Academy Award Nominated Director Benh Zeitlin Opens Up About ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’
Yes, awards are just awards. Simply because the Academy doesn’t recognize a film doesn’t mean it isn’t a work of art deserving of appreciation and love. And just because a film takes home awards doesn’t mean it was necessarily great, nor does it mean there’s artistic merit behind its mass appeal. However, what does matter is that recognition from the Academy brings the work into cultural relevance and sheds light on the people who worked so hard to create it. And with the Academy Award nominations announced this morning, there was no better news than seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild among the nominees for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. To anyone that found themselves absolutely swept away by the film this past summer, it’s no surprise that Beasts has garnered the amount of praise it has found. But when you think about its modest beginnings and the fact that this is director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s feature-length debut, it’s pretty shocking. It’s also incredibly inspiring.
The success of Beasts, as a prime example of the amazing smaller-budget films that have debuted this year, feels like a sign that independent cinema is starting to mean something again, regaining its voice and its power and affecting the landscape of Hollywood in a way that recent years haven’t allowed. For a film such as this to be recognized on such a large scale, especially among the likes of critically acclaimed and internationally loved directors like Michael Haneke and Steven Spielberg, makes me to be hopeful that this generation of emerging artists is truly going to take back the reigns on what it means to create something not only artistically brilliant but socially and culturally relevant that lingers long after the credits have rolled.
About a month ago I got the chance to speak with Zeitlin about his best friend and co-writer Lucy Alibar, casting actors from hidden corners of the world, and the code of Court 13. Also, take a listen to Zeitlin and Dan Romer performing "Once There Was a Hushpuppy" live at LACMA, it’s beautiful.
Did you ever think that Beasts would be getting the attention and praise it has? Because it started off as such a small film, was this something that could have been expected?
It’s a pretty crazy moment. I’m sort of realizing what happens now, is that all of these people whose work I love and admire are watching the film and that’s been really special. But no, we never ever imagined that this many people would see the movie. I think we made the movie for audiences, we screened it hundreds of times to see how people would respond to it, and we wanted the film to exist between the film and the audience. But I thought when you make a film that doesn’t have any famous people involved in it, or, you know, a genre or actors that people know, there’s no context to think anyone would watch it beyond people in some little theaters in New York
It’s been a pretty incredible year for young, independent filmmakers emerging with their debut features. Do you feel sort of kinship with your contemporaries?
Another amazing part of the experience is just getting to know this generation. Working down in New Orleans, I don’t know that many filmmakers; I haven’t gotten to meet my peers until this sort of traveling with the film so it’s been really cool to see. You realize this is going to be the people around your water cooler for the next however many years, these people of your generation coming up together. So yeah, you now, it’s nice to see other people going through a similar thing.
I interviewed Lucy back in the summer and she was just so full of life and emotion and told me that you two met at summer camp when you were very young. Did you always know that you wanted to work with her in this kind of way in the future at some point?
Well, we were always really close. She’s just one of my best friends, period—in or out of work—and I think she’s also been my favorite writer since I was 13 years old. I never read anything like the stories that she writes and the plays that she writes. She would send me everything that she’d written and I always wanted to figure out how to make a film out of her world in some way, and I never knew what material it would be or what form it would take, but I think originally we were looking at a short play and thinking about making it a short film. So many ideas started cropping up once we started working on these two stories together, and suddenly it kind of started to form a feature film.
In the play, Hushpuppy was performed by a boy, but the gender reversal in the film, I believe, makes the role that much more powerful and really stems from Lucy’s original vision.
I always knew that Hushpuppy was based very much on Lucy. And when we would talk about the character before we decided to change the gender, we would be talking about her. So it just made a lot of sense to bring a character back to the literal experience that she had growing up.
What’s so beautiful about the film is how seamlessly fantasy and mysticism is blended with this harsh reality that the characters are living. Was that something you gathered from her script or a choice you made specifically for this world of the film?
I think there were elements of it in her script that had the surrealism and mythic nature of the play—the aurochs and the end of the world. But at the same time, it had these characters that were very human and very real. I think those things exist in the play, and in turning it into a film, it moved from a surrealist, Dadaist play to this other real place—this mythic end of the world—and brought it to actual things that are happening in Louisiana. We took these characters that were very kind of operatic in the play and connected them with our actors and used all these amazing real places and people and revised it towards reality as the play evolved into the movie. When she did the show, Hushpuppy was a 10-year-old played by a 26-year-old; [it required] was a huge suspension of disbelief. And you can kind of do things to a 26-year-old pretending to be a 10-year-old that you can’t do to an actual 10-year-old on screen. So that kind of just having a character’s step towards their actual ages causes a different kind of realistic approach.
Your parents were folklorists and you’ve said that you’ve learned a lot from them. Did that play into your process of shaping this film and do you think that had an influence on you as a filmmaker as well?
You always want to think you’re a rebel from your parents, but the thing I think back on is really that my parents took me everywhere they went when I was a little kid. They were working with all kinds of eccentric, iconoclastic people and documenting their jokes and their stories and their performances. They had an attitude towards what is beautiful and what’s worth preserving and what’s art—that’s pretty different. The greatest artists in the world aren’t necessary the ones that get put in the MoMA; there’s art to the way someone builds their own table or whatever it may be. If I step outside of myself and try to analyze myself, that’s something that I really took to heart: trying to find really talented people in places that not everybody’s looking for.
As a director working with people that are non-actors, you were able to get these brilliant, moving performances out of them. Was that a big challenge for you as well as the actors?
It was a huge challenge for both sides. We weren’t doing this kind of non-actor casting where you weren’t asking people to act. We weren’t looking for non-actors, per se; we were looking for people who had acting talents out in Louisiana. I guess when I think about it, almost every film you’ve ever seen is entirely formed by people who live in New York or Los Angeles. But there’s so much talent actually in the world and so many people that have extraordinary talents yet would never end up in either place. Being a prodigy actor in Louisiana isn’t the same as being a prodigy actor in New York; no one is going to tell you you should go try out for movies. The way I think about it is, we were really trying to find actors and we found these two incredible actors and we had to learn how to do it. We rehearsed for four months and really trained and learned and then came these characters. The characters in the film are nothing like who they are in real life.
You also co-composed the music for the film with Dam Romer, which serves as such an integral piece to the whole. It’s not only just a score but sets the tone for the entire picture and engages your emotions on a very visceral level. How far into the writing process do you begin thinking about the music?
Pretty immediately. If I think about what I’m trying to do with the movie, it’s often a comparison to moments I’ve had with music—being at a show and getting overwhelmed by a performance or just getting overwhelmed listening to your headphones. That’s the sort of feeling I want to create in the film, so pretty early on I’m trying to keep in mind what emotional information is going to be in the music and how that’s going to shape the way the film takes place.
Even when I listen to the music now, after not seeing the film in months those same emotions are recalled and it’s really powerful.
Yeah, it’s hard to separate it out. I don’t know that I could. It would be very hard for me to make a film that I didn’t work on the music for. It would be as difficult for me to not write the script as it would be to not have a part in writing the music. It’s very embedded in how the whole thing gets envisioned.
You spent a lot of time in New Orleans as a kid and now have returned. What do you think this the emotional connection and relationship to this place for you?
It’s like being in a different country. It has a totally different culture and attitude and it’s a tremendously brave and fearless and free place. I think those are all sort of qualities that I not just make art in those conditions, but I also live in that way. So when I went down there to make the film, I realized there really wasn’t any where else in the world that I could work in the way that I wanted to. And whether or not I’d be able to keep on making films there, it’s a great place to live and it’s got a very close relationship with joy and I like to be joyful.
Can you just explain a little bit more about Court 13 and how exactly that came together?
It’s a lot of really close friends who are very diverse—in terms of what kind of art we actually make. It’s a lot of of artists in their own right that come together, very kind of collaborative and participatory, and give a lot of agency to the individual artist to breath their own creativity into whatever element of the film they’re in charge of. So it’s somewhere between like a code more than a club—but that’s about as well as I can explain it.
Well that’s a great thing to have, especially when it’s not exactly the easiest time to get films made in which you don’t have to compromise your artistic vision.
Yeah, we have amazing people, and the people who financed the film believed in that. The fact that they didn’t force us to make the film in a conventional way and didn’t force us to cast it in a conventional way: they believed on taking on the impossible. We had these things in the film that seemed like impossible circumstances when you look at the plan, and the fact that we had people financing the movie that believed we should take on those challenges never would have happened without them.
How does it feel to watch the film now after it’s been a part of your life for so long? Is there a moment that especially speaks to you and what you feel is really what you were trying to get at?
I’ve been touring the film for a year and I don’t always watch it, but I always try to come back and watch the end of the movie because I sort of feel it in the room when it plays—from when Hushpuppy goes off and takes this trip with the riverboat men and goes to this heaven of mothers. It was this part of the film that was tied up in Lucy’s mythology and also New Orleans mythology, and it’s just this place where all those sort of different surreal, collaborative elements came together in a way that was totally impossible to explain. It was always part of the script that every advisor told me to cut and it made no sense: "How can you wander off on your movie and go to this floating brothel on the water?" But I love watching that play still, and it emotionally makes so much sense. I feel like we did something really crazy there and I’m really proud of everyone who made that work.
Going into the film, did you have any cinematic influences?
Yeah, lots of different stuff. I think in terms of our process, I really studied how Cassavetes worked with actors and the way his sets worked, and trying to find that type of performance was a big influence. Philosophically, the way that Herzog has gone about things was certainly inspiring to us—trying to go and live this movie and not synthesize it, to get images on screen and photograph things that no one has been able to photograph before and which may not be there in five years, and trying to get the camera on an adventure and see something you haven’t seen before. A lot of childhood movies I loved played in a big ways, like E.T. We were just trying to figure out some of the big emotional tugs in a way that those films work on a kind of epic level and the narrative structure from those films also.
As a writer, director, composer, and producer, it’s clear you enjoy having your hand in every aspect of the filmmaking process.
Well, I mean, I do, but I also really love collaboration more than anything, and I love other people’s creativity and the way that shapes and changes things. I never want to make a film that’s just what I imagine and then execute it; I want a process to change what it is I imagined and become something else through the creativity of all these other people. But I am a complete obsessive. I don’t like there to be any separation between my life and my art. Once it starts, I have to work on it all the time, every second until it’s finished, and so maybe I’ve enabled myself to be a part of everything from beginning to end.