Over a cup of gumbo before the Sundance party for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a ravenous Benh Zeitlin apologized for eating while we chatted. He had just come from Salt Lake City, where he stayed after a screening of his film to watch a NFL playoff game. “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” at that point, was just another film in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition lineup.
Wait… who am I kidding? At the film’s world premiere screening, I felt goosebumps as the credits went up and the crowd burst into applause. A few days later, writing her wrap-up of the festival, Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times that “Beasts” was one of the best films to play at the festival in two decades.
“Beasts” follows a young girl, Hushpuppy, as she innocently encounters the grown-up world of the isolated impoverished community where she lives with her father. As we watch her grow up and learn from her environment, a storm hits the Bathtub and the community must deal with Mother Nature’s attempt to destroy their beloved home and community.
The film went on to win the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance, and just won the FIPRESCI award for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section.
Have you been surprised by the response to the film?
The way that we did this has always been the way that I always wanted to make films. Making this film was an adventure. This is the kind of movie I wanted to see. It’s something that feels that it has the poetics of an art film but that also feels like “Die Hard” or something. The film bridges accessibility and uses the full scope of film form.
I think about everything in terms of music. You have mainstream films that are all in A major, and art films that use the full range of notes but they never feel like they play a song. So something in between was always something I wanted to see.
Getting [to Sundance] makes me feel like I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. At the screening today, there were actually people responding to it. When I was making it, I didn’t know if people would understand the feeling. The feeling of the film is very present when you’re living down there; it all seem so obvious when you’re in Louisiana. I didn’t know if other people would one, understand the feeling and two, want to feel it. Because the rest of America is so different. It’s been just the reaction that I feel the most strongly. The reason I moved to New Orleans is for a feeling that is actually everywhere. There are thousands and thousands of people there that would really enjoy living there. That’s the feeling that I got when I saw the film play — that people who don’t live in Louisiana were attracted to it. It’s kind of shocking.
When did you move to New Orleans?
And for what reason?
I was a wanderer, basically. I was working in New York and I had this film “Glory at Sea” that I wanted to make, which required water and building boats out of junk. I thought I was going to go make it in Greece. I went to Europe and then Katrina happened. I had a bunch of friends in New Orleans that I was checking in on. They went down to help with the recovery effort. I was frustrated trying to get the thing done in Europe, and I had a moment of patriotism. I had been to New Orleans a number of times and really loved it. After I visited, I just got hooked and stuck.
And before that… What was the beginning of your film career like?
When I was living in New York, I was living in this shoebox in Bushwick, wanting to be making my films, but I couldn’t do it. When you’re living in New York, there’s that frustration: you’re not free because you’re fighting to survive in these ways that don’t fulfill you.
When I got to New Orleans, I felt like for the first time, I felt like I can do whatever I want right now. People are drinking beer in the street, it’s warm out, there’s free amazing music everywhere. You don’t need the things you need elsewhere. You lead a fun, fulfilled life without all that stuff and that gives you the ability to not need so much money, which gives you all this time to work on your art. Beyond being an artist, there’s a heightened sense of freedom in New Orleans and south of Louisiana. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in America, you leave, and you feel the walls start to close in slightly. To me, it has to do with a lot of things, but if we were all to go, there’s a sort of… there’s this thing trying to protect you from yourself, which doesn’t protect you out there.
The film is very much about why that is so important that it’s worth living somewhere that allows you to grow. Once you’ve been, you can’t give up that heightened freedom and live somewhere else. The fact that the film is communicating this means that everyone that’s loving the film and hasn’t been to New Orleans, needs to get up and go to New Orleans. For me, it’s a very specific expression of how I feel when I’m down there. Why I stay and why I want to live there.
And so, how did you come to the source material, the play?
Me and Lucy went to a playwriting camp when we were 13, and she didn’t live in New York at the time, she lived in North Florida. And we just made friends at this playwriting camp. Whenever she came to New York, we would get together. She can’t find her way around anywhere, so we always met at the same corner. So we just continued to keep in touch our entire lives and I always wanted to work with her.
Certainly, your experience of New Orleans is different from those experiences of the people you depict in the film. Where are those characters coming from?
[A lot of the actors] are playing themselves – a lot of the characters are based on someone that I love, that I think might be amazing on screen, and I write them into the film. There’s a couple exceptions in this movie of characters that come from Lucy [Alabar, credited as a co-writer on the film]’s play and in her collaboration and her life, this daughter and her father and a teacher. Those characters couldn’t be taken somebody that I go to the bar with and putting them into the movie. The people that play those parts shape those characters in a massive way.
Also, I learned a lot of what the film is are things that I’ve learned from my actors. It was much more me asking them about their experience. I didn’t live through [Katrina]. I didn’t walk through the storm, which Dwight did. We workshopped that part of that script and it was much more about me taking his lead, trying to understand the root of those choices and translating them into the movie. For me, my personal perspective on the story is that I didn’t know what drew me to that place and made me not want to leave. What is it about this place that hooks you in this way? I came to understand it more through the people I cast in the film and I came to understand that for them it was where they were born and where they come from.