Where Fantasy Meets Reality: Benh Zeitlin on ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Where Fantasy Meets Reality: Benh Zeitlin on ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Dorian Grinspan & Juliet Liu

Photos: Fox Searchlight.

If there has been one film that has swept the 2012 festival circuit, it’s undoubtedly been the debut feature film from Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Our film critic wrote in her review of the film: “Hushpuppy’s mantra–when you’re small, you gotta fix what you can–serves as the tagline of sorts for American independent cinema.” And certainly Beasts has paved the way for this type of grassroots, American indie filmmaking.

With the critical acclaim of not just the film as a whole, but also first-time performers Quvenzhane Wallis (who plays Hushpuppy) and Dwight Henry (as Hushpuppy’s father, Wink), Zeitlin has much to be proud of. OUT OF ORDER sat down with Zeitlin in New York to talk about a gamut of topics — from the discovery of Miss Wallis to the benefits of working with non-professional actors — and to ask what we can expect next from Zeitlin.

OOO: This is your first feature film and it’s been a great success. What are the most important lessons that you’ve learned throughout the process?

Zeitlin: It’s been a really interesting thing to see the film travel. You know, the film is very much this heightened reality that is built on real parts that are all inspired by south Louisiana, so the closer we show the film to the place where we made it, the more it feels like a piece of realism, and the further we go, the more it plays as fantastical. It’s really interesting how that changes the way that people see the film…

It’s also amazingly consistent, whether people see this as a real place or whether they see it as a fantastical place, they sort of understand the essence of it in the same way, which is really exciting. You just feel like the film is translating across cultures and across languages and across oceans that we never expected it to cross.

OOO: And when you started filming did you expect it or intend it to be a more realistic thing or more fantastical?

Zeitlin: I think the script went from being more fantastical to more real as we attached it to real things and real people and real places and real issues. I think by the time we shot, the idea was very much that it wasn’t a fantasy; it was a realistic film told from the point of view of a six year old.

Whatever she believes is real is real –
just give her that respect and don’t question it.

From the moment you start to decide that things you imagine are imaginary you don’t really parse out between reality and fantasy. I sort of stopped thinking about it from an adult’s point of view where you would be like, this is happening, this is not. She just imagined this. Whatever she believes is real is real – just give her that respect and don’t question it.

OOO: When you say “her,” did you have a lot of dialogue with Quvenzhane [Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy] before even starting to shoot, to try and understand how she thought?

Zeitlin: Absolutely, before we ever even touched a script. I would interview her about all the different kind of things she was going to think about over the course of the film. We did these interviews about animals and how she thinks about animals, what is this animal thinking and how do you know what an animal is thinking. What’s the difference between a strong animal and a weak animal? What happens when an animal gets sick?

She just has this fearlessness and
this poise and wisdom and focus.

You sort of try to get her, to see the way she understands them. Not totally to rewrite things but to incorporate her language into things and incorporate essential ideas over the way she understood the universe, trying to get a more accurate way of seeing the character and just trying to get the character that she understood and that she can express.

OOO: Do you feel like the beasts were born of that?

Zeitlin: No, the beasts predate that, they come from the original source material play. But I think that way she understood the beasts came from those interviews. The beasts were always a very important part of the texture of the film.

She understands that there is this sort of
infinity to nature, and she starts to realize that
she is strong enough, that she is one of them.

Probably the first real image of her that I saw was that image of her facing down the 15-foot thing on the ridge. You just kind of, a lot of times you just kind start with a couple of pictures and you don’t really know why they’re in your head. You just start with them and try and work backwards and extract what they mean.

OOO: Why does she initially think they are going to kill her or eat her and then eventually she starts to relate?

Zeitlin: Her understanding of nature evolves. She starts out feeling like she’s a morsel of food on the planet basically. She’s little, she doesn’t see the hierarchy in the world. She considers herself one of the animals, and she knows that she’s a small animal and a weak animal. She senses that something is coming to take away her father and her place and for her being prey and they’re the predator.

I think that they grow… She understands that there is this sort of infinity to nature and that she starts to realize that she is strong enough, that she is one of them. That she is a strong animal on the planet and that she is not going to be eaten… And it’s also this sort of thing about they’re both animals on the verge of extinction. I think they relate to one another on that level.

I always think that the greatest sin on the planet would be to kill something that is on the verge of extinction, and I think that they, although they are sort of set against each other—one’s a predator, one’s a prey—they’re both Hushpuppy and sort of understand that they have this commonality and that they’re both these sort of warriors in the last stand.

OOO: How do you think, how do you conceptualize, the kind of tension between the fact that these people know their place will eventually disappear and yet the fact they’re so grounded and so intent on staying there?

Zeitlin: That very much comes from the place. It was very much an inspiration for the movie. In this era between 2006 and 2012 when people were very much saying, ‘You shouldn’t rebuild in New Orleans, people shouldn’t live there, it’s irresponsible.’ That’s never in question when you’re there. People are never going to abandon their place and their home. It’s such a resilient, brave culture…

All the things that divide people in normal society
don’t exist in the Bathtub. It’s a kind of vision of
total unity and total independence and total freedom.

I wanted to celebrate that point of view of not giving up on the thing that made you united…. South Louisiana is a creator. It created this culture, and the culture is so in sync with the place, the city, and also the country—in sync with the land, the food, the water, and everything. It’s leaving your creator. Those people would never do that. They’re too brave and they’re too strong to get pushed out.

OOO: What about the Bathtub? Is that something you created for the movie or is that something that existed before?

Zeitlin: [The people] have been left out of the main levy system in south Louisiana, just considered it too expensive to protect their town, so they built the levy on the wrong side and basically just sacrificed the island to the Gulf of Mexico. And then they built this totally ridiculous four-foot, three-foot levy in this town where when a storm comes you get a 15-foot tidal surge. Basically all that levy does is act like a bowl; it holds the water… It protects the town from the water coming in, so somebody made a joke that you live with a bathtub because that’s what it is like. It’s a bowel that filled up in the flood and then that water just stagnates and sits there. It’s way worse than if it just flooded and the water receded.

OOO: When you talk about this Bathtub it’s still a very pure thing. Do you think it could be some time of utopia?

Zeitlin: Yeah, that is how I think of it. This is not a reflection of the actual place. The idea in the movie is definitely that these people have been cut off from the world but are there by choice. They’re living in a way that, with their ingenuity and their creativity, they’re completely independent of normal society. They don’t need technology. They don’t need grocery stores or anything like that. They know how to survive and they know how to live independently and freely. They get this incredibly proud and celebratory place. And it’s a place where no one is divided from one another. All the things that divide people in normal society don’t exist in the Bathtub. It’s a kind of vision of total unity and total independence and total freedom.

OOO: And you moved to New Orleans right after Katrina?

Zeitlin: Yeah, about seven months after.

OOO: How was that experience there and did it inform the movie in any way later on?

Zeitlin: I had moved down I was trying to find a place to shoot this short film Glory at Sea and tried several places. I was actually in Eastern Europe trying to find a place. When I went down, it was a real kind of frontier town. Very, very empty. There was almost nobody there… We just started making this crazy movie and it grew and grew and grew. All these people starting participating in it.

We expanded our cast by three times just because we found so many amazing people that we wanted to bring with us on this venture. And as I got out of that film, that was like 2008—I just wanted to make something, all the actors in that film were pulled out basically, were pulled out early and coming back and fighting for a place and refusing to leave. I wanted to make a film essentially celebrating my cast from Glory at Sea. It very much inspired this film.

OOO: The way you cast your films is very interesting. From what I’ve seen or heard or read, you don’t go through a casting agency. Often you just pick from the population where you’re shooting. Is that something that you’ll keep doing in your next movies?

Zeitlin: Yeah, I think so. It’s not like we have a principle about not using actors. In this one, it just kind of happened organically. People who did not have acting experience won the parts. It’s kind of part and parcel with how the whole system works. We’re doing that casting as we are writing film. The characters are actually collaborations between us and the person playing the role… We learn about their life and we incorporate them into the role.

It’s a system in which
non-professionals can really thrive.

I think we’re always going to cast as much for who the person is off screen as we do their chops on screen. Both things are really essential to the process. It’s a process that lends itself to non-professionals, and it’s a system in which non-professionals can really thrive. It just kind of opens up our options. I don’t think there’s a thing where we will never use an actor. I love actors. I love what they do. I think we will probably find ways to mix non-professionals and professionals. Once you make a film with a non-professional actor, they become a professional actor, so now we have all these actors.

OOO: What really struck me is that Quvenzhane is really incredible in the movie. I can’t believe that when you started shooting she was six. How did you know she was the girl for the role?

Zeitlin: You could just kind of see it. We look back on that audition tape sometimes and we just kind of see it in her eyes. She just has this fearlessness and this poise and wisdom and focus. She had this incredibly intense focus that was unbreakable.

We really had to shelter her from
the panic of the set and the stress.

For most kids their focus is really, really hard to manage. Sometimes they’ll act while they’re talking but once they start talking they’ll just kind of go back to being themselves. She could just immerse herself in a way we never expected to find in someone that young.

OOO: Often directors have trouble shooting with children. It’s a whole experience. Did you feel like you learned from that?

Zeitlin: Yea. It becomes the defining element of your set, which is why I think people don’t do it. If they have a rigid way they want to work, I think children definitely disallow that method. We really had to shelter her from the panic of the set and the stress and the time crunch you’re constantly on. We would send her away when were setting up everything. We would be freaking out, everyone would be yelling at each other, we were all in a rush to set up and get ready. But then when she would get to set, it would be a totally different thing. Everybody would clear out. She would walk in and everyone would play around, goof off, as if we had all day to do it. Throw gummy bears at the line producer and everyone would dance around a bit. Then when it felt relaxed enough, we would go.

The whole crew would be ready that whole time but you had to create an atmosphere where it felt fun, like a game. I am prone to be the most stressed out person on the place of the earth. In general, I am in the entire shoot. But in those moments, I knew I had to step out of that and just play and be a kid, and I think doing that helped me not go totally insane and made me a better director.

OOO: The whole movie – shooting the movie, producing the movie – from what I heard it was a very hectic experience. How would you describe it?

Zeitlin: It’s really physical. What I like about our shoots is that we set up so many obstacles that are so hard to actually get your shot. You have fire on a boat with the kid, and you have animals running around and one of them is going the wrong way, and there are mosquitoes and heat, and all of these things almost make it impossible to be intellectual about things. You just have to be an athlete and go and try to conquer these things that you’ve set up for yourself. It’s a very physical experience, which I like, because I think you can overthink things. But we just get to try and charge in some ways.

You want to stay with your eye on
every element and make sure it’s moving
in the right direction, steer it and guide it.

OOO: You’ve been involved in every single part of production. Do you feel like that is something you would do in your other movies or do you want to concentrate on your directing?

Zeitlin: No, to me its all one thing. I don’t believe in, I can’t imagine making a film and not writing the music and not being involved in the script. I don’t think that’s how film works. To me, every element of the film, every person… Your cook is affecting what is on screen. Every single thing is changing the flavor of the film, changing the experience of watching it. To me, if you take your hands off… I would never do that. Its not like I’m controlling everything or micromanaging everyone—it’s just all part of the process. You want to stay with your eye on every element and make sure it’s moving the right direction, steer it and guide it.

OOO: The movie has gotten a great reception and won a lot of prizes, a lot of very good prizes. It’s a really great movie. Do you feel like you’re free to do whatever you want next?

Zeitlin: I’m definitely going to try and do the hardest movie I’ve ever imagined trying to do next because I feel like this is the moment. I hope this is the leverage where we try, we continue, this method of filmmaking, where we try new things and take risks and try and alter the way that films are made. I’m not trying to get pulled out of my family and make a film with a different group of people. I want to keep this system in tact, but we can definitely—hopefully—go after some really wild challenges on the next one.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is in theaters now.

2 thoughts on “Where Fantasy Meets Reality: Benh Zeitlin on ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

  1. Pingback: Where Fantasy Meets Reality - Out of Order Magazine | Beasts of the Southern Wild

  2. Pingback: For Your Consideration: The 2013 Oscar Nominees | OUT OF ORDER Magazine

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