The Brain Behind The Beast: Benh Zeitlin
The time I spent living in New Orleans was one of my favorite stretches in life. Simply put, there’s no where like it in the world. There is something so different about the city, the distinctive soul, that I find myself constantly drawn towards it still. If Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, look for mine in The Big Easy.
When Milk Made sent a team to Sundance earlier this year, one movie in particular caught my attention. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a unique story about survival at the edge of the world. Set in a fictional community called The Bathtub in southern Louisiana, the movie highlights the heart and resiliency of the people who call that region home. The story follows a young girl named Hushpuppy and her father Wink as they endure environmental catastrophes and face the harsh realities of life in the delta.
I had a chance to chat to Benh Zeitlin, the director and writer of the film, about his movie and living in Louisiana. After listening to him talk about the place for a few minutes, I’ve suddenly got an unscratchable itch to pack up my bag and head back to the bayou. If you need me, just stop by Molly’s, I like to kick it with the old guys there in the late afternoon. Oh, and while you’re at it, go check out the movie. It’s worth your time…
Milk Made: Where do you live right now?
Benh Zeitlin: I live in the New Orleans, Louisiana.
MM: I’ve heard you live in the Bywater with a bunch of animals…
BZ: It’s true.
MM: What’s your house like?
BZ: My house would be a mansion if it wasn’t a complete shithole. It’s like an old, sort of crumbling French house on a sugar plantation. It’s got wrap around balconies and a lot of people live in it. My sister has tons of animals that populate the house. We have five ducks, five dogs, eight cats, at least two chickens, and a gigantic 350 lbs. Vietnamese potbelly pig. He’s the king of the yard.
MM: How long have you lived in New Orleans?
BZ: Since 2006, almost exactly six years now.
MM: It goes without saying that the 2005 flood significantly impacted the culture of the city. Do you think being there to witness the effects of Hurricane Katrina was responsible for how the script was written?
BZ: I made a short film right when I got down there in 2006 that was very much rooted in that feeling of the aftermath and trying to understand the cloud of grieving. Beasts came from a slightly different place, which was looking into the future. Two years after Katrina and Rita, we had Ike and Gustav, and it felt like that was going to be the future, it was going to be a reality. Every couple years another storm was going to come in, and it was going to be something that you’d constantly have to live with. At any moment, the water was gonna take this place away. So Beasts really came from the feeling of what it’s like to live on the precipice of the balance of nature, and how you survive that.
MM: Interesting. Both the main actors didn’t have any real experience, right?
BZ: Yeah, only one character in the film had ever acted before, and it’s not anyone you’re thinking of…
MM: What was it like directing non-actors? How did you get such a convincing performance out of them? The scene near the end when they were crying was particularly moving. How did you get them to portray that level of emotion?
BZ: There’s big difference between working with actors and non-actors. With actors, you operate at a slightly larger distance. Actors have their own way of generating emotions. How they go from what you present them in text and motivation and they find something within selves to generate that emotion is their craft. With non-professionals, it isn’t their craft, so you have a much more intimate job. We would spend weeks and weeks getting to know each other, learning everything about one another’s lives, attaching moments from our lives to scenes in the film and rewriting scenes in the film to kind of reflect those moments. You think about this particular time, you remember you were with your friend, you were in this situation, this was happening, and then you realize the emotion you’re looking for is similar to what you were feeling on that day. You’re much more inside the psychology of the performance. That way, when you get on set, you’re really dealing with your emotions. There was a lot of adapting the character to the strengths of the actor playing the part. We kind of wrote their lives into the film so that that process could generate the right material for the scene.
That scene you’re talking about is a great example. I had an incredibly emotional experience with Dwight Henry one night in the bakery—we did all of our preliminary interviews while he was baking donuts, starting at eleven o’clock at night until six in the morning. We sort of had this night where we were crying, and I knew that scene was going to require reliving that thing. On the day we shot that scene, we went there. I was sitting six inches away from Quvenzhané Wallis, weeping, and the soundman was weeping, the cameraman was weeping, her mom was weeping at the monitors, and the producers were crying. Everybody went there together, and that sort of paved the way for her to bring that emotion too. It was very intimate, and I think that’s pretty much how we got there.
MM: How did you come up with the script?
BZ: I wrote it with Lucy Alibar. It emerged from an idea I was writing independently and it merged with the characters from this play called Juicy and Delicious. That’s where Wink, Hushpuppy, and the aurochs come from. I’ve known Lucy since I was 13 years old and I always wanted to do something based on her work. I was thinking about one idea and also thinking about making a short film from one of her plays, then the two ideas sort of fused together. That’s really where the script took hold.
MM: Where did you film the movie?
BZ: 90% of it was shot in South Terrebonne Parish, which is an hour and a half south of New Orleans. If you look on a map and you see where America kind of falls off into a spider web of marshes and water, that’s where it is. There are five roads that go down into that marsh and most of the film was shot at the very end of one of them, in towns like Pont-Aux-Chens and Montegut.
MM: Did you interact with a lot of the locals while you were down there?
BZ: Absolutely. The film was cast locally and was a very grass roots production. We collaborated enormously with people down there who did all kinds of jobs on the film. We wanted the personality of the place to find its way into the fabric of the film, and that just ended up happening. It wasn’t like we were in hotels or honey wagons or anything like that; we were living in trailers behind people’s houses and in their back rooms. We became part of the community.
MM: You were talking about the concept of living on the precipice as having a strong influence in your work. Do you think that the local people actually felt like that?
BZ: Definitely, I think there’s a real pride in being survivors and resilient enough to live on the edge of the world. It was a hard movie to explain to people while we were down there. In South Louisiana, they’re accustomed to people coming down and making documentaries and stuff, and if you say you’re making a movie, people immediately assume you’re making a documentary. When you say, “No, I’m making a sort of fantastical movie that’s inspired by here and the end of the world,” they say, “Oh, you came to the right place, this is the end of the world.”
You can see it and sense it when you’re there. It’s not just in the path of hurricanes, it’s also on the frontlines of land loss. It’s literally falling off into the Gulf of Mexico. Trees are being killed from saltwater intrusion, and the water is swallowing up the land. I think there is a very visceral sense that this is the edge, this is the very end, and I there’s a lot of pride in being able to not get pushed off that ledge. For the towns that still survive and have not been eaten up, there’s a lot of pride in holding on.
MM: In the beginning of the movie, the father character was really difficult to have empathy for, but as the story goes, you get to understand why he is the way he is towards Hushpuppy. It’s very well written—he goes from being just some drunk to someone who can take care of this little girl in the perfect way. Where did the character come from?
BZ: There are a couple things. In a lot of ways, Lucy’s father inspired the character. The relationship between this little girl and this somewhat brutal dad emerges from her life, the things he said and the way he is. He got sick and thank god is still alive, but a lot of that experience comes from there. That said, he’s a totally different character. Lucy’s dad is not a drunk. A lot of it comes from me. I definitely find myself in that character, and it’s also just the way it is down there. You get this cookie cutter view of morality in films a lot of the time, and the way you see this type of character represented is that they’re a drunk dad but by the end of the second act, they have a realization, pour their beer down the drain and then go to little league practice. Everything’s okay. But people don’t always reform like that all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
One of the things I love about Louisiana is that it’s an incredibly openhearted place. It doesn’t judge people the way a lot of the rest of the country does. There’s an understanding that people have problems, that they have their issues, but that they also have beauty inside of them. If they have a good heart and good intentions, they aren’t judged for the fact that they drink or because they loose their temper. They appreciate the good in people.
The way people treat each other down there kind of inspired me to create that difficult character. I think that’s something I got from how I was accepted down there. In Wink, we really wanted to create a character that wasn’t going to make it easy for you to love. He wasn’t going to do those conventional moral things that you’re used to that kind of character doing, but at the end of the day, you’re going to have to learn to love him anyway.