During the extended development and production of Wendy, there was one aspect that concerned Zeitlin more than anything else in terms of getting the movie done in a specific timeframe.
“I never really worried about my career or the perception of people being like, ‘Where’s the movie?’ I don’t think that stuff ultimately matters that much. What was really a lot of pressure was actually the thought of the kids aging. The rush was not about an external deadline.”
The kids were cast between 2014 and 2015, and the film was shot in 2017.
“Part of the reason we needed the timeline is because we wanted very young children and we wanted children who had never acted before,” he said. “We knew we had to make the film at the exact right moment for all of these kids to be old enough to where they could wrap their heads around their characters and to perform these parts, but not so old that they were going to lose this feeling of being these pure children over the course of the shoot.”
There was a lot of ADR and sound work because the kids’ voices were changing, which added intense pressure to finish in this window when the kids were the right age.
“The challenge of trying to beat aging with these kids was definitely felt all the time. You even felt the movie slipping away as they got older, in the same way that Wendy and Douglas experience their brother slipping away into aging,” he said.
Working with a young child in Beasts, Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis, gave Zeitlin valuable knowledge on how to turn a set into a playground.
“Trying to make a film set fun is one of the most difficult things in the world for me, because it’s just such a high-pressure situation,” he said. Still, he doesn’t believe directing children is that different than directing adults. “I just really respect children as individuals. I don’t treat them like lesser or smaller versions of myself. I treat them as equals,” he said.
Then there was the camera, commanded by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, whose body of work includes the single-take German drama Victoria and the Icelandic rural brother comedy Rams. Zeitlin needed someone who could handle physically challenging conditions, natural exteriors, and fluid movement.
“Even though we were going to have all these big effects, like the volcanic eruptions that weren’t going to be there on set, there was an attention to always be reactive with the camera instead of anticipating the action,” said the director.
“The cameraman is really an actor. He’s performing surprise in the same way an actor would perform surprise if they know someone’s coming to the door but they can’t look there before the door opens. It’s the same approach to the camera, and that was basically to give it a spontaneity and a feeling of reality,” Zeitlin said.
Simulating the point of view of a small child was also crucial. Shots had to be very tight, and the focus very shallow.
“I remember what it’s like to see the world as a kid where you’re not really seeing the big picture a lot of the time — you’re focused on details of things and being more emotional with what the camera is noticing at any given time,” Zeitlin said.
Wendy, directed by Benh Zeitlin, is in theaters now. The main image photo is by Jess Pinkham, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.