By Mark Lukenbill | Indiewire March 12, 2013 at 10:33AM
Three years ago, Florida panhandle-raised Lucy Alibar was a struggling playwright working multiple jobs in New York City when she penned "Juicy and Delicious," a highly personal Georgia-set tale inspired by her dealings with her father's ailing health. Soon after, the play became the basis for Benh Zeitlin's film "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which was nominated for Best Picture and landed Alibar a nomination for best Original Screenplay, which she shared co-writing credit on with Zeitlin.Last Thursday, things came full circle for Alibar when she returned to her alma mater, NYU, to accept the Woman of the Year award at NYU's Fusion Film Festival and stage a live reading of "Juicy and Delicious." Indiewire caught up with the young writer to talk about her new-found career in screenwriting, including adapting "The Secret Garden" for Guillermo del Toro, finally meeting Tony Kushner, and her brushes with Oscar celebrity.
So you attended NYU in ETW, the experimental theater program. Did you do any film work while you were there? Did you act in film or anything?
I didn't actually know anyone at the film school. They kept us very sequestered; we didn't have time to do anything else. We were our own entity; they called us the Naked Studio. People would get naked for, well, for their projects but really for anything.
When you were growing up in the Florida panhandle, how did you stumble upon experimental theater and have enough access to it that it became a passion for you?
My mom taught painting in the prisons, so we lived about an hour away from Tallahassee. And they have an incredible public library and incredible public schools. So my mom taught painting at the Tallahassee prisons and I got residency to go to school in Tallahassee at this really good magnet school. And because my mom worked so much and we lived so far away she would just drop me off at the library. I would spend until the library closed every day just reading. And they had some incredible books: they had Spaulding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Tony Kushner. I always thought playwriting was this very unattainable, perfect thing that I could never get to. But then when I started reading pieces that were written in a person's voice, Spaulding Gray or John Leguizamo, all of a sudden I saw that it could be very experiential and very in your own voice, and that that voice could be exquisite if it's mindful enough. That was when I started really seeing the possibilities of someone like me who wasn't very educated, wasn't very smart, but had stories to tell.
Were there a lot of opportunities for you to use that growing up? Did you write a lot as a kid, or get involved in the theater?
Growing up the only theatrical performances that I remember being exposed to were Passion plays at Easter in the Church, which could get really crazy where I'm from. I always wrote in a journal, and then I got into the Young Playwrights program, which is based here. They did a lot of outreach and my school was one that they send fliers to. So I entered the contest and ended up getting it. And that's how I met Benh Zeitlin, when we were fourteen, we were both there at the same time. I would say locally the opportunities all came through reading. I went to a really good public school but as far as theater and anything like that we didn't really have it.
How did you and Benh decide to start collaborating, and specifically try to turn something you had written for theater into a film, of all things?
Benh has always been the first person I've shown a piece of writing to, and vice versa. He'll show me all of his short films. So I showed him "Juicy" right after I wrote it, when it was still really raw to me. And he came to me a few months later with the idea of filming it and setting it in the bayou. I had no real expectation or idea of anything happening beyond actually shooting it. But it sounded like a great adventure, so I sublet-ted my apartment and went to the Bayou. We had no expectations of anything at that point.
Had he shot [Benh's short film] "Glory at Sea" at that point? That film obviously shares a lot of DNA with "Beasts."
While he was shooting "Glory," he said he drove down the road as far as he could go and that's how he found this location, where "Beasts" was shot and that inspired it. I was in New York writing "Juicy" at that time.
Wow, so it's kind of a series of interconnected events.
Yeah! And it's funny because he was asking me to come down and work on "Glory" and I said no, there's this play in me that I've got to get out, I can't focus on anything else. And I think we both learned so much in those processes, me writing "Juicy" and him making "Glory," about our next step. I think it served us really well in our collaboration.
That's really amazing actually. It's like "Beasts" is kind of a natural extension of both of those pieces, in content and theme as well, so the fact that these two processes were happening simultaneously and kind of birthed this new film is really crazy. As far as filmmaking, did you ever have any inclination that that was a field, or even an art form, that you were interested in?
It is now. Going through the Sundance labs and seeing all of the possibilities as a storyteller was a wonderful time. The adventure with "Beasts" was making something with 100 of my best friends and now it's about - I mean, I still love the theater and it's still very close to me. But I am really excited about, in April, I'm starting to work with Guillermo del Toro on "Secret Garden." I'm really enjoying adapting this play ["Christmas and Jubilee Behold the Meteor Shower"] for Todd Black from Escape Artists and writing a movie all from the point of view of young girls again. It's a really sweet movie about little girls. I think each one is an experience and really cool and interesting. I don't know if one form is more of a love than another.
I'm curious about your own filmic vocabulary going into "Beasts" though, because while it's obviously a very original vision there's kind of a longstanding tradition of Southern-set films that are kind of the spiritual forefathers of "Beasts" that Benh sort of quotes. Were you familiar with "Days of Heaven" or David Gordon Green's "George Washington" for example?
No, it's funny I hadn't seen any of those until we made the move to go make the film, and then he gave me a list of some movies to watch.
What were some of the movies?
Well, "George Washington" and "Days of Heaven." It's so funny, because those were the first two. He tends to get really into directors and then have me watch everything by a certain director because that's what he did. "Days of Heaven"... It's hard to say, Terrence Malick is easily my favorite director so it's hard to say what film of his is my favorite. It's like choosing a child. But "Days of Heaven" is special.
Fincher's "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was another one that I kind of picked up on too, but that might be more the location and the sort of magical realism in both.
I think that may have came out more when we started shooting. I actually haven't seen it, but that's not to say Benh hasn't.It's funny, because I remember seeing the logline for Benh's next film, which has something to with aging, and aging differently, so that paired with the sort of cross-pollination of themes and ideas between "Beasts" and "Benjamin Button" made me wonder if Benh was a fan. That film seems to attract a lot of filmmaker fans.
Oh, right! I'm actually not allowed to talk about that, unfortunately.Fair enough. So film in general was a new experience for you; was it tough to kind of give yourself over to putting your story in Benh's hands?
I really love working with either my friends, who I respect and trust, or people who are almost mentors to me. That's why I'm so excited about the opportunity to work with Guillermo del Torro. I learned so much watching his movies, even before any of this. So this is the way I'd love to keep working, either with my friends or with mentors like Guillermo.
And "The Secret Garden" is kind of an interesting companion piece to "Beasts" thematically, as well as being a very Guillermo story. "Pan's Labyrinth" is another film, which, in a way, shares that kind of childlike, magical realist quality with "Beasts."They are similar. They both use children's point of view and imagination in this very specific way, and Benh and I used it as a reference. I actually saw "Pan's Labryinth" before he did and I made him watch so we could have the discussion about the reality of it, the reality of our world.
Oh yeah, for one thing we never expected our Hushpuppy to be so young. We were thinking maybe an eleven year-old. They looked at four thousand kids to be Hushpuppy and Benh sad he wasn't going to shoot until we found her.In the play, Hushpuppy's gender is kind of fluid, and shifts back and forth between being a boy and girl, which you said was a way to kind of distance yourself as the playwright from the character. At this point, had you and Benh decided that it was definitely going to be a girl?
There came a point when it did. By the time the script was finished that was the decision. Certainly I wrote it knowing I would have to do a pretty significant rewrite. And Quevenzhane has this incredible transparency and this incredible spirit.Absolutely.
In many ways she was very easy to rewrite for. She made a lot of the text irrelevant because she could just show it. And then there are words that just sound weird coming out of a five year old, as opposed to an eleven year old.
The Oscars feels like the last rung of a circuit, because you're at all of these things together. You're with the same movies. I don't even want to say in contention, because from the inside it just feels like a theater festival, like a film festival. "How to Survive a Plague" and "Searching for Sugar Man" were both with us at Sundance. We've been together for so long. At this point the most exciting - I got the opportunity to meet Tony Mendez, who "Argo" was based on, and then Peter Staley, who was one of the key characters in "How to Survive a Plague." Those more than anything were the experiences where I was really star struck. And Michelle Obama! Chris Terrio, who wrote "Argo," was staying in the same hotel as us and we became really good friends and once he came down to the restaurant and he was with these two people and I thought they were his parents and I was like, "Mr. Terrio!" and I went in to hug this guy and he said, "that's Tony Mendez..." I felt so stupid, I was just like, "Wow! Oh shit! Oh shit! You're a hero!" But he was really sweet about it.
So there are the real life heroes, and the artistic heroes too. Being in the same room as Tony Kushner and talking to Tony Kushner about work ethic and artistic integrity... I can think of no stronger, more fierce artist. He's unbelievable, and he's so humble and kind.
That's really cool too, that that was someone that you looked up to growing up and then suddenly you're nominated for an Oscar in the same category as him.Yeah! The first thing that my mom said when they announced the nominations, when my mom stopped screaming, was [in a southern accent], "Maybe now you can meet Tony Kushner!" And then our local paper did this big spread on me and it was all an interview with my mom, and she just talked about how cool it was that I could finally meet Tony Kushner. I wrote him this really awe-struck, really stupid three paged letter of admiration our last night before the actual ceremony. And all of the writers became friends.
Did you go to all of the parties together and everything?I did go to the parties. At some point nobody feels... the idea of fame just sort of evaporates, because everyone's so nice. And also because we were the underdogs. Or not even the underdogs; for us the win was just being there, so everyone was really supportive of us.
It's a movie too that everyone has been championing for so long, and everyone likes to see a small, independent movie succeed. So I'm sure everyone loved you guys, because everyone loves that movie, too. I’m curious as to what you think is the kind of universal, overwhelming thing about "Beasts" that brought everyone together and made them say, "this is the movie. This is the movie for 2012."I think if you ask me and Benh we might say different things. Benh talks about the community and holding on to what's yours, and I really respect that, but to me it's always so much about a parent, and losing your parent. Especially your relationship with your dad, which is so specific and so sort of uncharted territory for everyone. I think people really respond to that because everyone has a relationship with their dad that's strange and unique, even if you never knew your dad. If you never knew your dad you still have this relationship that's like, "what the hell is wrong with you?" or "can I ever be good enough for you?
But your father didn't pass away, right?No, he didn't! He was going to, but he had this incredible lifesaving surgery that still was very dicey and I think he has this new lease on life - He loves his work, he does pro-bono defense law and he's suing the private prison system in Florida and he loves fighting the man. He's pretty much like Wink in the movie, he doesn't want to go unless it's on his terms.
What was his response to the movie?I was nervous about it at first.
Yeah, I can imagine!He saw it in Tallahassee and I got a call on the phone and thought, "Oh, Jesus, what's going to happen?" and he just says, "Boss, I'm a goddamn legend!"