Interview: Benh Zeitlin, ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

One of the most pleasant surprises to be found in UK cinemas last year was arguably Benh Zeitlin’s superb Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Having received wide critical acclaim across the world, such sentiments have since been echoed by the Academy, as the film received an impressive four Oscar nominations – including Best Director for débutante Zeitlin. We were fortunate enough to speak to the talented filmmaker in the week leading up to the prestigious event, where he discussed his own personal thoughts on the huge response his film has received, his time spent working alongside Quvenzhané Wallis and also his surprising relief at being able to move onwards from this particular project.

Stefan Pape: To begin with, congratulations on the four Oscar nominations – it must be a really exciting time for you at the moment?

Benh Zeitlin: It’s surreal – beyond anything I could ever have expected. The other directors in the category are incredible, so it’s amazing the film has gone from being this tiny little thing that I was making with my friends to being on this stage. It’s hard to even explain.

SP: How encouraging is it for both yourself and other independent directors that smaller films can get this kind of recognition?

BZ: I really hope that it’s one of the ripple effects of this. It’s so difficult to get films made and even harder to get it seen, so I hope that Beasts can create this pathway for other films to take. It can also help people that finance films, or people that distribute films, to look more carefully at stuff that is made by hand and being crafted in a very intimate way, as films that are viable and really stand a chance in the marketplace. I think that will really allow a lot of these films to get made and I really hope it has a great effect on not only independent film, but the outside of filmmaking.

SP: You must also be absolutely thrilled with Quvenzhané Wallis’ Best Actress nod?

BZ: I’m so proud of her, and that her character has become a character that people know and love, and recognise. It’s very, very rare that a kid from Louisiana gets a chance to act – it’s not like they have acting classes at the schools down there, so for her to get this opportunity to be an actress and to live a creative way potentially for the rest of her life, is really great. She’s one of my greatest friends in the world and I’m so proud of her.

SP: Wallis is outstanding in Beasts. What was it like being on set with her?

BZ: A lot of times, the way the film is shot, the performances are shot far away from you and you can’t see just how good she was, until we saw it on screen. We would watch it over at the end of the week with the entire crew and what she was doing with her eyes, and in silences, in all these really complicated ways when she was articulating emotion, really kept us going. It was a really difficult shoot and she consistently re-inspired people.

SP: Did directing a six-year-old in a lead role pose any new challenges to you at all?

BZ: There was a logistical challenge – you can’t shoot after the hours you would with a normal actor. You have to very, very conscious of energy levels – you know it would be a disaster if she would show up on set and then it would take an hour and a half to light a scene and she would be bored. We needed to have her focus, to have her energy and so we had to really make sure that when she got to set we were ready to shoot and be very strategic and specific with our directions. A six-year-old can’t act for 12 hours a day in the same way an adult can.

SP: There are few people in the film with any acting experience. What attracted you to go for that inexperience?

BZ: It was the individuals themselves. Originally, we were going to mix actors and non-actors and over the course of doing our casting search, we really just found people that were so good that we ended up not casting any professional actors. When I’m doing casting, I’m always looking for a person – whether they’re a professional actor or not. I’m looking for a certain type of spirit, a certain type of openness and willingness to go on an adventure, and we just found those people in South Louisiana.

SP: Where did the whole idea for Beasts come from?

BZ: It came from a couple of different places, but for me it came from the stories in South Louisiana and these towns in South Louisiana that are sort of falling off into the Gulf of Mexico. There are these incredibly resilient cultures that exist on the fringes down there that are fighting to save their homes and that is where I came into the story. The play comes from a very personal experience between Lucy Alibar and her father, and it was really telling both of those stories in one package. They were really the origins of the films.

SP: Beasts has a very naturalistic tone in places, yet it’s also incredibly magical at times – was it quite difficult to find that balance between the two?

BZ: It was something we had to think a lot about. What really became the structure of that was always being true to her character, and staying in the perspective of a six year old who experiences reality in a much different way than me and you. The world is populated with things that you can’t see and monsters under the bed and invisible friends, and all these connections that are taught later that aren’t true but are very real when you’re six. By always focusing on Hushpuppy’s head and what she was thinking about – how she was seeing the situation – you end up with a very surreal universe when you emerge from that perspective.

SP: Was it tough to achieve an epic sense of scale given the modest budget? 

BZ: There were some very grand things that we weren’t able to shoot and ways that we had to get around all the operatic stuff that you maybe imagine. We went and did things, and that’s how we created the film. The experience of making the film was a genuine adventure and so that allowed us to create an adventure. Actually, taking a boat in the Gulf of Mexico was an extremely epic undertaking, so by actually doing those things we hopefully managed to achieve that grandeur that the story had.

SP: What will you be working on next?

BZ: There are two projects that I’m not totally talking about yet. Basically, I don’t have anything written, but I’ll be going back to Louisiana next week and opening up my notepad and starting to write. It’ll definitely emerge from very much the same world as far as a lot of the same people will be making the film, and hopefully a lot of the same actors. It’s sort of our family. It won’t have any relationship with Beasts at all, but I think people will recognise it when it comes round.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is available to own on Blu-ray and DVD now, courtesy of StudioCanal.

Stefan Pape

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