Filmmaker Benh Zeitlin And 'Wendy'
Cinema Junkie / March 12, 2020
I became a fan of Benh Zeitlin after his first film "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Now almost eight years later he has a second film that once again captures the wonder of childhood through a young girl's eyes. For "Wendy" he has reimagined "Peter Pan" from her point of view and place the idea of motherhood front and center. I speak to him about shooting on 16mm, working with non-professional child actors, and keeping reality as part of the magical world he creates.
Speaker 1: 00:00 Well get on with it. Girl at night. Name is windy, windy more and to Dawn is enough through a modern
Speaker 2: 00:08 Disney's 1953 animated version of Peter pan sounds painfully dated, but this year Peter pan gets a fresh re-imagining that allows Wendy to drive the story.
Speaker 1: 00:20 Tell mama
Speaker 2: 00:23 you tell her that I'm being wild as hell. Filmmaker Ben Zeitlin revisits James and Barry's children's classic for his new film. Wendy,
Speaker 1: 00:41 welcome.
Speaker 2: 00:42 Another edition of listener supported KPBS cinema junkie podcast. I'm Beth OCHA, Mondo
Speaker 3: 01:01 [inaudible]
Speaker 2: 01:01 transplanted new Yorker. Ben Zeitlin made beast of the Southern wild, a fierce and beautiful cinematic poem about a culture on the edge of extinction and defiantly staring down the challenges that accompany that the film used nonprofessional actors that Sightline told me helped shape the script. It's been eight years since beasts of the Southern wild but site is taking the same approach in his new film. Wendy, the film opens in a contemporary cafe that exists perilously close to a train whose whistle seems to lure wild children to escape their mundane existence.
Speaker 1: 01:38 Oh, children grow up, put some the wild games escape
Speaker 2: 01:44 the train proves to be Peter pans means of gathering new companions. Zeitlin co-wrote the film with his sister, Eliza. He recalled how their wish as they blew out birthday candles was always that they would never grow up. Now they get to tackle that idea by retelling the Peter pan story and using Wendy to investigate the true nature of aging. Or as he says in his director statement, not the changes to our bodies, but the erosion of the spirit that happens only when joy, wonder and hope are lost. How could we grow up and never lose our freedom? This question became the guiding force for what became a seven year journey to Wendy. I need to take a quick break and when I return I'll have my interview with writer, director Ben Zeitlin. First of all, what attracted you to wanting to reimagine a Peter pan story?
Speaker 4: 02:40 I think a lot of things. I think it was, you know, it was a story that particularly for me and my sister had been part of our personal mythology since we were really small children. You know, I think that I did a play a Peter pan for her when she was two years old, you know, with stuffed animals and like ziplines flying into a puppet theater and you know, was like a story that we retold to each other and less than kind of like actually we telling the real story of Peter. It was really about, you know, kind of the, the characters sort of stayed with us in these ideas and kind of this sort of central theme of, you know, what can be lost when you grow up. And sort of going from children being sort of, kind of terrified of that loss. I'm always kind of dreading like if somehow we were going to lose some part of ourselves that, um, that we can never get back in the process of growing up.
Speaker 4: 03:32 And then I think as we got older, I think more, you know, reflecting on some of the, sort of, the, the theme that, that really kind of, we reconnected with the story with at the, at the point where we decided to make the film. What kind of this idea? Um, that's kind of in a text that that always I think continued to sort of terrify me even as an adult, that there's this kind of idea that in order to be, in order to be truly free, you have to be alone and you have to be kind of heartless and really unconnected to other people. And I think it's something that I think everybody really confronted at some point, um, is this idea that in order to grow up in order to, you know, have, you know, pursue the dreams of the work you want to do or the career you want to have or the family that you want to have, that there's this kind of sacrifice of freedom and wildness and joy involved in getting those things.
Speaker 4: 04:29 And I think we wanted to explore the notion that that doesn't have to be a choice that you make and that there's, there's that there can be tremendous sort of joy and freedom and wildness within love, within sort of family within kind of the past to getting older. And we sort of wanted to tell a story, you know, not through the lens of Peter who sort of is just this tiny little zealot for never grow up. But through the sort of lens of Wendy who is this kid who goes to experience this sort of adventure, um, and this and this freedom, but then also has to leave and go back and face life and sort of take that, take that with her and figure out what to do with it and how that sort of confront these losses and not be broken by them.
Speaker 5: 05:12 Your film's arriving at the same time that a play here is opening also re-imagining Peter pan called fly. What do you think about this story has given it such longevity and kind of inspired people to reimagine it repeatedly?
Speaker 4: 05:26 I imagine it's something that a lot of artists connect to. You know, I think especially when you're, when your path in life is impractical and you know, which most artists pads are, you know, we are trying to, you know, live for storytelling and imagination and as you get older there's quite a lot of pressure. I think for creative people to sort of compromise their vision and their dream of, of what they might do and who they might be and to get forum to practical pads that lead to more financial stability or whatever, you know, lead to that are safer or, or, or more stable. And I think that, you know, there there's something in, in the experience of growing up as an artist that I, that I, I think probably I certainly connect connected to the conflict and the themes within the mythology of Peter and then I'm sure a lot of other people do too.
Speaker 5: 06:19 Your first film beast of the Southern wild had, uh, a kind of social consciousness regarding climate change. This film has a really interesting kind of ecosystem to it. I mean, when the trains are going by, what you're seeing is not like this beautiful pristine landscape. And when they get to the Island too, there's trash washing up on the beach. So I'm wondering what kind of kind of themes you were trying to get at with that.
Speaker 4: 06:48 I think it's a couple of things. You know, I think that we, you really wanted the film to sort of celebrate a connection to nature, even if it's not like a pretty and perfect one. You know, we wanted to sort of celebrate something that was more visceral. And you know, the film was, we went through, we went to enormous length to film the, the, to make the movie, you know, on a real Island in the real rainforest. Like we shot on an active volcano, we shot in beaches that were sandstorms and oceans and underwater. And, you know, we tried to always really shoot the film, like truly in connection with nature and, and we wanted to tell a story about sort of childhood adventure that wasn't sort of like synthesize and, you know, built in a computer and, and you know, that really had that visceral, um, contact with, you know, with muck, you know, for, for lack of a better word.
Speaker 4: 07:41 Um, and we also wanted to sort of be mad if we talk about how, how that changes, you know, I think that one, one of the, one of the losses that we experience, like going from being children to adults is, are our sort of visceral connection to the planet shifts in a way. I think when we're young, your contact with whatever it is, dirt, bugs, dead things and water, like those things don't feel disconnected from you. You can just sort of be a part of them. And then we slowly learned to not touch things that are dirty and not get germs and you know, to, and as we get older, and I think something that changes, you know, as you become an adult, is people really start thinking about how to use the earth to benefit them and to make their lives more convenient. And, and, and oftentimes that's a very destructive force.
Speaker 4: 08:27 And I think that those themes are ones that we wanted to play out in the movie. And so, you know, you're often seeing the world of adults or, or as sort of the sort of perfect world of the children, fades you gets invaded by refugees and things that aren't natural. Um, and, and that, that sort of, those are two sort of parallels in the, you know, two, two sort of distinct worlds in the film. One that is very much like entirely untouched nature and one that is, you know, much more sort of corrupted by the adult world of, of garbage and, and, you know, construction and, and ways in which we use, we use natural resources to try to, um, live more comfortably.
Speaker 5: 09:08 Talk a little bit about the process that you make films. It's been a long time since, I think it's been like eight years since piece of the Southern wild and you really kind of invest in these films, finding children who aren't professional actors and going to locations that are not necessarily the easiest to get to. Talk a little bit about that, this process you go through creating these films and how they evolve.
Speaker 4: 09:30 You know, I think we're always looking for ways to make larger than life things feel very, very real and figure out where like, where does Neverland exist on this earth, you know, where, where is the planet at every bit as sort of are inspiring and exhilarating as sort of like the fairies and the mermaids of the original Peter pan. Or like what experience would be as thrilling, as slight, you know, as ingesting any original Peter pan. And so, you know, I think both with sort of where we shoot the film, um, and also looking for, you know, actors who connect to these characters, you know, we're looking for people in places that they just have like a spirit that connects to an idea and connects to sort of an emotion that is, is, is central to the story. And, and you know, those things are, we sort of prioritize those things over acting experience or accessibility or practicality of shooting somewhere. We try to really commit ourselves to this idea of, of using the real thing as much as possible and hopefully bringing like a real sense of, um, of reality to, uh, to a story that has always been sort of far away magical land that is really a fairy tale. And hopefully this is a very different way to kind of think about the ideas and the story in ways that they actually can feel realistic.
Speaker 5: 10:46 Talk about how you wanted this location cause you shot in an Island off of Antigua.
Speaker 4: 10:53 Yeah. Well on Antigua Barbuda and uh, and in on the Island of Montserrat
Speaker 5: 10:57 and kind of convey a sense of what you wanted this film to look like from shooting there.
Speaker 4: 11:03 You know, I think we wanted to, uh, we wanted to, um, really take, uh, take the audience to a place that is both larger than life and also actually exists. And we wanted to shoot and you know, we didn't want to construct Neverland, we didn't want to sort of build sets and we wanted to find the actual, an actual place that sort of spoke to these ideas that have, you know, been associated with Neverland. And so we found this incredible Island called Montserrat that has an active volcano on it. Um, and the two thirds of the Island are, uh, exclusion zone, um, where, you know, that had been evacuated. And so you have a whole sort of region, um, that is incredibly naturally diverse as rain forest and cliffs and beaches and these sprawling ass fields. It looked like the moon, then a active volcano that's, you know, pouring sulfur. And it's all sort of in a very compact, small space. You could stand in one place in the Island and see all of those things as you turn around in a circle. And so we really wanted to kind of get this, convey this experience of these of this Island that has these radically different feelings and landscapes that, that the children in the film are traveling through rapidly. And that the, you know, the, the different populations in the film. Um, and having that sort of express express, um, sort of different emotional worlds of the movie.
Speaker 5: 12:24 One of the things I think you do really well in this film and also be so the Southern wild is this sense of kind of exhilarating movement where you combine, it's the cinematography, it's the editing, it's the music, it's the kids running. But there's this sense of like such joy in just the physical movement of it.
Speaker 4: 12:44 Yeah. You know, I think it's something that I've, I always like, it's something that I always want to capture, which I think is one of the hardest things to capture on film is just pure joy and pure freedom. Because everything about how films are conventionally made works against that. You know, you have generally on a film set, you're there thinking about time, money, uh, very specific angles and places that you can shoot. And there's like a hundred people there and everybody's under pressure and it's the least liberated feeling, a work environment that you could possibly imagine normally. And so one of the huge challenges to me always is to find a way to sort of take apart that conventional culture of a film set and, and create a place where the circumstances are such that you can actually have fun. You know, especially for these kids that are actors in our films.
Speaker 4: 13:36 Like if they can't come to set and be wild and have fun and express that part of themselves, it prevents them from being able to truly bring themselves to the performance and, and, and do and, you know, do the sort of acting that we're looking for. And so, you know, it's always a goal of mine to sort of not have the culture of my films, uh, feel like this incredibly structured, oppressive place, but to allow room for spontaneity, for unexpected things to happen for chaos. And you know, that all makes things more difficult to accomplish on a filmmaking level, but it does allow for this emotion of freedom and joy that I think is very, very rare and hard to capture in the context of a, of a [inaudible].
Speaker 2: 14:26 That was a clip from the trailer for Wendy. I need to take one last break and then I'll be back with the rest of my interview with filmmaker Ben Zeitlin.
Speaker 5: 14:38 Now, neither one of these films, I think people would think of off hand as being kind of like creature features or monsters, but both of them have these kind of magical creatures that are present. Does that come from some sort of fascination you have or, or something that influenced you?
Speaker 4: 14:59 There's probably a couple of things. I do think I have like, uh, you know, I think a huge influence early on. You know, when I first started thinking about this movie with my sister, we were probably like, you know, five years old in my parents' basement watching, uh, our VHS tapes of like Willow and the princess bride and Pete and you know, um, these films that have this incredible creature work, never ending story. Um, and I think that that those characters stayed with us forever. You know, some, some of those sort of larger than life creatures, um, you know, are, are kind of the strongest points of memory for me. Just remembering what made me fall in love with the magic of movies. Um, and I think that that kind of combines with just a real love for animals and interest in how we relate to animals and animals relate to us.
Speaker 4: 15:49 And, and, and just an, uh, an important feeling that I wanted to express in the film. And I think children know and that adults lose is just that we're not different. You know, that we are also creatures on this earth. We're also animals and that, um, we're not, we're not separated from them actually in the way that we start to behave later in life. And I think that for kids, um, both films are sort of told through the lens of, of children and how they see the world and this connection that children have to animals, this empathy that they have for them. Um, and it's sort of understanding the world as they relate to other creatures, um, is something that just really fascinates me. And something that, um, just kind of organically emerged as, um, important elements of both of these, um, little girls psychology that are there at the center of the movie, that there's this, there's this animal that they seek to understand. Uh, w you know, in one case they're afraid and one case they're trying to protect it, but you know, the, they become incredibly important emotional touchstones for the children in both films
Speaker 5: 16:52 and in this film that the creature is referred to as mother. And I think that kind of emphasizes your whole notion of this connection to nature and you, you can't help but think of like mother nature when you see this creature.
Speaker 4: 17:05 Yeah, absolutely. You know, it's, uh, I think one of the main things that we wanted to really, um, you know, sort of just, uh, one of the main things we wanted to reimagine it in the, in the pan myth is really the attitude and the approach, uh, to motherhood that it takes. There's a sort of idea, um, in the original story and the idea of Wendy that she sort of brought to be the mother of the lost boys. And what that means in almost every iteration of the tale is that she is kind of on the sidelines and she, you know, stays at home while the boys go on an adventure. And then she talked him into bed and fixes their clothes and, um, you know, uh, and that's what it means to be a mother. And we really wanted to destroy that notion and completely transform it, both in sort of who Wendy is.
Speaker 4: 17:58 We wanted to give her agency and power and strength and bravery. I mean, wanting to sort of, you know, uh, show that there's, there's no inherent reason why motherhood doesn't mean that you're not also wild and free and, uh, you know, brave. And, and, and, and in this story, and it's still motherhood is, you know, it's the, it's the most sort of monumental superpower you can have. And that exists both in the character of Wendy and in Wendy's, mom at home, and also in this sort of, uh, earth goddess of mother who, who is the protector of these children. And also sort of the source of joy and the protector of joy. Um, in the world.
Speaker 5: 18:37 W what do you think you get by working with these nonprofessional actors, these children who aren't on a career path to a Hollywood stardom or something? What do you feel you get from these young kids?
Speaker 4: 18:52 I mean, you learn so much about the reality of the experience they're trying to capture. Um, you know, I think that it was fundamental to us that the most important thing and casting each of these kids and really even the adults in the film was that we wanted people in this movie who if Peter pan came knocking on their window, they would absolutely run away. Um, and there's a certain look in a kid, there's a certain mischief, there's a wonder, there's a curiosity, there's a spontaneity. There's just like a wildness, you know, we talk about like the ones with the light in their eyes and you know, that look and that quality is something that we didn't feel like we could synthesize. And an actor that young and, and, and, you know, if you're and the age we wanted these kids to be, you know, if it's six years old, you're already on a career path.
Speaker 4: 19:40 Like that isn't the, you know, those, those aren't the kids that are going to jump out the window and run off, you know, necessarily. And so we wanted that sort of real wildness and real sort of like children whose first job is to just be a child, um, to be what populated this movie. And I think that was both, you know, to give it the sense of joy and spontaneity on screen, but also, you know, for, for us as adults who have lost so much of that feeling and that wildness to spend years with these kids and, and really do so in a way that we were learning from them, that we were collaborating with them on their characters, you know, so much sort of wisdom of what it means to be young and what it feels like to be staring down, growing up. You know, from that moment, um, was learned by me and my sister from our actual cast are. And so
Speaker 5: 20:36 you films feel very unique, but did you, do you feel that there were any filmmakers that influenced you or that kind of inspired you to go into filmmaking?
Speaker 4: 20:45 Yeah, and I think kind of from two very different worlds, you know, I think that the films I talked about earlier, you know, just I think that movies sort of cemented this place in my imagination in a very young age. And it was in kind of big Hollywood films, you know, that I had on like child protective VHS tapes in my, in my basement growing up in the, in the eighties and early nineties. Um, you know, these big fantasy films like UTI, um, that, you know, just, you know, had so had such a big role in sort of teaching me, you know, what it meant to be good, what it meant to be bad, what a hero was, what a villain was. You know, you so much of your sort of like sense of morality and, and what's, what's, um, right and wrong in the world can come from movies like that.
Speaker 4: 21:34 And I think that films like that sort of have drawn me towards kind of telling, you know, working with mythology and, and, and working with, um, stories that are like larger than life. And then, you know, I think, I think later on as I got introduced, um, to a lot of documentary filmmaking filmmakers like Les blank or narrative filmmakers like John Cassavetes, you know, I also equally admire sort of people that really strive to bring a sense of realism and performance and really study the complexities of people and um, and relationships. And you know, for me, I've always had a real interest in trying to find a way to sort of make those two worlds connect, um, and sort of bring together, you know, what would be considered like a more, you know, um, art film sort of cinema or language and sort of connect that with stories that feel sort of, um, universal and iconic and timeless.
Speaker 6: 22:31 And I understand you shot this on 16 millimeter and what prompted that choice?
Speaker 4: 22:37 Um, you know, I think a lot of things, it's sort of a medium I, I learned still making, working with, um, and, uh, you know, the, it has, you know, one of the sort of principle things that we wanted to do in this film was to be able to shoot, you know, almost three 60 environments, um, which would allow, which allowed the kids to be much more free, which allowed us to be much more spontaneous on set, sort of re blocking movement and, you know, just sort of improvising on the fly. And you know, one of the great things about 16 millimeter is it can really hold up under some pretty radically different lighting conditions. And, and so, you know, when you're, when you're working in incredibly arduous environments, uh, you know, way far from any power outlet, you know, uh, you know, I'm on the water or just in places that are full of things that could, uh, fry a hard drive.
Speaker 4: 23:32 There's actually, I think an incredible freedom in working with an analog capture medium. Um, because you can really be liberated to move the camera around and sort of point and shoot without also hauling, um, a mountain of equipment to control the light, um, or a mountain of electronics to sort of capture all of the footage digitally. Um, and so it's sort of counterintuitive, but in some ways, um, you know, obviously there's things about film that are still harder. We were like, you know, we had to fly people with Kansas film to America to get it developed every single day. And there were immense logistical challenges to working on film. But in terms of just having freedom on set to be able to shoot and be spontaneous and be kind of lightweight and agile, um, shooting on very small 16 millimeter cameras actually gives you some things that I'm working with. Digital cameras don't allow. It looked gorgeous, I have to say. And it looks beautiful. That's the other advantage.
Speaker 5: 24:39 Do you have any plans for your next film? It seems like there's a large gap between movies for you.
Speaker 4: 24:45 Yeah, always. I mean, you know, I never, I didn't actually stop working really after bees. I mean, I, I spent a year promoting it and then really went direct means of working on this film. Um, it just, you know, and, and be successive and a half years and, you know, sort of the, the process that I've used on both films is, is very unconventional and it, um, it just takes longer than a film that was made in a more straightforward way. So, you know, my plan is really to sort of 15 is we're done working the line, sort of getting Wendy on into the world. Um, yeah, I'll be, I'll be back home and started on the next thing. Um, by the way,
Speaker 5: 25:22 and you are essentially an outsider to both of these environments that you've covered, that you've looked at in your films. You, I mean, you're not from Louisiana and you're not from this area of the Caribbean. You're a new Yorker. Correct.
Speaker 4: 25:37 Um, I've lived in Louisiana for 15 years, but yeah, I'm a native new Yorker.
Speaker 5: 25:42 No, I was just wondering if like outsider eyes give you a different view of some of these places.
Speaker 4: 25:47 Yeah, yeah. I mean, I'm sure. I'm sure they do. You know, you know, they, you're, um, you know, and I think it's a really, it's part of, it's a part of filmmaking that I really love. Um, and that I enjoy the most is kind of really a way to explore the world. And, um, you know, it's an amazing, you know, I never sort of like show up, uh, in places where, uh, in a place where I'm interested in shooting with a camera or a crew or a script or anything like that, I really tend to travel by myself and take a really long time to, you know, get to know people, um, you know, find collaborators locally. And one of the great things about movies is this, an incredible universal art form. And people are inherently interested in being a part of a movie and telling a story, um, and, and sort of, uh, collaborating in that way.
Speaker 4: 26:42 And it's really, I find just an amazing art form in that way, in that it's so universal and so many people can be a part of it in so many different kinds of ways that, you know, it's always been an amazing experience to me. To go to a place where I obviously don't belong. And you know, as I meet people say, you know, I'm here to tell this story and I'm interested in telling it in this place and I'm looking for people to help me figure out how to do it. Um, and I've met sort of, you know, some of my greatest friends and uh, just sort of you build incredible world, you know, anybody, anybody that worked on Wendy, um, to go back to Montserrat, uh, you know, in the apocalypse and ride it out for the rest of their lives. You know, it's, it's like we formed a family in a home there, uh, that, that lasts forever and those are some of the most rewarding things about doing this work.
Speaker 2: 27:33 Well, I want to thank you very much for taking some time to talk about Wendy.
Speaker 4: 27:37 Absolutely. Thank you for, um, thank you for talking to me about it.
Speaker 2: 27:41 I hope it's not that many years before your next one though. All right, thanks. We'll see what happens.
Speaker 3: 27:58 [inaudible]
Speaker 2: 27:58 that was filmmaker Ben Zeitlin, his new film, Wendy opens on March 13th. Thanks for listening to another episode of cinema junkie. If you enjoy the podcast, please tell a friend and help me grow the audience. You can also leave a review on Apple podcasts till our next film fix on Beth Mondo, your resident cinema [inaudible]
Speaker 3: 28:25 [inaudible] [inaudible].
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place