Spinning Platters Interview: Benh Zeitlin on “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

by Jason LeRoy on July 10, 2012

Writer/director Benh Zeitlin with his BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry at the Cannes Film Festival.

After chatting with Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, the stars of the massively acclaimed Sundance breakout Beasts of the Southern Wild, we sat down with its writer/director: Benh Zeitlin, a 29-year-old Queens native and Wesleyan graduate who has lived in New Orleans since 2008. Beasts is Zeitlin’s first feature film; it wrapped post-production just two days before its Sundance premiere catapulted Zeitlin and his cast into the spotlight, leading immediately to months of myriad promotional duties that are unlikely to cease until the end of awards season next year. When I asked Zeitlin what day he’d arrived in San Francisco, he said he did not remember. “I stick my credit card into the machine and a new city pops up and that’s where I go,” he said wearily. Although he says he’s gotten used to his press duties, which were initially “like getting hit in the face,” his flagging energy received a Bay Area boost when he visited the ILM headquarters. “Walking down those halls was incredible,” he said reverently. “I hadn’t realized all the stuff they’d done. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That was my entire childhood! Just watching that three thousand times. It’s a temple. These movies are why you do what you do.”

Was there a moment early on when you first got the impression this film would have this kind of momentum?

It keeps on surprising me. We finished the film two days before Sundance, so I don’t think we really had time to sit around and think, “What would happen if they liked it? What would happen if they hated it?” We never really envisioned any of those scenarios or thought about what could happen. Even after that first screening — we got this huge standing ovation, but I had no idea if that was just what happens at every premiere. [laughs] It was our first time, we didn’t know. But when we first started to read some of the things that people were writing about the film, the level at which they understood it, that was when we started to realize the film is actually communicating all the things that we’d talked about at the bar at 2 in the morning, when we’d get amped up and say, “This is what the film is going to be! It’s going to be a revolution!” We’d get all high on ourselves and start talking that way. But you don’t think any of that is actually going to land, and we certainly didn’t think that we’d gotten it to that point. But when we started to read stuff that sounded like us drunk at 3 in the morning ranting about how good this could be, I think it slowly started to dawn, like, “Maybe this is going to work. Maybe people are going to understand this.” Which is the goal. But each time you go to a different place and it still works in a different culture, it’s really a new thrill. It gets interpreted differently and it bounces back at you in a new way. It’s fascinating.

Have there been any especially surprising reactions as you’ve toured it around?

The further away you get from Louisiana, the more the film plays as fantasy, the more and more foreign that world feels in some ways. The way that the Bathtub has been interpreted place to place has been really interesting. I think when people who live [in southern Louisiana] watch it, it’s very much an expression of a sort of open-heartedness and nonjudgmentalism and freedom that exists in their community. That’s what that culture [of the Bathtub] is about for me. There’s no place like the Bathtub in Louisiana, but it’s something in between the lines of the culture. There’s this potential there for this kind of ultimate unity. So for me, and for us, it’s a very real expression of a thing that we witness and live. And then as you get away from it, it changes. The way people see it from the outside is different; they bring their own signifiers or interpretations to it.

This is your first feature film after a series of acclaimed shorts. What was the drive to expand into features?

I don’t think we could have made any bigger short than the short we made before this film [Glory at Sea]. That was basically a feature film in a short film’s clothing. I spent my life savings, ran up every credit card I could get approved… We threw everything at that film. I’m always inclined to take on larger and larger challenges, and we were clearly at the point where in order to expand the concept, we had to go to long-form. And I didn’t feel ready to do it until making that short. I don’t know if I felt ready to do it, but I felt like that was a challenge that I had to take on.

Can you tell me a little about your production company, Court 13?

It’s not really a production company per se; it can be almost like an adjective. We’re trying to figure it out. [laughs] It’s really a mentality that we approach making a film with. It’s a sort of ramshackle paintbrush that we built, with the tools to tell a story. It has everything to do with intensely collaborating with the community where we’re making the film. It’s a very grassroots operation; it’s almost like a community art project. Like during my last short, we had all these people who came in for auditions bringing us materials, coming in and welding just for fun, showing up and helping us build this thing. We try to actually live the stories in a way, where we’re not synthesizing sets, we’re not doing things on greenscreens and in studios. We’re shooting things on location. When we build a house, we actually build it so you can live in it and shoot it like it’s a documentary, not just as a stylistic thing. The experience of making the film is as important as the film you end up with, so we try to live an adventure as we shoot. That’s the principle, and functionally it’s a collective of people who’ve gotten hooked on that kind of adrenaline rush and have continued to stick around for each successive project.

As a culturally immersed New Orleans filmmaker, what prior film representations of the city and its culture do you think have been successful?

I would say Les Blank is the one who has done it the best. Those films were huge reference points for us. Some of them are in the city, and a lot of them were outside where we were. I think we’ve ended up making films with the same personality as the city, like the actual making of the films, and his films also do that. The camera is affectionate and open-hearted the way that the people are affectionate and open-hearted in Louisiana. Lots of times when I see things about Louisiana, the details can all be right but the style comes from somewhere else. The culture of filmmaking, to me, is something that’s entire. People don’t credit Los Angeles with having a culture, but the film production model is built on Los Angeles culture. New York also has its own culture. The places where films traditionally come from have a personality and a structure that reflect the culture of the place, and there isn’t really a model for other cultures and the way they’d make a film. It’s the same for any art form; certain types of bands come from certain types of places and wouldn’t exist elsewhere. Louisiana Story has that quality. It’s sort of a weird movie but it was clearly made organically in the style of southern Louisiana. Les Blank’s stuff has that same quality, and we were very much aspiring toward having that same method that reflects Louisiana culture in the actual process of production.

I asked your actors where they thought Hushpuppy would be if there was a sequel, and Mr. Henry felt pretty strongly that she’d be reigning as the king of the Bathtub.

[laughs] Oh yeah. I mean, she’s leading that tribe into a new land for sure. To me, the Bathtub is this place that’s disappearing. It’s this culture and this land that’s on the brink of extinction. She is the one, over the course of the film, who internalizes the strength and culture and tenaciousness, and she’ll be the Eve of a new civilization. She’ll take that inside of herself and rebuild it somewhere the water hasn’t gotten yet.

Off-topic, if a Hollywood studio called you up out of the blue and offered you a director-for-hire genre pic —

They do, they do.

That’s already happening, huh? Is there any kind of genre pic you think would be fun to make if they gave you all the money you needed?

[laughs] I don’t know. I mean, I have no interest in making those films whatsoever. I’m fascinated by animation; I come from an animation background. Something about the infinite film language possibilities in animation interests me, and your ability to tell a massive story in that way. But I don’t feel like I’m just a filmmaker making movies, where this is sort of the “style” I used for this film and then I’ll make another movie in a different style. The way that I direct is so integrated with the community and the way we collaborate. This film really is the way that we make films, and we’re going to continue making them that way. I would make a really terrible Hollywood film, so I’m going to avoid that like the plague.

No superhero reboots for you?

Hell no. There are plenty of people making those.

There certainly are. Have you given much thought to what’s going to be on the DVD? Do you have lots of cool supplements sitting around?

Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much that was cut from the film, great scenes that I can’t wait to put out there in the world. You get so many questions from the press about Quvenzhané’s early auditions, and we have great footage of the very first time I saw her and these incredible auditions that she did. I remember watching extras on the DVD of Rabbit-Proof Fence about the casting, and how they went out and found these two six-year-old aboriginal girls, how inspiring that was. So I think we have similar stuff of that moment when someone walks in and just takes over a film. We have that on film, so I’m hoping that we get to put all that out there.

Did the story change a lot from when you first concepted it?

Massively. We completely rewrote the film, but that’s sort of by design. As we find places, we write them into the film. We rewrote the geography based on finding this road and this town at the end of it that didn’t exist until I stumbled upon that road and that place, and totally rewrote the film to fit it. I rewrote the flooded town when I found that stretch of houses with the water going past them. I rewrote the characters when I found Mr. Henry and Quvenzhané. Part of the design is that we’re adapting to the actual tangible elements that are going to express the story on screen. So you keep the heart and themes and structure and basic story intact, but the details and the way that things express themselves and the inner workings transform themselves as you find the stuff.

Is there anything about the film you wish you could talk about more or was getting more attention?

A lot of what’s cut from the film is in the secondary characters. There was a whole world that [we cut down] as we edited the film and it became more and more about Hushpuppy’s point of view and her perspective. Each individual in that group of holdouts is a fascinating story, played by amazing actors with incredible life stories. I guess that’s the biggest regret for me. I think a lot of what people feel as the community and the family of the film very much comes from their performances and their souls. I don’t get to rave about those actors as much as I’d like to.

Would you ever consider going back and making a longer cut of the film to work them back in?

No. [laughs] I had that much longer cut. It was not good. Editing a movie is a harsh thing. We’ve turned over every stone, and this is it.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

The movie is about a very specific feeling. I want people to get a taste of the freedom and openness that is this culture on the verge of extinction, and appreciate the beauty of that and what a tragedy it would be for a place like this to go extinct. I want people to experience what it feels like to be inside of it. I think that’s the best way; it’s not a film about, like, “Go buy a Prius.” It’s a film about, “This is the feeling that you get from a place like this.” This is an essential human place, and regardless of your politics or race or age or finances, all these things that divide people, there’s a universality to the importance of these “wild” places. For them to be gone would be a tragedy for the entire world.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is now playing in San Francisco.

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