“Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Roger Durling with Director Benh Zeitlin, Writer Lucy Alibar, Actor Dwight Henry and Actress Quvenzhané Wallis
Roger Durling: So how did this amazing film come about?
Benh Zeitlin: Well it started as these two ideas that combined themselves. Kind of my world and Lucy’s world initially. I was inspired to make a film about holdouts, and try to drive always down to the end of the roads in Louisiana into the marsh and see what was there at the last towns. So, I went down this road and found this island, and the first thing I saw was that shot of that one horse standing on top of that tiny little piece of ground. I remember that horse was there the first day I went down, and seeing that and thinking “This is the last stand and this is what I sort of want to talk about.” Lucy can tell you about “Juicy and Delicious,” which kind of intersected with that story.
Lucy Alibar: While Benh was shooting “Glory at Sea,” I was writing a play about my own experience with my dad getting sick, and how that changed our relationship. He’s this big wild Southern man that lives in the woods and shoots guns when it rains. There were just a lot of feelings I had. We did the play in Tribeca and New York. Benh and producer Dan Janvey came and saw a version that we did, and wanted to transpose those characters in that story into South Louisiana, to really fit the entire theme of losing the place that made you when you’re losing the person that made you. So you’re losing your whole world.
Durling: You two knew each other before right? You went to school together?
Zeitlin: No, we went to a play writing camp of sorts. We think we were thirteen years old when we met.
Alibar: We were really little.
Zeitlin: It’s a family operation, this thing. We looked to our friends and our families to collaborate all the time. Lucy and I always wanted to do something together, and the fact that it turned into this was kind of accidental and kind of magical.
Durling: I love the fact that in Hushpuppy’s world, you know the end of the world and this environmental destruction happening but it also parallels the dying of her father. Was this something you both developed together? What was the inspiration behind it?
Zeitlin: I think it’s something that kind of got translated. I think it was a very different thing in the play. Lucy, do you think you can talk about how the relationship between the father dying and the end of the world wasn’t in the play?
Alibar: Sure. The play was a lot more expressionism in terms of there was a lot of gestures, like the world falling apart with gesture, because you can’t have real Aurochs. So we had dancers and glitz falling out of the sky, things like that.
Zeitlin: It’s sort of like the emotions would spill into kind of a cosmic place in the play.
Alibar: Yeah. I was really interested in the Greek myths, where somebody close to you dies and so the sun goes away. It’s in Greek myths, it’s in songs like a lot of Southern folktales I grew up hearing. So it’s like the entire world changing based on your own perception of it.
Zeitlin: I sort of took that idea and attached it to actual environmental phenomenon’s happening in south Louisiana that I was seeing down the Bayou; with the loss of the land, the sort of continual storms that were coming, salt water intrusion, being unable to grow and the fish dying. So we took an expressionistic idea and started attaching it to real events that are happening in south Louisiana.
Durling: One of the things that impressed me the most about this script and directing is that there is no political comment about who to blame or a religious undertone. You are just telling the story from the point of view of these characters that don’t blame politicians and stuff. Was this something intentional?
Zeitlin: Yeah I wanted the film to sit above politics. I felt like a lot of the issues in the film, environmentalism sort of things surrounding Katrina, can get very divisive. People start talking about what kind of car you drive, or whether drilling is right or not, or whether George Bush was a good president or not. That’s not the point to me. There is a kind of emotional through-line to the events that were more universal, and I wanted it to speak as a folktale. One thing that was stuck in my head is something that someone said to me down there. He said, “I’m hoping I can finish my life on this land, that I know that my children will live somewhere else and they’ll tell their children once upon a time there was this place and it’s no longer here, it’s just water now.” That kind of emotion and that feeling is something that crosses across political boundaries, and I wanted to avoid the devise of things and talk about the feeling of what it is to lose this accentual place from our map and culture of America.
Durling: Walking into this movie, if I didn’t know that Miss Wallis and Mr. Henry had never acted in a movie and you had told me I would be like ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’. Why did you decide to cast non-professional actors in such demanding roles?
Zeitlin: They both have this charisma. You could look at a thousand headshots, go through a thousand resumes, watch a thousand movies and never find that internal light that these guys bring to the screen.
Durling: So Quvenzhané, how did you get cast in the movie?
Quvenzhané Wallis: It’s funny because there is youngness, and different names involved. I was only five when the audition came around. My mom’s friend called and said that auditions were being held at the library. So my mom and I went to see if I could get the part. It was for six to nine year olds and I was only five, so I actually just lied on the sheet and put that I was six. So they called my name and I went in and we did an audition. They asked my name and did a little toughness test, things like that. They had me trying to throw a teddy bear at one of the producers but I wouldn’t do it. It was something I wouldn’t do because I didn’t know the person, so I wouldn’t throw it at him. The person that was there was Michael Gottwald, one of the producers. So, Benh explain to me that Gottwald wanted me to throw it at him. So, if he was sitting in front of me and was like, “throw the teddy bear or this water bottle.” And I would just throw it at him. It didn’t hurt me anymore to throw something at him. So, they thought I was doing well and they called back. They said they were looking for Nazie and my mom said you must be looking for Quvenzhané? They were like, “We must have called the wrong person” and mom was like, “Oh no, you called the right person. Her nickname is Nazie and her real name is Quvenzhané. So yeah, you’re looking for Nazie and Quvenzhané at the same time.” So, it’s something kind of difficult. So never tell anybody two different names.
Durling: Dwight, I told the audience that you are a baker. How did you end up getting this role?
Dwight Henry: I owned a bakery right a crossed the street from the studio they did the casting at, and they used to come in the bakery and put up flyers for my customers. So if anybody wanted to audition for a film, pull the phone number and give them a call. I always wanted to go audition for the part but never really had time because I was always busy baking, running errands, getting supplies and things. One day, Michael Gottwald and I were sitting in the bakery and I said, “Michael I’m going to come over there and audition for the part. I have a little time left on my hands.” So, I go over there and audition for the part. About a week or two later he came back over to the bakery and said, “Mr. Henry we would like you to do another read. Mr. Zeitlin liked what he saw.” So I had to give him another read. I went and did another reading and with the time span of me doing the second reading, it was about three months, I had moved my business from one location to another location. Within that time period, they had everybody looking for Mr. Henry and nobody knew where I was at. I worked for 365 days a year for eight years in a row when I was in business. So when I had that little time span I took the time to really disappear from everybody. So, they were asking around to neighbors and everybody, “Has anyone seen Mr. Henry?” and nobody had seen Mr. Henry. It took them about two months to find me. Two days after I opened my new location Michael Gottwald walks in and was like, “Mr. Henry, we would like you to have the part.” He had a calendar in his hand with a schedule. Unfortunately, I had just moved and all kinds of things I had to do. I wanted to do the film but I couldn’t do it at that time, so I actually had to turn them down. I was flattered, but my business is my heart. That’s what I’m building for my kids so I can pass it down to my children. I just couldn’t walk away from that. They gave me some time to work things out and came back a couple weeks later. I still couldn’t do it. They really saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and had so much belief that I could pull this off. They came back and gave me more time, and I actually had to turn them down three times. I didn’t want to, but I had to. But then I started thinking about how bad they wanted me and how I wanted to do the film. They believed in me and saw something. So, I worked it out and when they came back again they brought the whole team, all the producers and even the accountant. They sat me down in my own bakery and explained things to me. They were making some concessions to work with me. As far as whenever I need to come back to the bakery, they had a driver for me to bring me back and forth. They made all sorts of concessions so I worked things out to go do this film and it’s been wonderful ever since.
Durling: Benh, on paper this looks like it could be a hundred million dollar film with all the special effects. Your vision was to forgo all that CG stuff. Can you tell us a little about that?
Zeitlin: Yeah we always want to reflect the principles of the subject in the process of making the film. So for us, the Bathtub is this place with no iPods, no computers. You don’t have computer graphics in the Bathtub, so we wanted to build everything in the same way Hushpuppy would make it or Wink would make it. We tried to think about how the characters would do this if it were them and reflect that in the way you do things. Basically the idea was to build everything organically and build everything by hand. So I told our effects team, not really having an idea how they would pull it off, that we had to use live animals as our monsters in the film and that we weren’t allowed to animate them, or do it with puppets or computer graphics. That was the mandate. So, we had this team search and search to find animals that they could train to play these roles. We had a superstar creature that had an incredible performance.
Durling: How did casting Quvenzhané change the role of Hushpuppy?
Zeitlin: Each of the characters in the film is really collaboration between me and Lucy, and it sort of become collaboration between the screenplay and the people playing the parts. Before we got on screen we would do interviews and talk about things that Hushpuppy goes through in the movie. Often times I would ask her a question like, “How would you see the end of the world?” and she would tell me. It wouldn’t be what I wrote, but it would be smarter and truer in her voice than what I wrote. We would then throw it out and rewrite it. We had a really long process in the bakery. One of the concessions that were made is that all rehearsals had to happen on bakers’ hours. I would show up at midnight at the bakery and stay until six in the morning, while Mr. Henry is making donuts and cutting the dough and everything. We would just talk about our lives and bring all these experiences he had to the script, and rewrite the script around events from his life. You know it was always a question of getting the language into the voice of the person playing the part. Almost everything was stuff that Lucy and I wrote and thought of, but we would scrap the language and I would ask, “How would you say this and express it in your words?” and we would write it in the script. So the script became collaboration between every single element that was in it.
Durling: Quvenzhané, were you ever scared that you’re the lead actress of this movie?
Wallis: No. Actually I thought I was the special one. I felt excited I was the star. I thought I was just a little person and Mr. Henry was the star. But I must have got it wrong!
Durling: Mr. Henry, how was it like working with your co-star?
Henry: She’s the star; I’m the co- star. Let’s get it right now. It was wonderful! I’ll tell you a story about when they told me I was first going to meet Quvenzhané. They explained to me that they had two other guys in line to play her father and she didn’t approve of them and didn’t feel comfortable with. So, she had ultimate approval on who was going to play her father. So, I had to use a little strategy when they told me I was going out to the Bayou to meet Nazie. So, either I bring two bags of toys or I bring a whole bunch of goodies from the bakery. I packed a whole bunch of goodies and they drove me down there and as soon as I saw her I put a big smile on my face and handed her the boxes of goodies, she peeked in and put a big smile on her face and I knew I had an in.
Durling: Benh, I have a question for the Cinematographer Ben Richardson. Is he here?
Zeitlin: Yeah he’s right up there.
Durling: Please welcome Ben Richardson. Now Ben, the whole movie is shot at the eye level of Hushpuppy. When was this choice made?
Ben Richardson: Well, it actually came up pretty early in one of the rehearsals. I had a tiny little video camera and I just sort of realized as I got it down to Hushpuppy’s height she started to represent on screen the kind of presence and power we could all feel in the room when we were standing with her. From that point on it was very obvious there was this real need to keep the camera at Hushpuppy’s height. In fact I had a revelation yesterday, watching the movie for the first time in a little while, that you see a tremendous amount of adult torsos and things a lot of the time and I realize if you go down to this level the world looks very different.
Zeitlin: It’s like “Muppet Babies.”
Richardson: Like “Muppet Babies” exactly. You don’t see heads a lot of the time and you’re focused on all the details. From that point on, once I figured a way to keep the camera down there it’s just a bit of technical equipment that sort of held the camera by a string down at my hip. It was a very organic process after that, exploring the world and focusing on things I thought Hushpuppy would.
Durling: The handheld camera worked so beautifully in this film. When did you decide to use the handheld?
Richardson: That was a very early conversation with Benh, he and I felt very strongly. “Glory at Sea” was almost entirely handheld I think, and there were just some really great elements of that which we thought were working very effectively. The main thing for us was we wanted to have the freedom to just move sort of quickly and sort of document the things as they were happening. But for me I felt that it just couldn’t be documentary in that sort of rural, since it had to have this perspective of Hushpuppy’s. What I tried to do all the time was to literally explore the world just so if something caught my eye or I saw something in a frame you know. This was working through shot lists and plans that Benh and I worked out, but when we were actually rolling, as long as I was keeping the shots that we need to tell the story, I just allowed the camera to find its way through the world.
Durling: Now Benh, you worked on the music yourself along with Dan Romer. You use the music in the foreground and not in the background. Can you discuss this choice?
Zeitlin: Yeah it was an interesting process. I think the music was very much like the cinematography it was a process of figuring out how to be in Hushpuppy’s head. So we tried at first to score the movie. If there was a tense scene, you would score it with tense music and it would sort of go along with what’s happening in the film. But we realized that we actually needed the music to emerge from her point of view. So, a good example is what’s happening on screen is just a little girl running around with some sparklers in the woods, but for her it’s this moment of magnificent cultural importance, where she is this little hero and it’s this spectacular celebration in the Bathtub. And so we tried to write a song that felt like an anthem and felt like this patriotic folksong that everybody would know, because she feels that she’s this little hero and because she senses that she’s this inspiring king of the Bathtub. Like the king of the Bathtub song had to play at the moment she feels that. Throughout the film we are always trying to score her emotions and her sense of her own story. It’s something that I remember when I was a kid, to be walking down the street but was imagining I was Batman and I would be humming da na na na na na na, and when you’re that young you score your own life in this way. So the score was supposed to be the sense of her own life.
Durling: There are three almost settings to the film. There is the Bathtub at the beginning of the film, the Bathtub during the storm, and the aftermath. How difficult was it to create these three sets of the Bathtub?
Zeitlin: About as difficult as you probably could imagine. The principle challenge of the production design was we didn’t have the capability to create a real apocalypse. We don’t have a comet that comes and lands on Los Angeles. We have the real environment of what was happening there and so you actually see this progression as you drive on those roads, where you go from a lush swamp to these places that are covered in water, and you get to these places that are desolate where the trees are all dead. The idea was we were going to take a town and match it with different spots. Often we would find locations that we loved that sort of matched each other and build things on top of them, then dismantle the things we built and take them over to the swamp and rebuild them in the water, dismantle those and bring them to this desolate island and rebuild them there. So, the whole production design crew was constantly racing ahead of our shoot trying to rebuild the location in a new place as we went along.
Durling: How much did the BP oil spill effect the filming of the movie?
Zeitlin: Deep water exploded the first day we rolled cameras. So, they were totally in sync with one another which was a really surreal life reflecting art moment. We would wake up every morning and see the oil getting closer and closer to the town that we were in, and was actually the center of the cleanup operation because it was the closest town to the explosion. So, the marina that I and Lucy wrote the film, and the place that we launch our boats, was commandeered by BP halfway through our production and became their center of operations. So we had to negotiate with them to get our boats launched, and we actually had locations on the wrong side of the booms and we had to get them to move the booms so we could get to the places we wanted to shoot. It was just an eerie parallel where in the town you were hearing these rumors that fishing was going to close for ten years, which would have been the end of the town because that’s the economy. So, you just felt the story of the film just mirroring itself as that catastrophe happened.
Durling: Why did you blend in this fantasy world with this reality world?
Zeitlin: To me it’s not a fantasy and reality world. It’s just the reality of being six years old as I kind of remember it and Lucy probably remembers it. It’s a lot of things that we brought from camp days that we were working on. At first we made the character of Hushpuppy older but then we realized it had to be someone younger, because they need to be at that age that you don’t pars out the differences between what you’re imagining and what you’re experiencing. I had an imaginary friend when I was six who was sitting there just like you are right now and no one could tell me he wasn’t. It’s Hushpuppy’s film so anything she believes is real. So, the kind of mythology emerges from the way that her emotions spill into the intangible elements of the world that she sees as existing. So, we never really try to look at it as what is really happening or look at her from an adult’s point of view. It was always about what she is thinking, what she believes and try to put that on screen.
Durling: The sequence when they go to the bar with the women is one of the most stunning sequences in film. How did you film this? What was the inspiration behind it?
Zeitlin: You know, it was something that came from one of Lucy’s stories, from a different story where this character took a journey to this diner. A character without a mother took a journey to this diner, and just had a meal made for her and there was this strange moment of comfort that she got, and it wasn’t her mother in that story. It was just this very nice woman that gave this character a sort of love. That was the inspiration for it. We translated it to this story, kind of imagining what Wink would have told Hushpuppy about her mother; probably would have said she went away and wouldn’t give her any real information, what had actually happened. So, I started imagining what Hushpuppy would think, away was what is in the distance. If she went in the distance, what is the distance? I tried to base that part of the film on when you’re down in the Bayou the faraway city is New Orleans, and so that was the part of the film that had this 20’s and 30’s New Orleans culture.