Benh Zeitlin Interview For ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an intrepid six-year-old girl, lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in The Bathtub, a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink’s tough love prepares her for the unraveling of the universe; for a time when he’s no longer there to protect her. When Wink contracts a mysterious illness, nature flies out of whack – temperatures rise, and the ice caps melt, unleashing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. With the waters rising, the aurochs coming, and Wink’s health fading, Hushpuppy goes in search of her lost mother. Hushpuppy is not just the film’s heroine; she’s its soul. ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ exists entirely in its own universe: mythological, anthropological, folkloric, and apocalyptic. Benh Zeitlin’s first feature employs a cast of nonactors – reflecting its grassroots production – to fiercely portray the bond between father and daughter in a world where only the strong survive. Standing defiantly at the end of the world, Hushpuppy affirms the dignity of telling their own story: that they were once there. This remarkable film arrives in cinemas June 27th in the US and October 19th in the UK.
First of all, can you tell us the premise for ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’?
Benh Zeitlin: It’s about this little girl who lives in this little town called The Bathtub, which has been cut off from the world by a giant water protection system. She lives with her father off the grid. The story follows a series of environmental and mythic catastrophes that rain down on her. It’s a story about her trying to learn how to survive. Trying to figure out how to respond and how to live through this. When I was in college, someone at some point told me, “If your gonna make movies, don’t shoot on the water, don’t shoot with children, and don’t shoot with animals.” Our movie is really about children and animals, on boats (laughs).
Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis are dazzling in their roles. What do you think they brought to the film? For me, they made this place feel so tangible and well-realized.
Benh Zeitlin: Yeah. There’s a sort of fearlessness and fierceness in the culture that we were trying to celebrate and express. Those two had something on-screen and off-screen that made us feel like they were going to express something about how and why people stay, in a way that we could never have synthesised or created with somebody that wasn’t from the place, or someone who didn’t really understand. They brought a tremendous amount to the characters. The characters are really a collaboration between what me and Lucy Alibar wrote, and them bringing their lives to the story, helping us modify and re-write the characters to fit their lives and their spirit.
Was collaborating with them one of the keys of the film….
Benh Zeitlin: For me, it’s an incredible resource because the film is about a lot of things I didn’t experience: I’m not a father, I’m not from Louisiana, I didn’t live through the storms, I don’t live by the Bayou. So in collaborating with the characters, you get an incredible education and the film gets an incredible education from those people who bring….you know, I would sit at night with Dwight in his Bakery, on bakers hours, 12 midnight to 6 in the morning, just interviewing him about his life. We would connect pieces of his life to the script, and often times, something that I had written wouldn’t be accurate, or wouldn’t feel right, or wouldn’t be the right voice. I would take the scene and say, “How would you behave in this situation? What would you say, what would be your words here?” So you re-write the script to be something truer to him and you end up with performances that feel more real and you end up with a script that feels more true. It was an incredible resource, it might be a lot more work but it’s all worth it. It not only betters the film, but it also educates you as a person. You build incredible friendships and relationships with all of the performers because it’s such a collaborative effort to get something good on-screen.
How did you go about casting Quvenzhané Wallisas as Hushpuppy, the film’s lead character and narrator?
Benh Zeitlin: With Quvenzhané Wallis, we knew that the film was going to ride on whoever this person was going to be. And I don’t think we knew who it was going to be when we started casting. But we spent….while we were writing we were casting the entire time. It took about eight or nine months, we saw about four thousand people for the role. When Quvenzhané walked in, she just had this wisdom and defiance and fierceness in her that we had never seen in anyone, never mind someone that she was five years old. She had actually snuck into the audition at five years old (laughs), we were looking for six years old to nine years old. That was the actual parameters. I remember in her first audition, one of the most striking things was that it was a scene where she was supposed to throw these stuffed animals at the other actor. I kept on telling her, “Throw it at her.” And she would pump-fake them, she wouldn’t do it. Eventually I had to cut the scene and I asked her, “Why wouldn’t you throw the animal at them?” She just said to me, “You’re not supposed to throw things at people you don’t know.” It was just this moment of defiance, actually, not defiance as in being stubborn, but defiance as a sweet, moral stance that she took. The fact that she was not going to be rolled over by me and that she had her own agency and her own sense of right and wrong, her own wisdom. That was so in-sync with that character. It made me feel that this girl is a survivor, this girl is a little warrior and she can be this person.
And then with Dwight Henry, what did you see in him for Wink?
Benh Zeitlin: Dwight was a totally different story. We were never actually searching for that role among non-professional actors. We always thought that the requirements of the role were going to be too difficult for somebody who didn’t have any experience to play it. But Dwight had a Bakery right across the street from where our casting office was. So we would go there in the morning and get donuts, we would go there at lunch and get some pork chops. And he would always hold court at the Bakery, he was this incredibly magnetic figure in the community. We tried a couple actors with Quvenzhané and it wasn’t quite working. And it was the only audition where I saw…Dwight came in just on a lark one day, he told the story of creating his Bakery and I was always really inspired by his mentality to creating his business and the way that he spoke, it was something I kind of had in mind as I was writing the character. Eventually we just decided, “Lets just give Dwight a shot. Maybe he can pull this off.” And as soon as he came in, especially when he acted with Quvenzhané, the whole film started to open up because he just had this similar quality to her of just being fearless and so strong and also so sweet. When we saw that mix, they really felt like father and daughter. We kind of saw the story take off with the two of them.
Can you talk a little about the significance of what The Bathtub represents in the story?
Benh Zeitlin: With The Bathtub, age doesn’t divide people, religion doesn’t divide people, jobs don’t divide people, money doesn’t divide people – money doesn’t exist. Race, religion, politics…. all the things that in the other world are these lines where you’re either on this side or that side, I wanted to take all of those lines and pull them out. So that was a really important idea. The community has absolute unity on all fronts, on all levels. That’s not a documentary, literal interpretation of any specific place – it certainly doesn’t exist in the world. But it’s definitely inspired by Louisiana. Because when you’re there, you feel that potential, you can see that as something that is possible.
What was the genisis, the inspiration for making this film?
Benh Zeitlin: It started off as this story that I wanted to tell about holdouts, about people holding onto their land and holding onto their homes. Refusing to leave. What I was doing was I was driving to the end of every road in Louisiana, out into the marsh, finding the last town that existed before the land falls off into the water. I found this place called Isle de Jean Charles, which sort of became the heart of the film. Then at the same time I was working on Lucy Alibar’s plays and stories as a completely separate movie. But I realised that there was this emotional connection between a community losing its place and a little girl losing her father that kind of unlocked the film. The play was almost the key to kind of find the characters and the voice of the story and how it should be told. When those two streams intersected it kind of exploded. That’s when the whole thing started to exist.
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