Benh Zeitlin interview

Beasts of the Southern Wild director on Quvenzhane Wallis


One of the greatest surprises at this year’s recent Academy Awards ceremony was Beasts of the Southern Wild. The low-scale American indie sat alongside major blockbusters on the shortlists for four categories –
including Best Picture – and made history with a nomination for nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest ever Best Actress nominee: we were waiting with baited breath as we went to press to see whether she’d make history.

Wallis plays six-year-old Hushpuppy, who lives with her ailing, alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry) in ‘the Bathtub’, a bayou cut off from society on the wrong side of a levee. Receiving nominations for Best Director, and for adapting the screenplay from co-writer Lucy Alibar’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious, we spoke to surprise first-time director, 30-year-old Benh Zeitlin.

Benh, do some people really live the way Hushpuppy and Wink do – off the grid, no electricity, at the mercy of the elements?
The Bathtub is very much a fantasy, but there are places down south of Louisiana [in the US] that are being cut off by levees – they are going through this exact type of catastrophe where their land is falling apart out from under them, storms are coming more regularly, they’re having to figure out how to survive.

Tell us about adapting Lucy Aibar’s play.
It was a story I wrote and then combined with the play, so it comes from two places. One from this imagined utopian place where people are free and living off the grid, and that place coming under threat. That was combined with the story of a little girl whose father is dying, and as he’s dying the end of the world is coming.

The film has a very freeform style. Was its creation essentially freeform, or was it quite a disciplined set?
It was a designed chaos. We put in a ton of work before we started shooting: doing improvisation and interviews with the actors, massively rewriting the script during that time to adapt both to the location and the people that were going to play the parts. But even at that point, when you put a kid on a boat, things go wrong, so you have to constantly react to what’s happening on set.

How did you know you had found the little girl to star in it?
When Quvenzhané first came in, she had this incredible focus. I’d do exercises with her where I’d say, ‘Okay, you just stepped on a nail,’ and she wouldn’t pop out of character, she wouldn’t overact pain, you could see in her eyes she was feeling a lot of pain. It was mind-blowing that someone that age could give such an advanced performance. We looked at 4,000 kids for the part and it wasn’t remotely close.

And Dwight Henry is amazing too.
Dwight was the baker from across the street from where we had the casting office. At some point he had come in and done a monologue about his life, and I used that as a writing tool as I was developing the script. So I thought: Let’s see if he can act. He was very raw and it took a lot of work, but we saw he had this energy to go to extreme places.

Some commentators have said the movie glamourises poverty, or it’s like cultural tourism…
The film is not about poverty, but self-sufficiency. ‘The Bathtub’ is this place that people live in by choice. Food is in unbelievable abundance, they pull their meals out of the water, they have a system of educating their children that they believe in.

How do you describe the film in a nutshell?
It’s about losing the things that made you, and it’s about how you survive that not just physically, but emotionally. It’s inspired by New Orleans and the Bayou: two places that refuse to be beaten by death. When you go to a jazz funeral in New Orleans, you start off all sombre, but that transforms into rousing jazz and everyone celebrates. It’s not singing about tragedy, it’s defeating and overcoming it with a spirit that refuses to be crushed.

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