Benh Zeitlin Wendy chaos
Yashua Mack, Devin France, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross, Ahmad Cage and Krzysztof Meyn in the film Wendy. Photo by Jess Pinkham, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Some of the most unpredictable elements included shooting in the ocean, shooting with children, and changing the script constantly based on things that were happening on the ground.

“All those things are very much out of sync with how films are normally made, so protecting those things and continuing to make films in a way that I felt was really adventurous, joyful, exciting, and most importantly, unpredictable— that was the central thing that I wanted to make sure that I fought to preserve,” Zeitlin continued.

Zeitlin wanted Wendy to be an adventure for children that was messy, dirty and tangible. There’s a real magic to tactile things, he believes, which is lost when green screens replace the real world.

“For me, the ultimate joy of freedom and adventure as a child was in the sand, the ocean, the dirt, the sun, and being outside and in contact with nature is something that brings me back to childhood, and it’s something we’re rapidly losing, as we shelter children inside, overprotect them, and plug them in, we’re losing this contact with our world. I really wanted to express that in the film. I hope that that feeling of reality comes through,” he said.

The Mother

Zeitlin and his team brought the same reality-based, grounded principles to the film’s VFX as they did to everything else. Their goal was to push the limits of what could be done practically at every stage. The Mother, a mythical underwater creature in his fantasy, was crafted as a series of puppets.

“We designed and built it starting with a 35-foot underwater, diver-operated creature that had a lighting grid built into it. We built this giant submarine that was operated by people. Like the film as a whole, it didn’t work exactly as planned the first time around. We rebuilt it. Eventually we ended up working with a full-scale face, we realized we had to take all the structure out of it because cause we wanted this very flowing, amorphous creature,” he said.

Wendy Benh Zeitlin

Director of Photography Sturlen Brandth Grovlen, Writer/Director Benh Zeitlin, Devin France, Krzysztof Meyn, Gage Naquin and Ahmad Cage on the set of Wendy. Photo by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

“We weren’t getting there with a more sturdy build. And so we ended up with this puppet that literally looked like a pile of garbage when it was out of the water and it wasn’t till you put it in that the fish expanded out and you could actually see what it was.”

The mechanics of the puppet made it incredibly difficult to photograph and to test, as everything had to be done underwater.

Aside from the full-scale face, there was also a full 360-degree miniature of the creature that was built in Los Angeles by Jason Hamer Studios. Zeitlin was looking for people that still love and knew the way that creature work was done in the 1990s, when artisans where needed. His references included films like The Neverending Story and Willow.

“Even when we’re doing things that are otherworldly, we tried to have everything be organic,” he added. “As good as CG is, you know when you’re looking at something real versus something fake and there are certain types of movement that can’t be replicated.” 

The Real Neverland

Furthermore, Zeitlin’s magical realm was a real place, the Caribbean island of Montserrat, which is a British protectorate with a population of about 5,000 people.

“If anybody wants to go see the Neverland that’s in Wendy, it’s there. You can go to the Island, you can hike out, pass the border of civilization and go two days up into the ash field and you’ll get access to the real volcano,” he said.

When he first visited the buried city of Plymouth in Montserrat, it became clear that it could function as a world that’s been frozen in time, but it is also decaying. There was always the idea that when children stopped believing, when they lost their faith, they would age very rapidly. When he found Plymouth, he rewrote the script to make it the place where they would go when that happens.

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