Why did Wendy, Benh Zeitlin’s follow-up to the out-of-nowhere Best Picture nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild, take eight years to make it to theaters? The media narrative around Wendy’s production is focused on Zeitlin and his collaborators’ unique creative method and the way that Searchlight—the studio that distributed Beasts and produced Wendy—kept its hands off the project. A fascinating IndieWire feature by Eric Kohn frames the eight-year journey as a matter of Zeitlin sticking to his “meticulous approach” and Searchlight respecting that process, up to and including allowing Zeitlin to shoot on a remote island in an active volcano exclusion zone—a location so out of reach that executives only heard about what was happening secondhand. “We had the script, but we didn’t really know what he’d be shooting every day,” Searchlight’s president of production, Matthew Greenfield, told IndieWire.
That’s an extraordinary amount of freedom to give a relatively inexperienced director, even one with an Oscar nomination under his belt. The reported $6 million budget, a virtual rounding error in the balance sheets of Searchlight’s corporate overlords at Fox and then the Walt Disney Company, certainly helped. And there’s no way to know how much of this narrative is simply the company line, or whether the final edit is the product of Zeitlin’s wishes or the studio’s. (According to IndieWire, Zeitlin reconfigured the story in the edit room, at one point replacing his editor with another.)
But to the viewer, Wendy, the result of those eight years of work—a chaotically rambunctious, surprisingly grim mess of an adventure alternating moments of brilliance and deathly stretches of aimlessness—does feel, for better or for worse, as though it was not meddled with. Wendy recognizably reflects Zeitlin’s vision; it’s less a follow-up to Beasts than a kind of echo of it. The mistakes the movie makes, and the ways it fails to fulfill its predecessor’s promise, make me want to say something critics rarely express: I wish that the studio had meddled a little bit more.
I don’t say this lightly! I am fully aware that critics are not generally on the side of studios, and that studio notes have long watered down original visions and quieted outspoken voices. Universal’s edicts to Terry Gilliam did not make Brazil better, and thank God Francis Ford Coppola fought back against Paramount’s insistence that neither Marlon Brando nor Al Pacino belonged in The Godfather. It’s not only at major studios that such meddling wreaks havoc: A generation of promising directors, up to and including Bong Joon-ho, learned the hard way what happens when you let Harvey Weinstein get final cut on your movie.
And it’s entirely possible that, had Searchlight taken a stronger hand in the development and production of Wendy, the movie would have lost the uniqueness that is its greatest asset—that studio interference would have made the movie not bad, necessarily, but bland. But Wendy’s faults are as idiosyncratic as its charms, and I came away from the film thinking that what it needed was just a little bit of oversight—to employ the movie’s own paradigm, a few adults telling those kids down on Montserrat what they should and shouldn’t do.
Wendy is a retelling of Peter Pan, loose at times and at others quite faithful. It follows young Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas and James, as they hop a train from New Orleans and escape the looming prospect of growing up. The three follow a boy named Peter through the swamps to his Neverland, a Caribbean island, where kids run, scream, magically set off volcanic eruptions, and commune with the Mother—a giant, glowing fish who serves as an avatar of youthful imagination. But even in Neverland, adulthood threatens.
The tweaks the screenplay (by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza) have given J.M. Barrie’s time-tested story are pretty shrewd: focusing on Wendy, not Peter, giving her greater agency, and exploring what happens to children who “fail” at the everlasting-youth mission of Neverland. There’s even a terrific twist involving Captain Hook that surprised and delighted me. Where the movie falters is in its inability to settle on what audience it’s truly for, in its pacing and tone, and in a big unforced error in conception and casting that leaves a bad taste.
Some input from a smart development team, for example, might have pushed Zeitlin to think hard about what this movie has to offer clever children, what it has to offer open-minded adults, and whether there’s enough there for either audience. The movie is grim and unsparing at times in ways that, I suspect, will upset and anger kids who might otherwise spark to the movie’s sense of adventure. On the other hand, it’s all overlaid with a portentous voice-over that underlines the movie’s themes in a way that grates on adult ears. “Remember the voice you heard?” the narration intones as the kids reach the island. “The one that said ‘Sneak away.’ This is where it came from.” At times like this the film sinks below the elemental into the infantilizing, playing like a trailer for itself. A sure hand from thoughtful studio overseers might have helped through what was reportedly a challenging postproduction—pushing Zeitlin to streamline his fable’s nearly two-hour runtime, to make the most of the movie’s wonderful child cast, and to save it from its saggy middle section full of hand-held, magic-hour shots of shrieking kids racing through the woods.
The aspect that made me really wince, and wish for a few more thoughtful noes in a process reportedly full of benevolent yeses, was the casting of the children of Neverland. Wendy and her brothers are white, while Peter and his closest confidantes are black. (Peter is played by Yashua Mack, an Antiguan 6-year-old reportedly found by Zeitlin on a Rastafarian compound in the forest.) It’s not just that those black children are ancillary to the story of these white kids they bring to Neverland. And it’s not just that the white kids then revel in the culture of Neverland, trying it on as their own. It’s also that in the end, Wendy saves it. There are a lot of interesting thematic and historical resonances in making Neverland and its inhabitants Afro-Caribbean and having their island imperiled by the arrival of white people, but in the year of our Lord 2020, that all feels pretty beside the point when you see Peter, the most “magical Negro” in a movie in quite some time, grinning and capering through the forest. This is the kind of mistake that studio caution and the multiple voices of a development department ought to have been able to head off. And it seems like precisely the kind of blinkered choice you make if you’re an artist who’s hoeing the same artistic rows you have before, surrounded by the same producers and collaborators with whom you’ve always worked—the ones who trust and believe in you completely.
Indeed everything about Wendy, especially its fealty to the spirit of Beasts, feels like the creation of a director who’s been exploring the same ground with the same tightknit group of collaborators for nearly two decades. And there’s value in that, of course. Artists have been playing variations on a theme for as long as there have been artists. But when a filmmaker moves from an acclaimed shoestring indie to a studio, it’s worth asking what benefits that director should seek from the experience (beyond a special effects budget). Studio support isn’t just about money. The infrastructure and experience a studio offers can give an ambitious filmmaker the chance to broaden their palette, to work with new collaborators, to embrace the challenge of work they’ve never dreamed of trying. And for all the cautionary tales about studio meddling, there are also at least a handful of stories about executives saving filmmakers from themselves: suits who argued that Easy Rider might be better if it wasn’t four hours long, or that there was no need to set Will Hunting on the run from the CIA.
I admire Benh Zeitlin for his distinctive vision, his loyalty to his team, and his devotion to a rigorous, thoughtful filmmaking process. I admire Searchlight for allowing Zeitlin that process, but I wonder what kind of movie Wendy would be if the studio had pushed just a little bit harder. What I wish for Wendy isn’t, of course, that Searchlight had waded in and stolen Zeitlin’s movie from him, tacked on an indie-pop soundtrack, and edited it into Little Miss Sunshine 2. Not everyone in the Searchlight development and production offices is a studio hack. This is the company that in recent years has stewarded directors like Yorgos Lanthimos, Marielle Heller, and David Lowery through projects that represent dramatic steps up in their ambition and artistry. The studio didn’t ruin those directors’ movies. They helped those directors break through. After Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin, an exciting artist, had that chance. Wendy suggests that unlike his young heroine, Zeitlin was unwilling to take a risk and set off for the unknown.