Benh Zeitlin, director of the year's biggest indie sensation, says "Beasts of the Southern Wild" creates new stories for a culture on the verge of extinction
Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is one of the most extraordinary debuts of the year – and beyond that, one of the most extraordinary, exhilarating films from anyone. A winner at Sundance, Cannes and the Los Angeles Film Festival, the film is strange, raucous, at times hysterical and in the end enormously moving, mixing bayou high spirits with a profound sense of loss and a few rampaging prehistoric creatures, aurochs, come back to life.
Zeitlin works as part of Court 13, a filmmaking collective named after the abandoned squash court at Wesleyan University in Connecticut where they got together. He attracted attention with a few short films, including "Glory at Sea," which was set in New Orleans and which has much of the same feel as "Beasts."
Your parents are both folklorists, so you must have grown up with one of the themes of the movie — that people in underrepresented communities have a voice that can live on.
Definitely. This is the way I see stories, the way I see the world. What I want to do is travel somewhere that I'd never heard of before and get to know people – and in retrospect, that's what my parents were doing in the Appalachian Mountains in the '60s.
My parents would come to the table and say, "Listen to this poem. This person was selling a T-shirt on the side of the road, and we transcribed it." And they were really good friends with the people who ran the freak show at Coney Island, so we'd go hang out with the freaks. There was this sense that art lives in everyday communication, and the way people tell a joke is as poetic as the Pulitzer Prize-winning guy who works at Harvard.
I can definitely see that I've joined the family business in some ways. [Laughs] That's hard to admit, because I always said, "I'll never be a folklorist."
In this movie, you're inventing your own folklore. The film draws from parts of New Orleans and a lot of deepest Cajun Country, but much of it is complete imagination.
That is the idea – not to be an anthropologist and document something, but to invent a new story with the parts that you find. It's the same sort of research and the same sort of attitude toward people, but we definitely want to bring new myths into the world.
Did you first go to New Orleans for [the short film] "Glory at Sea?"
My parents took me as a kid, and it always kind of haunted me. I had an early script of "Glory at Sea" and decided I was going to try to make it in New Orleans. And the city sort of rewrote the film. That sort of grassroots collaboration with a place and a culture was something that I was really looking to find.
"Beasts," in many ways, continues the feeling of that short.
"Glory at Sea" was a film about holdouts. "Beasts" is not a sequel, but sort of a continuation, an expansion about a group of people who are living on the precipice of destruction and hanging on and fighting for their homes.
I wanted to make a film, basically, about the end of the road. So I started driving to the end of every road in Louisiana, out into the marsh and seeing what the last towns were. And at a certain point I realized that the key to telling the story of holdouts was through the voice and perspective of this little girl from "Juicy and Delicious," a play from my co-writer Lucy [Alibar].
There's a beautiful, defiant, heartbreaking line that the little girl, Hushpuppy, says a couple of times in the film. It's a very simple line, but it seems to gain in potency as the film goes on: "Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub." Was that line a keynote for you when you were making it?
It was in an early draft of the script. The first time she says it, she is in a box making cave paintings. And the cave paintings were an incredibly important idea for me – the idea of the last mark that a culture on the verge of extinction makes.
The film has a "once upon a time" quality, a way of telling the story that isn't rooted in the logistics of the events. You know, when people talk about Katrina, they talk about Bush, and they talk about FEMA, and they talk about the oil spill — all this divisive stuff. I thought there was something really universal in this idea that you hear when you're down there. People tell you, "I'm hoping that I can live my life out on this land, but I know that my children will be telling their children, 'Once upon a time there was this place called South Louisiana.'"
So when I thought of that line, I thought, yeah, that's the last sentiment – that this little special place and this little special person is one day just going to be a story. People like this are endangered. One day they'll go the way of the aurochs and go the way of the caveman, and it'll just be something that we talk about in stories.