Engaged with nature

Benh Zeitlin on nature, casting, a donkey tale and the wild mothers in Wendy

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Wendy director Benh Zeitlin on the Montserrat volcano: "Every time I would go back there I had to rewrite the script because things would just be growing at this rate that’s exponential. It’s so fertile and so alive.”
Wendy director Benh Zeitlin on the Montserrat volcano: "Every time I would go back there I had to rewrite the script because things would just be growing at this rate that’s exponential. It’s so fertile and so alive.”

Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy, a free-range take on JM Barrie’s classic story of Peter Pan, co-written with his sister Eliza Zeitlin, who is also the production designer, has Wendy Darling (Baby Wendy Tommie Lynn Milazzo, later played by Devin France) living with her single mother (Shay Walker) and twin brothers James and Douglas (Gavin Naquin and Gage Naquin) above the diner they run right by the railroad tracks in rural Louisiana.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Wendy director Benh Zeitlin (with Anne-Katrin Titze) on nature: "There are things on this Earth that are so awesome, they’re unexplainable the same way magic is.”
Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Wendy director Benh Zeitlin (with Anne-Katrin Titze) on nature: "There are things on this Earth that are so awesome, they’re unexplainable the same way magic is.” Photo: Sam Fetner

One night, the three kids hop on the roof of a freight train (replacing the flying around Big Ben in Disney’s version from 1953, but no less miraculous a feat), lured by the unchanging shadow of a mysterious boy Wendy noticed many moons ago, when a neighbouring kid disappeared. Together with Peter (Yashua Mack), for that is his name, they reach the volcanic island of Neverland, where the Lost Boys roam and a sparkling sea creature they call Mother (with kind, sad eyes and an amorphous body) presumably keeps them young.

In the first instalment of my in-depth conversation with Benh Zeitlin at the Bowery Hotel in New York, we discussed how much nature plays a role, drifting from the original sources, luring Louisiana trains, casting the Darling children, a donkey tale, and the wild mothers in Wendy.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Last time we spoke, briefly, was at the Gotham Awards and The National Board of Review Awards Gala when you were being honoured for Beasts Of The Southern Wild [Best Directorial Debut].

Benh Zeitlin: I thought I recognised you. Good to see you again.

AKT: Let’s start with the quote about the first child’s first laugh and the shards of it being scattered around the world. In Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen the devil’s mirror breaks into a million shards. If you get a piece of that mirror into your eye, your heart turns cold. Are the laughter shards the antidote? Where did the quote come from?

Benh Zeitlin on Devin France as Wendy Darling: “She had this incredible imagination …”
Benh Zeitlin on Devin France as Wendy Darling: “She had this incredible imagination …”

BZ: That’s actually from the original Barrie text. I mean, we drifted so far from the original source material that I don’t want to get it wrong, but I believe that that’s the origin story of fairies. The first child’s laugh breaks into tiny pieces and this is where fairies come from.

AKT: You made a variation on that.

BZ: We wanted to take that and more express that in nature. We wanted to get at that nature has emotions. Natural things we don’t attribute to having feelings, have so much feeling and they react. Like joy and excitement and passion get expressed in our planet. It’s so palpable when you go to a volcano, actually.

AKT: Which you did, to film.

BZ: When we got there - it’s so amazing.

AKT: Did the idea of 'Mother' come first or the visit to the volcano [on Montserrat]?

Benh Zeitlin: “In New Orleans especially, we’re like just a web of trains, so train hopping is in the ether.”
Benh Zeitlin: “In New Orleans especially, we’re like just a web of trains, so train hopping is in the ether.”

BZ: I think the volcano. And then Mother as sort of heart of the volcano, or the heart of the planet. The volcano was like the skin and then there was a body under that. Going there you could see how happy and wild earth is, right around the volcano. Every time I would go back there I had to rewrite the script because things would just be growing at this rate that’s exponential. It’s so fertile and so alive. We come to this idea that this volcano is kind of joyous - which is counter-intuitive. An eruption is like a burst of joy.

AKT: A lot seems counter-intuitive in what you did with the Barrie text. What you left out, what you made overlap. This makes it really your own. Who else would cut Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily and the Crocodile and Nana. You folded them all into something else.

BZ: We wanted to take away magic that felt like it was distancing. Obviously the film is not just for children. Children can believe in fairies but grownups tend to not. We wanted to take out things that said this is this far-away fantasy land and make everything feel like if you wanted to run away from your life and go to Neverland, it’s there.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild Oscar-nominated star Quvenzhané Wallis with her mother Qulyndreia Wallis
Beasts Of The Southern Wild Oscar-nominated star Quvenzhané Wallis with her mother Qulyndreia Wallis Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You just have to have really good balance on the roof of a speeding train. It’s the closest to flying you could think of?

BZ: Yeah, what is the most dangerous thing, the most exhilarating thing a kid could actually do? In New Orleans especially, we’re like just a web of trains, so train hopping is in the ether. It’s like you see one and you want to jump on it - at least I do - and have no idea where it’s going to take you.

AKT: I showed the students in my course on fairy tales and storytelling at Hunter College the trailer of your film on Tuesday.

BZ: Cool.

AKT: The first thing they brought up was about the avoidance of obvious magic.

BZ: Oh cool. That is awesome. For me, I hate the separation between imagination and reality. Or between magic and reality. That’s within the themes of the film because that’s something that people will crush out of you as you move out of your childhood. “Grow up, that’s not real.” It is real. Your feelings are real and your imagination is real and your dreams are as big a part of your life as your waking reality. We wanted to dig into that and make a protest. There are things on this Earth that are so awesome, they’re unexplainable the same way magic is.

AKT: They need to be protected and taken care of. Bruno Bettelheim wrote in the 1970s in The Uses of Enchantment about how children are more connected to nature, to trees, to animals, than adults are. Well, in 2020 not so much any longer.

BZ: Yes! It was horrifying. Doing auditions for this movie was just one of the most soul-crushing experiences of my life because we couldn’t find kids that played outside and we couldn’t find kids that even dreamed of playing outside. Their imaginations were entirely routed … not everyone, but so many kids … “What is your wildest dream?” That was a question we asked. And it would exist within the framework of a video game they were playing. It would be some sort of violence.

Benh Zeitlin at the National Board of Review Awards Gala for Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin at the National Board of Review Awards Gala for Beasts Of The Southern Wild Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Or “What was the greatest day of your life?” It would be something that happened like this [Benh looks at an invisible iPhone in his hand]. Very few children still had this kind of “natural imagination”. We’d ask them what they thought, especially if they had any engagement with animals that weren’t just in their house and their pets, what they thought animals were thinking. Like, if you could speak to animals, what would you talk about?

AKT: Good questions for the audition! Those are great.

BZ: The most wonderful answer we ever got was from Devin [France], who plays Wendy. She lives in South Louisiana. Everyone in South Louisiana is more engaged with nature …

AKT: … than people here.

BZ: … or in most places. The twins [Gavin Naquin and Gage Naquin] were like hunting, fishing, gator-catching wild boys. Peter [Yashua Mack], his playground is his forest. But for her, we saw when she was talking about the narrative she had for this neighboring donkey. That she would steal her mother’s fruit and sneak it into this pasture and feed this donkey. She had this incredible imagination what this donkey’s life was like before it became captured, who its parents were, trying to figure out what its real name actually was.

Wendy poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York
Wendy poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Sounds like [Robert] Bresson’s Balthazar [Au Hasard Balthazar]!

BZ: Yeah.

AKT: Is that how the donkey entered the picture [Wendy]?

BZ: Probably.

AKT: The donkey’s name is Japan?

BZ: That was its real name. That was such a good name, we kept it. But she [Devin] had this incredible tenderness for animals.

AKT: Donkeys are such prominent fairy tale creatures. The chopping off of hands made me think of the Grimms’ Maiden Without Hands tale. You use familiar tropes, woven into an adventure story. A word on the costumes: Wendy wears her mother’s faded Rodeo T-shirt?

BZ: Wendy is so iconically always portrayed in a very feminine nightgown. When me and my sister [Eliza] were kids, we wore these homemade T-shirts that my parents would buy us in extra-large so we’d wear them as nightgowns. That was early on the idea. As we thought about the backstory of Ms Darling - the idea was that she was this wild woman, constantly in trouble, going to jail, and that she had this dream of riding rodeos. Sort of have Wendy constantly carrying her mother’s dream along with her as she went on this adventure.

AKT: The idea that the mother never really fully grew up?

High Noon at the Bowery Hotel in New York with Benh Zeitlin
High Noon at the Bowery Hotel in New York with Benh Zeitlin Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

BZ: She did. Well, she did and she didn’t. You hopefully feel that Wendy’s mother [Shay Walker] had clearly made the choice to sacrifice her dreams to take care of her children but also has never lost sight of her inner freedom and inner joy. We struggled a lot with why does Wendy run away from a pretty great life.

We didn’t want to put her in an orphanage or give her an evil stepmom. We wanted her to run away from normal life, you know. Instead of rebelling from her mom, it’s almost that she’s following in her footsteps, carrying on the tradition of loudness that she knows her mother had.

Wendy opens on Friday, February 28 in the US with a 7:45pm Benh Zeitlin post-screening Q&A at Angelika Film Center in New York. Producer Josh Penn will participate in brief Q&As following the 2:30pm and 5:00pm shows on Saturday, February 29.

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