The Year of Magical Thinking
The Year of Magical Thinking
Director Benh Zeitlin reflects on the making of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," one of 2012’s most dazzling cinematic achievements.
By Jessica Hundley
The lush and dreamy Southern Bayou tragi-fantasy Beasts of the Southern Wild was produced on a micro-budget, yet managed to become one of the most lauded films of 2012. The first feature by 30-year-old director Benh Zeitlin, Beasts is gaining Oscar buzz and has already garnered the Caméra d’Or award at Cannes and a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Zeitlin, who employed a cast and crew of friends and Louisiana locals, based the film on a one-act play by collaborator Lucy Alibar. It centres on a community called The Bathtub, a kind of sodden wonderland, where floods, poverty, and the melting of the icecaps do little to dampen the spirits of the film’s unlikely heroine, six-year-old Hushpuppy (portrayed by enchanting first-time actress Quvenzhané Wallis). But the most wonderful thing about Beasts of the Southern Wild (released on DVD this week) is that the story of its creation is as beautiful and inspiring as the film itself. Zeitlin spoke with us about how he and his film collective conjured the magic.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO EMBARK ON YOUR FIRST FEATURE WITH BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD?
I was living in New Orleans and had created a short [of Beasts], and I started to get into exploring the backstory of some of the characters from that film. I was working with people in that film that were rebuilding after Katrina. And I also found a compelling story within Lucy’s play. So initially, I was drawn to these two projects, and they eventually came together because they were really propelled by the same impulse.
WHAT IMPULSE WAS THAT?
The best way I can explain it is, for my short, I was wandering around these bayous in Louisiana, exploring these towns that were slowly sinking into the water. Somebody living in one of those towns said something to me: “We are made by the marsh. The water, and what comes from the water, is what has sustained us our whole lives. We couldn’t ever exist in any other place. If you take us out of the swamp, we won’t survive.” That really hit me. And Lucy had this intro to her show that said, basically, “When you are losing the thing that made you, everything starts to fall apart and change.” So [Beasts] began with that idea of losing your maker, losing the ground beneath you.
THOSE SEEM LIKE REALLY ELEMENTAL, EMOTIONAL THEMES THAT LEND THEMSELVES TO THE CREATION OF A FANTASY WORLD.
And the fantasy came from the place itself. From Louisiana and a feeling there that is in some ways very difficult to articulate. There is the beauty in the decay there, in the people, the locations. The whole film, every step of the process, we really tried to capture the spirit of the place in a cinematic language.
AND YOU USED THAT APPROACH IN THE CASTING AS WELL, USING ALL LOCALS, AND ALL UNKNOWNS.
We weren’t looking for people to play themselves, but people who could transform themselves onscreen. Like the lead, Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy—there is no one like her on the planet. She’s a miracle. So we got lucky. We were so fruitful in our casting process. Everyone who is in the film went through a lot of the things that happened in the film and could bring a wealth of knowledge and a sincerity of emotion to those moments. As a writer, being able to run scenes by the actors and have them tell me if the script was speaking truthfully, that was amazing.
YOU WORK WITH A FILM COLLECTIVE CALLED COURT 13. CAN YOU TELL US HOW YOU ALL COLLABORATE?
It’s not like an art collective where it’s 15 people directing the movie. Everyone is doing their own job and in charge of their own part of the film. It is very organized in a lot of ways; it is a system. We chose people to work on the film who understood the spirit of the movie, rather than because they have a résumé. And we tried to give agency to the people making the movie to bring their own creativity to the project and allow their energy to affect what we were making together. It’s intangible, but I do feel like films reflect the personality of the people who make them. It’s the same way in which all the people in a band affect the music they make. We are trying to use the success of this film to keep our system, to keep our collective intact, instead of having it change the way we make the next film.