Interview: Benh Zeitlin on 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' and the magnetism of New Orleans
BEVERLY HILLS - Have you had a chance to see "Beasts of the Southern Wild" yet? The film only opened in limited release Wednesday, so chances are it hasn't crept your way yet, but when it does, you're sure to be treated to an undeniably singular and assured vision if nothing else.
The purveyor of that vision is writer/director Benh Zeitlin (along, of course, with his co-writer and childhood friend Lucy Alibar), and he seems to be seeking out a zen space amid overwhelming response to the film first at Sundance and later at the Cannes film festival, both of which brought laurels. On the eve of the Los Angeles fest (which would again bring another award), he's cool and collected at a press day for the film, the specter of release hanging overhead.
The bayou-set modern fable was seeded in Alibar's original play, "Juicy and Delicious," though it wasn't always a Louisiana tale. All of Alibar's work are set in her native Georgia, but when Zeitlin sat down to work on it as a feature film, he wanted to transport the setting to New Orleans.
"It's always been this kind of El Dorado for me a little bit," he says of the city. "It's been kind of a magical place in my imagination since I was very young."
Those were just the inklings of youth, however. When he was able to experience the city for himself and live there for six years, he found that it spoke to him in more tangible ways. "There's something in the air there," he says. "It's like it kind of takes care of you in this weird way. Things present themselves to you and it’s just about being adaptable and being willing to follow a really curvy path."
He references one of the featured actors from the film, Dwight Henry, for instance. Henry -- as has been well-documented by now because of what a fascinating story it is -- happened to own a bakery across the street from where the production was doing a casting call.
"It's hard to believe that the guy who was meant to play that part is just sitting right across the street from me the whole time, and one of the other girls in the film is living next door to him. But you just sort of know that it’s in the magic in the world, and that it’s going to present you things and it’s just the person you’re supposed to find, you’re going to find, and stuff like that."
The attitude appears inherent in Zeitlin but it's also the sort you have to adopt if you're going to make it through the production of a film like "Beasts," which is as far from convention as it can be with an epic scope under a limited budget. And still -- probably owed to that very disposition -- the film carries a heavy air of primal familiarity.
The truly challenging aspect, however, was finding the right actress to play Hushpuppy, the 6-year-old heroine at the film's center. Zeitlin looked at some 4,000 girls for the part, but ultimately it was the quietness in young Quvenzhané Wallis's performance choices that not only told Zeitlin she was the one, but altered and even clarified his vision of who Hushpuppy was.
"There’s something in the way that she interacted with her father where she’d be very quiet, because he was very loud and very in her face," he says. "Hushpuppy was more talkative originally, and I think that’s something that I didn’t realize. You know, Hushpuppy doesn’t really have any friends that are human beings. Her friends are animals. And so there’s a lot going on internally in her head and there wouldn’t be a lot that she says. So I think that the way Quvenzhané played the part where she would -- just the intensity of her stare and the amount that was going on behind it in her head at all times -- sort of made me realize how much of it was about what she was thinking, and the way she was interpreting things, and that it wasn’t going to be as much about conversations that she had with anybody."
That also opened the film -- and Zeitlin -- to improvisation and throwing out the day's lines in favor of letting the actors play a scene out naturally.
The title of the film, interestingly enough, comes from a scene in the play that wasn't actually included in the film. In the scene, a character named Miss Bathsheba -- a teacher -- warns her students that they ought to "be sweet to each other before we all get devoured by the beasts of the Southern wild," Zeitlin says. "You know, if you see a dark room, if you see a rattlesnake in the woods, charge into it. Don't be afraid. There was an ethereal sense to the movie that that title always represented to me.
"I think it is something that speaks to South Louisiana, where no one is going to live who's afraid," he continues. "It's a very ferocious, very resilient culture of people that have fought back against a lot and it values fearlessness and it values a strength in a way that you probably don't see in a lot of other places."
The film isn't, however, a faithful adaptation of the play in any way. In fact, there's no scene in the play that is a scene in the movie, Zeitlin says. It was more that he was inspired by Alibar's work and that it became a key to unlock ideas he was already contemplating.
"It was really the connection between a little girl losing her father that I sort of brought to another story that I wanted to tell about a community refusing to leave their home and just the emotional parallels between those two things," he says. "I don’t even know that there is a final draft of that play. There’s probably four or five different versions she’s done at different times and it was a very malleable thing itself.
"And we really pulled things from all through her canon of material; it wasn't sort of bound to that specific work. Then even after we had written the script we were completely open to throwing it out and rewriting it based on who was going to play all the parts. To me, nothing exists until the film exists, so there was never any sense of holiness or preciousness about what's on the page."
Underneath all of that, though, beyond the allure of New Orleans and the inspiration of Alibar's work, beyond the profound nature of the mundane that Zeitlin sought out in his cast members, beyond even his bedrock, zeitgeist-laden idea of a community stalwart in the face of losing itself, was who Zeitlin is as a person.
Both of his parents are folklorists involved with landmarking sites of cultural importance. His father handcuffed himself to the Thunderbolt roller coaster on Coney Island before it was demolished. He was, quite simply, raised in a house very much interested in preserving art and culture. And naturally, that couldn't help but find a foothold in the story he wanted to tell.
"It was this notion that there’s this cultural and artistic importance to things, things that you couldn’t put a monetary value on or say this great, famous artist was the architect of this building," he says. "But maybe there was a community that built something important to the world and important to culture, and if you destroy it, it’s a certain kind of death for the world.
"As far as Louisiana specifically, I was never planning to move there. And it was a very strange, mysterious magnetism that kept me there. I wrote the film at this moment where I actually got in a car accident on the way to the premiere of my film 'Glory at Sea' in Austin. I had to go back to New York and recover for about six months and was sort of aching to be back in Louisiana. And so trying to unearth what this pull is and what it is about this place that has a hold of me was something that I was trying to figure out as I wrote the film."
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is now playing in NY and LA and will continue to expand throughout the summer.