Beasts of the Southern Wild is Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut, but you wouldn’t realize it from watching the movie. I remember British writer Geoff Dyer saying that there’s a distinct kind of swagger and self-confidence to first novels by American authors, and Zeitlin has tapped into that with his first film. He’s a native of Sunnyside, Queens here in New York, he’s a graduate of Wesleyan University, he won Caméra d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; he’ll turn 30 in October.
Zeitlin entered the room after the other writers and I spoke with Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. One of the interesting things about group interviews is that you can never be sure where other people’s questions will go. In this case, the first two topics were Prometheus and perceptions of racism. The latter I’ll address in my review of Beasts of the Southern Wild tomorrow morning (no dice on Prometheus, though).
Did you realize the aurochs and the cave paintings are also in Prometheus? Do you see a connection?[laughs] I have not yet seen Prometheus, but, uh… damn.
Maybe the aurochs were sent by the aliens. Did you ever think about that as an option?
I did not, I did not. I don’t know, but maybe there’s some sort of synergy in the world where Beasts of the Southern Wild and Prometheus were meant to come out together.
[laughs] Someone will be watching your movie and maybe you’ll be directing one of the [Prometheus] sequels…
That will not happen. [laughs] Though Aliens is about my favorite movie in the world — Aliens. [Editor’s note: Zeitlin repeated with emphasis on the “s.”]
The second one.
Two, Cameron; Cameron, Aliens. Yeah, I love that movie.
So then my subconscious understanding might not have been so fallacious.
Maybe not. [laughs]
Is this supposed to be an entertaining film, an informative film, educational? What do you want audiences to walk away with?
It’s supposed to be an emotional film. You know, the structure of the film is an emotional structure; it’s almost like– I think of it as like a pop song. Or, not a pop song, but like an anthem, like a national anthem. It moves in verses and choruses and takes you, hopefully, in the end. And I think it’s all those things in a lot of ways. But it always was supposed to be a film made to look at the building blocks; it has a kind of art house [sensibility]. It’s not full of professional actors, it’s low budget, it’s shot in South Louisiana, all these things. But the intention was always to make something that was populist and had universal [themes]. We tried to keep the message of the film universal and the emotion of the film universal and have it be something that you can relate to wherever you are. And it’s supposed to be entertaining. It has as much AMC Palace in it as it does Film Forum, I would say.
I always have to play devil’s advocate. I had to ask you this question because there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the film saying that you’re showing black people as bad.
Because I’m sure you’re aware of the controversy that’s been surrounding it.
Sort of. People usually don’t tell me, they sort of whisper it behind my back.
[laughs] On the blogosphere you’re getting some dish.
What is your reaction to that thought?
That it’s a film making black people look bad?
Yeah. Because the hair is [all disheveled]. And the squalor, looking dirty, and [being] ignorant.
I mean, I don’t think the people in the film are ignorant at all. If you watch the film, those characters are the heroes of the film, they’re the wisest people in the film, they’re the bravest people in the film. And they’re three-dimensional characters, which I think is kind of a rare thing as far as when I go to watch films; you rarely see minorities depicted in a way that doesn’t reduce them to their race. So, I disagree with that reaction, and I don’t think the film thinks of [the community] in that way either. I think that The Bathtub is not an impoverished place. It’s a place that’s off the grid, it’s totally self-sufficient, it’s totally independent, and the people there love it and are thriving and are feasting every night. It’s not like there’s some part of town where everyone’s got the money and this is the slum or something. This is a group of people that’s made a choice to stand by their homes despite the fact that the world has cut them off from the economy. There’s no money in The Bathtub, and there’s no religion; there are no religious divides, and there are no political divides; there are no divides between the young people and the old people. And part of that, there’s no divide between the races — there’s total racial equality. It’s a diverse place that doesn’t have the sort of judgment and stereotypes and hatred that exists on the other side of the wall. That was the intention behind this utopian idea of The Bathtub. That’s what [the film] is supposed to do, and if people are reading it differently, that’s their thing.
How much in your own background was familiar with the bayou community? How did you actually study that before you went into production?
You know, I moved down there. We kind of write and research at the same time, and we sort of develop all of those things alongside one another. I basically went by myself driving down to the end of every road in Louisiana. I was looking for– I just got interested in what was at the very edge, and I found this town — Pointe-aux-Chenes, Louisiana and Montegut and Isle de Jean Charles — these three towns that are in the same place that are on the frontlines of this. You just have these moments. I got down there, I looked across: the road ends here, and then there’s water, and then there’s this tiny little island, and there’s this one horse standing on it, staring at me. And I just thought that this is what this film is about — this last stand. So you sort of choose the town, and then we started casting in the town. We’d go door to door looking for someone to play this role of Hushpuppy. And so, you kind of get to know people in the auditions. I moved to the marina at the very end of the town, and I’d sit around on the docks with my laptop looking like a total fish out of water. People would pull up and say, “Put away your computer, I’m taking you alligator hunting.” And we’d jump in a boat and go out there! It’s a very… This is not New Orleans, it’s a very different place down in the bayou. There’s a lot of territoriality, and people are going to gauge you and suss you out and make sure you’re not out there for some sort of exploitative reason, but once that flips, the hospitality is so much in the culture that you really get brought in, in a very awesome way. [laughs] It’s not like we were in hotels or honey wagons making the film. We were in people’s houses. People let us stay in their trailers behind their homes, and we were very much living as part of a big community. There was a mixture of people from the town and my friends from up north and people I knew from New Orleans. It was a big mix of people.
It’s almost surreal or science fiction-like without being straight surrealism or science fiction. How did you decide to balance those elements?
You know… I don’t think of [Beasts of the Southern Wild] as a fantasy film. I think of it as a portrait of a 6-year-old’s reality, where you’re not parsing out your imagination from the tangible. So Hushpuppy’s emotions spill into surreal spaces, and spill into these lyrical and poetic places. Because we tried to respect her point of view instead of saying, “Oh, she’s a little kid, she’s imagining something.” We give her the film and let her speak. That’s why she narrates it and why the thing’s shot from four feet high. The sound is all in her head, the music is all in her head. We wanted this kind of heightened perspective. To me it’s like having an imaginary friend when you’re 6 — they’re just there. So the aurochs from an adult point of view may be Hushpuppy’s imaginary friend, but from the film’s point of view, they’re very much there and have consequences in her world as your imaginary friend does in your 6-year-old world. So that’s how I think about it. It made sense to me for her character. It’s not like she’s got friends, she doesn’t have a dad who’s going to chitchat with her, he relationships are with animals and with the Earth and with nature. She’s a very quiet character who has this very heightened sense of how nature works, so the aurochs sort of emerge out of that; that way that she understands things and the way that she thinks through her life.
Did you see Cave of Forgotten Dreams?
I actually didn’t because it came out while I was making the film and I didn’t want to get fucked up in the head about it.
But I went to the cave paintings and saw them. I actually think it is probably the most beautiful piece of art on the face of the Earth. It’s absolutely incredible. And that was a huge inspiration — this moment just before extinction that are depicted in the caves and that Hushpuppy is experiencing, and that connection. The way that she connects her life to the full scope of human experience; looking to the future at scientists that are going to look back at her, and her looking into the past as like this little scientist trying to understand herself as a creature of the Earth. That’s all sort of a part of why the aurochs take on such a prominence for her.
Well I hope you get to see [Cave of Forgotten Dreams].
I’m going to see it now, I’m going to see it now. Now that I’m done.
Did your vision of the characters change when you had Quvenzhané and Dwight come in as part of the cast?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we tried to keep everything in the script extremely malleable as we’re casting and as we’re location scouting. Those characters really become… What ends up on screen is a real collaboration between me and Lucy [Alibar], the co-writer, and the person playing the role. We do weeks and weeks of interviews before we even touch the script. I would be right in [Dwight Henry’s] bakery, show up at midnight. [Editor’s note: Zeitlin pointed and nodded at a plate of buttermilk drops.] You guys all got to try them? They’re way better fresh out, let me tell you. But you know, we’d be there all night long just talking. We went though everything in his life, every moment, and mine as well — we’d just talk back and forth. Then you start pulling pieces from his life and attaching them to scenes in the script, and you say, “I think we can use this moment to inform this scene, but would you make these choices in this scene?” And sometimes Dwight would, and sometimes he would say, “No, my focus would be here.” Then you take the scene away, re-write it to that. All the language was re-written. [We’d ask them], “How would you say this?” You kind of adapt the script; you fully adapt the script to the people that are coming to play the roles because it’s a different process than working with a professional actor. But it’s not like Dwight or Quvenzhané are playing themselves at all — [Wink and Hushpuppy are] total performances — but we did do a lot of work to get the way that they think and the way that they talk into the script so it would be easier for them to take hold of the role. And also, it just makes the film. Their writing is better usually than my writing. You get to cheat in that way.
[laughs] It’s like their voices get to inform everything.
Yeah, a lot of the best lines in the film are made up by Dwight or Quvenzhané. It’s hard to even remember whose is what or who wrote what or where it came from because it’s so amorphous.
Where did Lucy Alibar come into this? How do you guys know each other?
We went to a playwriting camp when we think we were 13 years old. We’re trying to figure it out. It was definitely middle school at some point. It wasn’t a camp, it was some little contest that we both won. They had like eight kids. It was in New York. We went to a bunch of plays. It was whenever Hedwig [and the Angry Inch] was on. We went to see Hedwig.
What was that, like the late 90s? That’s an interesting choice.
Yeah, yeah. So we’ve known each other since then. We’ve sent each other everything we’ve ever written from that time moving forward. We always wanted to do something together, but the way that [this desire for collaboration] became this was almost accidental and crazy. I don’t think I was ever planning to make a Lucy movie as my first film, but that’s what ended up happening. But, you know. And also, I want to say that it’s sort of confusing to say Beasts of the Southern Wild is based on a play. [Editor’s note: The play is Lucy Alibar’s one-act, Juicy and Delicious.] It’s probably more inspired by a play. There’s no scene-to-scene… there’s no scene from the play that was put into the movie. The characters and the world and the tone were kind of extracted [from the play].
Do you see yourself doing a documentary?
No. No, I don’t like to… I never film anyone when I’m out. Our research process is very much like documentary filmmaking where you go somewhere and look for a story, but I never have a camera, I never have a recorder — I don’t like to stick anything into anyone’s faces. I just like to hang out, you know?
So when did this idea come to you?
For the movie?
I made a short film. I moved to New Orleans in 2006, I made a short film; a similar thing. It was this sort of community art project where I cast all of these people that were in New Orleans right after the storm. It was as I was realizing that I wasn’t going to go back home, to here [New York], that I was going to stay there and try to figure out what that pull was. And also, I really wanted to make a film that celebrated these people that were in that shore, who were holding out and refusing to leave and fighting for the place. That the initial inspiration.
I heard that while you were shooting was during the BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Was there any affect on your actual production?
Or on your head.
It was very, very present. The town where we shot was about the closest town to that explosion. When I was saying [earlier] — that marina I moved into, the dock, the place where that horse was when I first went down there — that whole marina was taken over by BP as the center of their clean-up operation. And we had lots of locations that were like a mile away — past the road into the water — and that all got blocked off. You looked across the way and saw all the yellow booms. We had to go in and negotiate with BP to get our boats launched out of the marina; we had to negotiate with them to move the booms so we could get back to our location. It was that logistical thing and then also a lot of our crew was local. We remember this one day on set where we came to set and they said that fishing is probably going to be closed for the next 10 years, which literally would be the end of that place. That would be the end of Pointe-aux-Chenes, Louisiana, that is the economy. That was the same day we were shooting the scene about the fish dying. It was so weird; it was this life imitating art thing. The issues suddenly become very real, and what you’re talking about sort of gains this weight as the film was going on. It was really ominous and strange. You’d wake up and see on the map this black [mass] that would get closer and closer, and it almost felt like the aurochs. The auraochs were black and the oil was black, and we were like, “What is going on here? Have we set this loose?” It was a really strange thing to experience.