A shared vision

Benh Zeitlin on developing relationships and a shared vision with Eliza Zeitlin for Wendy

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Wendy director Benh Zeitlin on Liza Minnelli’s scream (as Sally Bowles) the moment the train goes by in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret: "I’ve always loved that moment. That character is so wild, like such a great ferocious liberated woman character.”
Wendy director Benh Zeitlin on Liza Minnelli’s scream (as Sally Bowles) the moment the train goes by in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret: "I’ve always loved that moment. That character is so wild, like such a great ferocious liberated woman character.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the final instalment of my in-depth conversation with Benh Zeitlin at the Bowery Hotel in New York, we discussed how he developed a relationship between Shay Walker (mother Angela Darling) and Tommie Lynn Milazzo, who plays her baby Wendy, casting the twins Gavin Naquin and Gage Naquin, and working with his sister Eliza Zeitlin on their “shared vision” for Wendy, shot by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Josephine Decker’s Shirley) and starring Devin France as the adolescent Wendy.

Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross, and Yashua Mack in Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy
Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross, and Yashua Mack in Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy

Herbert Brenon’s 1924 silent Peter Pan, my favourite adaptation of JM Barrie’s play, with Mary Brian as Wendy, Betty Bronson as Peter Pan, Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily, Virginia Brown Faire as Tinker Bell, and George Ali as Nana came to mind as did Audrey Hepburn’s crack an egg cooking class lesson led by Marcel Hillaire as the chef in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina.

In Wendy, Zeitlin’s first film since his multiple Oscar-nominated Beasts Of The Southern Wild eight years ago, time and logic may appear a bit loopy. You may also think of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen and the devil’s mirror that broke into countless shards, which, caught in your eye, make you numb and heartless. Could the children of Neverland be the antidote?

While Bruno Bettelheim in the 1970s still could state in his Uses of Enchantment that children have a stronger connection to animals or trees than adults do, technology has put a stop sign to that. Singing and clapping your hands might help to revive Tinker Bell or Mother. Making movies like Wendy is another. All our dreams are changing and that should be taken very seriously.

Anne-Katrin Titze: One of my favourite moments is with baby Wendy dropping the egg. It’s instantly iconic, up there with Audrey Hepburn going to cooking school in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. “New egg!” That just happened or you made the baby cook?

Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) with chef (Marcel Hillaire) in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina
Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) with chef (Marcel Hillaire) in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina

Benh Zeitlin: It happened. We were just trying to develop a relationship between our actress mother [Shay Walker] and the baby [Tommie Lynn Milazzo] to make them comfortable with each other and around the kitchen with a live stove around. It’s interesting, babies are like the most uncontrollable element that you deal with. You can’t speak to them, they have no motivation to do anything unless they want to.

So we just let her play in the kitchen. She would hand out napkins, she’d take orange juice and mix it with jelly. Then we gave her an egg and she knew how to throw it. Great! We’ve got to use this! And she’d celebrate each time! Shooting that was like you truly didn’t know what you were going to get.

AKT: Did you find the twins [Gavin Naquin and Gage Naquin] first or did you always know that you wanted Wendy’s brothers to be twins?

BZ: We knew that. We got very attached to this idea. A real way to dig into this conflict and tragedy of ageing would be to see one twin grow and meet his twin on the other side of ageing to happen react differently emotionally to this loss of the other one.

Gotham Awards Breakthrough Director Benh Zeitlin for Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Gotham Awards Breakthrough Director Benh Zeitlin for Beasts Of The Southern Wild Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

During the casting, especially interviewing the grown-ups, we talked a lot about “Is there a moment where your life changed and you felt like you grew up?” A lot of that had to do with a loss. The loss of a mother, the loss of a sibling, some sort of tragedy that they never felt young in the same way after that.

So the idea of this tragedy happening to these twin brothers and visually seeing the effect on their body was something that was early on. It travelled from the original text. There were always twins in the Lost Boys and then we moved those twins into the Darling family. We were looking for them younger than Wendy, but casting twins is as difficult a project as you can have. When we found the two boys, they were so clearly perfect. They were like master hunting, fishing Louisiana Cajun boys.

AKT: You get that sense in their physicality on screen.

BZ: They would get off set and be catching lizards. They would be like cooking lizards on the island.

AKT: I’m going to use your question right back. Is there a moment when you felt you grew up?

BZ: In my life or making the movie?

Mary Brian as Wendy with Betty Bronson as Peter Pan in Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan
Mary Brian as Wendy with Betty Bronson as Peter Pan in Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan

AKT: You mean in every movie there’s a point where the childhood of the movie turns into a grown-up? That’s an interesting concept. But let’s say in your life?

BZ: I fend it off. But there were some conflicts on this movie. Me and my sister [Eliza] have always been an inseparable creative team from when we were literally babies. All we’ve ever done is make up worlds and tell stories and create haunted houses and throw crazy play parties.

The movie we wrote together was such a shared vision. There were some conflicts around the creation of the Mother that were truly difficult for us. I was the one interfacing with the studio, the production and the budget and the timeline. And she was just with her creature and her animal. The Mother really was like a child to her, or a pet, you know, inseparable.

AKT: A gigantic pet.

BZ: Yeah, a gigantic pet. And us coming into conflict, which we ended up resolving, thank god. But it was a real feeling of this is the growing up challenge of movies. It felt like the adult version of one sibling going through puberty for us. In this very logistical conflict about numbers and time around our dream. I don’t think we were broken by that.

Wendy poster at Village East Cinema in New York
Wendy poster at Village East Cinema in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Mother Earth, Mother Nature, are all in this creature. But also the animals in the other versions of Peter Pan, I thought. I’m sure you have seen the 1924 silent Peter Pan [directed by Herbert Brenon], which I love.

BZ: Yeah.

AKT: The man [George Ali] who is playing Nana, the St. Bernard, and the crocodile, he was in the original stage production. Is there some remnant of Nana and the crocodile in your Mother?

BZ: Yes. My sister - this was another conflict - she originally wanted every Lost Boy to have their own dog. She has nine to 15 dogs at any moment.

AKT: Nine to 15 dogs?

BZ: Right now 9.

AKT: Live-in dogs? Denis Lavant told me about his fluctuating number of cats, but those were “tourist cats.”

BZ: Yes. She’s also had cats and a pig and turkeys and ducks and tortoises. She lives in a wonderland of animals, essentially. And actually a specific horribly ugly dog is the basis for the Mother’s face. This dog named Cousin both personality-wise and aesthetically expressed itself in the Mother. There were so many crazy variables, so we cannot have nine dogs on top of nine children running around this island.

AKT: So the dogs were cut.

BZ: The dogs were cut and they found their way back in the Mother.

Press day for Wendy director Benh Zeitlin at the Bowery Hotel in New York
Press day for Wendy director Benh Zeitlin at the Bowery Hotel in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: There is a moment in the film when Wendy [Devin France] screams while the train is passing by. That reminded me of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret.

BZ: Yes, I love that. Totally. When they go under the bridge?

AKT: And Liza Minnelli screams the moment the train goes by.

BZ: I’ve always loved that moment. That character is so wild, like such a great ferocious liberated woman character.

AKT: Related to Wendy?

BZ: In New Orleans we have so many bridges with trains. When you go under a bridge, that piece of sound is probably the one that I obsessed over more that anything else in the movie. This feeling when the train hits the bridge you’re under and it just echoes in this crazy way and you want to just shout at it. Totally. I’m not sure if I thought of that, put it together, but it’s one of my favourite scenes in the film. So you got it.

Read what Benh Zeitlin had to say on nature, casting, a donkey tale, and the wild mothers in Wendy.

Wendy is in cinemas in the UK and US.

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