years-old. Barely able to read. He didn’t know how to swim. It took time to get the kids ready just to bring them to the location.
“The time it took was the adventure of it. Everything was unexpected, but we had to expect the unexpected. It was going to take as long as it needed.”
Q: I travel the Caribbean a bit, and even I know not to hazard a trip to Monserrat!
Zeitlin: “I could write a book on all the reasons NOT to make a movie on Montserrat, and another book on all the reasons TO make a movie there. It’s an extraordinary place, a singularly incredible film location. Casting a place is similar to casting a person. Not only was the volcano there, and sometimes you just know — THIS is our Neverland.
“You rewrite the film to express the place you’ve decided to film it.
Q: If we can assume you’re settling into a niche, your niche is working with children. What do you get out of these experiences working with untrained kids as actors?
Zeitlin: “Children have an incredible freedom of thought and imagination, especially when you turn them loose, as we did. You can learn a tremendous amount about the characters by watching and playing with the kids and going on adventures with them. They’re not guarded. They’re not self-conscious.
“That can lead to incredible acting. This film is about never letting go of that pure freedom that you have when you’re that young. Your kids teach you how to tell your story and teach you the themes that you want in the script. They dictate the film and hopefully their spirit is what’s in it, as much as mine.”
Q: What has “Peter Pan” meant to you?
Zeitlin: “It’s changed over time. He was a figure that haunted my whole life. Not the story, just the idea of eternal youth and this kid that lives in a state of ultimate freedom. He never has to compromise, never has to change. He never has to make practical choices.
“Becoming a filmmaker, in a way, is dodging the world and creating your own reality. You live in Neverland, in your own imagination.”
Q: You made Wendy, who has always been central to the story, the controlling focus of this version. Her point of view is how we experience it. Why?
Zeitlin: “I told the story from Wendy’s point of view because I wanted to tell the story of somebody who visits Neverland, and then has to leave. How do you deal with loss of freedom and wildness? How do you keep that spirit when the world wants to change you?”
Q: How do you cast kids, especially non-actors, and especially this young?
Zeitlin: “You’re looking for someone who you feel would actually run away with Peter. You need that spirit, that imagination. The wildness, spontaneity and courage that it would take to do that has to come across on screen, just in how they are. You want this un-selfconscious openness that lets them drop into character, that they feel it when they do.
“For kids, there isn’t really an external motivation factor. They don’t care that they’re getting paid. They don’t, in the moment, care that they might become an actor later in life. They’re just in the joy of playing make believe and being on an adventure. I look for raw talent and passion for play acting.”
Q: I dare say it takes a special parent to let you work with their kids on something like this. Those sets (volcanic rocks, hopping a freight, swimming in the bayou, clamboring over a rusted out shipwreck) look like one giant tetanus shot waiting to happen for a bunch of barefoot children.
Zeitlin: Hahahaha! We have great set painters who are really good at making everything look rusted, like a ‘tetanus shot waiting to happen.’
“But with parents on a film like this, it’s one big family, because the parents make the journey with us. They become part of the team, part of the experience of making the movie.
“We’ve gotten good at making what the kids do look incredibly dangerous. But it has to be incredibly safe. We can make it feel like they’re in harms way.”
Q: What’s next on your filmmaking itinerary?
Zeitlin: “Hopefully, it won’t take another seven years to make a movie.
“But I don’t think there’s a right amount of time. I always have a sense of where I’m starting, but I don’t want to make a film where I know the destination. I’m always thrilled to start something new.
“This movie is about another time, when children weren’t as coddled and kept at a distance from the risks of life.
“For me, when I was a kid, an adventure was a chance to go out, get dirty, take chances and maybe get a little hurt. That’s what having fun meant, being out in our world and touching it.”
“That’s what I love to make movies about, real adventure and real connection with places, objects in our lives.”