It's interesting to live in a place where you're always under the threat of being taken away by a storm.
An intriguing gumbo of regionalism, magical realism, and post-Hurricane Katrina allegory, Beasts of the Southern Wild marks 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin’s feature directorial debut. Co-written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, whose play Juicy and Delicious served as the film’s springboard, it features a vibrant cast of Louisiana locals, almost all of whom make their acting debuts. At the center is Hushpuppy, the film’s 6-year-old protagonist played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. A motherless child, Hushpuppy lives with her chronically ill, frequently drunk father in a fictitious shantytown called “the Bathtub” in South Louisiana on the bayou just beyond the government’s levee protection program. Stomping around her squalid terrain in plastic rain boots and Underoos, the peewee heroine is repeatedly challenged to prove her might as her neighborhood is washed out by a hurricane, her father’s health continues to deteriorate and she’s under the threat of rampaging creatures called aurochs, actual historical animals here reimagined as giant wild boars.
Anthem sat down with Zeitlin at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City to discuss his unwavering love for Louisiana, what it actually means to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and the genesis of his first feature film as writer/director/composer.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is currently playing in select theaters.
Benh Zeitlin: Kee, I’m loving this Wayne’s World cap.
I stole it from one of my friends. This is my way of telling him.
BZ: I’d be mad if I was in his situation. This is a meaningful hat. It’s my firm belief that everything you need to know about life you learn from Wayne’s World.
Let’s talk about Sundance first. What does it actually mean to win the Grand Jury Prize, especially for a previously unknown filmmaker?
BZ: It means a lot! It has been a whirlwind. My life is totally crazy right now. I’ve been to 3 cities in the past 2 days. The experience of promoting the film isn’t what I imagined. I had no concept of what would happen when the film was done. I don’t think I even knew what Fox Searchlight was until they approached me. I didn’t think about these things because we didn’t finish the film until a couple days before Sundance. The most gratifying thing is seeing your audience expand. We made the film always thinking that despite its weirdness, it’s going to communicate broadly. If you can get people to see it, even with its difficult pitch, they will understand and enjoy it. When you get these big prizes at festivals, that mission seems to get accomplished because people are more willing to check it out. You see this expanding outside of Louisiana and across the world, and it’s such a great privilege to have that kind of conversation with the planet.
Were you always planning on premiering the film at Sundance?
BZ: We were. We were in the Sundance Institute Lab for directing and producing, so we were very much taken care of during this process. The goal was always to premiere the film in the U.S. because it felt very much like an “American movie” to us. We were actually aiming to premiere at Sundance a year prior originally, but a couple of months into production, we decided we needed another year of post-production to get the film just right. We worked nonstop for a year and got into the festival just 2 days before the festival. We definitely needed that time.
When Sundance takes you under its wings like that, what kind of support do you get?
BZ: The Lab itself is this incredible education. You’re out there with brilliant screenwriters who are reading your work and it’s akin to having advisers or apprenticeships. You’re getting analysis from these amazing people all the time. Even after a project is done and you want to show a cut to someone, they tell you who they think you should show it to at that stage. Sundance helped us find a new editor when we needed one. It’s a support network.
How did audiences receive the film at Cannes? Was it very similar or very different to what you were used to at Sundance?
BZ: The culture of Cannes is incredibly different. Sundance has this positivity in general because people there are just happy they get to see a movie. With Cannes, it’s an inquisition of sorts. When you show your movie, you go in knowing that the reaction could be horrible. You hear horror stories about people walking out and booing. There’s an honesty and a bluntness to how an audience reacts there. They’re not so enamored by the fact that they’re at Cannes and you don’t get a free pass in a way. I really didn’t know what to expect, but when you get a standing ovation for 20 minutes you know that means something. Also, the way people understand the film is very different elsewhere. The further you get from Louisiana, the movie plays more like a fantasy or a fairytale, which is really interesting. It’s also interesting how that doesn’t seem to change, fundamentally, the way people understand the movie. It’s great to see it play to people in faraway places like Poland because they read it in a totally different context yet it works.
Was it hard to pin down this fine line that divides fantasy and reality in the film?
BZ: Yeah. We thought a lot about it and looked at a lot of different examples of how fantasy can be used in films. We looked at a lot of different approaches. The thing I seem to respond to most is one where there really isn’t a line drawn between fantasy and reality. Underground by [Emir] Kusturica has that quality. All That Jazz has that quality where it’s not like someone closes their eyes and journeys into their imagination. The film has a subjectivity and simply experiences life in a more heightened fashion. To me, this film isn’t really a fantasy at all. It’s documenting the experience of being 6 years old. When you’re at that age, you don’t parse out what’s real and what’s unreal. Everything seems real and the way you experience reality is extremely heightened. You see things affecting each other that, when you get older, you decide they weren’t actually affecting each other. You believe these things exist as a child, but you write them off as you get older. We wanted to respect her perspective and not question it from an adult’s perspective. That’s how we sort of looked at it. We stopped thinking about whether these aurochs were real or not. We stopped thinking about whether this woman is her actual mom or not. We decided that whatever she believes is happening, the film is going to treat it as such.
And what was attractive to you about telling this very intimate tale about a father-daughter relationship?
BZ: These autobiographical elements are my co-writer’s and not mine. She lived in this wild place in North Florida, a totally off-the-grid place with all of these animals around. Her father is this wonderful, but very wild and brutal figure. She was writing this story about him getting sick and everything was pulled from what she went through. Personally, both Hushpuppy and her father feel so similar to me because I wrote myself into those characters. They have my same viewpoints about the world. My connection is much more to the individuals as opposed to the overall scenario.
How much of an affect did something like Hurricane Katrina or the BP oil spill have when you were mulling over the idea of making this film?
The BP oil spill hadn’t happened when we started shooting. The rig actually exploded on day 1 of our shoot. It was this strange parallel to the movie in that sense. Katrina definitely had a huge influence, but when I talk about it, I see Katrina as part of an acceleration of storms. It’s happened over the course of 10 years with Rita, Gustav and Ike. There’s this sense that storms are just going to be part of life all the time. It’s interesting to live in a place where you’re always under the threat of being taken away by a storm. It wasn’t so much about doing something specific about Hurricane Katrina. It was about imagining a world where Katrina is a state of mind or a reality.
Do you think you’ll ever leave Louisiana?
I want to live there for the rest of my life. You get attached to it and it’s something that you want to fight for. It’s almost has to do with pride. Even for transplants like me in New Orleans, the place becomes so much about who you are.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from here in New York actually.
You don’t miss it.
[Laughs] No. I’m homesick right now.
This is the last pit stop, right?
I go home tomorrow! We have our New Orleans premiere, which is what I’ve been waiting for since I started making this film. We’re showing it down in the bayou. I’m really, really excited about it.
You co-founded Court 13, which is a collective of creative people working in Louisiana. How did that come together and is there a mission statement?
BZ: Traditionally in film, you write a script and that becomes your holy document. The basic system of making a film is that you break down that script and execute every line in that script. There’s a precision to that. For us, the script is a much more amorphous thing where the casting, location scouting, building things, and designing art is just as important. It gives you this ability to incorporate more creativity and collaboration into the process than you’re normally afforded. When you cast someone who’s not written on the page and rewrite the film to suit that person, to let that person breathe inside the script and get their voice in there, it’s quite special. Those are some of the ideas behind Court 13. We build really big things out of these small parts. We don’t need the robocrane or the big movie star to tell stories. We can cobble something together with twine, thread, meat and wood. Back when we were animating, it was about finding pieces and gluing them together to tell a story out of the junk that we collected. It became this thing where we wanted to find ways where we could bring the people we love and care about into the film and allow them to live out this story. We’re not building facades. We’re all out there in boats on the water and sort of doing the same things that the characters do in the film.
Do you ever think about graduating to Hollywood? Would you ever trade this very specific method of filmmaking to work with bigger budgets?
BZ: I would never give this up because this is my thing. This method is still so young too. It almost feels like a different art form. It’s so different from how you’d go about making a Hollywood film, although we’re aiming to make these big movies. We’re doing everything we can to try and protect this method, and preserve the system we created.
You received a lot of outside help for this film. Considering all of this creative chaos, I wonder how you pitched something like this to people.
BZ: We were never able to explain the film and we’re still unable to. It’s not an easy thing to articulate. Most of our support came from people seeing my short film Glory at Sea. Once you see that, I think it’s easier to understand how these films work. They’re meant to be emotional adventure pieces. For the grant we got from the San Francisco Film Society, you normally have to be in production and send in footage. We weren’t in production yet, so we shot rehearsals with our 2 leads and cut together a trailer set to test music that would capture what the the film might feel like. We created this crazy little preview and they were like, “We get it”. That’s really what you need to note and understand: it’s about how it feels. That was how we got so much support.
You cast nonprofessional actors to play your leads. You found Dwight [Henry] at a bakery that he owns. What was the auditioning process like and what were you looking for?
BZ: You’re looking for people that will capture your imagination. They need to possess this natural charisma to be able to perform. Those are really the two qualities. This film is about these 2 fearless characters and I think that’s always really hard to act out. There are truly fearless actors out there like [Klaus] Kinski; you see this madness in his eyes that couldn’t be performed by anyone else. You’re looking for qualities that are intrinsic to the person. It was a totally unconventional auditioning process. We had people come in and tell stories and played improvisational games with them to see their range. We put them in a variety of emotional situations to see how they adapt. The auditions were more like interviews in a way. They were very personal and really interactive. We wanted to get a sense of the person as much as we wanted to get a sense of their acting chops.
How much had your actors informed the characters by the end of it?
They had informed the characters massively. We test everything against the characters and they really helped me rewrite the film. I would do these interviews with Dwight in his bakery from midnight to 6 in the morning about his life before we even touched the script. A lot of that ended up bleeding into the movie. He would teach me things that I didn’t know about like not only being a father, but being a father within the context of Katrina. He talked about all these experiences that helped me write and shape that character.
What are you working on next?
BZ: I’m just writing the next film and trying to get it started as fast as I can. I want to start shooting by next fall or so. I just want to get back into it. I always have a pile of movies that I’m thinking about. I think I have at least 7 right now. I’m literally booked for the next 21 years. [Laughs]
That’s better than having no ideas.
BZ: Definitely. I just need to choose the right one at the right time.