Winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of a remarkable six-year-old named Hushpuppy and her hapless father, Wink, surviving at the margins in a Southern Lousiana shanty called The Bathtub. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor, then come back and read our interview with director Benh Zeitlin, one of the most interesting young directors working today …
STANDARD CULTURE: You’re from New York, right?
BENH ZEITLIN: I grew up in Queens and went to high school in Hastings-on-Hudson, then Wesleyan.
When did you decide to make a magical-realist film about Southern Louisiana?
It basically came from a couple different places. In 2006 when I was moving down to New Orleans there was something in the air about it. People would ask me, Why do people even live there? Why would you move there? Isn’t that place gonna be gone? But after being here for a few years and seeing what a ridiculous idea that was, I saw there was something that people were missing about why people stay here and stand by their place; stand by their home. The people down here are so resilient and strong and will always rebuild no matter what. So I wanted to make a film that celebrated the holdouts.
You cast the movie entirely with non-actors. Did you consider using professionals?
We did. We actually auditioned several. There were a couple roles we thought we needed them for—Wink’s role, in particular, but Dwight [Henry] just won the part. We were trying to find people who could bring their lives to the movie and were open to collaborating on a character in a very personal way. We were looking for a lot more than a resume.
How much of the dialogue was scripted?
All of it. Nothing was improvised on set. We did a series of interviews and rehearsals that lasted about three months before we ever started shooting, and a lot of the material came out of that.
We cried twice. Are those emotional high-points hard to calibrate?
Yeah, definitely. I remember that final scene between Hushpuppy and Wink originally had a lot more dialogue. That was in the script but as soon as we started doing the scene and actually put ourselves in that emotional space I realized how quiet that moment would actually be and ended up cutting all the lines except for two.
The score, which you also co-wrote, does a lot of the heavy lifting. What was that process like?
I sort of come from music—it’s my first language—and got into film afterwards, so it’s very much a part of how I write and direct. There’s space for the music in the script. And lot of times when I get an idea it comes with the music wrapped into it. I don’t really think about writing, directing and music as three different jobs. To me, it’s one creative process that creates the story.
The sets in The Bathtub where Hushpuppy and Wink live are quite elaborate. Were those existing structures?
A lot of it was built on top of stuff. So we’d do things like find an abandoned school bus with trees growing through it and say, That’s where Wink would build his house. The house wasn’t there but we built it on top. My sister was one of the people who built the sets. For Wink’s house, in order to get it right, she actually moved into the woods and lived in the structure. In the movie you see him building his house. That was actually her house that she’d built from materials she scavenged from the woods. It’s a great thing for an actor: When they go into a house and open a drawer there’s something in it.
Are there people in Louisiana who actually live like that?
There’s nothing exactly like that. It’s sort of a fantastical community that’s based on real things. You wouldn’t find an entire town that’s all living in ramshackle treehouses but you’d certainly find a ramshackle treehouse and someone living in it. The actual place where we shot the film, Isle de Jean Charles, is actually going through a very similar experience as the people in The Bathtub. It used to be this entirely self-sufficient Native-American community with 200 families living on it— this thriving sort of utopia—then it got cut off from the world by the levies. It’s gone from 10-miles wide to two-miles wide and only 20 families live there now.
Scenes from Beasts of the Southern Wild
What is it about Louisiana that appeals to you so strongly?
I think there’s a difference in what people value here. It’s not a place that’s ambitious. You know people here for six years and still have no idea what their job is. Your personal value isn’t based on that. People here are judged on their joy. It’s like, How much joy do you have? There’s a real freedom and fearlessness and a kind of relief from superficial success. There’s an enlightened notion that all that stuff just isn’t that important, because every commodity has been taken away from people so many times. There’s an appreciation for things that are actually important. It may appear downtrodden—it’s certainly not a rich town and doesn’t have that kind of first-world technology and progress feel when you’re here—but I don’t think people would consider themselves downtrodden. I think people consider themselves a little bit freer.
Do you drink? There was a point in the movie when we were wondering if things would be different if they just drank a tiny bit less.
I do, yes. Proudly. It’s a party culture. You could look at it as a movie about a bunch of alcoholics living in the woods, sure, but that would be inaccurate. It’s like, if the culture were more ambitious and didn’t appreciate partying would it be more successful by the terms of New York City? Yes. But those aren’t the terms down here. The terms are: How much are you enjoying your life? How much are you celebrating your culture and your friends and your people? People celebrate by dancing and drinking and that’s the culture. People can look down on that but that’s bringing a different cultural lens.
You have a very specific, collaborative approach to filmmaking. Are you worried about being able to replicate it?
We’ve been very careful at every stage to make sure we’re not threatening the process as we attempt to get the movie seen. We’re very much going to continue with the same actors and the same crew and sort of keep the whole thing intact. When you make a film for no money your circumstances are dictating your choices, and so I think we need to be careful to maintain the principles of this DIY method and make things in a grassroots way and not let the money alter that.
Are you staying in New Orleans?
I’m staying here, definitely. I’m traveling all the time to promote the movie but that’s going to end and I’ll be back here to make the next film.
So it’s safe to say you won’t be directing Total Recall II? The studios must be all over you.
You have to choose to do those things. The great thing about a film doing well is that you have more control over your life. You get to choose. So we’re definitely very, very aware of how special the way we do things is and careful not to let that get corrupted. It’s weird. You can feel the force of Hollywood trying to pluck you out of your world and bring you into theirs. It’s very tangible. But we really love making movies this way and there’s nothing that we feel like we need. If the wheels were to come off and everybody were to forget about us tomorrow we could go back and regroup and have all the pieces in place to continue making movies on our own. So we’re not going to let anyone screw up the way we see making a film.
Any advice for aspiring auteurs?
I don’t know that we had a sound approach to being successful or anything like that. It was very much based on stories. We had a story we wanted to tell and we told it however we could. It wasn’t like we were making shorts as calling cards for features, which is something a lot of people try to do, or going to film school to get connections. It was always about trying to figure out exactly what we wanted to say and how to say it, and then just making the best film we possibly could. You put your film out in the world and eventually the right person sees it and gives you a chance to make the next one. It’s about sticking to a vision and not trying to conform to what you think other people want to see. I think if there’s anything you can take away from what’s happened with this movie it’s that people want to see something they didn’t know they wanted to see.
MORE STANDARD INTERVIEWS:
• Architect John Pawson Talks Perfectionism, Stalkers and Taking Pictures
• “Mad Man” George Lois Gives Some Damn Good Advice