Interview: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'
A Transplanted New Yorker Makes A Film About A Culture On The Verge Of Extinction
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" (opened July 13 at Landmark's Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Theaters) has already won awards at Sundance and Cannes. I speak with director Benh Zeitlin and cast members Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis.
You can also read my review here.
The press notes state: "A spellbinding adventure set just past the known edges of the American Bayou, 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' follows a girl named Hushpuppy as she takes on rising waters, a sinking village, changing times, an army of prehistoric creatures and an unraveling universe that she bravely tries to stitch back together through the sheer force of spirit and resilience."
You could also say it's a fierce and beautiful cinematic poem about a culture on the verge of extinction and defiantly staring down the challenges that accompany that. I had a chance to sit down at the KPBS studios with director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, and his lead actos Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis.
Here is a video of the interview or you can read the complete transcripts below.
First of all let me ask you, how important was the casting in this film?
BENH ZEITLIN [director]: It was everything. I mean you know the the cast rewrote the movie and you know and you know we sort of you with the way we make films is very intensely collaborative with the place where the film is being made and so we always try to keep the script something that is evolving and changing and so that when we find someone whether or not they fit exactly what was in me or my co-writer Lucy's imagination, if we find someone who really speaks to the kind of mentality and theme of the film you know instead of saying like " Oh well, they're not whatever it is we imagined..." we say " This person is better than the person that we wrote." and we can adapt our script to these amazing people who play the parts in the film and so they really and it becomes a you know especially writing about things that I didn't necessarily experience it's like an enormous education process for me to get to know the actors that are going to play the roles in a lot of ways they teach me things that I could never have known had I not met them and so they help bring a reality to the film that probably wouldn't exist if we just thought it up in some room somewhere and came down and just did exactly what we imagined.
You called yourself a transplant last night so do you think coming to Louisiana as an outsider first gave you a way of looking at it that made what was unique about it stand out a little more?
BZ: Maybe. The film is very magical feeling and I think that that's probably because for me coming to Louisiana and New Orleans was like a wonderland. It was this totally different place, totally different culture than I've ever experienced but it was almost it was a place that I went to as a kid my parents brought me and I think it got inside my imagination as I grew up for the next probably ten years that ten years later I came back and it somehow it feels like this place that I almost dreamed up you know I wrote the way the film was written you know I sort of wrote this story about holdouts at the end of the road you know just kind of imagining and then you start driving around and then you find this place that actually speaks to that story you know something that I imagine not knowing the specifics and then you find a place that is infinitely more interesting and exciting than even what you thought up but sort of speaks to the same things so I think there is a degree to which I kind of am you know im sort of through the looking glass and a little bit Alice through the looking glass and sort of finding discovering this world in a way that feels like I'm walking through a story sometimes.
There are prehistoric beasts in the film and this notion of lost cultures, how did you want that all to play out?
BZ: I can talk about it in a thousand different ways but you know i the story of the Aurochs is you know there's at once a sort of very tangible story of you know this town that is basically I think of it as this place that's about to be taken back by nature you know it's at the border of the land and the water and the real life experience of being in south Louisiana is you feel like the water is trying to take the land back and nature is trying to reclaim its territory and so the beasts in the film you know I sort of imagine these creatures that once ruled the earth that were sort of coming to reclaim their land and take reclaim their position on the food chain almost and so they're sort of hush puppy's adversary and kind of this demon that haunts her thinking that she's this little morsel of food that's going to be devoured by something larger, but it's also connected to you know I wanted them to also have a real sort of camaraderie you know or an understanding because the film is very much about you know acceptance people accepting the things that are coming to destroy them even people accepting a place that's dangerous a little girl accepting a father whos dangerous and sort of the challenge of accepting an animal that wants to eat you even you know and their connection is really kind of built on you know the aurochs come from the cave paintings at Lascaux which were sort of the last mark of this civilization that was wiped off the earth in the ice age and these animals that no longer exist and so there's a connection between Hushpuppy who's sort of this little girl in a culture that's on the brink of extinction and this thing that happened you know thousands and thousands of years ago where these animals and these cavemen were there and the last stand of their kind and so as much as they're pitted against each other they also understand one another and recognize that they are one in the same.
It was almost like she was doing her own cave paintings in that little cardboard house.
BZ: Yeah, she's thinking about that you know that's part of her she's like a six year old she's a six year old Einstein or something, she's a scientist and she sees her actions as things that have consequences in the scope of human history and so that there is that scene where she's thinking of herself as a what do you do right before you go extinct do you leave a mark for the people in the future to find and understand that you were there and that what you did mattered and existed.
The location is a character in itself and it defines these people.
BZ: Yeah, especially down in the bayou where we shot the film there's a real the connection to nature and the land is really visceral. You're pulling your food right out of the water you know the place where I wrote most of the film was this marina and there is a net that is actually in the film where every night theyre pulling shrimp up you know out of the net and you know you just go over you know give the guy a six pack of beer and three dollars he gives you a bucket of shrimp you take it back you cook it you know right out of the water and so theres a real connection between the land and what's inside you you know and people would tell me on some of my early trips I remember this guy saying to me you know "Were made by the marsh" you know we're like this exotic plant that can only take root in this one very strange specific climate and it can't be it can't be uprooted and transplanted somewhere else cause it just would die and it's just... the environment is so specific and it's so hostile in so many ways that it sort of causes a certain type of... it attracts and rears a certain type of creature that's very strong and resilient and you know and accepting of others and of any anything that comes at it you know it's like it will stare anything down its just kind of the nature of the place and so it's really you know I say it all the time it's not just the people it's like the plants are that way the bugs are that way everything that exists in this kind of border between the land and the water and the heat and the humidity has a fierceness to it that wouldn't exist in another location. You couldn't transplant it.
One last thing I wanted to ask about the way you depicted the characters. These are people who are living without much and yet it's not a depiction of poverty that you see in films because these people are shown as very strong and happy with the lives they've chosen, there is no soliciting for pity. How did you want to depict they way they lived?
BZ: Yeah, I mean it was never trying to depict poverty. To me The Bathtub is a place that's independent you know it's about living self-sufficiently without somebody else's help and without depending on technology or commerce or grocery stores or you know they're totally their community feeds itself and there's a strength that comes out of that and so the point was never sort of these you know to kind of show something about what it is to be underprivileged , it was the point was to show this place that has this special type of freedom and special type of way of surviving off the grid you know and how kinda and for The Bathtub that's it's pride and that's it's glory is that it doesn't need the help of the outside world and so you know the... you know you see these sort of ramshackle places that look like maybe that's a.... maybe thats a shack that somebody's being forced to live in but but it's actually more that you know theres a pride that that character would of taken in showing up on this piece of land that is theirs and then finding what was around and you know finding the scraps and stuff like that and building... building a house by hand and you created that you know and it's yours so that was... that that was sort of where the aesthetic came from is that we were gonna try to build everything you know by hand with twine and thread and glue and tape and not a... and sort of build it so you, you put love in every stitch of it you know so thats I think that's where the aesthetic of it comes from.
Neither one of you is a professional actor, so how do you think you helped the film capture more of a sense of where it was shot and what it was about?
DWIGHT HENRY [plays "Wink"]: Well, for me, being in the area I'm from from New Orleans you know we constantly have to go through the same things that was done in the movie. In the movie we constantly had to go through problems and difficulties as far as that possibility of losing everything a storm coming families have to be displaced, waters rising, people losing homes but we refuse to leave under all circumstances in the world because we love the land we live on and the people that's in the town that we made the movie in it was just we have so much threat and it's like a family and we refuse to leave under all circumstances and the same thing in real life where I'm from, from the New Orleans area this is something that we have to go through on a yearly basis the possibility of losing our home losing loved ones and things like that so the same thing that you know I go through in real life I actually brought it into the movie and Mr. Zeitlin could of got outside actors to come in and play the part that I played but they wouldn't have brought the passion to the movie like I brought the passion to the movie because i actually going through these things. I was in neck high water for a storm and you know so I feel I have a passion for the movie.
And what about you, what do you think you brought to the film?
QUVENZHANE WALLIS [plays "Hushpuppy"]: I would just like be calm and read a book or something and she doesn't go to books she actually goes outside and plays with the pig and does active things, but that's not really me, I either read a book or ride my bike.
What did you like about Hushpuppy?
QW: She was fun. I wish I could be her again.
Do you think there's something of you in her?
QW: Active... I think I'm even more active now.
DH: I would say fearless... I would say fearless...
Yeah, you seem pretty confident. What do you think, yeah?
QW: I don't know.
Lliving in a place where you do face these kind of challenges each year and you face the fact that you could lose everything. Does that make people less attached to things and more attached to the place that they are from?
DH: Definitely, because most people that come to New Orleans and come to Louisiana, it's a certain magnetism that the city has. When you come to the city and feel the love and the love that we have for the land and the people that we live in. That the land and the people that we, our families. it just... it's a certain strength that we have and just like half of the production crew that was from New York and when they came down to Louisiana to shoot the film half of 'em stayed because its a certain magnetism that Louisiana have that draws people to it and you know and they refuse to leave I mean there is a certain love that we have.
The director Benh Zeitlan is an outsider or as he called himself last night a transplant...
DH: Yes, he's a New Orleanean now.
Was there ever any doubt, when he started making this film, that he could capture the flavor of that location?
DH: No, it was no doubt, he did a lot of research on things and he have a passion for what he does and he has a passion for his story and he brought a passion to the movie that you know... that was just unbelievable, he put a lot of... he didn't just just make a movie to try to make a movie he wanted to make a good movie and he was passionate about what he wanted, the movie that he wanted to make.
So, how did you work with Ben, what like what kind of preparation did you do for a scene did you rehearse, did he talk to you about it?
QW: We'd run around and play then we'd go to the script and we would just read it over and over again. then I'd get tired so we'd run around again then we'd go back to the script and then we got it, so we'd just go do the scene after.
And how did you work with him on scenes?
DH: It was great, actually me and Ben, he actually wanted to learn a lot of things about me before we was shootin' and we actually... I own a bakery called Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe and what Ben used to do, he actually... it was trying he was trying to get to know me better so we actually used to sit in the bakery from 12 o'clock at night til 6 o'clock in the morning just talking about different things about my life his life and different things that he wanted to know about me, because he wanted to take some of the things that he we talked about and put it into the movie so he wanted to make me... bring me... learn about me and put me into the character and you know it really it really helped.
What was the most difficult thing for you in making the film?
QW: Doing like for example during the catfish whenever I had to get the catfish from out of the water and I had to hit it. That was hard because I would either react delayed or I would react too early or I would react in the middle and I would do it too late and then we had to start doing cues because I would keep messing it up and messing it up so they were just like do a cue and I would grab it and do things that I had to do for the scene.
What do you think those prehistoric creatures are all about?
QW: Huge. Huge and they just want food and they just hungry all the time so...
Did they scare you at all?
And what did you think about those prehistoric beasts being in the film. What did you think that kind of represented?
DH: Well, it represented... especially when you see the end of the movie when she faces the beasts. It shows the strength that Hush Puppy has you know to stare down the animals the beasts and they bow down to her and it just showed the strength that she has and the people and the town where we come from, all of the strength that we have in us that no matter what the problems are, catastrophic problems floods prehistoric animals coming to destroy us no matter whats coming at us we gonna show a strength that we can face any problem and deal with it and she showed a strength in that particular scene that was so beautiful.
How would you best describe your character Hushpuppy? What would you say would defines her?
QW: She's brave and she follows her fathers footsteps whatever he does and tries to be brave and she's trying to do whatever she can to take care of her father.
This was your first acting role is this something that you're going to want to continue doing?
At one point in the film they try to relocate these people into a center where it's away from where they live. One of the things that seems is an underlying message in the film is to not force people to do something that they don't want to do even if you think you're helping them.
DH: Well that's the same thing during during the storm the last storm that I was actually in you know they coming in and trying our own two busineses s in the New Orleans area in. you know I refuse to leave and they telling us it's a mandatory evacuation and but you know I refuse to leave I had got caught up in neck high water but you know refuse to leave because you know can't just abandon a town and a people that you love more than anything in the world you know its just a certain love that the people from Louisiana have under the worst circumstances in the world we refuse to leave and just like we had holdouts in The Bathtub that refused to leave the last hurricane that came through the New Orleans area we had, you thought we had a few holdout there but we had thousands of holdouts that jut refused to leave I mean we have a strength that's unheard of down in Louisiana and a love for the things that we love.
Companion viewing: "George Washington," "Princess Mononoke," "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts"