by writer/director Benh Zeitlin
When my sister Eliza and I were children, every time we blew out birthday candles, we always wished to never grow up—to never grow another year. From early on, we were entranced by the dream of Peter Pan, and ran from the looming specter of adulthood by modeling our lives on his—avoiding responsibility and structure wherever we could, creating a band of collaborators, other “lost boys,” through our film and art projects. We were terrified of our older selves and desperate to steer clear of the loss that turns kids into grown-ups, before it was too late.
In 2012, as members of our fearless band of misfits drifted into new dreams of families, careers, and working plumbing, things began to change. The outside world came crashing into our Neverland like a bolt of lightning. With the success of Beasts of the Southern Wild, it seemed the way we lived and worked was about to change forever; the lost boys were going to grow up whether we liked it or not. Then, it hit Eliza and I that it was time to tell the story we’d always dreamed about, only it wasn’t Peter’s: ours meant Wendy, the one who experienced Neverland but had to leave it behind.
Wendy’s story allowed us to investigate the true nature of aging—not the changes to our bodies, but the erosion of the spirit that happens only when joy, wonder and hope are lost. How could we grow up and never lose our freedom? This question became the guiding force for what became a seven-year journey through the trials of Neverland.
As children, we all believe that anything is possible, that we can grow up to be anything we want, but that beautiful concept is chipped away at as we grow. With each failure, disappointment, and compromise we’re taught to accept the limitations of who we are, what we’re capable of and what can happen in the world. Wendy was created in utter defiance toward that notion. We structured our production to fly against every tenet of practical filmmaking; we combined non-professional actors, adventurous children, nearly unreachable locations on remote islands, a thirty-foot underwater sea creature, a sailing sunken ship, and forged an adventure as grand as anything that Peter could ever dream of.
There were elements of the Peter Pan myth that distanced us from the universal reality of this struggle. The film had to be about confronting the most difficult questions in life, not escaping from them. Fairy magic and flying would be replaced with wonders of nature, and monstrous freight trains. The dirt, the sweat, the bugs all would be real to bring our audiences back to a time when there was no greater thrill than getting filthy doing something you weren’t supposed to.
Our Wendy needed to be a heroine who is strong, wild, brave, profoundly wise and unshakably committed to her beliefs. We realized that the story we had dreamed of all these years was not based on any of the other many versions of the Peter Pan myth. Rather, it was the core spirit of these characters that had taken on a life of their own in us, and part of our mission became to liberate them from their deeply problematic histories. Almost every iteration of the story was bogged down by racist and sexist archetypes, headlined by the character of Wendy who heretofore existed only to mend clothes, tend the home, and prove to the wide-eyed children of the world that adventure is meant for boys alone while girls watch from the sidelines. Our version of the story needed a Wendy that would help us forget all the others. She would attack obstacles with love and sweetness which would be a power that allowed her to conquer the perils of Neverland, rather than a weakness that drove her from it.
Peter needed to be re-imagined, as well. Our Peter had to be a real child for whom joy and play rule every moment, frozen at that delicate age just before you accept that with total freedom can come total loneliness. His lore had been that of a pre-teen (or adult woman) British aristocrat prancing through a colonialist vision of the Caribbean islands, willfully ignorant that all the ladies were just trying to get a kiss from him. This new Peter had to be from his place, and deeply connected to his natural environment, possessed of a strength and a spirit that could never be fully acted, particularly by someone that young. Finding our Peter Pan would mean looking for a child who deeply loved and understood the natural world, and who had the complexity and intelligence to craft an evolving character around a seemingly out of control six-year-old boy.
Looking back at the naive defiance with which I launched everyone I know into the wild ride that was Wendy, it’s hard not to second guess how much easier it could have been, or how long ago it would have been completed if we’d taken a sane approach to our vision. But in making the film the way we did, we discovered that growing up can mean living the stories you could only imagine as a child. The games that Eliza and I played as kids in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks and alleyways of Queens have all became realities, full of animal friends, pirate ships, magic islands, miracles and high adventure.
We loved growing up with this film, and managed to do so with the tattered flag of “anything-is-possible” still flying high over our ship. For everyone who sees and believes in her, we hope Wendy gives you the courage and wisdom to laugh in the face of everything that life tries to take from us as our number goes up and up. For myself, and all my fellow “lost boys,” Wendy taught us to look toward our older selves with joy and wonder we thought was reserved for the very young. We couldn’t be more excited for audiences to join us in our big-screen Neverland in theaters starting this weekend.