Benh Zeitlin

Since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January 2012, Beasts Of The Southern Wild has received rave reviews.  It’s been talked up as a possible contender for next year’s Academy Awards.  You can check out my review by clicking here.


29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin was in Australia for the Melbourne Film Festival back in August and I was lucky enough to speak with him for 15 minutes about the film and his background.


You can download a quick audio extract by clicking here.


Matt:  You’re only 29 years of age and you’ve already made a film that’s been showered with praise.  Can I tell you how jealous I am to start out with?


Benh:  (laughs) Yeah, but then I’m going to bashfully turn away.


Matt:  I admit I don’t know a lot about you.  Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got involved in the film world?


Benh:  It wasn’t in a really pointed way.  I’ve been making art my entire life.  My parents always encouraged me and I never really knew any other path except for telling stories as a way of going about things.  I was always writing music, writing plays, writing stories and making movies with my free time.


I didn’t go to film school or anything like that.  I sort of had these stories that needed to be told in film so I made a bunch of shorts.  One of them was seen and someone asked me if I wanted to make a feature film and of course I said “yes”.


Matt:  So where did the interest come from in terms of taking this stage play from your friend Lucy Alibar and bringing it to the big screen?  What did you see in it?


Benh:  It sort of infused itself into a story I was already trying to tell about a community of people who were holding out on land that was disappearing out from under them.  That’s where I started having moved to New Orleans and living in Louisiana.  I wanted to tell this story that celebrated “hold outs” and what it means to hold onto your land and refuse to be pushed off it.


I found a parallel in this play that was written by one of my best friends who I’ve known since I was 12 years old.  It was the connection between a little girl that was losing her parent and a community that was losing its land.  I was sort of working on the same thing in two different places and then I realised there was this emotional connection between these characters and this broader story that ended up becoming the film.


Matt:  The setting of the film is so intriguing – an isolated bayou that’s protected by the levee.  Is this a real place?  Where did you shoot this film?


Benh:  Yeah.  It’s shot in the place that inspired the story.  When you drive all the way to the bottom of America, you’ll get to the very end and there are levees that protect the bottom of the country from the water.  You then drive over these levees to the unprotected side and the drive another 3 miles down this tiny little road and you get to this island called Isle de Jean Charles.


It used to be a thriving community but has now been sacrificed into the Gulf Of Mexico by those engineers who designed the levees.  It’s down to about 20 families who are desperately hanging onto their culture and their lifestyle and their land.  That story inspired a lot of the themes in the film and was also the place where we shot the film.


Matt:  When the storm rages up and the flood comes through there’s so much water and destruction.  I’m guessing you didn’t have a huge budget to work with so how did you create that without the help of special effects?


Benh:  Desperation and panic.  You run up against problems like that where the centrepiece of your film is a storm that you can’t create with the money you have.  I started watching a lot of footage we had from the storms and how they happen and how they’re photographed.  One thing that strikes you when you watch the footage that people shoot during hurricanes is that it’s all indoors and it’s often dark because it’s at night.


We then had this idea that to create this realistic depiction of what it’s like to go through the storm that’s not being outside with trees becoming uprooted and tyres crashing into your windshield.  It’s actually about being in a dark room that’s dripping with water and the sound of the storm outside.  We found ways to bring realism to the event that also allowed us to create larger things than we could have ever depicted on screen with a low budget.


Matt:  Was there a lot of help and assistance from the local community in making the film?


Benh:  Yeah, absolutely.  Down where we shot the film, if you’re on your own you’d be dead in two days.  There are rattlesnakes, poisonous spiders, sinkholes.  From the moment I got down there, I was sitting on the docks with a laptop looking completely out of place.  Someone would drive past in their boat and say “put away that computer boy, get on my boat and I’m going to teach you to hunt alligators”. 


I got this visceral indoctrination into a culture that’s extremely tough and very much in touch with nature.  Those people all came on board the film and were our guides to navigate this extremely hostile environment and ultimately become collaborators on the story.


Matt:  If there is one thing that people are going to remember about the film, it’s the performance of Quvenzhané Wallis.  How old was she when she made this film?


Benh:  When she auditioned she was 5 and when we shot it she was 6.


Matt:  How did you find someone like that who is so talented?


Benh:  We looked really hard basically.  We auditioned 4,000 girls over the course of 9 months.  It was both all that hard work and also a miraculous event that we found someone who has this inborn “star power” and talent.  People are going to know who she is for the rest of history as far as I’m concerned.


She’s a truly incredible star that we met by chance.  We had fliers in elementary schools and delis and through a trail like that, someone told her that she should walk into this audition at a local library and that’s what she did.  Now she’s going to be a movie star.  The way life goes that way is pretty wild.


Matt:  I love the music in this film and I’m a big fan of film scores.  I think I must have watched the trailer about 50 times after I’d seen the film just to hear the music again.  Of course you’re not only the writer and director of the film but also one of the composers of the film!  How do you do that?  How do you sit down and come up with the score for a film like this?


Benh:  It’s all kind of the same thing to me.  As I was saying, I didn’t really know what form I was going to work in growing up.  I sort of started in music and when I come up with a story and a narrative, music is always imbedded in that.  I never feel like I’ve completed the idea until I’ve written the film and then written the music for it.


The music in this film was really the way we experience Hushpuppy’s sense of her own story if that makes sense.  I thought back to when I was 6 years old and whatever you’re doing when you’re that age, there’s always a score.  You’re always either listening to the Batman theme in your head or you’re listening to Indiana Jones in your head.  When you’re riding your bike there’s always this heroic music playing.


We needed to give Hushpuppy her internal soundtrack.  I thought back to those themes and scores and we tried to come up with something that was iconic and made you feel a “sense of yourself” when you’re 6.  When we landed that tune, we felt it was a universal song that people would remember like a national anthem.  That’s was when we knew we had it.


Matt:  Well it’s terrific.  I’m going to be buying the soundtrack, I know that much.  For the story itself, at its essence, it’s a heartfelt story about a father and his daughter but there’s also these fantasy elements like the prehistoric beasts that we see roaming around.  I’m curious to know about why the mix between fantasy and reality?


Benh:  It was partly a reflection of trying to tell the experience of being that age when reality and fantasy aren’t separate things.  When you have a monster under your bed, it’s there.  It’s not a fantasy to you, it’s actually there and you have to wait until it leaves the room before you can fall asleep.


We tried to represent that in a realistic way.  The film is also inspired by very real, environment things that are happening in Louisiana that are causing the land to fall off into the Gulf Of Mexico but we didn’t want to tell a political story or make a “call to action” film.  We wanted to tell a fable or folk tale that anyone could watch in the world and understand it.


Part of the inspiration was to tell a folkloric fable like Huck Finn or Robin Hood or any of these iconic tales that can travel anywhere in the world and people can relate to them.  Part of the reason to tell the story from Hushpuppy’s point of view was to not tell something that is political but rather something that is more universal.


Matt:  The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize and then it went off to Cannes where you won the Camera D’or.  When was it you realised that you had something really amazing here?


Benh:  It was somewhere during Sundance but it definitely wasn’t before that.  We finished the film two days before Sundance and I was in an absolute panic to screen it.  It didn’t feel like it was finished.  At the first screening, I was sitting there thinking “we need to turn down the sound level on that dog barking” and “there needs to be a little more magenta in that shot”.  I was still kind of making the film.


After that screening, I was still all tortured but we started to hear from the audience and we started to hear people talking to us and understanding the ideas that we set out to express and the feeling that we wanted to convey.  It leaves you heartbroken but also invigorated.  It gives you hope and tragedy and it feels kind of glorious.  I started having people tell me that walking out of the screening and seeing their faces and it made me realise that we’d done what we set out to do.


If that was actually communicating to people of all ages and people of all types, we had accomplished it.  It started to dawn on me then that this might be something that was going to be shown in movie theatres.  We never imagined that when we were making the film… but here I am in Australia and it’s all happened.


Matt:  I’d love to finish up by asking how your life has changed in the past few months.  Touring with this film and going around the world – how has it been?


Benh:  It’s crazy.  No one prepares you for this idea.  It’s a beautiful thing.  I’ve always wanted to come to Australia since I was a little kid and never in my wildest imagination would I believe that by making a movie, I would get the opportunity.  It’s my first time here.


It’s an incredible thing in your life.  You look at your world as this tiny little city where you’re living and working and suddenly your world is the globe.  It’s a thrill, a privilege and an honour.  Hopefully it’ll allow me to make better films that communicate with the globe.


Matt:  Now that your name is out there, do you get offers of new projects?  Or do you have something in the works yourself that we should know about?


Benh:  Yeah.  I can’t totally talk about it yet but we’re very set on continuing to create original work and doing our own thing and making films using methods that are pretty unconventional.  We get a lot of offers and a lot of people trying to recruit us out of our world but we make films as a collective called Court 13 and we’re adamant about sticking to that and not jeopardising the things that got us to where we are.


It’ll be the same team on the next film so if people like this one, the next one will have the same kind of spirit and hopefully we can building something out of that. 


Matt:  Fantastic.  Well Ben, do enjoy the rest of your time here in Australia and I can’t wait for people to see your movie.  Thanks for speaking with us this morning.


Benh:  Thank you so much.