Johnny Caito 7:07 p.m., July 28
Interview: Benh Zeitlin, Director of Beasts of the Southern Wild
After a lively talk with Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, stars of Beasts of the Southern Wild, I moseyed on over to an adjacent poolside cabana at the W Hotel to speak with the film's director, Benh Zeitlin.
In 2004, the then 22-year-old Queens, NY native founded the independent filmmaking collective, Court 13. The group was named after a Wesleyan University squash court Zeitlin and his friends would use as a makeshift filming location.
Four years later Zeitlin moved to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to film his first short, Glory at Sea.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, which opens today at Landmark's Hillcrest and La Jolla Cinemas, was a big hit on the festival circuit taking home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance as well as the prestigious Golden Camera at Cannes.
Unlike his 6-year-old leading lady, Zeitlin was wide awake and raring to go the moment I sat down.
Scott Marks: I just finished an interview with your semi-crabby leading lady.
Benh Zeitlin: Uh-oh. Did she just wake up from a nap?
That’s her only flaw as an actress.
How did you luck upon her?
Brute force. We looked at 4,000 people across South Louisiana. We weren’t going to make the film until we had someone who could bring the character to life. I didn’t imagine we’d find someone as young as her who had this kind of like focus and morality, wisdom, fierceness, and all those qualities that emerged naturally from her. We never envisioned that we could do something like this with someone so young, so in that case she is a miracle.
This kid stays focused. She’s never out of the moment.
I had read all these tricks about directing children, how to trick them into laughing or looking afraid. None of that works one her. Early in the shoot I needed her to be surprised that she saw her mother. We tricked her by not telling her that the actress who played her mother was coming on the set. While she was looking at the other side of the room, we snuck her into the chair.
Quvenzhané turns around and didn’t break character for a second. She was so focused that even something so shocking didn’t throw her. We tried to throw her off, but couldn’t. You worked with her like she was an adult. You give her the motivation and tell her how she has to emotionally pivot in the scene. The way that you do scene work is the same way you’d do it with a seasoned professional actress.
This is your first feature, but it’s not your first film about Louisiana. I admire the way in which you smuggle in the politics. You never once mention Hurricane Katrina by name. Was that an intentional move on your part?
Absolutely. I didn’t really want to get reduced to politics. The issues in the film are above that, they’re more universal. The idea of losing your home shouldn’t be a right wing/left wing thing. To me, so much of the conversations about Katrina turn into debates about local government, national government, and George Bush.
All this is besides the point. There should be a universal feeling that part of culture is going extinct. I didn’t want the film to be tied down to that. Katrina is the event that traveled nationally outside of Louisiana. The reality is the threat of another storm exists right now – it’s hurricane season. It wasn’t about Katrina. It was more about living in a place that’s always in danger of getting wiped out and what it’s like to exist under that cloud and refuse to run away from it. It wasn’t Katrina specifically; it was Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, the whole series of storms.
At times you turn the city into a surrealistic landscape.
I want it to be like a folk tale.
Talk to me about cave paintings. There’s a running motif throughout the film involving cave paintings. It’s the first form of art most children are introduced to when they enter public school.
I remember them from being a kid and I’ve been to see them. The cave paintings in France are amazing. They’re the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. It’s this mark that our ancestors made when they were going extinct. It’s the thing they left behind. We are descendants of those people and all we know is the art that they made.
For me there is a real parallel between that and where Hushpuppy is. She (and her teacher) understand that theirs is a culture on the precipice of extinction. She’s trying to figure out how she’s going to leave her mark in the face of this coming destruction. When you’re down there, if things continue as they are with land loss and with these storms, in a couple generations people are going to remember once there was place called Louisana that had this culture and this food and these types of people and they no longer exist.
Atlantis on the bayou.
Right. So the cave paintings to me are such a beautiful, defiant symbol of what you can do as your people is about to be exterminated. We still look back and learn about that in kindergarten. It continues to define who we are today. And Hushpuppy is a little folk hero who somehow understands that and understands that her actions in these final moments of her culture have ripple effects in the course of human history. That’s one of the things that I love about her character. She believes that everything she does has a meaning and a consequence because she’s going to be the last person in the bathtub.
When did you realize that the shot of Hushpuppy running with the sparklers was going to be your key art poster image?
It’s funny. I never thought about that. It was one of the last shots of the film. In fact, it was a reshoot, something we didn’t get during principle photography. When it happened, it was just spectacular. I was in a van peeking through a fire blanket. At the end she points the sparklers right at the camera. I remember doing it and what a wild ride it was. We had a lot of choices for images, but it was something about that image that half looks like the greatest party in the world and half looks like the apocalypse coming down. That is exactly what the spirit of the film is. It’s a defiant, celebratory way to defy death and destruction.
I’m a fan of Val Lewton. How different would the film have been if you never showed the aurochs?
We were asked that a million times in the script stage and during post production. The aurochs were always part of the film. It was the earliest building block of the film. One of the earliest images for me was her staring down the aurochs. That was the genesis.
When you’re starting a film a couple of images come to you. For me, there was never a possibility of a film that didn’t have them. The whole film in a way was an interpretation of that image. What is it for these two creatures – the predator and the prey – to have an understanding? How does a tiny little person get to the point where this destructive force of nature understands her? That they understand one another as similar creatures an as equals.
At one point Hushpuppy hurls a Molotov cocktail. Your tiny little protagonist becomes a tiny little terrorist.
There are a lot of things she needs to learn in order to become that little person that can stand down the forces of nature and one of them is actual physical strength. There is a fearlessness that I see in Louisiana that I wanted to express in the film. We do a lot in our culture to teach children to be afraid. There is a weakness that gets created when you can be scared. America is constantly scaring its people into doing things. There is a fearlessness in Louisiana and something to be said for teaching a child to be fearless. Test them and letting them learn how to be brave. I think that’s undervalued in the world.
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