Writer-director Zeitlin explains how he made the most apocalyptic, magical, moving film of the year
In Beasts of the Southern Wild, six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her ailing, alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry) in ‘the Bathtub’, a bayou cut off from society on the wrong side of a levee. A storm is coming, bringing with it prehistoric monsters.
Benh, do some people really live the way Hushpuppy and Wink do – off the grid, no electricity, at the mercy of the elements?
The Bathtub is very much a fantasy, but there are places down south of Louisiana that are being cut off by levees and they are going through this exact type of catastrophe where their land is falling apart out from under them, storms are coming more regularly, they’re having to figure out how to survive.
The genesis of the story was a play, wasn’t it?
It was a story I wrote and then combined with [Lucy Alibar’s] play, so it comes from two places. One from this imagined utopian place where people are free and living off the grid, and that place coming under threat. That was combined with the story of a little girl whose father is dying and as he’s dying the end of the world is coming.
The film has a very freeform style to it. Was its creation essentially freeform, or was it actually a quite disciplined set?
It was a designed chaos, I would say. We put in a ton of work before we started shooting. Doing improvisation and interviews with the actors, massively rewriting the script during that time to adapt both to the location and the people that are going to play the parts. But even at that point, when you put a kid on a boat, things go wrong, so you have to constantly be able to react to what’s happening on set.
How did you know you had found the little girl to star in it?
When Quvenzhané first came in she just had this incredible focus. I’d do exercises with her where I’d say, “OK, you just stepped on a nail,” and she wouldn’t pop out of character, she wouldn’t overact pain, you could see in her eyes she was feeling a lot of pain. It was mind-blowing that someone that age could give such an advanced performance. We looked at 4,000 kids for the part and it wasn’t remotely close.
And Dwight Henry is amazing too.
Dwight was the baker from across the street from where we had the casting office. At some point he had come in and done a monologue about his life and I used that as a writing tool as I was developing the script, and so I thought, let’s bring him in and see if he can act. He was very raw and it took a lot of work but we saw he had this energy to go to extreme places.
Some commentators have said the movie glamorises poverty or it’s like cultural tourism. What’s your response?
The film is really not about poverty but self-sufficiency. The Bathtub is this place that people live in by choice. Food is in unbelievable abundance, they pull their meals out of the water, they have a system of educating their children they believe in.
How do you describe the film in a nutshell?
It’s a story about losing the things that made you, and it’s about how you survive that not just physically but emotionally. It’s largely inspired by New Orleans and the Bayou that are two places that refuse to be beaten by death. When you go to a jazz funeral in New Orleans, you start off all sombre but as you walk, that transforms into a rousing jazz number and everyone celebrates and laughs. It’s not singing about tragedy, it’s defeating and overcoming it with a spirit that refuses to be crushed.
Beast of the Southern Wild screens from Thu Sep 13.