Capone swims through the bayou to talk with BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin!!!
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Since BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is his first feature (after three well-received shorts), there's not much to say by way of introduction about director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin other than he's made was is already clearly on the best received films of 2012. What's most astonishing about his film is that Zeitlin is effectively an outsider to the southern Delta world that is the setting of his movie, but he captures a sense of place (with the help of his cast of all first-time actors) so completely that it's hard to imagine a native of the region doing anything better.
With support from the Sundance writing and directing labs and his Court 13 filmmakers collective (which he helped launch in 2004), Zeitlin has made a work of great elegance and down-in-the-marsh realism, with a sprinkling of mysticism tossed in for flavor. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a difficult film to describe with mere words, but a work that demands discussion after you've seen it, which makes it all the more fortuitous that I got to sit down with Zeitlin the day after we did a post-screening Q&A of the movie with his two stars. Please enjoy my chat with Benh Zeitlin…
Capone: Forgive me if we cover some of the same ground we did last night.
Benh Zeitlin: No problem.
Capone: Actually, I do want to cover a couple of things we didn’t cover last night. The collective that you are a part of, can you explain just a little bit about what their role was in helping you get this film made?
BZ: Yeah, it’s confusing what it actually is. It’s not really a club of people specifically, but it’s sort of an attitude towards working. Eeryone is given a tremendous amount of agency over the film, and the script is very much at the mercy of the moment and the things that we're finding and things that people are creating, and so I’ll send our locations person with a vague idea of what I want, but sometimes they'll come back and say, “Look, I didn’t find what you were looking for, but check out this.” Then we have the ability to write that into the film, and the producers are empowered to alter our plan to wrap that in, and then the people that go and do the art are, you give them an idea of what they're doing, but then you let them breath.
I think that’s a big part of it, a significant amount of our crew are not people that work in film outside of our films. They're artists. They do other things. They work in politics. You know, they’re into all kinds of things, and so you allow a lot. What connects us all is not necessarily an aesthetic notion. I think the aesthetic of this film comes from me and whoever is directing will define those things, but we are connected as far as it’s all a certain kind of person. It’s like our family, this fearless, wild, brave group of people that are all incredibly talented in their own right and are able to work under crazy conditions. So they're really in the film, all of these personalities are mixed together, and that’s what ends up being the final flavor of the film. It’s certainly not just me that’s up there, there are a ton of people that all do their own thing in some ways.
Capone: Right. Do you feel like you were able to, I don’t want to say “get away with things,” but that’s kind of what I mean--get away with themes thematically that you might not have with studio backing? There’s a political feel to the film, and I don’t mean that you’re picking a side or making it an issue. But this is an example of something that’s at the center of a heated discussion in this country.
BZ: To me it’s like a sieve, you know? You think of something on your own, you write very privately, and then the whole process of making the film brings together all of these different kinds of people with all of these different kinds ideas, and it filters that stuff and what comes out is only what the collective defines as true. So I think that there’s a way in which it brings you a lot closer to the truth to allow this much agency for everyone, because you have things that you think up, but then they don’t fly when you set them against, especially the actors.
Things that I wrote for Wink, ideas that I had about how crazy that character would be or what stuff he would do, that was fun stuff for me, like “Here’s this fun and exciting character who I can make do anything.” But then when Dwight [Henry] comes into the picture, and you actually workshop the script with him, some things just don’t feel right coming out of his mouth and more particularly the actions don’t feel true to him, and those actions get taken out of the film, and then it becomes something that very much is a collaboration between the two of us. He’s not playing himself, but the character is tested against his sense of right and wrong. It all had to be things that made sense to him and a lot of bullshit comes out when we do that, and it becomes something that feels true and real, and so I think it does help not misconstrue the world. You hopefully end up saying something true, because there’s enough people looking at it and changing it that it goes somewhere that is beyond imagination and comes out of the world.
Capone: And speaking of which, the Bathtub [the fictional location of the film] is both a very real place--even if the Bathtub isn’t a real place, it's based it on a real place--but it’s also for a lot of Americans going to be this otherworldly location. Can you talk about striking that balance and going back and forth between the realism verses the surrealism of the place?
BZ: Yeah, to me it feels very real. It’s very much based on real things and it’s almost like what your palette is, you don’t invent your paint. The paint is all real stuff. It’s real materials that were in the place where we were. Every house is built; there’s not a stitch in those houses that does not come from a piece of something that was sitting near where we made the film. We didn’t paper mâché anything; it was all built organically. So it’s that and it’s the elements that you are putting in there are all things that come from the cultures of the region. Every single holiday that they have is based on something that I’ve been through or done. They don’t all happen in the same place, but it’s patched together these things that come from the real world, and so you sort of trust that even though the place isn’t factually recognizable, but the pieces are.
I don’t know, there’s just something different between a real wall and a wall that’s painted to look like real bricks. That’s the simple version of it, and the same theory is applied to the characters. You're taking real things and creating something out of the real things. It’s almost like making a junk sculpture or something like that; you sense the difference between that and something that’s been synthesized. I don’t think I ever had a clear vision of how will end up on screen, but you trust that things are built with a certain principle, that that realism is going to come through.
Capone: Can you talk a little bit about creating the “mythological version” of it? In a lot of ways, it’s the way that Hushpuppy sees the Bathtub, as more of a universe than a tiny place on a map. How did you go about creating that version?
BZ: That’s really where it started, and I got pulled towards the realism. But it was always the idea the film was going to be in her head and not in her imagination, it’s that her point of view as a six year old is totally respected by the movie in the form of the film and it takes her reality seriously. I think that usually when you see kids perspectives in films, there’s a little bit of condescension that’s like, “This is how a kid sees it, but here’s what is really going on,” and that wasn’t how we thought of it. It gets in your head obviously, but you try to not think about whether her mom is alive or dead, or whether the aurochs [beasts that are freed from Arctic ice and are traveling the globe to confront Hushpuppy] are real or not. If she believes it, it is so, because it’s her movie. So that was basically how we thought of everything and how those choices were made.
Capone: And your camera is almost always down at her eye level whether we were seeing things through her eyes or not. I also noticed last night that if something doesn’t happen in front of her, it doesn’t exist. When her dad disappears the first time, we don’t know what's happened to him, because she doesn’t know what happened to him.
BZ: That was a scary choice to make, those are scary choices when you leave out plot information and subjugate that to point of view. The structure of the film, because of the point of view, could not be a narrative structure; it needed to be an emotional structure, because she is experiencing like a series of emotional events and that’s actually how the film is built, on how her feeling changes scene to scene and what happens to cause those changes. You're only going to get what she gets and knows what she knows. It’s not a structure you can see, so the filmwhen some people see it and feel it doesn’t follow a narrative the way that they think it does, but it actually is a very rigidly structured film.
Capone: It’s pretty simple actually. You’ve only been in the New Orleans area for a few years and you moved down from New York. You’re an outsider basically, making the most insider film you can about Louisiana, about a way of life that people in Louisiana might not be aware exists. Were you worried about being accepted telling that story?
BZ: I thought of that; I don’t think I was worried about it. That’s like the fun of filmmaking to me, being able to use film as a way to explore and collaborate with communities that you otherwise maybe wouldn’t have access to, and it’s a great quality in Louisiana too. It is a territorial place, and where you're from matters like nowhere else. At the same time, it’s a place where that culture and where you are from has everything to do with being hospitable, being open, being non-judgmental towards people.
Those are parts of that culture, so your first conversation with someone, you have these funny things that happen where you go to this really small town that does not get touched by the outside world, and you go knocking on doors, and someone opens the door and is standing there with a shotgun, you’re like “Never mind.” Then that dude with the shotgun shows up at your set and is like, “I just thought you were from the IRS, but if you guys are making a movie, I would love to help out. What can we do? Come over for dinner.” It switches in a very vast way and is part of the nature of the culture and it’s part of the nature of making films as opposed to doing anything else. Like everyone loves movies, so when you come down there making an fictional film that’s an adventure story, everybody wants to be a part of that, so it’s a great tool to open doors.
Capone: I want to get deep into this apocalyptic idea and the fact that this little girl actually thinks she has set off something that will result in the end of the world . That’s a really heavy thing to put on the shoulders of a six-year-old girl. Did you have any issues directing her as someone who has never been directed or acted?
BZ: Quvenzhané [Wallis, who plays Hughpuppy] was one of the most traditional directing experiences on the film. She really is an actress even though she hasn’t done it, she’s got an inborn talent where she fundamentally understands what to do even sometimes without you telling her, and so creatively we had a real partnership on it. We had a very sibling relationship, but it was very much not tricks or smoke and mirrors. We would talk about the scene and the motivation, and she would know where her beats had to change. She really was able to understand and internalize that stuff, and you could talk to her like an adult.
The hardest thing about working with a kid is a film set’s natural tendency is to be like a bubble of panic and stress, and you can’t let that touch her, because kids very much sense whether or not you are paying attention to them or whether you are respecting them or whether you are having fun and what you are doing. So when she would come to set, and I would be too stressed out to really give her the attention that she needed, it would reflect itself in the performance. So we had to figure out systems where we would get everything set, the camera would be set, we would know where are focus points were and everything would be locked in before she got to set. Then when she got to set we would mess around for like 15 minutes and waste time, so that it wasn’t panicked, and we would just play, like play catch with the gaff tape and run around and pull someone’s pants down, and then we would start shooting, but we would be totally ready. The crew would be ready, and then we would play to kind of keep the atmosphere a place where she could breathe normally as a kid.
Capone: And I meant truly what I said last night, I will probably never use the expression “non-actors” again, because they are actors. You made them actors, and I can’t imagine trained professionals doing any better. Did you ever consider bringing in some professionals or people who had done this before, and if so, why did you opt not to do that in the end?
BZ: It was a chemistry thing. Everything else for the film was local, everything else was organic from the place, but bringing in something from the outside on screen just felt really wrong. Her chemistry and her performance was really unlocked by Dwight in the picture and I immediately felt like they had a real relationship and they understood one another on some sort of fundamental level. It also was the collaboration where I learned a tremendous amount about the place and the people through the process that we’d go through with these actors, all of these interviews that we’d do to rewrite the script to get it closer to their lives. So it was a tremendous resource in that way.
Then also, no one on the film had any experience. I hadn’t directed a feature film before. The producers, the financiers, the cameraman--it was everybody’s first time. So it’s not like you’re in any better position to be able to execute things. You find people in all of those positions that we feel like their heart is in sync with what we are trying to say. Not that they're like their character, but that they're somehow like the thing that we want to say about people. All of the actors are examples of what I want to say about what people are like, or what they could be like. My favorite people are these people that inspire me, they are on screen playing the roles, and I think that that comes through.
Capone: Could you talk a little bit about your Sundance experience? On top of just getting in, winning the Grand Jury Prize [Drama], and then having your film bought, what was going through your head? It had to just be a whirlwind of unbelievable experience, one after the other.
BZ: Yeah, that’s a good description. You're just sort of tumbling, and we didn’t finish the film until two days before the festival, so it wasn’t like something that we considered among our goals. Maybe the producers were doing it, but I certainly wasn’t. It was really about trying to get the film to the finish line and feel like when I showed it it was something I was proud of and I didn’t have regrets about, which I almost did. We actually went back and did three more weeks of work after Sundance.
But you never really think about all of that stuff, you're just thinking about the film on its own terms, whether it’s going to accomplish that. But then when all of that starts happening, it’s a real shocking moment of unity, and you just don’t expect people to understand what you were talking about necessarily, and they never did. We previewed the film a million times and showed it to a million advisors, and it never worked. But at Sundance, I felt like people were understanding it on a level that was like what we talked about internally, and that was the most exciting moment. Some of the dialogue after the screening, some of the reviews that came out, seemed to see the film the way we did.
And not just that it was a positive, there were things in those reviews that sounded like conversations that we had in the bar before we started shooting the film that we probably hadn’t talked about for for three years, and then you start to remind yourself of what you were thinking when you started out, and you start hearing that in someone else’s voice. That’s the moment when you’re like, “I think that we might have gotten this. I think we did it.” And that was the most transitional moment where you start to get outside of your own head and realize that “this thing is now in communication with the world.” It was very exciting.
Capone: Even though you were in competition at Cannes, were you at least able to kick back a little bit and say, “Hey look, we’ve already won this one prize, it’s already sold. Let's enjoy ourselves.”
BZ: Definitely. No one on the crew ever thought about the awards or what the possibilities were. It all feels like such a blessing, and if the film comes out and bombs, I’m not going to go and lock myself in a room. The fear and the pressure isn’t really internal; it’s about getting the film to where I’m happy with it and the people that worked on it are happy with it. Beyond that I don’t feel competitive about it. I don’t feel like, “God, we might not win.” It’s not like that.
Capone: I wanted to talk specifically about the storm sequence, which is shot from inside their house.
BZ: Yeah. [Laughs]
Capone: Except for that moment where runs outside. It makes it so much more terrifying. The soundscape in this film is incredible, but in that sequence I really noticed that it’s all about the noise and the little bit of water coming in. Some of my favorite horror films are about what you're hearing and not what you are seeing.
BZ: Well it’s a great thing. I think it's something that’s getting a little lost in the world with digital technology. It’s like you're bound by your production capabilities. We had no way of uprooting trees and having them fly through people’s windshields. That was not going to happen, and it was something that I labored a lot over, because it is the centerpiece for the movie, and you are terrified that it’s going to feel cheated, because you can’t do any of the stuff that happens in the storm. But then I went to the TV station and got all of this home video from the [Hurricane Katrina], and it’s all interior.
Once you think about the film from her point of view, she would be inside. It would be dark. You wouldn’t see that much, and you end up in a higher state of realism, because you're disciplined by the fact that you only have one rain machine. So we set up sprinklers on top of the roof and let the water drip down. From this footage that you see from Katrina, somebody's in their attic with a video camera, you're in total darkness, and maybe when you see a little bit of light, there’s rain coming through the light, but there’s not a whole lot of rain that you see. So yeah, it’s a lot scarier and a lot more true to how you would experience that.
Capone: It’s a good thing that’s the scariest way to show it, otherwise…
BZ: Otherwise we would have been screwed. [laughs]
Capone: It was really great to meet you. Best of luck. Thanks a lot.
BZ: Great to meet you, too.
-- Steve Prokopy
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July 5, 2012, 2:43 a.m. CST
LOVE this movie.
July 5, 2012, 3:21 a.m. CST
July 5, 2012, 4:01 a.m. CST
July 5, 2012, 10:28 a.m. CST
by Raymond Shaw
July 5, 2012, 5:34 p.m. CST
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, haunting and lovely. Seriously, a victory for all filmmakers and movie-goers.
July 6, 2012, 8:17 a.m. CST
July 6, 2012, 9:33 a.m. CST
Whether or not the beginning of this interview reads like he is on acid, I'm so happy for him that this is the direction his life has gone!
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