Interview with director Benh Zeitlin

Beasts of the Southern Wild played in the Un Certain Regard of the 65th Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and Brogen Hayes caught up with director Benh Zeitlin on the French Riviera to talk about his beautiful and heartbreaking film…

What are the ‘beasts’ and where do they come from?
Benh Zeitlin: The film is sort of based on this film that I was writing and also this play that I combined into that idea and the aurochs come from there. Basically they show up when Hushpuppy’s emotions get too big they spill out into the world in a surrealistic way; trees would catch on fire and animals would come… Her emotions would spill into nature. That’s how they originated. To me, she sees herself as a hero positioned across the entire span of humankind from the cavemen and the scientists of the future who are going to look back on what she’s done and she feels that her life has these consequences that ripple through the entire history of man so the aurochs represent the starting point in man’s history where we separated ourselves from animals. It made a lot of sense to me that the thing she feels is coming for her is a large predator and she feels like a small morsel of food that is going to get consumed by the natural world.

Are the aurochs connected with Hushpuppy’s feelings about growing up?
BZ: I don’t think f the film as a fantasy movie, I don’t think of the aurochs as fantasy. To me, it’s about a time in your life before you start separating out your imagination from reality. I remember I had an imaginary friend when I was a kid and the movie is from her point of view so I wanted to respect that. If she believes it’s true, if she feels it, it is. There’s a lot of things in the film where you can switch it to an adult imagination and say ‘that’s real and that’s not’, but we tried to override that and always give her all the power; whatever she thinks, is. I think there are a lot of coming of age tales where you leave the world of imagination behind, which she doesn’t do in the movie; it’s not like she grows up and the aurochs disappear, it’s about her coming to a greater understanding of her place in nature and what it is to be a strong animal. Her relationship to the aurochs evolves, but it’s not a evolution that makes them any less real.

How did you create the mythology of the film?
BZ: It’s really two texts… The way the idea evolved was I was trying to develop a film about holdouts in Louisiana. I had just decided to move there and I was trying to understand the magnetism of Louisiana and respond to what was in the air of the country, which was ‘No one should like there. Why rebuild it, it’s too dangerous’. I wanted to go there and drive past New Orleans to the end of the road and meet the last town when you are dropping off into the Gulf and see what was there and what the culture was. I was working on that and I was also working on trying to adapt one of Lucy [Alibar]’s stories or plays in general; she was a friend of mine from when I was in middle school and I thought we could make a short film out of one of them. At a certain point I realised I was writing about the same subject, which was losing the thing that made you, the parallel between this little girl who’s losing her father and this community that’s losing it’s home. It was really a matter of taking her story, which was set in Georgia and extracting the heart of it and translating it into another story that I was writing. So I think part of why it feels like there are so many elements is, it was such a collaborative script, there were so many people’s ideas and it was a process of trying to find, for myself, what was speaking to me about all these things at the same time and finding the connection. Her play had the aurochs in it and I wanted to write a story about the water rising, so the aurochs came from the ice age and the rise of the water is related to ice caps melting and these beasts could have been frozen for a million years in these ice caps, so it was taking elements from two stories and finding ways in which they speak to us.

Where did the story come from?
BZ: You get a rush when you know you are on the right track. I think about what I want to talk about; I usually start with an idea, this idea about how you stand by the place that made you. I don’t think that came from above. I knew I wanted to talk about that, but I didn’t know how to. When someone stumbles into your life and you are not open enough to be guided by coincidence and luck and these miracles, you’ll miss it and you won’t make a good film. I try to look for things that give me this rush of euphoria; you don’t know why, when it comes, but that’s how you know you’re making the right choices and you are on the right path. It’s scary and it’s thrilling and you feel it when you have it. When you’re off, it’s when you are over thinking things and trying to force a preconception on the story. I try to humbly follow the story as opposed to thinking that god has dropped it into my head and I will spill it out and preach it to the world.

How much time did you spend with the people in Louisiana, getting to know about their way of life?
BZ: I have been in Louisiana for six years now so I am very much living there and the town specifically where we made the film, I probably lived there for six months, I wrote it there. That feeling comes more from the level at which the community is participating in the writing of the film. They were really, really involved. I couldn’t have written an authentic script and gone there and told everybody what to do; all the building blocks of the film were allowed and they were encouraged to rewrite the film. They are all real people, they are non-actors, so once they had been cast I would go through each scene with them and ask ‘is this something you would say?’ and they would say ‘I would probably say it like this; I would use this word’ So I left the script malleable enough so that I could react to the elements that I was putting in the film. I think the authenticity comes from the process being open enough for all the people who acted in the film to be able to express themselves; they all lived through the Storm and lived in post-Katrina Louisiana. It’s really a different method of filmmaking; it’s a grassroots, organic way where you just let the place speak for itself within the framework of the story that me and Lucy wrote together.

The film is both beautiful and cruel, can you talk about that?
BZ: I would say that the movie is a lot about coming to terms with death and a lot of the ugliest images in the film are of a dead cow that is being eaten by maggots and the caterpillar that is being murdered by a beetle. It’s a trajectory that Hushpuppy goes on; going from feeling that nature is this predatory thing that is all about devouring and it will come and attack your home and kill your father, that nature is just like death and that’s ugly. She always has this affection for nature as well and through the course of the film the ugliness of death is something that she comes to terms with, that she is able to find beauty in the cycle of life. In learning that and being strong enough to endure that and understand that she conquers it. There is that and there is also the tough love element of the movie, which very much comes from the culture. It’s a hard place to live, it’s a physically gruelling environment to live in, Louisiana is not for the weak hearted. Wink is brutal towards her, but the brutality comes from a place of he knows he is not going to be there to keep her alive and protect her, and she is going to have to strong enough to do that on her own. It’s sort of how I am, so it’s hard for me to think outside my head. I never like to talk to children like children; I like to treat them as adults and I think Wink is like that; he has a respect for her. His brutality is harsh and it makes her life heard but he respects her and believes in her ability to survive, even though she isn’t ready yet at the beginning of the film. That’s how love is expressed in the culture of the film – show me you’re tough – and by encouraging that in a fierce way, that’s how you form affection.

How did you go about casting the film?
BZ: It was totally different for different people; Quvenzhané was a massive casting search, we looked at 4,000 people for that role. We were looking at ages 6 – 11, we were looking at all races, for a little while we were looking at boys for the role but we stopped that early on. We  knew that she was going to come in and define the entire film, so we were really trying to be open to infinite possibilities for who that character would be. I don’t think anyone – including me – believed that we could find someone who was that young and that good. The role was written to be almost… Not cute but it had a silliness to it, the film was more of a comedy before she entered it and the way that we dealt with some of the heavier issues in the film was a little more roundabout and a little more layered. When she came in we realised that we had someone on our hands that could actually, realistically play these incredibly intense emotions and had this ability inside her. When we found her we rewrote the film and took it towards her tone, which was very quiet and wise with an incredibly fierce intensity. That isn’t her personality at all, but when we asked her to do the scenes, that’s how she interpreted them; it was a different interpretation than we had ever seen before and it was the most sincere and the most genuine way of going about it so we went with it. The opposite goes for Mr Henry who plays Wink; we didn’t cast for it at all, we were planning to have that role be played by a professional actor; it was the one role that we thought was too difficult for a non-actor to play. He was actually running the bakery across the street from the casting office where we did these auditions, so ever day we would go in there and get doughnuts and hang out with him. Eventually, almost on a whim, we got him to come in. He didn’t want to  act at all, he just wanted to tell his story of how he rebuilt his bakery after Katrina and I saw that tape and as we were looking at ‘real’ actors I was watching this tape as a reference for the role – because I thought that something in his life story really related to the character – so I would watch that tape a lot and try to understand that as I was writing the film. As these actors didn’t work – they didn’t feel authentic, they weren’t from Louisiana and Quvenzhané had struggled to work with them because actors are very concerned with their own performance, and they weren’t being generous enough with her – we were like ‘what about this one guy at the bakery?’ we were getting him to come in and audition more and more and he won the role from the actors. He is such a sweet, openhearted warm man in real life that I think he made [Quvenzhane] feel safe and made her feel like she could go to extreme places and we would call ‘cut’ and it would be fine again.

You mentioned that the film is the result of a collaboration with Lucy Alibar, but were there any other inspirations for the film?
BZ: Yeah, definitely, definitely. I am a collager. I don’t think there’s one golden influence, I was pulling things from so many different sources. [Emir] Kusturica’s movies were a major template for the kind of fantasy and reality of the film, the energy of the film, the wildness of the production. Seeing him was what made me interested in making films in the first place. I think there is a big influence… I love children’s stories, I love folk tales and stories like Huck Finn and Robin Hood that stuff from my childhood and Disney movies… I think the film has similarities to Bambi… As far as the type of lens that it puts on it. Also, huge blockbusters are as big an influence on it… These films that feel like there is a community in the production of the film were real inspirations. I looked at documentaries for the visual style.

Was there anything you tried to avoid?
BZ: We worked a lot on how the fantasy was going to be expressed and I always hate movies about people’s imaginations – I hate films about a journey into the imagination. I don’t hate this film, but to me it was exactly what I didn’t want to do was the way that things work in Pan’s Labyrinth, in the way that you step out of reality and step into a fantasy and things happen in the imagination, then you go back to the world. That felt like not the way that a child experiences unreal things. For a six year old that is real and the consequences spill back into your life, so we wanted to avoid a structure where she closes her eyes and goes to somewhere else. We originally wrote the character to be aged 11 and it was maybe partly watching that film and definitely watching actors where we realised that our story wasn’t about and 11 year old, it was about a six year old. Trying to find exactly how to handle fantasy and reality was something that we were very delicate with. We always wanted to stay in a reality.

You made Beasts of the Southern Wild in a completely non-Hollywood way, would you be interested in doing a film within the studio system?
BZ: What I love about making films is this collaborative process where I get to go to places and integrate the community into the project that I am going and build everything by hand and go on the adventures instead of simulating them in a green screen room. That’s more important to me than the finished product in many ways; the experience of doing that. I have no real desire to change that process and it’s going to be a real challenge to preserve it and protect it now that we are going to be watched the next time we do it. I am sure if there was anyone watching it would have been a lot harder to make this film feel the way it does. That will make it that much harder, but other things will be that much easier because we will be able to eat sandwiches with turkey instead of just peanut butter [laughs]. That will be nice!

When you were making the film did you ever think you would get to show it at Cannes?
BZ: No I never thought we would get there with this. It’s shocking. It’s such a unique, modern opportunity; in what world can you show your art to people all around the world. It’s an amazing opportunity and it’s such an interesting thing to bounce back at you; feedback from a million different cultures. The movie is so culturally specific, it’s so rooted in where I live and it was impossible to know how it was going to translate out and feeling it resonate with such different people is the best feeling you can imagine.

Were you always planning to be a filmmaker?
BZ: I’m most naturally a musician; music comes to me in the way that I hear the song and I don’t have to work at that very hard. Film is much less natural for me, but I basically grew up… My parents are both folklorists, so when I was 3 I was doing puppet shows for my sister and when I was six I made a movie with my friend. We started a band when I was in 7th grade, so I was really doing several different types of art at the same time and I don’t think I really delineated what was what and what I was going to do. Every Friday my friends would get together and make a film and somewhere in it I just thought I didn’t want to be in a band on tour and I loved making films and I thought ‘Well if I keep making films I can continue writing music and do both things’. It sort of maximises… Film is built of every art form; it is a collage of every art form. The opportunity to combine everything I was doing was probably why I started making films, and also the degree to which, in making a movie, you can create your own reality. I had such a close-knit group of friends that were making things together, then you go to college and your friends scatter and it’s this heartbreaking thing. When I made the short in New Orleans it was the idea that I could go and create my own universe and populate it and bring all these people that I love to work with back together and it works. Movies have the power to reunite people and they give you the ability to travel into places and meet people that you would otherwise never get to know. I think that’s why it ended up being movies as opposed to music.

Words – Brogen Hayes