Interview: Taming the Beasts of a Southern Wild

Every year, the Sundance Film Festival premieres a number of buzzed about films that may go on to become big hits with moviegoers and sometimes even winning Oscars. This year’s Sundance was all about Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fantasy-tinged drama set in a fictionalized Louisiana bayou region where a community known as The Bathtub is in danger of being flooded by the rising waters. In this environment is six-year-old Hushpuppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who lives in squalor with her father Wink, played by Dwight Henry–a New Orleans baker before being cast in the movie–who refuses to move despite the impending threat.

Beasts of the Southern Wild certainly has connected with a lot of people, not just due to the obvious parallels to post-Katrina New Orleans where Zeitlin resides with his collective of artists known as Court 13, but also due to the imaginative visuals and narrative that drives the film, making it unlike any other movie you’re likely to see this or any other year. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, as well as another award for its cinematography, and then shocked the world of international cinema when it won four more awards at Cannes.

Last week, ComingSoon.net spoke with Zeitlin and his writing partner Lucy Alibar, who wrote the play “Juicy and Delicious” on which the film was loosely based, although Lucy joined us a little ways into the interview.

ComingSoon.net: You’ve known Lucy for a long time, so what made you decide to turn her play into a movie? Which one of you first threw that idea out there?
Benh Zeitlin:
It was actually two projects that I was thinking about simultaneously that converged. I went from “Glory at Sea” and started thinking about making a film about hold-outs and about a group of people who refuse to evacuate, refuse to leave as a last stand in a place. That was this Louisiana story I was trying to tell coming off the short, and then at the same time, we were working on making a short film out of one of her stories or making something based on her world. It was thematically those two things converged, this idea that I had of making a film about a community losing its place and it was unlocked by her story that was about a little girl losing her father and the emotional connection between those two things is what caused the whole thing to take off. So it was really a process of taking different pieces of the play and bringing them to a new location and a new structure.

At this point, Lucy enters the room and we exchange greetings.

CS: You two have known each other for a long time..
Lucy Alibar
Yeah, we go back and we debate about how old we were, but pre-pubescent, I think we can settle on that. Benh had no facial hair.
Zeitlin: Yeah, we were 12 or 13 or 14, in that realm.
Alibar: I couldn’t drive.

CS: Had you been talking for a long time about turning one of your plays into a movie or had it evolved from there?
Alibar:
I just remember we went to the Russian-Turkish Baths, because I had worked brunch. I think this is the way it went, ’cause I’ve been telling everyone this story. I hope it’s true. (laughs)

CS: I guess you two haven’t been doing too many interviews together.
Zeitlin:
No.
Alibar: Not too many.
Zeitlin: So we may have been telling completely contradictory stories this entire time.
Alibar: (laughs) I remember being at the Russian-Turkish Baths, and you pull out that portfolio and showed me all those pictures. You were drinking beer and I was drinking juice and we had the mud…
Zeitlin: Yeah, so that was sort of what it was. Me and Dan Janvey, who was the producer on the film, we saw the reading of “Juicy and Delicious” at somebody’s apartment.
Alibar: Yeah, like somebody’s office building.
Zeitlin: Not even a stage reading, just a literal reading, so we started thinking about whether we could turn either “Mommy Says I’m Pretty on the Inside” or “Juicy” or some kind of combination of the two into a short film. As I was working on both things, I had this sort of moment of “This is the same story and these two things can be combined,” and then I had a bunch of ideas based on that and then I pitched it to Lucy that this could be a feature film. I think that’s sort of how it went down.
Alibar: Yeah, on the roof of the Turkish Baths, a very important fact.

CS: Your original play “Juicy and Delicious” is about a boy and his dying father so was that set in this same sort of locale?
Alibar:
No, that was the big shift.
Zeitlin: That was story #1
Alibar: Yeah, and for me, that was the brand new thing, because I didn’t know about the Louisiana aspect.
Zeitlin: The original setting, it had several similarities. It was sort of off the grid, it was out in the woods, it was rural, it was in a Wetlands culture and alligators were part of it. There’s a lot of things that connected North Florida off-the-grid Wetlands to South Louisiana off-the-grid Gulf bayou culture, so it made a lot of sense and it all came together. There was just some weird synergy where I just felt like the two things were floating around like this and they just kind of glued together.

CS: How long ago did all these ideas come together?
Zeitlin:
Three or four years ago. It was 2008. The reason I was in New York was I was in a car accident and I had to recover up here, so it was just over that period.
Alibar: Yeah, that’s right, because we were going to the baths because it was good for…
Zeitlin: It was good for hip, yeah.

CS: So these Russian baths are going to be seen as some sort of creative Mecca for filmmakers.
Zeitlin:
It is definitely geek’s Mecca.
Alibar: Oh, no doubt. (laughs)

CS: Obviously, there are the parallels to New Orleans post-Katrina which hangs over this, but there are also elements that make it seem like science fiction or fantasy, because it’s painted as a post-Apocalyptic world of sorts. Did you see it as a science fiction/fantasy movie?
Alibar:
It sort of became more grounded as it went. I think the play was much more lyrical and much more fantastical and much less attached to real things, and the process of transposing it to Louisiana and taking these Apocalyptic events and attaching them to actual environmental phenomena. When the character was played in the theater, it was a 25-year-old guy playing an 11-year-old boy. It’s a much larger step away from reality so actually attaching that character to a little girl who is probably similar to the age Lucy was talking about when she was writing the show, a lot of real elements are going to come in. By the end, we stopped thinking about it as a fantasy film and it became much more a film through the perspective of a 6 year old, when reality and imagination are not necessarily different things or reality is built out of both what’s actually happening and what you imagine to be there and you’re not making those distinctions. For me now, it certainly has a heightened reality, but it’s the heightened reality that exists when you’re six.

CS: When you were writing the screenplay with the main character being a 6-year-old girl, did you realize that you’d have to find a young girl to pull off everything you wrote for this character?
Zeitlin:
Well, we wrote her older for that reason. I think originally she was 11.
Alibar: I think we knew pretty early on that we had to be flexible to whomever the best Hushpuppy was.
Zeitlin: But we also sort of realized that for the perspective of the film, at 11 the character is a little daft. You have an 11-year-old who’s like “My Daddy could have turned into this spoon.” There’s something wrong with that kind for a six-year-old who ends up having this incredibly vibrant mind. It was sort of in the interest of trying to take that character from being a bit daft to being this wise woman at her age sank in the script. For the producers especially, it was this kind of horrifying thing when I came in and said, “I think this character is six, she’s not 11.” We sort of go into abysses and impossible challenges like that fairly regularly so it wasn’t totally out of the blue.

CS: I understand it was a pretty extensive process to find Quvenzhané, so when you got her, did you end up modifying the screenplay a lot to make it work for her. What were some of the changes you made when you knew you were going younger?
Alibar:
I think Benh could probably speak to that more because we went through many, many drafts. I can’t even count the amount, but by the time Benh and Quvenzhané started rehearsing, at that point I went back to New York for a couple of months and in that time, maybe Benh can speak to that more.
Zeitlin: Yeah, the way it sort of worked was we did this first very, very quick script based on the play and then me and Lucy collaborated on three or four different story drafts, and then once we felt we had the story, that’s when actors got cast and the final draft was this sort of collaborative process of rehearsing scenes, interviewing actors, bringing in elements of their lives to the characters. That last draft was sort of a lot of me in the bakery with Dwight while he was making doughnuts rewriting scenes that he brought to the film and his language, and also interviewing Quvenzhané and incorporating what she said. It wasn’t total rewrites, it’s just sort of taking a lot of poetry of the play and then putting it in the voice of the person playing the role so they can kind of own that text, and just giving the actors room to breathe inside of the text was a process. Basically the last script was that kind of workshop process.

CS: Neither of them were actors before making this movie so what’s it like working with non-actors and basing a fairly large-scaled movie around them? How do you get them into the process of making movies and understanding what they need to understand about them.
Zeitlin:
We used different things for different people. Dwight, we did a reading of the entire script that he could listen to while he was baking, so he could hear the whole story. We did this staged reading and for her, I would tell her the story like it was a campfire story, which I think informed the script in some ways. We’d start off and you’d say, “Once there was a Hushpuppy” and then that line became incorporated into the script. It’s just a slightly different but to me, very rewarding process. An actor has their own system of generating emotion that as a director, you don’t want to get your hands too far into. You want to let them go through their own process and do that kind of privately. For non-actors, it’s just a lot more hands on. We’d spend weeks getting to know each other. I know everything that’s ever happened in Dwight Henry’s life. We just interviewed each other and attached scenes to different events in his life and created an emotional structure, and it’s a lot more intimate in that way, but you also end up with a much more intimate process and you also end up with all this material that ends up in the movie. They really become collaborators on the characters and on the text of the script and you really get that out of the process too, and it’s really great. It was a really essential thing for this type of film.

CS: Were you actually down there while they were shooting?
Alibar:
Yeah, I got to be there the whole time which was awesome. I hear all these horror stories, especially when you go through the Sundance Labs. I would get pulled aside and they would say, “So you know, this is really going to get hard for you.”

CS: I’ve spoken to a lot of writers who became directors who could keep some more control over what they write.
Alibar:
I was really fortunate that the whole process felt like everybody was incredibly involved. It was very democratic, but there still was a hierarchy I would say, but so many people would bring so much of their art to this project, being that in the art department or the incredible job people did in the casting. I think that really speaks to Court 13 and to the ability to take in all these really great artists and create a safe structured environment where they can really all do these great things.

CS: What is Court 13? I saw it mentioned at the beginning and end of the film and I heard it mentioned but is that just a bunch of artists who you work with in creating stuff for the movie?
Zeitlin:
It’s sort of an approach. It was what I was describing of trying to come up with a model of making films that allows a lot of different people’s creativity to end up on screen and giving a lot of agency to individuals. A lot of our artists, it’s not like our artists in our art department are working on other films. When they’re not working, they’re sculpting, they’re painting, they’re doing their own art. We’re trying to create a system where it’s a sort of like-minded group of people that want to be working in this grassroots way. It both sort of manifests itself in the film and we’re hoping we can grow it and it can be the kind of thing where there’s Court 13 art shows, Court 13 plays, Court 13 music and a way that we can protect this family of artists that all get together to make these things, and create a system where we can all come together to make these movies and also, everybody can make their individual arts outside of that. But it’s sort of an approach, almost a code.

CS: That must help making a movie like this which has such a distinctive look, which people have commented on, and while you can have filmmakers like Terry Gilliam who can create those worlds from his own vision, in this case, all of you just went down to Louisiana and started building?
Zeitlin:
Yeah, we really build real things, too. Part of it is that we’re not really building facades. We don’t build film sets where if you’re not going to shoot one side, you don’t build that side. You build the whole thing and it exists in the world, and it allows a lot of flexibility with how you shoot the film and a lot of the actors inhabit the spaces like they exist. Like Wink’s house is where my sister lived the entire production. She built that house from all materials she found on the land there, and it’s a very immersionist attitude towards construction. Even though there’s no place that exists like The Bathtub, it did exist tangibly in the world while we were shooting the film.

CS: Have you both been surprised by the overwhelming reaction the movie’s been getting? Even going back to Sundance, I remember there was this ripple effect where it grew and grew. Did that surprise you and did you ever think this movie would have that kind of impact?
Zeitlin:
(chuckles) No.
Alibar: I think it’s safe to say that nobody was making this movie thinking, “We’re going to make an indie blockbuster.” Nobody was saying about what this was going to be called to anybody else.
Zeitlin: Yeah, it was really made on its own terms. We never had time to think about that. I think that’s something you probably think about after you finish something, like “Who is this going to play to? And what happens if people like it? And what happens if they don’t? And what are our different strategies?” But we finished the film two days before Sundance.
Alibar: We were writing the voice over for Nazey like…
Zeitlin: Yeah, we were still making the film, recording voice-over three days before Sundance. We never stopped and considered looking at the forest. It really happened while we were still going through the painful process of letting your baby walk out into the world, and suddenly it got swept up by this whole…. It was a bit overwhelming and shocking and awesome.

CS: With that in mind, did you keep everything the same or did you do some more work on it after Sundance? I’d think that even though you rushed to finish it, since the reaction was so positive, you wouldn’t want to change it.
Zeitlin:
No, no, I went back to work. I did three more weeks of work after Sundance.

Beasts of the Southern Wild opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, June 27 and opens in other cities on July 6 and throughout July. You can find out when the movie’s opening near you here.

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