“There’s something wrong when the figure you most identify with when you’re 12 — in terms of thoughts, feelings and ideas — is Anne Frank,” Rachel Griffiths said, speaking in Auckland on the set of Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wilds.” “There’s a fucking problem that you’re a Catholic girl in Melbourne and you have to go to Anne Frank to find a view of a girl wrestling with the huge questions of humanity, fear, and anxiety.”
“The Wilds,” the commerce and streaming giant’s first move into young adult series programming, debuts December 11, and it’s a big, risky, sprawling cross-genre project. In addition to Griffiths, it has a huge cast and a tricky narrative, one that shows the lengths young women have to go to in order to regain their agency under the pressures of modern life.
The logline for “The Wilds” is simple: It’s “Lost” meets “Lord of the Flies,” but with teenage girls. And while that kind of elevator pitch was doubtlessly tantalizing enough to get CEO Jeff Bezos to write a big ol’ check to fund the series, it’s also a massive simplification of what unfolds over 10 episodes.
Griffiths portrays the character that underpins all the action, scientist Gretchen Klein, who embarks on an audacious sociological experiment. In extreme circumstances, she helps the teen characters in “The Wilds” answer big, classic storytelling questions: Who gets to be considered a hero? What kind of challenges must the hero overcome? What if the biggest challenge to the hero is themselves?
“Adolescence has been viewed through a male lens, reduced and sexualized,” Griffiths said. “Gretchen is an absolutely radical feminist theoretician who is wanting to prove — in a much more real world setting — ideas about how women organize themselves.”
So what if the default word in the earlier paragraph wasn’t “hero” — but instead “heroine”? Who gets to be a heroine, and why?
It doesn’t give too much of the plot away to say one of Griffiths’ inspirations for her portrayal was disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who somehow convinced $9 billion worth of predominantly male investors that keeping a deposit box of pinprick blood samples at room temperature at your local Walgreens was going to revolutionize medical testing. “Gretchen has this Elizabeth Holmes kind of self-belief that I find so compelling, and it’s rare in a female,” she said.
Despite the confidence, every character on “The Wilds,” including Gretchen, has secrets. No one is who they appear to be, and all have been molded in a pressure chamber of personal upheaval and tragedy. While the jungle island that the group of young women find themselves on has its fair share of wild animals — the snake in the first act must bite in the third act, basically — the true wilds of the title spawn from the trauma suffered by the interior lives of each character.
Matt Klitscher/Amazon Studios
“The wonderful thing about the way this show is structured is that we get to see how a girl presents herself,” Griffiths said. “We may judge her on her interactions and how she carries herself — and then we get her backstory, which is always a revelation. I think young women will really understand that idea, despite the unkindness that we live in now. I see younger girls posting that on Instagram: ‘Be kind, you never know what’s happening in a person’s life!’ and it’s true.”
The production team behind “The Wilds” is predominantly female. It was created by Sarah Streicher (“Daredevil”), with Amy B. Harris (“Sex and the City”) serving as showrunner, and former head of ABC Entertainment Jamie Tarses as executive producer. The need to make a smart, thoughtful show starring — and for — a diverse group of young women that wasn’t glossy or candy-colored was imperative.
“I felt certainly the two genres that I definitely wanted to marry were the coming-of-age story and the survival drama — only because coming-of-age really is so harrowing and it feels like there are life-or-death stakes,” Streicher said. “When I was pitching the show there was a part of my spiel that was like, ‘I had a relatively easy quote unquote adolescence, and I still barely made it out alive.’ I got in a near-death car accident — my fault — shortly after I turned 16. I just wasn’t paying attention, and I took a left turn. I had an eating issue that bordered on severe. But on the surface, it was just sort of middle-class teenager in Ohio, and still truly, truly the teenage experience — it is harrowing. And I wanted to honor that and speak to that.”
Who gets to be a heroine, and why?
“The Wilds” set visit took place in January 2020, the halcyon last period of certainty the planet would have this year. As my plane landed in New Zealand, I could see a substantial smear of smoke from the Australian bushfires drifting hundreds of miles east, evident like a smear of a grey pastel crayon in the humid Southern Hemisphere summer sky. It’s a cirrus stain that’s instantly recognizable to any Angeleno.
How awful, I thought. What a terrible way to start the year.
The soundstages in Auckland managed to be simultaneously sprawling and suffocating; over the course of “The Wilds,” the audience sees the characters in their lives before the plane crash, on the island, and afterward in an institutional setting that’s all spartan beds, labyrinthine hallways, and concrete walls. The set design is emblematic of Griffiths’ character’s monomania for a matriarchal society — everything must be stripped away in order to start over.
“I think [it comes] out of the frustration of the last 25 years, the last five years, the turn of events back to populism — and always arriving with the populist demagogue is a return to the patriarchy,” Griffiths said of her character’s motivation. “Whenever you have that big man, the women are engendered to go back to more subservient roles to that large, male, non-consultative personality.”
This is why, more so than ever, women telling complex stories about women who refuse to be reduced by society is so important. In fiction and reality, young women need to see a heroine’s journey in order to become heroines themselves. “There’s always been a petty devaluing of young women’s experience,” Griffiths said. “I was just asked if I was popular at school. And I went, ‘I didn’t care if I was popular. I was trying to figure out how the Holocaust happened.'”
To see where “The Wilds” island scenes were filmed, we ventured out to the black sands of Bethells Beach on the west coast of New Zealand. The van driver pointed out the sites as we headed across the country — there was an extensive network of bike paths on the outskirts of Auckland that were just finished. “We’re a small country, and things like that are a big deal,” he said. It was a project initiated by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who would be up for re-election later in the year. He referred to her as “Our Jacinda.”
Matt Klitscher/Amazon Studios
Bethells Beach is a gorgeous place, but not without a patina of danger. On location, there were tiny bluebottle jellyfish washed up on the dunes that front the Tasman Sea, their squishy venomous blue opaque innards brilliant against the dark sand. The charcoal coloring is the result of New Zealand’s volcanic churning, which also makes the sand slightly magnetic.
Eleven months later, there are still pieces of black sand stuck inside the magnetic clasp of my AirPods case. I haven’t cleaned it out. It’s a souvenir from a different place — and a different time. That same day, January 31, 2020 in New Zealand, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health emergency.
In October, Ardern handily won re-election.
Who gets to be a heroine, and why?
All 10 episodes of “The Wilds” are available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.