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When the Levees Broke Our Hearts

A Conversation with Benh Zeitlin

southern film

Shirley Temple is dead.

Well, not literally. A quick Google search reveals Shirley Temple is very much alive. She’s still hanging in there at eighty-four, the old girl. Did you know she went on to a rather prolific career in public service? U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, even. At least now we know the solution to scarce resources and corrupt governments: more animal crackers. More soup.

What I mean to say is that the “Shirley Temple” way of thinking is now defunct, deceased, obsolete. Benh Zeitlin’s new film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, declares it so. Over the years, the mirror we hold up to ourselves in film has defogged to include performers of diverse nationalities, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, and handicaps. God knows there’s never been an excuse for a sub-par performance from the elderly, as the theater is littered with once-prominent film actors waiting to be “unearthed.”

But what about the kids? Temple warbled “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in 1934. Nearly sixty years later, a bug-eyed and wide-mouthed Macaulay Culkin slapped a hand to each side of his face in Home Alone. To be sure, there has always been a place for naturalistic young performers in well-directed films, but rarely has that place been front-and-center. The moment a child is charged with carrying a film, we expect it to traffic in dimples.

We’re lucky, then, to witness the moment in which the medium, after years of bucking and snorting, finally reared back and kicked in the door to an authentic childhood perspective. The opening salvo against the thoughtless youngster film is difficult to pin down, but its Waterloo might have been Spike Jonze’s rendition of Where the Wild Things Are, after which a friend of mine was shoved into the cinema’s bathroom with a sincere recommendation to pull herself together.

“But he was going to leave, and Carol wasn’t going to say goodbye!” she wailed as the door shut on her wet and crumpled face.

The crux of it is this: Children are soul-filled. They are also the most fragile of us, and the most tread-upon. They always, without exception, know more than they are meant to, and, as a result, live mostly in their heads. That we might be emotionally unprepared to meet our childhoods on the big screen is indicative of how vital it is for film to untell its former lie: pantomimed foot-stomping and preternaturally witty banter—childhood without complexity.

On the forefront of this new frontier is a troupe of young actors whose instincts run deep—Max Records, Chloë Moretz, Hunter McCracken, the Fanning sisters. With a dynamite turn in Beasts, Louisiana-native Quvenzhané Wallis becomes the new head of this class. Director Benh Zeitlin coaxes from her an unaffected and authentic performance, less precocious than ferocious.

We follow Wallis’s character, Hushpuppy—camera nestled in her line of sight—as she canters through “The Bathtub,” her soon-to-be-flooded Delta environment. After a deluge that’s understood to be analog for Hurricane Katrina, Hushpuppy participates in the banding-together of those left behind: a few drunks, her wise and mystic school teacher, a man whose suit remains inexplicably clean. None of the characters in this motley crue strike more than one note, but the heightened glimpses we receive emulate the ways in which kids remember the adults who surrounded them in adolescence. By contrast, the gaggle of newly orphaned girls who follow Hushpuppy remain wordless, a silent homage to those lost in the storm.

There’s a moment in Beasts that serves almost as a mission statement: In a fit of rage, Hushpuppy slugs her sick father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the chest. His subsequent collapse is spliced with footage of storm clouds and collapsing ice shelves, a collapse which allows for the thaw and release of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. Though intricately layered, the metaphor is simple enough: Wink’s hardy denial grows with every swig of beer, but his need to toughen his daughter against future calamities belies his gut feeling about the state of things. Hushpuppy assumes responsibility for both the degeneration of her father and the collapse of the environment—as a child would—and sees no reason to compartmentalize the two events. The aurochs, meanwhile, grow ever-nearer, reminders of both the animalistic wealth we lost when we left the Garden and the few, merciful traits separating us from those beasts that devour the weak amongst themselves.

southern film

As Beasts approaches wide-release, you’re sure to hear the term “Southern fairy tale” bandied about, but it’s a term that fails to do justice. Fairy tales are too thin; there’s rarely a method to them and they have little to teach us. Beasts, by comparison, elevates its characters to the level of myth. If certain plot devices are convenient, they are convenient in the way Beowulf happens to catch a glint of light on the sword he needs to vanquish Grendel’s mother. If Hushpuppy is sometimes deprived of the physical struggle usually reserved for such heroes—say, when a passing vessel precludes a potentially disastrous swim—this says even more about our human nature than an auroch foil. In the post Katrina Gulf, it is not difficult to suffer, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone suffering alone.

Of course, Hushpuppy does struggle; she struggles to find the strength to face a rapidly changing world, both in micro- and macrocosm. Though Hushpuppy and Wink have a rule—No cryin’—you would be forgiven for breaking it before they do. As a matter of fact, you’d be forgiven for sobbing through the entirety of the last act, starting with the narration “I can count all the times I’ve ever been lifted on two fingers.” You can “build around your heart a wall,” as the Shovels & Rope tune goes, but that wall—like the levees—will eventually overflow. A storm you didn’t expect; sweet, sweet ruin.

Our interview with Beasts director Benh Zeitlin is below. Zeitlin is a founding member of the Court 13 filmmaking collective, which is based in New Orleans. Beasts is his first feature film.



THE OXFORD AMERICAN: It’s our understanding that you grew up in Queens, but have family based in South Carolina, and maybe other places in the South. 

Benh Zeitlin: Mostly all in South Carolina. They’re pretty concentrated.

The OA: How do you think your Southern ties influenced you in making a film set in the South? Or do you think, on the flip side, that growing up in Queens interfered in any way?

BZ: [laughs] No, you know, every year my family has a ceremony called “The Family Games” where about three hundred of my cousins get together in this field with an old railroad house on it, and we chase chickens and shoot skeet and chase pigs. Certainly you can see that in the culture of The Bathtub. If you heard my Mom, you’d understand. She’s a Southern belle. 

The OA: The community emphasis in Beasts seems to resonate—not only with your family get-togethers, but also with your filmmaking collective Court 13. Court 13’s particular brand of immersion—living the story, allowing the actors to inform the characters, merging narrative and documentary filmmaking techniques—is echoed in films like Blue Valentine and your fellow Little Rock Film Festival selection Tchoupitoulas. Do you think the Court 13 philosophy produces more truthful films than the typical Hollywood system?

BZ: You know, I think there’s something to the idea that films have the potential to emerge from different cultures in Hollywood. I think Hollywood expresses its own culture very well. There are so many other cultures on the planet, but even when Hollywood films are shooting in another place or in another culture, the system of making the film still emerges from a very particular personality that comes from New York or Los Angeles. The way in which we’re doing things is very much of the culture of Louisiana. We try to bring the way people relate to one another in Louisiana to our set and do things in a way that expresses that culture.

Anywhere you go in the world, music is going to be different, because it emerges—and the actual process emerges—in a different way. If you go to Brazil, people use different instruments. They attack their instruments in different ways, they dance in different ways. We’re trying to create a different brushstroke, and a different process, and use different instruments, and do things in a way such that every element of the process is expressing the culture and the story we’re trying to tell.

I think it’s really exciting to start seeing that people are inventing ways to make movies that express the region the film comes from.

The OA: Beasts has been feted at Sundance and Cannes (and, recently, Little Rock)—what about Louisiana? Are you nervous about the hometown reception, or have you already seen glimpses of what that might look like? 

BZ: So far, so good. Everybody from Louisiana has a very different take on the film. It’s funny, the further away we get from Louisiana as we travel, the more the film plays as a fantasy movie. When we showed it in Europe, people were talking about it as a fairy tale.

When you get close to where it was shot, people recognize everything. They see that it’s not a document of a place—The Bathtub isn’t a real place or anything like that—but it very much is built from real things. So far, every time we’ve shown it to someone from Louisiana, they respond and recognize it as realism. It’s just being expressed through the eyes of a six-year-old and in a very heightened way. That’s my favorite response to the film, so it’s been great. 

The OA: Dwight Henry is a baker, Quvenzhané hails from a local elementary school. In watching the two lead actors on screen, it is incredible to think that neither of them are “professionals.” How do you feel you brought out their best, and do you think classically-trained actors and filmmakers are becoming less and less important, in that sense?

BZ: No, I don’t. Those two (Dwight and Quvenzhané) were perfect for these roles, but I don’t think that means you don’t have to learn how to act. They learned how to act—it wasn’t like they just walked on screen and did that. It’s just a very different process, where we do tons of interviews and re-write the script around their experiences, around their language, and sort of let the film transform and allow them to speak for themselves.

Even though they’re not playing themselves, they would always re-write their dialogue to the way they would say something or the way they would express something, even down to motivations and choices they would make in certain situations. We had enough flexibility to write that into the script, and I think that’s in the nature of what we’re doing. We want that spontaneity, we want to create that realism.

If we were shooting with a very rigid script—if we were going to make a Coen brothers movie, where there’s precision in every frame and the blocking is perfect and it has this refined feeling to it—that approach wouldn’t have worked. Everything had to be very, very flexible in order to allow these real-life elements to breathe. 

southern film

The OA: Likewise, how does it feel—having worked so intimately with Dwight and Quvenzhané—to see them released into the wide world of show business? Does it make you nervous to imagine Quvenzhané being interviewed on the red carpet by Joan Rivers?

BZ: [laughs] It’s surreal, that’s for sure. We’re all doing it together, we’re all going to a new city right now as a big family. It’s crazy. I mean, we never imagined any of this stuff. But both of them, and our whole team, are extremely grounded. We all have great lives back in Louisiana that we love and are going to go back to. No one really got into this film to “get out” of anywhere, and I think that’s still the feeling: We want to keep working together, we want to be working in Louisiana, and nobody’s trying to go through the looking glass into some crazy Hollywood world.

The OA: One thing I love about the aurochs in Beasts is that they aren’t branded as “good” or “bad,” necessarily—they’re allowed to exist without judgment being passed and without one specific interpretation being forced down our throats. Was that always the goal, or did your and Lucy Alibar’s usage of the aurochs evolve over time in the screenwriting process? 

BZ: It definitely evolved over time, but that was the intention by the end. I always have a hard time putting villains in my movies, because I don’t want anyone or anything on screen that I don’t love and respect. I think, in the play, they’re just this force of destruction that’s coming.

Hushpuppy has a very binary relationship with nature, where at once she feels like it’s trying to consume her, but also, in it, she sees the majesty and the unity and the beauty of the universe. It’s something that she is conflicted about and is trying to come to terms with throughout the film. Part of the reason we wanted them to be real animals is that we wanted to have this moment of empathy, and Hushpuppy’s real superpower is her sweetness and her refusal to judge anything. She doesn’t see hierarchies on the planet; she sees everything as equal. She sees the good in this giant animal that’s coming to destroy her and her town and her father, and she sees the similarities between her and that beast.

The OA: Your colleague Ray Tintori has worked with Spike Jonze. Would you agree that with Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and now Beasts, we’re wading into new territory in terms of authentic films from a child’s perspective? What do you think it takes to pull that off? 

BZ: I think a lot of films are about children, but in the adult world we tend to disrespect children and think of them as just malformed adults. Like they’re on their way to some “goal,” you know? I spent a lot of time teaching kids, and in so many ways they’re smarter and wiser than adults, and have a clearer point of view on the world that’s less cluttered and less corrupted.

Our film is trying to respect the point of view of a six-year-old and respect the reality that she believes in. We’re not saying it’s just an illusion based on being a child. We actually give the film to her and let her point of view speak for itself.

The OA: What part of Beasts is most important to you? Do you feel you achieved everything you set out to achieve in the film?

BZ: To me, it was the characters. That was new territory to me; I’ve never actually directed actors before. In this film, with these complex characters, it was really important for me to create realistic performances, and I’m really proud of all the performances in the film. I think that’s the most important thing. I don’t think any film works if you don’t have characters that feel real and that you care about. When I watch the film, I care so deeply about every character.

It’s the nature of working on these films that you’re setting up impossible obstacles at every turn, and you only get some of them. You have all these shots where it’s like an Olympic event—you get one chance on the high beam or whatever—and sometimes you make it and sometimes you fall off. 

But when the film plays, whether it’s in Louisiana or across the ocean, there’s something in the most central feeling we were trying to express that people are feeling. So I think we managed to articulate what we were trying to say, and what we were trying to get people to feel.

The OA: Why are you a filmmaker?

BZ: I was always someone that made lots of different things—I did plays and music and writing—and it was a way to collect all of the stuff I wanted to do into one big package.

The thing I love most about movies is that it allows you to create your own universe. You write a story, and—especially with the way we’re making films—you get to go to some extraordinary place and live there, and you get to populate that place with all the people you care about. My editor and I met when I was born; we’ve known each other since we were zero. My sister was designing art. All my friends I’ve ever had worked on this film. 

Film has the ability to allow you to create your own universe. I don’t know any other profession where you get to say, “Everybody I’ve ever known: We’re going to go here and we’re gonna tell this story and live in this wild way for three months, and then somewhere down the line, at the end of it, we’ll have something we created to show the world.”

Read The Screener columnist Levi Agees review of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

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