If you look in the encyclopedia for the description of “reimagining classic literature as a movie” you’ll find Benh Zeitlin’s name.
Zeitlin’s interpretation of the Peter Pan myth uses tropes from J. M. Barre’s original tale while combining the illusory magic of cinema to make the story relevant for the new millennium.
Every scene that makes you think you have the story pegged only turns your deduction into a conjecture that doesn’t jib with the turn of events unfolding before your eyes.
Yes, the kids run away from home. Yes, the Peter Pan character chops off the hand of the bad guy. Yes, there is an enchanted place where this fantasy exists. Still the method that Zeitlin uses to get from point A to point B could only unwind in a movie infused with magical realism guided by a singular vision.
Previously Zeitlin gave us Beasts of Southern Wild (2012), and his newest film Wendy dwells in a similar land of make-believe.
Byline Houston spoke to Zeitlin by phone during the film’s world premiere in New Orleans. Louisiana was a major location but so were diverse points like Tulam, Mexico and the Caribbean island of Montserrat with its own active volcano.
“It’s a film about the journey to discovery as much as it’s about anything,” says Zeitlin.
But is Wendy an adult movie for kids or a kid’s film for adults?
“Children of any age can take the themes presented and make those as adult oriented as they want,” says Zeitlin.
Wendy includes claustrophobic scenes shot underwater, some inside a half sunken ship. The very nature of the confined shots plays to fears of confinement.
“We sunk the boat, then raised it and sailed it,” says Zeitlin.
On the island of Montserrat Zeitlin makes his definitive cinematic statement.
Montserrat (Technically part of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies.) had a major volcanic eruption in 1995 that created what today is an exclusionary zone that divides the island. The filmmakers were able to shoot in that zone in sequences that highlight the smoke-spewing volcano in the background.
“I was living there in 2013 trying to figure out what would be my next film,” says Zeitlin. “It’s a place with no infrastructure to make a film, so it took several months just to get that part of the film moving. Two-thirds of the island is inhabited with about 9000 people living there, but that’s the protection side of the island.”
Wendy follows the journey of a group of waifs that run away from home only to find solace by jumping off their freedom train into a river. A life saving boat ferries them to an uncharted island.
The eternal exists side by side with the doomed. Zeitlin’s poetic vision makes Wendy the protagonist and Peter and Hook supporting twits. They’re not quite sympathetic yet eventually justified in their motivations.
While the volcano on Montserrat was active during production most of the shots of the smoke billowing from the volcanic cone are composited.
“You didn’t want to push the limits of what could be done practically. Yet when you’re looking at it that’s what’s happening,” says Zeitlin. “There’s a part of this film that is about challenging nature.”
Wendy opens exclusively at the River Oaks Theatre this weekend.