First time feature film writer/director Benh Zeitlin won four awards for his independent drama Beasts of the Southern Wild at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and also took home the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Set in Louisiana in a fictional area called The Bathtub, Zeitlin's moving tale is an engrossing look at a father and daughter's relationship and how it develops and evolves as a community fights to save their town after the rising water threatens to forever sink The Bathtub.
In our exclusive interview, Zeitlin (who also composed the film's music) discussed how Beasts of the Southern Wild developed, casting Quvenzhane Wallis as 'Hushpuppy,' and the importance of shooting in Louisiana using a local cast.
Benh Zeitlin Beasts of the Southern Wild Interview
How did the idea for Beasts come about?
"The origin was really it was sort of two stories that I was working on at the same time that came together. One was about kind of a group of holdouts living at the very end of the road, sort of the last town right where the land was dropping off into the water, and trying to tell a story about holdouts. Then, at the same time, I was working on adapting not really just an individual play but kind of all of Lucy [Alibar's] work into a short film. And I've known Lucy from when I was 13 years old; we are old friends. We went to camp together when we were in middle school. It was sort of when I realized the emotion of her show, which was about a little boy losing his father, and as his father got sicker the end of the world encroached on their off-the-grid town. The emotion of a family losing its place was the same, had this kind of resonance where it's one of those things where you realize, 'This is what I want to talk about.' You realize you're writing about the same thing in two different things."
There are a lot of big themes in your film. Did you think it might have been too much?
"No. I don't think I ever worry about putting too much. I naturally tend to put too much in. I mean, even the early drafts of the film were so clogged with ideas that it was complete lunacy - the early drafts of the script. What ends up being in the film is much more reserved. Probably about one-fifth of the ideas in the early script are in the final movie and it's still stuffed."
How good are you at editing your own work when you're writing?
"Good. I'm a brutal critic. I'm harsh."
How do you know when the script is right?
"It's sort of a process where you start the film with questions. You don't really quite know what it is you're after. When you start to answer those questions, you realize what you're talking about through just sort of psychoanalyzing what is coming at your head. And then I think at a certain point, which takes a really long time, you get a really strong sense of what the film is about. 'This is what the real question is. This is what our focus is, and this is the subjectivity and perspective.' And then once you get that, you sort of know, 'Oh, that idea is just something I thought was funny.' It's something I thought was spectacular and it's something that doesn't fit into the heart of the film. It takes a little while to discover that essence. Once you do, you can be pretty vicious."
How did you find your 'Hushpuppy,' Quvenzhané Wallis, and did the character or story change after you cast that role?
"I think originally the intent of the film wasn't as focused on her and her perspective. But there's something about the way that she saw the events...there are a lot of different perspectives early in the film. Wink (Dwight Henry) had his own perspective, all the different characters were given their own perspectives on the events, and eventually I sort of realized that it's her perspective which is the enlightened one. She's the one that actually has the ability to save these people, her father, this town. As a six year old child, she's the one that actually has the wisdom and the strength, and also has the distance of life to travel where she's the one who can keep these people alive through her acts."
She's an amazing young actress and the camera loves her, but if she didn't move the audience in the role, the film would not have worked at all. There's a lot riding on a six year old first-time actress. How did you know she was the right choice?
"It was very clear. We looked at 4,000 girls for the role, and you don't meet six year olds who have that quality. You meet a lot of good actors who are older - 10, 11, 12 - you get these kids who have worked at it a little bit or just have the ability to step into a character. But at her age when you're not really processing things the same way as an older kid would, she just had this natural charisma and focus and fierceness and wiseness and morality, all these qualities that were just so... Coming out of a body that small and a mind that young, it's almost alien and alien in a way that goes kind of straight at your heart."
"It's her perspective that unlocks the truth in the film."
Did she immediately get the point of Beasts and understand the story you were trying to tell?
"No, not at all. You know, probably the biggest challenge of working with someone that young is their ability to retain information. You forget a lot. She would learn the lines in very small chunks, and stuff like that. But the way we built the character's understanding of the story, the arc, is that I would tell her the whole story. We would do these sessions where I would sit down with her and I would tell her the story like it was a folk tale or something. We would talk about it in that context and then I would sort of get her perspective and write it into the film. Then I would ask her questions about animals and about the end of the world, and about all these things she talks about in the film. We would use her language and the way she thought about things to inform the script. We would build her from not just her character's perspective but from Quvenzhané herself's perspective into the character. And it created the ability for her to, even though I don't think she was ever thinking, 'Oh, this is my point on my arc,' it would give her ability to step into the moments that we had created together."
"And also we were able to shoot the film in sequence and she grows up as you watch the footage. I see the early shots we shot on day one and day two, and she's really a tiny little kid who doesn't know what's going on. And then by the end of the film she becomes this warrior. We tried to capture that sequentially as much as we could."
How much did you adjust the character based on what you learned from talking to Quvenzhané?
"There's a couple specifics. I remember one thing is we were really struggling with what is Hushpuppy trying to do in this film? We think about it as a folk tale but it's not like a simple, 'She's Robin Hood and she's trying to be the Sheriff of Nottingham and she's trying to save Maid Marion.' It doesn't have those simple pieces, as far as what her obstacle is. I remember talking to her about the end of the world and she's describing this crazy thing where at the end of the world it's always dark and nobody has any eyes. People walk around and they don't have any clothes or have any hands. Their ears fall off. It was all this wild stuff, this horrible vision. Then I asked her what would you do if you caused all that? And she said, 'I would just try to fix it.' It seemed simple, but that was the point. It's such a simple reaction, like this idea that she broke something and she has to fix it being the way she would think about this massive catastrophe happening all around her. That sort of spoke to me so much, of feeling like a little kid who's like, 'Oh god, I just dropped this glass. I've got to put it back together.' That really simple, clear and moral 'do the right thing' notion came in and simplified a lot of our thoughts about how the character thought and behaved. It became true to being six and it became so much more emotional at that point."
Was the community receptive to you filming there?
"Yeah. Coming in and making a movie like this is an amazing way to explore the world. It has a real ability to invite you over to dinner, you know? I think it would have been a lot harder if I was traveling down in these areas and saying, 'I'm going to do an interpretive dance about global warning.' Like, 'I'm making a movie. It's an adventure story. It's about a little girl and her dad. It's at the end of the world.' The story sort of opened doors. And also the fact that we were casting locally. It's like you're seeing 300 people a day, a week, in the community and telling them all the story. It's such a small world that it gets out there and people came to know who we were and what we were doing. It became a community project. Lots of people pitched in."
When did you realize how well you'd done, how well it was connecting with people outside of that geographic area?
"We finished the film two days before Sundance and the first screening at Sundance I was sitting there like, 'Oh my god, the dog bark is way too loud. I need to put some magenta into that shot.' I was not out of that filmmaking mode. Even after that first big screening with a standing ovation I thought, 'Oh, that must be what they do at Sundance when you show a film for the first time.'"
"I didn't think about the fact that we would actually pull it off until we started seeing people write reviews with things we had said to each other about the film. We realized that the highest aspirations of what we wanted to say and what we wanted to communicate were coming through."
What inspired you to make this film? Why were you so drawn to the subject matter?
"I think it was that it was sort of at the moment it was dawning on me that I was going to move to Louisiana, and I think I was trying to figure out what the magnetism was in myself. And it was also I was supposed to be moving there, I'd edited my short film in New York and I'd come back for a one day premiere of the film and as I was driving to the premiere of that film I got in a car accident. I had to go back to New York and recover for six months. I think it was sort of sitting there with the Louisiana magnet pulling on me and feeling like I was drying up not being there and trying to figure out what it is about this place that feeds you. I wanted to tell a story that celebrated the people who refused to leave."
"But I don't think I quite got that off the bat. I knew sort of, but I don't think I could have explained that."
How do you explain that attraction to Louisiana to people who don't have the connection?
"Louisiana has two really interesting qualities. It's a place that lives [close] to death all the time. It's right on the precipice of being wiped out and you feel death everywhere all the time. There's ghosts in New Orleans like nowhere else you've ever been. But at the same time, it's a place that defeats death. The joyousness and the wildness and the freeness of the culture defeats death in this way. It's always a battle - death is right there, and it's a place that's fighting it and beating it."
"I think of it like a jazz funeral. In New Orleans, when someone important dies you have this parade that starts as this very somber dirge or a dirge hymn and then those dirges transform into these wild dance parties, these loud, celebratory, joyous, everyone dancing in the street. It's sort of this reaction, like you can't knock us down, you can't beat us, you can't take us down. That's a lot of what the film is about is how this place preserves hope and preserves this freeness and wildness in the face of unbelievable tragedies."