Director Benh Zeitlin unleashes Beasts of the Southern Wild's fairy tale
Less than eight years ago, Benh Zeitlin was still working on student films. This year, his debut feature won major awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fablelike tale of a six-year-old girl weathering a storm off the coast of Louisiana, is getting rave reviews and playing to sizable audiences everywhere.
“I know it’s seen as an art film,” Zeitlin says, calling the Georgia Straight from a café in Toronto. “But I always wanted to make a movie for everybody.”
Not quite 30, Zeitlin has a long-standing thing for fairy tales. He was raised in Queens, New York, by parents who are full-time urban folklorists. At Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, Benh (the unusual spelling is a contraction using his middle initial, for Harold) worked alone for a while and then helped found a filmmaking collective called Court 13. The moniker referred to an abandoned squash court they took over when dorm rooms were overflowing with props and storyboards.
“Court 13 became a name for the way we wanted to make films: organic, hand-crafted efforts that tell epic stories with zero resources.”
Their first significant product was “Egg”, which was Moby Dick somewhat disgustingly reimagined, in stop-motion animation, by an unborn baby chick. (This and other startling shorts can be viewed at the Court 13 website ) After graduating, the budding director helped make a comic short, “I Get Wet”, then decamped to post-Katrina New Orleans to launch “Glory At Sea”, a 25-minute tone poem giving an almost biblical response to the disaster for New Orleans and, by extension, America. When work started, most of his Court 13 cohorts showed up as well.
“That was after a general wander through Europe, and I had been planning to make it over there. It was always about a shipwreck, grief, and deciding whether or not you want to survive.”
“Glory at Sea” became a template for Beasts, right down to the fairy tale–like narration by a little girl caught up in the storm. Okay, but what’s with all the water?
“I don’t have a good explanation,” he says with a laugh. “I just love it, that’s all. I feel completely at peace on water and am drawn to boats of all kinds. It also serves as a key metaphor for the filmmaking process, because there’s always some major element you can’t control. You always have to change your plans, so it helps to stop intellectualizing and go for intangible sensations. All art needs that. You want your work to have a very physical taste.”
Indeed, the tactility of his film has provoked comparisons to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which had perhaps a hundred times the budget.
“Whatever your approach, or resources, you still have to be a craftsman,” Zeitlin declares. “It’s not about being random or improvising on the set. Shooting in difficult conditions, you have to remember the most important things you were looking for and what the audience will take from that. I mean, we’re probably more influenced by ET than by [Andrei] Tarkovsky. We’re very concerned with how the film is experienced, and we’ve screened it about a hundred times, editing it again and again. Now I think even action-movie fans will be entertained.”
A ruthless prune job always means dropping your darlings—tough even in more commercial surroundings.
“It actually does become harder in a genuinely collaborative effort like this. Almost every element you see is an artist’s personal work, created for the collective, but with a personal, stand-alone value. So when you pull something out to help move the story, you’re not just killing your baby—it’s someone else’s baby too.”
The it-takes-a-village strategy extended to his work with screenwriter Lucy Alibar—whose one-act play was absorbed into the earlier film’s allegorical structure—and to the actors they found in the search to make their vision real.
“We didn’t set out to use nonprofessionals, and there are a couple of pros,” Zeitlin confesses. “But in the end, it was more important to find folks, mostly from the region, who could best share the spirit of this venture. We rewrote the script massively around people who have a tremendous amount of agency in who they are already.”
Most memorable are little Quvenzhané Wallis, as the bushy-haired heroine called Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry, who plays her troubled father.
“In real life, Dwight’s a baker—a pro baker. And Quvenzhané is absolutely different from Hushpuppy. She really understands acting, emotionally. She may leave Louisiana, but she’ll definitely keep acting. The real deal, for sure!”
Watch the trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild.