Beasts of the Southern Wild Interviews with Director Benh Zeitlin, Stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry

Director Benh Zeitlin, Stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Photo courtesy Cannes Film Festival.

Director Benh Zeitlin, Stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Photo courtesy Cannes Film Festival.

My interviews for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” were held at the Hotel Palomar on June 11, 2012 along with two other journalists. The first interview was with director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin. It was helpful to have a chance to hear him explain his vision for the film, as it is very difficult to describe the plot. He was philosophical in many of his explanations and was eager to enlighten us on what the film is not about. I can tell you one thing – it’s not about being poor. It’s about viewing life through the eyes of a six-year-old girl and her survival going forward without her father. Here is most of the interview; some questions and answers have been shortened.

Sarah Adamson: I had read that you and playwright Lucy Alibar have been friends for many years and that the original play was called ‘Juicy and Delicious.’ How did you stumble upon the play? Did it ever run in New York?

Benh Zeitlin:
I saw it produced as part of a workshop; it was never like a show going on. The time I really started working on it is when I saw it read in someone else’s apartment with just actors and scripts. To say it’s based on the play is kind of overstating it. It’s really inspired by the play. It’s based on her life in a lot of ways. It’s almost based on the collective works of Lucy Alibar – sort of pulling a lot of her life, a lot of her language, her perspective on the world and pulled it out into another story that I was working on. It was sort of two stories that fused themselves. This was set in South Georgia; it was totally landlocked. There was no storm, no bathtub. All of those elements were a different story.

SA: It was a little boy at first, right?

Yeah, it was an 11-year-old boy. He was a stand in for her so I knew that. It made sense to switch it back to closer to who she was.

Question: How much then did it have to be adjusted once you started casting? Most of the children and most of the people in the film have never acted before. Did the script have to be adjusted?

Yes, massively.

Everything in the film is a massive collaboration and most so probably the characters. You really have to bring what you wrote. It’s not like people are playing themselves in this film. They are finding common ground and working from their lives. The process is basically a long series of interviews for every single person on screen getting interviewed about their lives. The stories that they tell make their way into the film in different ways. Also, once you sort of rewrite to the people, you bring the script back and test the screens against the people. I would go through the beats of a scene with Dwight, like the storm scene, for example. He has a daughter that age and lived through the storm. I’d say, “Here is what I think your character is doing in this scene,” and he’d say, “Eh, that wasn’t what I would be thinking. I would be thinking this way.” So it’d scrap that motivation and rewrite it. I’d come back again and he’d feel like it would be true to his experience in some way. Then, beyond that, you have to throw out the language too because it doesn’t sound like I can write in a voice that he can say naturally so we’d read the scene until he memorized it and then we’d take it away and say, “Now tell me these lines and how you would say them without the script.” We’d transpose that and then that would become how we’d shoot it. So, everything changes.

Question: We have such a heightened awareness of poverty in the United States at this point. This movie takes place in the kind of poverty where people are barely existing day to day. What kind of reaction have you had to that?

For me, that’s not at all what it is. The film, to me, is not about poverty; it’s about living free from the burden of possession. It’s about living off the grid. It’s about survivalism and D.I.Y. living. It’s totally independent. It’s a freedom mentally in the bathtub. Anybody in the bathtub could go get a job on the other side of the wall, but they don’t want to live that way. They want to live connected to the land. It’s a story about a culture that is living without money but is living incredibly decadently. They have unlimited food that they can pull out of the water. They have animals they can farm. They’re feasting every night. They are celebrating their lives at every moment. It’s not about a certain kind of poverty. I think it aesthetically resonates that way because we are using trailers and using rickety houses that sort of signal poverty when you’re not from Louisiana but that was never what I was after. It doesn’t read that way outside of America. I think it reads that way in America, outside of Louisiana, which, I think is interesting. It definitely wasn’t the subject. You don’t need all of the possessions that you think you need to live a full life. There is a value in taking on the world without those things. There is a fearlessness and tenacity that comes from confronting, you know, nature and the world without the help of things that protect us in a more civilized society.

SA: What qualities were you looking for to cast Hushpuppy, your main star of the film?

We were looking for a little warrior. She surprised us with how she expressed that. It wasn’t what we expected at all. We originally wrote that character as more talkative and more [someone who would] express herself outwardly as being fierce all the time. What Quvenzhané brought was this sort of quiet wisdom to this character and it really transformed in a good way. She wasn’t just this tough thing but also this wise thing. She is so wise beyond her years. She brought so much of her imagination and her philosophy into the character and really turned it into…not this little warrior princess but this kind of “Joan of Arc” Sage figure that opened up the movie.

Question: One thing that is striking about the film is the visual style because on one hand what we see in the bathtub…it feels like a real lived in area, not like a set. On the other hand, a lot of the film is told in a fairly stylized [manner] not just like the beast and all that, even just the normal everyday stuff. It has a heightened sense of reality to it. I was just curious if you could talk about what your intentions were for the style and the blending of those two elements together.

The bathtub isn’t a place that exists. You can’t walk around in it. It is all synthesized. It is synthesized on top of things that are real so we’d find an extraordinary place that spoke to the themes of the film and we’d add on to it. We’d add a wall and sort of bring it above reality slightly. I wanted to make this film feel like a folktale and get above the regional politics and the debate about Katrina, the oil spill and environmental issues. I didn’t want the film to be stuck in that. We wanted to push the world slightly outside of the world and make it feel like you were going somewhere else even though it was all pulled from reality. All the pieces of the set…we wouldn’t go find them anywhere else. We would literally pick our spot and say everything in this set has to be built from things on this land. We’d go through the woods and find the scraps and put them up there. It had that realism to it. Beyond that, we wanted to take…the idea for the film started in the very surreal. The play is very surreal and we wanted to pull that very violently through the sieve of reality. With the camera work, all of the stuff we watched was all documentary. We wanted you to feel like you were walking through the world the way that she was. The camera is always very reactive. You’re never on a dolly, very articulately following the action. It was always about the performance but the cameraman wasn’t allowed to know what was going to happen next.

SA: Thank you so much for speaking with us. We really appreciate it

I also met with the two stars of the film Quvenzhané (pronounced: kwo vin jen nā y) Wallis and Dwight Henry. Both were non-actors at the time and auditioned for the parts. Quvenzhané (age 8) was very sweet and excited about her role as Hushpuppy. Dwight (father of 5 children and a baker) helped collaborate with the script at times. He’s very grounded and has a strong sense of family. Both were wonderful to speak with and also shed light on the film.

Sarah Adamson: Hi Quvenzhané, how did you get the part?

It was an audition at the library and my mom got a call from one of her friends and they said there was an audition for 6-9 year olds but I was only 5 so I couldn’t go. My mom said I was too young. But she (her friend) forced her and forced her. She said, “Take her to the audition, take her to the audition.” Then, my mom said, “Okay, I’ll see if I can try.” So, we just walked into the library and we sneaked in there acting like we did nothing wrong and we walked out like we did something good. Then they called back and they said they were looking for Nazie and my mom’s like, “Oh, you must have been looking for Quvenzhane.” They said, “No we must have called the wrong person.” They almost hung up but we caught them, so we had to say, “Oh she must have told you her nickname was Nasie.” They said, “Yes, that’s who we are looking for!” We said, “Yes, that’s her nickname.”

SA: So have you been thanking Mom?

No, she’s been thanking me!

Everyone: Laughs

Question: Dwight, you were a baker, right?

Dwight Henry:
I own a bakery café and the casting director had a studio across the street from my bakery and they used to put flyers in my bakery (asking) if anyone wanted to audition for an upcoming feature film. I never really had time to do the audition. They used to come over and get breakfast and donuts in the morning, being right across the street from me. So, we developed a relationship. One day, me and Michael Gottwald, the casting director, we were sitting in the bakery and I had a little time and I told him I was going to come over and audition for the part. So, I went over there and auditioned for the part. He gave me a script. He had the camera on me. He had an actress reading the script. I did the reading. He said we had a little bit of time before they had to shoot and he gave me time to work on things to try and get me to be able to do it. He came back a few weeks later and I said I still couldn’t do it. He said, “Mr. Henry, we still have a little time before we start shooting. See if you can work things out because we really want you to do this.” About three weeks later, Michael walks in the door, Benh, the director, walks in the door, all three of the produces walk in the door. They brought the accountant with! They told me to sit down in my own bakery – all seven of them. They explained to me how they wanted me to do this and how they had so much belief in me. They had seen so many things in me that I didn’t see in myself. They had seen things in me through the course of them coming to the bakery and seeing how I react with people, how I lived and my staff. They had seen things in me that they needed in that same character. I thought about a lot of things and I worked things out with my partners. I went back to the time when I first opened up my business – 13 years ago and no one believed in me. Everybody turned me down for finance. No one believed in me but myself. I thought about how much they believed in me. It’s so hard to get people to believe in themselves! I was able to do the movie and it’s been so wonderful ever since.

Question: I wondered, as newcomers to the feature film industry, how are you guys feeling about this process that you are caught up in?

I think it’s cool because you get to meet different people. It doesn’t matter if you make it to the film festivals or not. It matters that you have fun and that you liked it and that you liked everybody on the set. That really matters. You’ve just got to get comfortable with that.

Question: What about you, Dwight?

If I never do a film again…I’m so grounded with my foundation and things. I would never be the Hollywood type. I would never sacrifice my foundation or where I am from to be the Hollywood type. If I never do another film again, I’d be fine with that. I will always hold dear to my heart this film that I did and the friends I met through the production company, the great people that I met and the wonderful people with Fox.

Question: There are a number of very intense and dramatic scenes that you have with each other and by yourselves. This is the kind of stuff that very experienced actors would have trouble puling off. I’m just wondering how both of you prepared for those scenes. Did you obsessively study the script?

Even before we started shooting, they had professional actors come in from New York City…they had a hard time catching up with me throughout the day having bakers’ hours. So, they made a lot of concessions to bring people in and work with me in the middle of the night while I was baking. We would go over the scripts and different emotions that I had to do in the scene. I had to get to a certain emotional level in the scenes. I needed a professional to come in to help me get to the point that I needed to get to. We had donut jelly all over the scripts. We used to be in the bakery 5-6 days a week. It was a lot of help from the production company.

Question: They probably told those actors they’d get free donuts.

Yeah, free donuts and coffee all night. It was a good time doing it, too. Working with Core 13 isn’t like working for a particular company – it was like working for a family. It wasn’t even really like work. He gave us a lot of latitude. We would read a script then he’d tell us to put the script to the side and he’d want us to say it how we’d say it. Just like how we are talking right now because I’m saying everything in my own words. If I was talking from the script it wouldn’t be as natural.

Question: What was your favorite moment?

My favorite moment was the reaction we got from the Sundance and Cannes audiences. We didn’t know how people would accept the film. Both audiences…when 1500 people stand up, applaud, scream and don’t sit down…that is the best feeling in the world. That makes all of the hard work that you did worth it. [It’s] like when I’m baking and I finish – when someone bites into your product and they think that it’s heaven. When people enjoy something you made, that is the best feeling in the world.

SA: Thank you both for meeting with us today

Sarah Knight Adamson© June 11, 2012