Benh Zeitlin and the Motion of Pictures
Magical realism and strict adherence to its muse give Benh Zeitlin’s location-shot debut feature, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, charm and depth.
Benh Zeitlin’s magical film festival-storming Beasts of the Southern Wild tells a story that defies strict distinctions between the real and the imaginary, the sweet and the bitter, the sensitivities of children and adults. Its protagonist, Hushpuppy, is a 6-year old girl whose father’s health is fading as the natural environment in “the Bathtub,” her Delta community, deteriorates. She leaves home to search for her long-gone mother, facing the army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs on her way. Mature, culturally conscious and breathtakingly visualized, Beasts of the Southern Wild is also a very organic piece of filmmaking, shot on location with Louisianians themselves. After winning Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2012, Zeitlin went on to receive the prestigious Camera d’Or (awarded to the best first-time filmmaker) in Cannes, where this interview took place. After much anticipation, Beasts opens today in the United States.
Keyframe: You co-wrote the film, directed it, and wrote the music for it. Where did all those talents come from?
Benh Zeitlin: I’m most naturally a musician. Music comes to me: I just hear the song. I don’t need to work that hard for it. Film is much less natural for me. My parents are both folklorists, so from when I was 3, I was doing puppet shows for my sister, at 6, I made a movie with my friend, and in the seventh grade, I started a band. I was really doing several different types of art all the time and I don’t think I ever delineated what was what, and what I was going to do. Somewhere in that I thought I didn’t wanna be in a band, loved making films, and I’ll be able to continue making music if I choose to be a director—which wouldn’t be possible the other way around. Film is built of every art form, and the opportunity to combine everything I was doing was probably why I ended up in it. Also, making films allows you to create your own reality. I had a very tight connection with a group of friends from school and it felt like going to college would make it all scatter, which was a heartbreaking thought. So I made this short in New Orleans. The idea was that I can go somewhere, create the world, and populate it with all those people I love, bring us back together. And it works. Movies have this power to reunite people, let you travel to places you’d never go to, talk with people you’d never meet. And people love them. Probably that’s why I decided to follow that path.
Keyframe: Beasts is so unique. It feels like you built and visualized your own personal mythology in this film. How did it all come together?
Zeitlin: I was trying to develop a film about holdouts in Louisiana. I’d just decided to move there and tried to understand the magnetism of this place, respond to what was in the air. I’d been hearing opinions like, ‘No one should live there,’ ‘Everybody should leave.’ People were asking themselves, ‘Why did we built that?’ I wanted to drive past New Orleans and meet the last towns, see what was there, what culture was it. That was one project. Subsequently I was trying to develop one of Lucy’s [Lucy Alibar, Beasts co-writer and Zeitlin's longtime friend, who he met at a playwriting summer program when he was in middle school] stories into a short film. And at a certain point I realized I was writing about the same subject: our weakening connection with nature and this little girl, who’s losing her father, her community, her all. It was just a matter of taking her story, which was happening in Georgia, and extracting it, translating into the heart of this other one. It was about finding what was it that was speaking to me.
Keyframe: Your knowledge and understanding of the world these people live in feels incredibly deep, almost intimate. How much time did you spend with the Bathtub inhabitants before you started shooting and did you get to know them well?
Zeitlin: I’ve been in Louisiana for six years now, pretty much living there, six months in the town where we shot it specifically. I wrote the story there. But the feeling you’re talking about comes more from the level in which the whole community participated in writing this film. They were very much involved. I couldn’t have written an inauthentic script and just gone out there and bossed [everyone] around. Everybody was allowed and encouraged to rewrite the film. At the beginning of every scene I’d approach each character—and they’re all non-actors, ‘real’ people—asking if there was something they’d like to add or something they wouldn’t say. And they’d correct me—change planned words, gestures for something closer to them, something more real. Opening the script to them was the only possible way: They’ve all lived through the storm, in post-Katrina and post-Gustav Louisiana. They knew it all. It’s a different style of filmmaking, [a] more grassroots, organic way. We let the place speak for itself within the framework of a story that me and Lucy wrote together.
Keyframe: Hushpuppy is haunted by the vision of monsters (or maybe actual aurochs?) coming to get her. Where did this idea come from and what does it stand for?
Zeitlin: The script was based on a film and also a play that I eventually combined into this one idea. Aurochs come from the original play. I imagined it this way: When Hushpuppy’s emotions get too big, they, in a way, spill out to the world, into nature in a sort of surrealistic way—for example trees would catch on fire, the animals would come…That’s how those monsters originated. Hushpuppy sees herself as a hero, across the entire span of mankind, so it began with the cavemen, and continues all the way to the science of the future. When she looks back she feels that her life has these consequences that ripple into the entire history of man. The aurochs represent the starting point of it. The thing that she feels is coming for her is like a large predator and she’s like a small morsel of food that is going to get consumed by the natural world. Also, I wanted to write a story where the water rises. The aurochs were perfect: they came from the ice age and then the rise of water is related to ice cast melting.
I don’t think about this film as a fantasy movie, I don’t feel aurochs are a fantasy. To me it’s about the time in your life before you start portioning out your imagination from reality, when there’s no separation between those two. I had an imaginary friend when I was a kid. He’d be sitting right here, next to me.
Keyframe: Your film combines two opposite aesthetics. On one hand it’s dreamlike, beautifully shot and whimsical. At the same time the imagery can be extremely cruel and direct. Why? And what does it say about another topic of Beasts, which is love that is beautiful but—as in your film—sometimes hurts very, very much.
Zeitlin: This might not be the direct answer, but I’ll try it. The movie is a lot about coming to terms with death. Probably the ugliest images in the film are dead cows, maggots, the caterpillar that’s being murdered by a beetle… the trajectory Hushpuppy goes on is from feeling that death and nature are those predatory things devouring all that you have, your home and your father, that nature is just death, and that’s ugly. But at the same time she never loses this lyrical affection for nature as well. Over the course of the film she comes to terms with the ugliness of death and learns to find beauty in the cycle of life. In learning that, she becomes strong enough to endure and understand that she can conquer life. There’s that and then there’s also the tough love element of the movie, which very much comes from the culture. It’s a hard place to live, a physically grueling environment to live in. August in Louisiana is really hard to survive. Wink [Hushpuppy's father] is so brutal toward her; the brutality comes from a place of knowing that he’s not going to be there to protect her, and that she’s gonna have to be strong enough to do that on her own. That’s also sort of the way I am. I never like to talk to children as they were children—I like to treat them as adults. And I think Wink is also like that. He has deep respect for her. There’s brutality and harshness in his attitude, but he respects her and believe in her ability to survive, even though she’s not ready yet. That’s how love is expressed in the culture that this film is in. ‘Show me you’re tough, prove it to me.’ Encouraging that in a really fierce way is showing the affection. Wink is making sure that once he’s gone Hushpuppy will survive.
Keyframe: All the actors in your film are truly incredible, and, as you mentioned, non-professionals. How did you find them? How did their lack of experience influence the set?
Zeitlin: There’s a totally different story behind each character. Quvenzhané [who plays Hushpuppy] was a massive casting search. We looked at a thousand people for that role. We were looking at ages 6 to 11, all races, for a little while we were looking for a boy even. It was really broad. We knew that she was going to come in and define the entire film, so we were trying to be open to infinite possibilities. I don’t think any of us believed initially that we could find somebody so young and so good. The role is written as almost cute; well, maybe not cute, but it has a certain silliness to it, a sense of comedy… actually, the film was more of a comedy before she entered it. The way we dealt with the heavier issues in the film was more roundabout, a little more layered. And when she came in we knew that we have someone on our hands who can actually realistically play these incredibly intense emotions, has this ability inside of her. When we found her, we rewrote the film and took it towards her tone because it’s very quiet yet incredibly, fiercely intense. Which isn’t her personality at all, but this was the way she interpreted it. It felt so genuine and sincere we just went with it.
Mr. Henry, who plays Wink, is the opposite case. We didn’t cast him at all. At first we planned to have this role played by a professional actor. It was one role that we thought was too difficult for a non-actor to play. He was running a bakery across the street from our casting office where we did the auditions. Every day we went there and would get donuts and hang out with him. It was like a community center. Eventually we invited him in. He didn’t wanna act at all, he just wanted to tell his own story of how he rebuilt his bakery after Katrina. As we were looking at real actors, I was watching it as a reference for this role, because I thought that his life story really related to the character. These actors [we had been bringing in for the part] didn’t work one by one, felt inauthentic, weren’t from Louisiana… Quvenzhané struggled to work with them because they were too concerned about their own performances. And then we were like: ‘What about this one guy from the bakery?’ We’d invite him to the auditions more and more and he just won the role. He’s a sweet, warm-hearted man in real life and he made Quvenzhané feel safe. He made her feel like she could go to extreme places, and then we’d call ‘Cut!’ and she’d be fine. That was very important, taking under consideration the emotional load her character has.
Keyframe: In your film the world is seen through the eyes of a child, yet you do not patronize this perspective, as if you knew that children do not see less, just differently. It reminded me of the books I used to read when I was a child, especially Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, and also Terry Gilliam’s film Tideland, another understanding approach to a child dealing with death and grimness of the adult world. What were your own references and inspirations?
Zeitlin: There was not one golden influence; I was pulling things from all different sources. Kusturica’s movies were the major template for the type of fantasy-reality the film embraces. I like the way he uses music, how epic it is. I love children’s stories, faux-tales, Huck Finn and Robin Hood, Pippi Longstocking, Disney movies…. I also think the film has similarities to Bambi. I love Cassavetes. The way that I try to direct performances is attempting to do a shred of what he did. Also Mike Leigh: He collaborates so intensively with actors. But huge blockbusters influenced us as well. And early Miloś Forman, his films like The Fireman’s Ball. Fellini’s Amarcord was a big deal for me: It makes you feel like there is a community behind the production of the film. I also watched lots of documentaries in my search for proper visual style, for example Les Blank.
One thing I try to do in my movies is recognize that in order to stay in love with the film, the story and the process has to always be in motion. It can’t get stuck. That’s why I don’t wanna make these rigid films where I plan it all and then execute it. I want to write it and then infuse it with elements, change it, insert chaotic things that will prevent me just doing what’s in my head, try to follow the film. What keeps love alive is the motion.
Keyframe: Aurochs are in a way this visual illustration of her childhood sensitivity, one of those monsters we fear and believe in, when we’re kids. But they don’t feel like sheer fantasy…
Zeitlin: I don’t think about this film as a fantasy movie, I don’t feel aurochs are a fantasy. To me it’s about the time in your life before you start portioning out your imagination from reality, when there’s no separation between those two. I had an imaginary friend when I was a kid. He’d be sitting right here, next to me. And the movie is told from her point of view, so I wanted to respect that. There are a lot of things in this film that you can switch into adult imagination and tell if it’s real or not. But we tried never to do that and always give her all the power. I think there are lots of coming-of-age films where the protagonist leaves his imaginary world behind, which she doesn’t do. It’s not like she rose up, and then—puff!—the aurochs disappear. It’s about her coming to a greater understanding about her place in nature, and what it means to be strong. If she thinks it’s true, she feels it, then it is. Simple as that. It doesn’t make them any less real.
Keyframe: Was there anything you were trying to avoid during the filmmaking process?
Zeitlin: I was very careful about how fantasy is going to be expressed. I didn’t want to create ‘a journey into the imagination.’ For example the way things work in [Guillermo del Toro's] Pan’s Labyrinth, where you step out of reality into the fantasy: things happen in your imagination, and then you come back to the real world… This works for his character, but to me it doesn’t feel like the way a child as young as Hushpuppy experiences unreal things. For a six year old that’s real, and so are the consequences, that spill back into your life. We wanted to avoid that structure where she closes her eyes and goes into a different world…
Keyframe: The character in Pan’s Labyrinth was 12 years old, I think that makes a difference?
Zeitlin: I think it does. We originally wrote the character to be 11 and then, partly watching this film, and also the actors, we realized our story was not about an 11 year old, but a 6 year old. We changed that over the course of writing the film. I was trying to find how to handle reality and fantasy. That was something we were very delicate with. We wanted to avoid this sort of [moves his fingers and makes a sound that reminds me of the one used in films, where a film character closes his eyes and—using a blurred transition effect—‘travels’ to the fantasy world] where the character fantasizes but always stays grounded in a reality.
Keyframe: Your work technique and production company are the quintessence of ‘independent,’ very personalized and unique. Can you see yourself doing something more mainstream in a big studio? Or are you planning on continuing the path you’ve started with this project?
Zeitlin: That is the plan. This was not just a style of working invented for this particular film, it’s like a different form. What I love about making films is this collaborative experience where I get to go to places and integrate the communities into what I’m doing, build everything by hand and go on an adventure instead of simulating them in a green-screen room. The very experience of doing it is more important to me than a finished product. I have no desire to change that. It’s gonna be a real test to try to preserve it and protect it now, because we’ll be watched. And I’m sure if we were watched during this project, everything would’ve been a lot harder, especially making it feel the way it does. Of course other things will be easier. We might even be able to eat sandwiches with turkey now, not just peanut butter. That would be nice!
Keyframe: From my experience it looks like on a certain level there are two opposite approaches to filmmaking. Some filmmakers sa ‘the stories find me,’ other go out and find them themselves. Which type are you?
Zeitlin: I am a combination of both: First I think what I want to talk about; usually I start with an idea, like this concept of how do you stand by a place that made you. That is behind Beasts. I knew I wanted to talk about it, just wasn’t sure how to. Walter Murch talked about this a lot. You have to pay attention to the ether because when you’re focused on something, the universe is going to present you the path to find it. It’s like with Mr. Henry, the baker, who stumbles into your life. If you’re not open enough to being guided by coincidences of life and its miracles, you’ll miss it and won’t make a good film. I try to look for things that give me this rush, this euphoria. You don’t know why you feel it when it comes, but that’s when you know you’re making the right choices and you’re on the right path: because it’s scary, and thrilling. You feel it when you have it, and you feel it when you’re off—overthinking things, trying to force your conception over the story. I try to humbly follow the story as opposed to thinking that God has dropped it into my head and all I have to do is spill it out and preach it to the world.
Keyframe: I like what you’re saying. In a way, it sounds like you’re describing the process of falling in love.
Zeitlin: One of my favorite films of all times is Love Streams [Cassavetes]. That and the book Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller both talk about the flow, how love is a continuous stream. One thing I try to do in my movies is recognize that in order to stay in love with the film, the story and the process has to always be in motion. It can’t get stuck. That’s why I don’t wanna make these rigid films where I plan it all and then execute it. I want to write it and then infuse it with elements, change it, insert chaotic things that will prevent me just doing what’s in my head, try to follow the film. What keeps love alive is the motion.