Eight Years After ‘Beasts Of The Southern Wild,’ Benh Zeitlin Finally Returns With ‘Wendy’

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Feb 28 | By entertainoiam2admin | Views: 33 | Comments: 0
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There are times during this interview I wondered if Benh Zeitlin even likes directing, to the point I finally ask him. Now, that is in no way implying he doesn’t like making films and isn’t a highly passionate artist. But the more, let’s say, management side of directing — basically, being the all-powerful boss — doesn’t seem to interest Zeitlin very much, as he tells a story about working on a film as a PA and being turned off by the whole process. And his two films to date, Beasts of the Southern Wild and now Wendy, don’t even use traditional actors.

Which is all to partially explain why it took Zeitlin eight years to make his followup to Beast of the Southern Wild, a movie that defied every expectation after its Sundance premiere and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Usually, a young director will pounce on that heat. (For comparison, Whiplash came out two years after Beasts, was also a Sundance favorite, was also nominated for Best Picture and, since, its director Damien Chazelle has made two more films.) But Zeitlin is adamant he wants to make movies his way. And with Wendy, his reimagining of Peter Pan, yes, that process took eight years. And he says he has a lot more movies he wants to make, then I reminded him of the whole human lifespan problem and he swears, next time, it shouldn’t take quite this long.

I met Zeitlin at an East Village hotel. When I arrived, a woman was having her picture with Zeitlin in front of a map of the Netherlands that just happened to be hanging up at this hotel. Which I suppose is phonetically close to Neverland?

We’ve met before.

Yeah, I recognize you.

For your last movie, which was a long time ago…

I’m in this weird time warp right now. I recognize faces.

I like that whoever you were talking to last is going to use a picture of you standing in front of a map of Holland. “Close enough.”

“Close enough.” It looks like Neverland if you don’t look too closely.

And it says The Netherlands. Which sort of sounds like Neverland.

She was like, is that Neverland? I was like, no.

I feel like you’ve been getting a lot of, “Where have you been,” questions.

Yeah. Seven years went by for everybody else. And I made one movie and that’s my marker of time. And, yeah, it was all the whole time. We started right after we finished Beasts and we made the film until a month or two before it came out. So, that’s what happened.

Well, it still had to be weird after Beasts, because there was no way you were expecting the reaction to be what it was.

Everything happened with Beasts was radically nothing like we expected. I remember, specifically, we had this conversation that was if we can get one week at the Film Forum and someone can see this movie in a movie theater, that would be the ultimate. That was the greatest thing we could imagine to happen with the film.

Then you get nominated for Best Picture.

So, yeah, it was just totally surreal. But we made Beasts with no practical strategy for making it in the film industry. And we made Wendy with the exact same mentality. We really carried that culture forward.

But why do that when you don’t have to now?

Because it’s the way that I love working. And the way that I know how to work. And it’s what I’m really interested in as a filmmaker, or artist, whatever. Taking on unprecedented, impossible challenges. And doing that is not what our art form is really about right these days.

But is that worth it? To bring in those challenges? The flip side is, it’s eight years later.

Yeah. Because the life you lead doing this is so incredible. The only thing is, yeah, I want to make a lot of movies in my life.

Do you? I’m not convinced you do.

I’ve got a list of films! I’ve got a long list of films.

But you can’t wait this long in-between. The human lifespan is not long enough…

The human lifespan is the only problem with this approach.

If you’re going to take eight years between every movie, you’re going to run out of time eventually.

I think that the way that we allocate time to films is an extremely limiting, oppressive process. There’s a real system of expectations around how long each process should take and how it should flow and what process ends where and what process begins next. And there’s a creative desire to break free of that and to make something that doesn’t feel like any other movie. And we commit ourselves to a process and we see it through. And it’s that simple. Beasts took five and a half years, this one took seven. And then, right at the end, it’s like, okay, it’s been a really long time, people are probably going to wonder about that.

“I played a lot of Fortnite.”

[Laughs] No, that didn’t happen.

Part of me thinks you don’t love directing. At least in the traditional sense of what that means.

It’s not that I don’t. I deeply love how I direct, but I came to filmmaking in a pretty different way. I was making art in a lot of different aspects. I was a musician. I was making Crazy New Orleans parades. I was doing haunted houses. I love a community art project and I love building community around creativity. And then I love leading that crazy community on this journey. But that’s what I love about it. I never set out to get a job as a director. I set out to express myself through this art form and do it in ways that would cause my life to be an incredible adventure.

If all of a sudden you’re directing Suicide Squad 5, I don’t think you’d be very happy. That’s my take.

That just wouldn’t happen. I could’ve done that if I’d wanted to.

I’m sure you had a ton of offers after 2012. You didn’t consider any of them?

No, I really didn’t. Like I said, I want to make a lot of movies in my life and I want to make a lot of films that come from me and my community. It wouldn’t be satisfying for me to make three quick movies that I don’t feel like are meaningful. If I took two years to make other films, then I’d go, wow, I just lost two years. [Laughs] I’m already up against the human lifespan of all the films I feel like I have to make myself. Beasts very much led me to Wendy. Wendy’s very much going to lead me to what I do next.

Do you know what you want to do next?

Yeah. But not in a way that I could pitch it.

So you eschew the “one for them, one for me,” plan. You’re just doing them all for you.

Honestly, I try to shelter my process from the film industry. I think that the film industry, especially the American film industry, the way that films get made… I’ve been on sets before. I PAd a couple of times before I started making films and I saw what a stratified, militaristic structure it is to make a real movie –

“Militaristic,” that’s an interesting way to put it.

Because it’s about power and rank and not questioning what you’re doing every day when you’re on a PA, which is what I did. And then going up to a director who’s like, “don’t look him in the eye, he’s a genius!”

What movie was this?

It’s this little film in Ohio that I don’t think ever came out.

But the director was such a genius you couldn’t look him in the eye?

No, those are stories that you hear. A lot of people will become massive egomaniacs or whatever. But that structure, that culture expresses itself on-screen. And you get very controlled-feeling movies. Like everything is according to this plan. And I’m like, chaos, to me, is what feels realistic.

My hope, next time I talk to you, right before the interview, a publicist tells me, “one thing, you’re not allowed to look at him in the eye.”

No man, I live in New Orleans. We don’t roll like that. I evacuated New York for New Orleans. It’s a different culture. It’s very collaborative. The way I make films, I want it to look like the way that we make a Mardi Gras float.

So do you have a target date for your next movie? A year, at least?

I don’t care.

Really?

Truly.

If your next movie is in 2030, you’re like, well that’s how long it takes?

Well, it better be good. Obviously I want to make films faster but, like I said, when you reverse engineer how you allocate time based on the world’s expectations of how long it should take you to make a film, it doesn’t serve the film and it doesn’t serve the idea. The next one should be simpler, just based on what it is.

It’s also, selfishly, I, too, have this lifespan problem and I, too, will not be able to watch them all if you take this long in between them. So that’s my other issue.

[Laughs] Yeah. I feel that. As a fan, I relate. When a filmmaker disappears for a long time I’m like, man, I want to see something. But I respect it because I know what everyone goes through.

Well, it was great to see you again. Again, I hope it’s not as long next time.

I bet you it’ll be sooner. I’m not going to promise.

Okay, next time I’m in Vegas I’ll actually make this bet. I’ll look for that line somewhere.

[Laughs] Yeah, let me know what it’s at.

‘Wendy’ opens in select theaters this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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Source: https://uproxx.com/movies/benh-zeitlin-wendy-beasts-of-a-southern-wild/

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