While Benh Zeitlin has deservedly received much praise and many laurels for his direction of the little movie that could, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a critical darling appearing on many end-of-the-year Best of Lists, it was his longtime friend and co-writer Lucy Alibar who sent him her original play, "Juicy and Delicious" that eventually evolved into the film. Making big waves when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, going on to play the Cannes Film Festival in the spring and since then earning accolade after accolade, 'Beasts' is one of the most distinctive features of the year, and is hotly buzzed to finish its journey with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
We recently caught up with Alibar to chat about the origins of this story, which takes place in a magical-realist South and centers on a young girl, the themes that she and Zeitlin both brought to the screenplay while working on it at the Sundance Lab, and shooting in the bayou with the Court 13 collective.
Alibar and Zeitlin have been friends and creative collaborators since adolescence.
They’re both a little bit fuzzy on the age they met, with Ailbar saying, “We’re always a little confused about that. He says 13 or 14, which sounds about right to me.” But, from the beginning, it was a creative connection for the two young artists: “We both won this playwriting award called Young Playwrights the same year. We got to go to New York and see a lot of plays together, and he and I just responded so quickly and so immediately to the same kinds of theater. We saw a lot of more traditional straight plays, and then they took us to see 'Hedwig ['and the Angry Inch'] and Benh and I just couldn’t believe we were seeing this. We would talk about it, and then we stayed pen pals, and we would send each other mix tapes and I would send him everything I’d write and he’d send me these short films he’d make every weekend. We just felt it was this very immediate artistic camaraderie that we had. It was part of a really wonderful friendship.”
“He’s just always been the first one I sent anything I write to, so when I wrote this play I sent it to him and I heard from him about three months later that he was interested in shooting it as a movie in Louisiana," Alibar says. "We had our first meeting about it and then we just went from there.”
The genesis of the play “Juicy and Delicious” came from a deeply personal event and relationship in Alibar’s own life.
She says about the play that she “wrote from a very gut reaction. My dad was really sick and I just started writing because that’s how I was processing it. I started writing about this kid, he’s a boy, and he’s lot like me, and his dad is a lot like my dad, and his dad gets sick and these aurochs start coming out of the cave paintings and devour this group of kids. And there was something so elemental about that idea of abandonment and what he’s going through in the play and what Hushpuppy goes through in the movie too. He’s very sure that when his dad dies, he’s going to die. I was just thinking about that a lot, thinking about my dad’s mortality in that way. I wrote in my diary, 'I feel like when he dies, I’m going to die,' and I wrote the play from there.”
The experiences that she and her father went through during his illness informed the themes of abandonment, independence and apocalypse that come through in the film. “Hushpuppy learning that she can live independently, and the father realizing that the daughter does depend on him… it’s not just him alone in the world,” Alibar says.
As for the process of adapting the play into a screenplay with Zeitlin at the Sundance Lab, she’d had more time to think about it and also was given the time to evaluate it during the writing process. "Working with Benh at the Sundance Lab made me really get very nitty gritty about a lot of the feelings that I white washed through the play — just about the anger that might be there, the rushed, violent nature of their relationship, and also the love that’s with that, when he is tender, how he’s tender," she explained. "It was all very therapeutic in a lot of ways. There was a lot of really intense conversation and going away to write and coming back to it. Because he and I have been friends for so long and because I have such deep trust in him, he was the easiest person to do that with, I had just not talked about any of this before.”
The environment of the bayou of Southern Louisiana proved the perfect place to write and shoot this story of emotional and environmental apocalypse.
“Hurricanes hit the bayou all the time. It was really important for us that it was very much from her point of view. We were interested in what that experience [of losing a parent] feels like in this environment.” Alibar and Zeitlin moved to the area to write and scout for locations and get all the details accurate. Alibar mentioned that they would, “Just talk to a lot of people. It was how we got the idea for the school boat. That’s how it used to be, they would teach classes on these boats and go from house to house and pick up kids and they would have school on the boat, because they’re right on the water.”
Alibar says a lot of the apocalyptic, end of the world themes came from her own upbringing: “That came more from growing up in the Bible Belt, where it’s always about to end. It’s in the air in this way that you just think about it a lot. It’s natural; it is something that is going to happen, eventually. To me, it fit with, the idea that eventually you are going to lose your parents. It seemed in the same mythical plot. That was what I was working a lot with in the beginning.”
This emotional story fit in directly with the environmental issues of the Southern Louisiana location for the director. “For Benh, hearing this child’s way of talking about the apocalypse, he really connected that to the bayou where it looks like it’s actually happening," Alibar elaborated. "It’s almost Biblical, the swarms of dead fish. I remember, after the oil spill, going through the water, it’s almost this gelatinous red grease that looks like blood on the bayou. It happened the first day of the shoot. It was really important to work with the natural landscape and what’s happening in south Louisiana without ever veering from a 6-year-old’s point of view.”
The writing process continued after casting the film, with rewrites happening during and after rehearsal. Alibar was also a part of the shoot with the Court 13 collective, experiencing the story become real.
“We rehearsed with them [Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry] a lot before we started shooting, and we’d go away, rewrite, come back. We’d both intentionally overwritten at first to see what worked and what didn’t. It just became clear, rehearsing with them, how to carve that out a little bit,” Alibar revealed. And during the shoot, “it was so much more about watching my baby get born. I didn’t know that it was unusual for a writer to be allowed on set; that was the kind of environment they kept, there’s not a hierarchy in the traditional sense. It just felt like a bunch of friends telling this great story together, that we were so excited to be telling. It was so important to us to get it right, that we really deliver and live up to everything that we wanted to do, which to me was a story of great love between a parent and child.”
The incredible journey this film has been on since its Sundance debut hasn’t really even totally sunk in yet for Alibar.
She seemed at a bit of a loss for words to describe the experience, but that she finds it gratifying to be able to share the film with audiences. “I can’t believe it…I feel very humbled at the end of every Q&A, every time I talk about this movie with a group of people, there will be somebody who wants to talk about their relationship with their dad, their relationship with their kid, a parent/child relationship. It’s such a special thing to hear somebody talk about because it’s something you don’t really talk about that much," she said. "That people would share something so personal with me, and just connect to me in such a deep way, it’s one of the really grounding things about this experience.” The story of that kind of relationship has always been the most important thing for Alibar in the film, as she says, “ultimately what I wanted to do was tell this story of a father and daughter facing the end of the known world together…to me that’s always been the heart of it.”
Alibar has both plays and screenplays on her newly widened horizon that she is working on now.
“I’m working on another play right now about the area of the world that I’m from, the Florida panhandle/lower Alabama, and then I’m adapting another play of mine for Escape Artist [Todd Black’s company]. I feel like my horizon has expanded so much in terms of the projects I’m working on and the things I like to do and I’m really deeply happy and humbled by all of it. It’s like a pile of gold falling into my lap.”