Friday, September 18, 2020
By Dave Walker, communication specialist

The 2012 film Beasts of The Southern Wild was the toast of the Cannes Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for four Academy Awards. Set in a mythical bayou community called "the Bathtub" and adapted from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, it was filmed in south Terrebonne Parish and celebrated its local premiere at the Joy Theater in New Orleans.  

Earlier this year it made a stirring underdog run to the finals of THNOC’s movie-themed New Orleans Bracket Bash, and now it’s the September 28 selection for #NolaMovieNight. To help us celebrate one of the triumphs of recent Hollywood South creativity, Benh Zeitlin—who directed, co-wrote (with Alibar), and co-scored (with Dan Romer) Beasts of the Southern Wild—answered a few of First Draft’s questions on video, a transcription of which follows. Watch Benh’s video Q&A here.

Director Benh Zeitlin is shown on the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild. (Image courtesy of Benh Zeitlin.)

Q: Did anything happen during  the shoot, good or bad,  that made you think, “God, only in south Louisiana?”  

A: Many things. One that was kind of epic was that Deepwater Horizon happened while we were shooting this film, the oil spill, and a lot of our locations were past where they were going to set up the [oil-containment] booms. So we were watching the oil approach our sets, essentially. It was this sort of connected-feeling thing because the whole film has the aurochs approaching, we're watching the oil approaching, there was this dark sense of doom that was coming in. 

We were on the verge of just having to sort of say, “Oh, we’ve got to abandon all of these places we were going to shoot.” We had a whole local crew down in south Terrebonne, in Pointe-aux-Chênes, Isle de Jean Charles, Montegut. They were like, “Don’t worry about it.” Which is like a classic thing. I remember people telling me, “Don’t worry about that. It’s going to be taken care of. Just don’t ask any questions and know it’s going to work out.”   

Come the day of the shoot we’re taking the boats out, those yellow booms are out there. Sure enough, we get there and the guy who's working for BP of course is like the cousin of the sister of the husband of the boat driver that we got out there with, and they have a little exchange, in come the boats, they move the booms, we drive out there and get our scenes, etc. It was just that sense of everyone's connected. If you know the right person, anything's possible. All that converged around that moment. 

What was the most important thing for you in bringing authenticity to the story line? 

I'd say, really, my cast. The whole way that I approach story is to be very humble with it and very open to change. The way that we cast the films, it's all shot with local performers, many of whom hadn’t acted before. 

The idea was to find people who were somehow connected to their character. Not that they were ever going to play themselves, but there was something in their spirit or their experience that spoke to these characters we created, and I try to never be too precious about my preconceived notions about how they would act or how they talk or what they do in a certain situation and always kind of be open to adjusting the story and the script and the character to what I would learn from the people actually playing the parts.    

Really, I learned what it was like to be a six-year-old little girl from Quvenzhané Wallis. I learned what it was like to be a dad with a young child in the middle of a hurricane from Dwight Henry. And really on and on and on to the cast, to the smallest characters. To me it was kind of this exploration and learning process and collaboration with the people, with the place, with the community that the film was about. And all of those things shaped the script in rehearsal and changed it radically and hopefully brought out things that felt real to the people in the movie and that felt accurate to the place. 

Zeitlin and star Quvenzhané Wallis speak on the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild, while actor Dwight Henry lays on a bed. (Image courtesy of Benh Zeitlin.)

Cannes, Sundance, or the Joy Theater on Canal Street? 

Obviously, gotta be a homer and say Joy Theater. And legitimately, it was that. When we made the film, we never imagined that it would become this national, global thing. Our wildest ambitions with the movie was that it would show in the theater for a week somewhere.  

So it was a real surprise that it traveled so far, and I always felt that there were things about the film that were really just intended to be seen here, that could only be really understood in south Louisiana. And I remember bringing the film home and feeling like you could have a real conversation about the movie that was different from some of the misunderstandings that maybe happen when people kind of think of south Louisiana and New Orleans as just one uniform thing, don't understand the nuances of the land and all the different regional differences to the different places that are here. So that was an incredible experience.  

Also just getting the whole crew together, that reunion was incredible. The most incredible feeling was seeing people lined up at the Prytania. I remember just feeling, “I can't believe this many people are going to see this movie.” It was so exciting. That was the peak for me. 

Do you ever feel that your film will someday be a record of a vanished place and people? 

Place, yes. People, no. Since I shot the film a lot of work has happened. For those who are familiar with south Terrebonne, particularly the bayou that goes down Montegut, down 55 and 665, down Pointe-aux-Chênes and Isle de Jean Charles—there's been a lot of work down there done to preserve much of the region. But the island itself is really still in a state of incredible peril at every storm. 

I'm sure people track the debate over whether people are going to leave or stay, but what I've learned—and I'm down there all the time and I have great friends down there—is that it's a truly indomitable culture and people. It's so specific to that region and to that land, and I just never cease to be blown away by how adaptable, how resilient—(by) the stubbornness and survival of the people in south Terrebonne.  

The land continues to change. Every time I go down there, there are places we shot that are gone. There's land that's now water. The decay and destruction is unimaginable and horrible, but I truly believe that somehow the people of that region are going to find a way to not give up their culture and their land and their way of life. I just don't think it can be wiped out, and that's what I learned making the film and just continues to be confirmed every time I’m down there.

Quvenzhané Wallis is shown on the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild. (Image courtesy of Benh Zeitlin.)

Aside from Juicy and  Delicious, where there any texts that influenced Beasts of the Southern Wild?  

I'm going to pivot and talk about some movies, I guess. A huge influence on me was Les Blank’s films, particularly the ones about Cajun culture and creole culture out  west, particularly Hot Pepper, Spend it All, and Dry Wood. I was really struck by the photography and the colors and the texture and just the warmth of his films—like the way that he's documenting the culture but it's not prescriptive, telling you  what it is or means. He’s embedded in the place and he's capturing a feeling, and he captures the sense of warmth and playfulness and humor about Louisiana that I was really struck by and really looked to capture both aesthetically and wanting it to feel real the way that his documentaries obviously are real. So we took a lot of aesthetic principles from how those films are shot. There was a feeling there that I really wanted to capture.     

One of the hardest things to get on film is real joy. It's very easy to capture pain. You have lots of movies where people are writhing in pain and shot in the face, and film is really great at that for some reason. But it's really hard to get happiness and joy and spontaneity because everything's so controlled on a film set. We really worked and studied these Les Blank films to see how we could get across this feeling he captured in reality, and hopefully we pulled that off. 

Crew members are pictured on the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild. (Image courtesy of Benh Zeitlin.)

Are there any questions you'd like to have been asked  and  would like to answer? 

I always want to speak to what are misunderstandings there are about the film, and in some in some ways it's maybe ridiculous because I imagine a lot of people (reading) this are from New Orleans and Louisiana. When we took the film out into the world, it was so interesting that people thought often that the film was about poverty—and that was the opposite of what we wanted to capture.    

Something that's really fundamental to me about these places in south Louisiana is that there's not a lot of money, there are not a lot of markers of wealth, but it's a place of incredible abundance in terms of how people eat, how they live. There's something really inspiring about how abundant and how rich in resources these places are even though they don’t look like what we commonly would think of as wealth. If you’re watching the film from a big city, it’s like, “Where are the phones? Where is the technology? And why is everything so close to nature?”  

Often when we think about wealth we think about people getting away from the land. And we really wanted to capture how tied to the land the people of "the Bathtub" were and people of south Louisiana are. We wanted to celebrate that and show this incredible ability to survive and adapt that people have because they are so connected to the environment and they understand it so well.   

It was an interesting thing to go across the world with the film and see the way that that was perceived as a lack of something when we really wanted to actually celebrate almost the opposite of that. I think that people always got that here more than they did in other places. I feel like if you watch the film and you end up on that track, you kind of miss something fundamental about what it's about.     

I'm so honored that this movie is being played in this context. I'm a transplanted resident in New Orleans and it just makes me really proud to know the people who live here are still watching the film and love it and understand what we were trying to say with it. So, thank you so much and I hope to be at a real movie theater with y'all soon. 

Watch Beasts of the Southern Wild with us! Tune into #NolaMovieNight on Monday, September 28, at 7 p.m. CDT. 

Benh Zeitlin's latest film, Wendy, which he co-wrote and directed, was released earlier this spring.