Reimagining Neverland: Director Benh Zeitlin, actor Devin France talk new film ‘Wendy’

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“Wendy” director Benh Zeitlin’s follow-up to his 2012 breakout hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild” feels very much on par with its predecessor, from the vibrant visual aesthetic to the story centered around a child exploring her community separate from the pressures of the surrounding world.

A modern reimagining of J. M. Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan,” Zeitlin’s new film captures themes from the original, such as the spirit of childhood and the fear of growing up, and explores them through Wendy Darling, a young girl played by actress Devin France, who comes from a working-class family in the American South.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Zeitlin and France discussed what it was like bringing the story of Peter Pan and Wendy back to the screen in a way audiences haven’t quite seen before.

Zeitlin compared the process of working with a larger production company for his second feature — after working with a much smaller crew on his first — to the anxieties of aging, a topic that is at the center of Peter Pan’s story. For the director, the sudden exposure he received from “Beasts,” including best picture and best director nominations at the Academy Awards, reminded him of the emotional experience at the heart of Barrie’s novel.

“Going from making ‘Beasts’ in a state of just total reckless abandon, artistic freedom, without any sort of outside influence. … It was like the whole world suddenly came in and was looking at what I’ve made,” Zeitlin said. 

Zeitlin, who co-authored the script with his sister Eliza Zeitlin, was drawn to finding the ways in which this experience could be captured through a different, more relatable character: Wendy. 

“We got really interested in the way that that emotional experience connects … to the character Wendy, who sort of goes off and experiences this total reckless abandon, wildness and freedom and then … has to confront coming back into the real world,” Zeitlin said. “(We were) thinking about some of the story where she’s empowered and where she pays that freedom and that wildness and that surrender, and it can inform her journey into getting older.”

For 12-year-old France, who was cast in the film when she was just seven, the story of Peter Pan wasn’t unfamiliar, but she did still make an effort to ensure that the role was her own, considering that there have been a number of versions of the character of Wendy in popular culture over the years.

“I’ve always really liked ‘Peter Pan’ — it’s been one of my favorites. I used to watch it all the time at day care, so I have always really loved the Peter Pan story,” France said. “I didn’t want to look at anyone else’s specific performances of Wendy because I wanted to bring something new to the table. … I brought my own traits to Wendy.”

Zeitlin reflected on the process of working with young actors who were not as experienced before they were cast in “Wendy.” For him, the reality and heart of the story was conveyed by actors who were less rehearsed and particular, and brought more of their own authentic personalities to their roles.

“My process is really to stay open and to be agile, and knowing that the cast is going to teach me who the characters are as much as I’m able to teach them,” Zeitlin said. “More than a look, or something like that, we’re looking for a certain spirit.”

Many of the child performers in key roles in “Wendy” — including the young actor playing Peter, Yashua Mack — hadn’t previously appeared in a major role in other films. According to Zeitlin, this was much more of an asset rather than a detriment.

“We were looking for kids who were really living their childhoods to the fullest. … I think our band of Lost Boys, in a way, truly felt accurate,” Zeitlin said.

One of the elements that makes “Wendy” unique in comparison to previous adaptations of Barrie’s novel is its tone. The film balances the charm and magic that shape the children’s adventures with a sense of darkness and fear regarding the nature of growing older. Zeitlin argued that the darkness was precisely what makes the film memorable — in addition to the whimsy of being a new place, the danger of being alone gives the Neverland of “Wendy” its complexity.

According to France, portraying this complexity in the lead role came naturally.

“I’ve always been scared of growing up. … When you grow up, when you have all those kinds of responsibilities and no more time to play … it was a little easy to find some of Wendy’s personality ‘cause I truly felt that way,” France said.

Zeitlin hopes that the authenticity of the film’s message will still resonate with audiences today, regardless of how old they might be. He believes that navigating “the tragedy of growing up,” in all of its magic and darkness, is something all of us experience, which is precisely why “Wendy” has the capacity to make a genuine impact, even as a fantasy.

“Not trying to stay young forever, and also never allowing yourself to compromise your most impossible dreams,” Zeitlin said. “I think that remains something that is universal.”

Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.