Beasts of the Southern Wild Director Benh Zeitlin on His Dazzling Festival Winner

Beasts of the Southern Wild

From the time it detonated public consciousness at Sundance last January, Benh Zeitlin’s dazzling magic realist feature debut Beasts of the Southern Wild has occasioned its own peculiar brand awe and wonder. After winning the grand jury prize and an award for best cinematography in Park City, the movie continues to conquer the world. Last month at Cannes, it captured the prestigious Camera d’Or for best first feature.

Fox Searchlight acquired the movie during Sundance and is preparing the movie’s national rollout with platform opening runs in New York and Los Angeles on June 27th. It has been very heady times for the 29-year-old Zeitlin, the New York-born, New Orleans-based filmmaker who made the (reportedly less than $1 million film) under the auspices of his film collective, Court 13.

Zeitlin developed the script at the Sundance Lab with the playwright Lucy Alibar, inspired by her play, Juicy and Delicious. He also collaborated on the evocative, bluegrass score with Dan Romer. Most impressively, Zeitlin does marvelous work with the nonprofessional ensemble, the most electrifying is the movie’s remarkable six-year-old protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who also narrates the movie.

Set in the southern coast of Louisiana in a fictional dispossessed community known colloquially as “the Bathtub,” named for its pervasive, ramshackle clutter and populated by sharecroppers, bootleggers and itinerant musicians, the movie follows the tough-minded, industrious young girl and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), as they desperately try to hold on to their threadbare existence despite warnings of impending storms and government orders to evacuate. 

Her mother having “floated away,“ Hushpuppy exists in a state of perpetual motion. The story is more anecdotal than linear, shaped by a succession of incidents and discursive moments related through the girl’s fevered consciousness. During an interview, Zeitlin talked about the movie’s creation, his influences, and his work with the nontraditional actors.

More than 3,500 young girls auditioned for the lead role. Quvenzhané Wallis is expressive and dynamic, but you couldn’t have know that beforehand. What was it about her that made you cast her?
I met her on the first call back. We had eight different casting teams. When she first walked in, she was defiant towards me. Most of the times you figure you can easily puppeteer a kid, but she was not like that at all. She was refusing to do this thing that I asked her to, because she didn’t it was right. I wanted her to throw something at somebody, and she said, ‘No, that’s not right to throw something at somebody you don’t know.’ She was the youngest person we looked at. She snuck into the audition. She was five-years-old and six was our cutoff. I just thought, she’s going to bring her own morality, her own worldview, to the part.

What was your collaboration like?
I worked with her like an actor. Movie sets are sometimes very stressful, high-pressure environments. Children don’t respond if it doesn’t feel like a game, if it doesn’t feel fun, it makes them uncomfortable. A lot of work was done to play during the shoots, and once we set up everything about the shot, we‘d come and throw water bottles back and forth, or she‘d mess up my hair. She stayed a kid.

The material originated as a play, and you developed the script at the Sundance Lab. How did the script change?
We came to the Sundance Lab with a raw first draft. It was something I wrote in two weeks, more a pack of ideas. It was at the lab that we found what the film was about. You had to discipline your choices and find the core. I had great imagery, a cow flies through someone’s roof, but I couldn’t find a connection to the heart of the story. The film became this emotional experience of how do you survive losing the things that made you.

What about literary or other film influences. I was reminded of the escaped convict story in William Faulkner’s Wild Palms, or the tenant farmers in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner.
I haven’t read or seen those. I tried not to watch a ton of fiction films. I was largely inspired by documentaries and people writing about the South. I’m extrapolating tons of things from the world and creating a pastiche. Interestingly enough, the further away the film plays from Louisiana, it’s seen in the context, as something magical or realistically a portrait of their life.

What about your own early experiences in New Orleans?
I went there a couple of times when I was a kid, the first time when I was about 13, and I was very haunted by it. There’s conflict, a heightened reality. Everything felt connected. In New Orleans, something there just resonates, both a joyousness and a darkness. When I came back, I felt, as though, this is where I come from in some very abstract way. You come back and you recognize certain aspects, like people who comes from the outside walking into a book that you love. 

When I was making an earlier, live-action short [Glory at Sea], a local guy named Jimmy Lee auditioned for a part and then he came back four hours later, carrying a bunch of stuff, like Greek columns. He said, ‘I heard you were making a boat out of junk, and I figured you could use this.’ That’s what the film is about, manifesting itself in our lives. A guy starts building and it transforms the thing, this crazy mission, and the story was reflecting that.

You shot the movie in super-16mm, and the image is definitely more stable and the colors more vibrant.
I’m a sentimental bastard. My first [live-action] short, I shot in 16mm and cut it on a flatbed. I realize for most people, the [differences] are totally imperceptible, but there is something magical about a series of still pictures linked, and a little bit of magic that is lost when digital turns it into something else. The grittiness of the [super-16mm] image fits ‘The Bathtub.’ One of the ideas [of the community] was there’s no technology. Hushpuppy had never seen a keyboard, for instance.

Also, film is organic, and in order to get good photography in the location, it’s the easiest and cheapest way. To get digital to look right, you have to light it like crazy, and where we were shooting, on the backend of boats, 15 miles off the coast, there was no data managing. You can’t get power, and you can’t control scrims or bounce boards.  You can still point and shoot [super-16] on location, and the image really holds together.

The movie has been a sensation. You're about to go into a very brutal marketplace, are you concerned about a backlash at all?
I never really worry about what people are going to think. Obviously I care about what people think. I’m very proud of it and I’m very happy with it. Once I feel good about it along with the rest of the crew, that the movie expressed what we’re trying to express, I’m not worried about it. I believe in the film. It’s honest and says what I want it to say. We all know it’s an amazing ride we’re on, and it could explode.

Beasts of the Southern Wild opens in limited release this week.

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