Benh Zeitlin Goes Old-School With Stunts and Puppets for His Peter Pan Film ‘Wendy’

It has taken eight years for Benh Zeitlin to deliver the follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2012 feature debut “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” But you could say the idea for “Wendy,” which reimagines the classic “Peter Pan” from the viewpoint of his female friend (played by first-time actor Devin France), has been percolating far longer than that.

Zeitlin wrote the film with his sister, Eliza Zeitlin, who also serves as production designer on the movie, a tale that started with puppets when the Zeitlins were growing up and has stayed with them into adulthood. “When I was brought home from the hospital, Benh had prepared a puppet show for me,” quips Eliza. “It was our very first interaction on Earth.”

As with “Beasts,” the idea for “Wendy” was to eschew VFX and stunt doubles. In the two years it took for the duo to write the story, there were many discussions on how to create its world. It was their goal, Eliza says, “to build every set completely and do everything as real as possible.” 

To fashion the fantastical concept, they taught young non-actors to swim; filmed a cast of senior citizens in a place called Hell’s Gate on the island of Antigua; and bought a 50-foot, 70-year-old fishing boat, replaced 70% of the hull, sank it and brought it back up again. 

For the Zeitlins, this DIY strategy is nothing new. They’ve taken a hands-on approach to moviemaking from their first Slamdance short film, “Egg,” for which Eliza created the puppets. On “Wendy,” she started by building the Mother puppet, a mythical sea creature who keeps all the children of Neverland young.

To make the creature soft and flexible, she and her team used a saltwater-resistant material on the inside and a large amount of sponges as well as polyethylene sheeting. They built the puppet in various sizes ranging from a miniature version all the way up to a 30-foot-long rendition.

“The Mother evolved out of a sea slug creature I was inventing years ago,” says Eliza, who graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in sculpture. “I was adamant about building a full-scale puppet because I wanted her to feel real and I wanted the kids to really connect with her.” 

The production crew also built Wendy’s home and family restaurant in the Louisiana bayou from scratch. 

Cinematography also gives “Wendy” its visceral feeling, with scenes shot on moving trains and on a Caribbean island with an active volcano. Lenser Sturla Brandth Grøvlen came on board in late 2016. Given Benh Zeitlin’s intent to shoot on film, he immediately began testing variations.

“The two 16mm Kodak stocks we chose complemented each other well,” says Grøvlen, who notes that most of the visual references he received from Benh were documentaries from the 1950s through the ’70s. “For the ‘real-world’ part of the movie [filmed in Louisiana], we wanted to have a more desaturated, low-contrast look, so we shot on 250D and pulled it two stops. And then for ‘Neverland’ [shot in the Caribbean], we chose the 50D to have a more saturated and punchier, contrasted look. When they go to the old people’s side of Neverland, we went back to the 250D to give it that dusty look again.”

On the island, which makes up the bulk of the film, there were many exterior daylight shoots and difficult-to-reach locations, such as an abandoned and remote hotel. Grøvlen would put up artificial lighting, but mostly he used the sun, with a small number of overhead frames to control the light. That was the lighting strategy, too, for the end scene at Hell’s Gate, which took a staggering nine days to shoot. Much like the end of “Beasts,” it required the cast to be plunged in water.

“I think that you can fool your mind, but you can’t fool your gut,” says Eliza Zeitlin. “We wanted this to be an adventure that feels like the audience is going through the experience rather than just watching it from the outside.” 

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