A Seven-Year Journey To Neverland

Oscar-nominated director and writer Benh Zeitlin returns with his second feature film “Wendy,” a new take on the classic “Peter Pan.”

The lost boys race up a slope behind Peter Pan, played by Yashua Mack. Ben Zeitlin’s “Wendy” gives a unique new look at the classic Peter Pan story. (Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures and Samantha Fetner)

From a young age, director/writer Benh Zeitlin and his sister Eliza were captivated by the tale of Peter Pan, a boy who would never grow up. 

“We were for some reason terrified of growing up our entire lives and Peter was the hero of defying this inevitability that we all face,” Zeitlin said.

When beginning his seven-year journey in reimagining this story for a new audience, Zeitlin was drawn to a line in the original novel: “the only ones who can fly are the gay, the innocent and the heartless.” This quote haunted him when he was younger and he found this idea to be the perfect jumping-off point for “Wendy.”

“The heartless always stuck to me like this is the only way to be truly free and be forever young is to be this person who is alone and doesn’t care about anybody,” Zeitlin said. “We wanted to dig into this question like: is there a way through being heartful that is just as free and just as wild as blazing off on your own with nobody?”

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“Wendy” thus became a story focused from the perspective of the titular character instead of Peter. This reframing was a way for the Zeitlins to shape the story and to reimagine the character of Wendy altogether. This was something that Eliza Zeitlin was passionate about since the way the character was portrayed in the past was always a point of contention for her. 

“I think that particularly for my sister, who I wrote the film with, this was always a very painful character to be sitting in her favorite story,” Zeitlin said. “To have in this great myth that says so much about freedom and wildness that girls are excluded from that.”

So they took the character of Wendy and gave her a chance to play and be a child rather than be forced into the homemaker role that the original puts her in. The maternal character is a fish-like creature that inhabits the island and has magical, glowing powers and is literally called “mother” by the children. By transferring the role of mother from Wendy to this new creature, Zeitlin aimed to portray motherhood in a way that is not as weak as the original. 

“Wendy” includes many themes of the original and takes a much closer look at them. One such theme is the idea of one person growing up while another stays young. In the original story, this is seen at the very end with Wendy as an adult and Peter staying a boy. However, in the film, the theme is given more time to be explored when Wendy’s twin brothers are separated and one is forced to grow older while the other stays youthful. 

Zeitlin developed this idea of loss and how it coincides with growing up during interviews he conducted in the casting sessions, which, according to him, were vital to the formation of the film. 

“One thing we would ask everyone was ‘is there a moment in your life where you can track where your life changed forever and where you feel like you grew up,’” Zeitlin said. “A lot of it [the answers] was around a loss. Someone who lost a brother or lost a mother young or something like that where they never felt like they could quite reconnect to the same sort of joy.”

When casting the film, Zeitlin looked for raw talent in children who had never acted or even considered acting before. When auditioning kids for the film, he took an unconventional approach. Instead of having them come in and just read a scene from the script, he incorporated improvisation to see if they liked acting and to observe how they play naturally. 

Wendy and Peter are vital roles to the film, so when casting those parts it was important that he found the perfect pair. When Devin France came in, her pure excitement let him know that he had found Wendy.

“Some kids smile because they are nervous but she smiled just out of sheer joy of getting to do this,” Zeitlin said. 

When it came to Peter Pan, Zeitlin wanted to cast a child from the area where they were filming as he wanted the character to be from this island of Neverland he was creating. He found the perfect Pan in Yashua Mack of Antigua. Originally, he wasn’t going to audition Mack due to him being too young. But eventually, after seeing him sneaking around the audition site over and over, he decided to give Mack a try. Zeitlin realized he was the perfect Pan during an acting game where Mack had to protect his favorite tree from the director. 

“When he dropped into character it was like, I just knew in an instant. It was mind blowing,” Zeitlin said. “Just incredibly gifted and naturally talented. I’ll never forget that moment when he became the protector of this tree. It was incredible.”

Once all the pieces came together, the film started shooting and Zeitlin’s creation came to life. Over the course of shooting, the kids formed their own kind of pack which brought fantastic wild energy to the set. Zeitlin stated that the most joyful times were the opportunities he had to bond with the kids when they weren’t shooting.

“We really became a family,” Zeitlin said. “I just remember days after set playing in the ocean, playing in the pool and just getting to be a kid with them was probably the most joyful stuff.”

Benh Zeitlin’s seven-year voyage to create “Wendy” is now at an end as the film premiered in January at Sundance and has now been released in theaters. With this film, Zeitlin brought his own fantastical style to a classic tale to shape it into the Neverland both he and his sister pictured as children. The result is a visually stunning film that asks its audience to “sneak away” and tries to stir the fire of adventure in hearts both old and young. 

“Wendy” opened on February 28, 2020, and is currently playing in theaters. 

A version of this article appears in the Monday, March 2, 2020, print edition. Email Kaylee DeFreitas at [email protected]

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