Interview: Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Interview: Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). By Simon Miraudo.

One of the year’s most buzzed about films is Beasts of the Southern Wild; a lyrical, magical, heart-swelling little fable set in Southern Louisiana. When a hurricane destroys the home of young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her daddy Wink (Dwight Henry), the two are forced to fend for themselves amidst increasingly harsh condition. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and it’s being touted as a potential Best Picture nominee at next year’s Oscars. That kind of hype could be crushing, but 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin insists that it doesn’t match the pressure he already places on himself.

Check out Simon’s review of Beasts of the Southern Wild here.

We spoke with Zeitlin about his feature debut, the triumphant score he co-composed with Dan Romer, dealing with the backlash and accusations of being a “tourist” in New Orleans, and finding his star: six-year-old pocket rocket Quvenzhané (pronounced Kwa-ven-zha-nay).


SM: Your film has one of the best and probably most astounding performances of the year in Quvenzhané Wallis, and her Hushpuppy, and the same goes for Dwight Henry, who plays her dad. Can you tell me about finding them for Beasts of the Southern Wild?

BZ: For her, it was like this massive nine month casting search where we looked at four thousand girls all over South Louisiana, and, you know, that said, it wasn’t like a close race. She was unlike anybody else we’d ever seen, especially at her age. It was almost hard to believe how good she was and how able she was to internalise information, which kids at that age are barely able to do. She really got it, and was just a true natural.

SM: Was there any specific moment that you noticed in her, and you thought, “Well, the search is pretty much over.”

BZ: Well, yeah, I mean it was her first call back when I was first in the room with her. The way that she interpreted the scene that we’d seen done a thousand times; she did it so ferociously and had so much focus and will. I remember very simply that she wouldn’t let me tell her what to do necessarily. Some directions she would take, and then other ones were refused, and I was amazed by the sheer will power she had and her internal sense of right and wrong. For every actor, you want someone that isn’t just a puppet; they’re going to bring themselves to the role, and she definitely did in that first audition. It was pretty clear that we found somebody that was unlike anybody that we’d ever seen before.

SM: Is it true that Dwight Henry, who plays her dad, was the baker that worked across the road from where you were based?

BZ: Yeah, definitely. He isn’t even an actor, believe it or not.

SM: Did he come in through auditions as well, or did you just know him?

BZ: No, we knew him from the bakery, basically. We would go over there very regularly – almost every morning – before we started casting, and get donuts and get coffee, and we’d go over there for lunch. He has an amazing presence; he just has that sort-of star presence, even at the bakery where he’d kind of hold court, and everybody knows who he is. We always thought he was amazing, but I don’t know that we ever thought that he’d be able to play this role which was originally supposed to be for a professional actor. We tried out some professionals, and it didn’t quite work. Everybody else in the cast was a non-professional actor, and everyone else was from Louisiana, so we just decided to take a leap of faith and see if someone who hadn’t done it before could pull off the role, which we think he did. He totally did.

SM: Absolutely. I think it’s a leap of faith that definitely paid off big dividends. Going back to Quvenzhané, were you concerned at all about dragging, I believe, a then six-year-old girl through some pretty emotional trials? It’s a tough part.

BZ: Yeah, you know, it was a real long process of trying to make sure that she felt comfortable going to those places and it took a little bit of work. Figuring out the way that she felt comfortable stepping into some of those scenes. There eventually had to be – and this had to do with the casting of Dwight – we weren’t going to be able to do the film with method acting, and just completely… we weren’t able to have someone play Wink that was going to be in character all the time; [where] even when we’d call cut, he’d be kind of scary and tough on her. But Dwight is this incredibly sweet man, so even in these scenes where he’d be so harsh on her and so angry, the moment we would call cut, he would go back to his wonderful self. That really helped her a lot; just knowing that we were playing make believe and she could go back to the real world. The minute we would cut the camera, it was back to having fun and playing games.

SM: The film concerns a flood that wipes out this Eden-like island called ‘The Bathtub’ in Louisiana. Were you ever compelled to explicitly mention Hurricane Katrina or another hurricane from New Orleans’ past?

BZ: No. We always wanted this film to be something that felt universal and not bound to specific current events, even though it’s very much inspired by the region. We wanted to be able to come to Australia and show the film and not have it feel that you were being left out or missing something. It was always sort of a matter of taking inspiration from real things, things in the real world, but almost trying to translate them to this almost folk-tale-like scenario.  The themes and the stories are universal.

SM: I understand you’re now based in New Orleans since shooting your short film Glory at Sea there a few years ago. What was it about the state [of Louisiana] that compelled you to stay, and what of that did you want to highlight in Beasts?

BZ: It’s a very different place from the rest of the States, and I think the thing that struck me about it is there’s a very heightened sense of freedom when you’re in Louisiana, and of pride and independence. For me, trying to make art, it was a struggle in some other places where you felt it was hard to get this type of project off the ground. When I went to Louisiana, this amazing community kind of formed around the process of making this film and by the time I finished making the short film there was such a strong group of people that were helping me out there and everybody wanted to do it again. There’s a real sense of community, which the films are really about. It’s not this place where people are competing with one each other, or are feeling that only one person gets to make it. Everybody wants to help each other and be together and make art together.

SM: I think you do get that sense, as well, from the movie and the residents of The Bathtub, so that translates nicely. The film itself is translated from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, and you two co-wrote the film together. I have to admit, I’m not familiar with the play, and though I can imagine a two-hander between Hushpuppy and her dad on stage, I struggle to visualise this very cinematic movie existing in that form. I’m curious, how much did you change in the translation from stage to the screen?

BZ: Everything really [laughs]. It was really inspired by the play more than it was based on the play. It wasn’t like we were taking scenes and moving them one-to-one into the movie. It was always taking lines and taking ideas and taking the tone that the show had and trying to translate that to a different story and a different place. It was definitely a complete reinvention of the original text.

SM: There seems to be a bit of, and correct me if this is not an inspiration at all, but To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout in Hushpuppy. How do you get into the frame of mind of a child to pen that narration?

BZ: You know, with her help. Definitely the characters are very much collaborations between us and the actors. I would sit with her and ask her how she would say things, and I did a lot of interviews before I even gave her a script that [had] kind of important ideas and how she understood the world. I sort of had my own idea of how that would sound, but it had to be translated through her way of thinking to get it right.

SM: How long was the shoot in total?

BZ: Seven weeks.

SM: In those conditions, was there ever a particularly bad day on set where nothing seemed to work?

BZ: [Laughs] There were a bunch of days like that. You’re dealing with extremely hostile conditions on a daily basis, and there’s a lot of different problems. You either have a room full of children, or you have animals on boats in the water, or you have just… you’re always battling really chaotic elements that you set up for yourselves as part of the challenge of making the film. All that stuff was really part of the idea that we were going to have these challenging elements to overcome. And when things go wrong, you just take it as a physical challenge, and we always wanted the film to be more like an athletic event than an intellectual process. That was important.

SM: There’s a lot of rejection of help in this movie. The residents of the bathtub reject assistance following the flood; Hushpuppy’s dad rejects medicine; her mum rejects the family. As much as the movie is about resilience and self-sufficiency, do you think there’s a bit of denial of the inevitable in these characters?

BZ: I think that is part of what it’s about, but there are different ways of thinking about it. I think there is an inevitability to this storm that’s coming and the destruction that’s happening to the land, but I think what the film is about is, ‘No matter what, it’s never inevitable that you have to give up who you are and how you want to live, and what your culture is.’ I think that what they’re doing is they’re saying, ‘In order to keep this culture alive, in order to live by these principles, we have to take incredible risks.’ But at the end of the film, what you see is that despite the destruction of the physical manifestations of this place The Bathtub, The Bathtub actually survives in these people who move on and take that essence into the future.

SM: For sure. I do love the ending, and obviously we won’t get into spoilers, but it also has that very triumphant score that you co-composed (and I do love that score). New Orleans is not short of musical history and aural influences. Was there anything in particular that you wanted to capture or replicate?

BZ: We wanted to capture the sense… we wanted to use the influence of Cajun music in a way to take the instrumentation of South Louisiana’s music, which is largely string bands and banjo and accordion, and kind of take those things and turn them into a score that expressed something that wasn’t as regional but had a similar glorious and homemade quality to it. We very much wanted to create these anthems that are like folk songs. There are so many songs in New Orleans where you play the first few notes and anybody can sing along with it. We wanted to capture that and have the main themes of the film feel like they were songs that could be anthems everyone in the town would know. We definitely wanted to capture that with the main theme.

SM: Sadly, you’re destined when you get such praise and such acclaim – and the film has gotten great critical reviews – when you get that at such a young age as yourself, there is a bit of backlash. One of the recurring arguments is that there’s almost a bit of a “tourism” aspect, as if you’re not allowed to make a movie about a place that you’re not native to. Do you take that criticism to heart? Does that hurt, that personal attack?

BZ: No. [Laughs] You can’t sweat the haters. I know my relationship with the place and the people in the film; it’s a very real thing. Having someone who wasn’t there and doesn’t understand it and say it can’t be real, doesn’t really… I was there, so I know what it is.

SM: Beasts of the Southern Wild won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; it won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Congratulations. Not to frame this negatively, but are you feeling the pressure on your follow-up?

BZ: You always feel the pressure, but I don’t know that I could possibly put any more pressure on myself than I do normally, so it doesn’t really feel any different. You always want to make a film that’s up to your own standards and make sure that those standards are higher than anybody else’s. So, the pressure will be internal to make a film that I feel like is good enough for me.

SM: Going back to your very first short film, Egg, there seems to be this fascination with water. Is that something we’re going to see throughout your work?

BZ: Definitely. I love the water. I think if I wasn’t making films I would be working on a boat somewhere. You have to enable the things you want to do in life in the scripts you write, because you pretty much spend all your time making them. So, I’m always coming up with an excuse to get on crazier and crazier boats and sail to more and more exciting places. That’s definitely something people will keep on seeing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild arrives in Australian cinemas September 13, 2012.

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