"Beasts of the Southern Wild"
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”

It’s been 5 years since writer/director Benh Zeitlin made one heck of a splash with his feature debut, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which took the 2012 Academy Awards by storm (nominated in 4 categories, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay) and catapulted then nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis to stardom, earning her a nomination for Best Actress. It didn’t win any of its categories however; but for the *little* indie that it was (not-so unlike this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner “Moonlight”), made for less than $2 million, four Oscar nominations (and in major categories) for a first-time feature director, was certainly noteworthy.

Since then, we’ve heard very little from and about Zeitlin. The last time his name was mentioned on this blog was in 2015 when an S&A reader in Barbados alerted us to a report from the Antigua newspaper, The Observer, announcing a casting call for Zeitlin’s next film, which was to be titled “Wendy.” The piece described “Wendy” as a fantasy adventure about a tribe of children living on a remote island, who never age. Ambassador-at-large for the development of film in Antigua & Barbuda, Bert Kirchner, said in the same report that Zeitlin’s new film would be the biggest production ever to come to Antigua.

“It’s not a hundred million-dollar movie coming in with airplanes and giant everything. It’ll be a small group of people building out of scrap metal and things we find, and the interesting thing is that even though we’re such a small production, the reach could be very, very far,” Zeitlin himself said in the Observer piece adding, “It’s a lot of very young people who want to have a great time and want to be a part of the place that they’re filming. It’s a small group of people.”

We would also learn that Zeitlin and his production team had visited Montserrat, where it was expected at the time that much of the filming would be done. The casting call was held and we would later find out that they were looking primarily for children of African descent to star in “Wendy.”

We emailed Court13, Zeitlen’s production company, for more info, but never received a response.

Zeitlin had previously talked about what his next project would be, before the above 2015 story; the filmmaker gave an interview to the AP in 2012, not long after “Beasts” opened in theaters, in which he noted that he had already begun work on his follow-up to his critically-acclaimed, albeit polarizing feature film debut, adding that it would likely also be set in New Orleans, where Zeitlin’s Court13 film production company calls home.

Further, Zeitlin said that he planned on using the same production team he used on “Beasts,” and he hoped to, once again, cast Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis, who both made their acting debuts in “Beast of the Southern Wild,” in that film’s lead father and daughter roles. Whether either of them is at all connected to “Wendy” is not known at this time.

The then untitled project, Zeitlin said, would be about “a hidden ecosystem where the aging process is out of whack… a place where aging operates like a variable, where people can age rapidly or very slowly.” And, obviously, if the he was casting in Antigua for “Wendy,” based on existing reports, it’s safe to assume that the film’s cast will be made up primarily of actors of African decent, if only because ethnic distribution of Antigua and Barbuda looks like this: 91% Black, 4.4% mixed race, 1.7% White, and 2.9% other (primarily East Indian and Asian). Also, Zeitlin’s last film did tell a fantastical tale about a black girl and her black father. So… [fill in the blanks]…

Skip ahead to this year, specifically to a March 17, 2017 report in the Financial Times, in which the aforementioned Caribbean islands Antigua and Montserrat are central. Written by Andrew Eames, here’s a key piece from the article: “The evening ferry from Antigua was unseasonably full. In addition to the usual handfuls of Montserratians returning to base from the outside world, there was a crowd of thirtysomething Americans bearing bulky baggage. I had a pretty good idea who they were even before I overheard one of them talking to the ticket lady: the film crew for ‘Wendy,’ the next production from Benh Zeitlin, director of 2012’s Oscar-nominated indie success ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’ The co-producer in charge, when I buttonholed him, clearly felt unfairly ambushed and in no position to divulge any details, but Zeitlin himself has said that ‘Wendy’ centres on the relationship of two children in a ‘hidden ecosystem’ that ‘spirals towards destruction’. Neither of these things quite meshes with conventional palm-fringed clichés of the Caribbean, but then neither does Montserrat, which is something of a hidden ecosystem in itself and which has its own close relationship with destruction.”

It’s not a piece about the film production, and it reads like the writer had an accidental run-in with the “Wendy” team while he was in Antigua and Montserrat working on an entirely different story. The film itself does get a few more mentions in the article, including references to the specific areas where shooting will take place (“There has been little serious activity since 2010 and on the day I visit Soufrière is a picture of insouciance, but some 60 per cent of the island remains an exclusion zone, only entered by special permission”); and he talks about meeting the island’s MVO director who is responsibility it is to “keep a wary eye on the volcano,” stating that he is also assisting the “Wendy” team with locking down shooting locations, although he couldn’t share any details either. He also mentions the villas where the production team is staying, adding, “it seems like the whole island is involved” in the production of the film.

Read the full article here, which you’ll find especially useful if you’re planning any trips to Antigua or Montserrat.

So we can maybe officially say that “Wendy” is finally going into production on at least 1 Island in the Caribbean (maybe 2), with a cast made up of local talent – specifically, per the above report from the Antigua Observer, people (children mostly) of African descent.

There’s very little about the project online unfortunately. It’s listed on Zeitlin’s IMDB page, but the film’s page is empty (certainly no casting). It may all be intentional, to keep the project mostly underwraps.

But I’m certainly curious given all that I’ve read and heard about “Wendy,” and I still have to wonder if Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis will appear in the film in some capacity, since he was apparently courting them for it right after “Beasts.”

Now we wait for an official announcement; although, in the past, when I’ve published patchwork stories like this, I typically get an email or 2 from someone with firsthand information. If I do this time around, I’ll certainly share whatever I’m allowed to.