Benh Zeitlin: "This is how we make things"
A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Benh Zeitlin, a 29 year old Queens raised, New Orleans based filmmaker whose debut film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is setting the international community abuzz: inevitably spurred by its Cannes scoop of the Camera d’Or and it’s big win at Sundance of the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. Zeitlin’s film is framed like a grandiose folklore and set literally a world away, in a community defiantly settled on a sinking levee (‘the Bathtub’) in the deepest, forgotten south of Louisiana. Six-year-old Hushpuppy lives among it as a tiny but integral part of the environment and its natural rhythms, along with her ailing father, Wink. When a storm wreaks havoc on her world and upsets its order, Hushpuppy must learn how to stabilise the pulses of the world around her in order to avoid what would otherwise be an impending catastrophe.
Benh, in a lot of interviews you describe this magnetic feeling you have towards New Orleans, and wanting to encapsulate that in film. How old you were when you went there for the first time, and also what it is about that livelihood that you find so compelling?
The first time I went to New Orleans I think I was 14 or 15 years old, my parents brought me down, and it had a big effect on me. Creativity is out on the streets there, you walk down the street and hear different music in every bar and it just has this haunted feeling that I was really seduced by. There’s a black magic that’s very mischievous.
Is it more raw—compared to say, the cultivated interest in the arts that I can imagine that there is in New York?
Yeah, it’s a much less intellectual attitude towards art, art is for pleasure, you know. It’s much more raw: if you can’t entertain people, you don’t get to really go on stage. But the movie is actually not about New Orleans, it’s about south Louisiana which I kind of discovered a little more recently. There’s like a real toughness, a real resilience and a real sort of pride in survival and self-sufficiency that I think is really inspiring as well.
So did you find this community that inspired the Bathtub [where the film is set], or did you have the idea and then go and explore South Louisiana to see what you could find? Can you tell me about your creative process?
I had a sense moving out of my short film [Glory at Sea]—I had a group of people that I made that film with that were sort of the initial inspiration, the actors in that film really inspired me to want to make a film about holdouts and about people that refused to leave. Then I got interested in the front lines of that, not just in the city but...you see when you look on a map that there are these roads that go all the way into the marsh and then sort of end, that are the bottom of America, and I got interested in what was there and if that sort of reflected that same sort of mentality, and it does, but in a very different way.
My impression of Beasts of the Southern Wild was that it’s a more extreme encapsulation of that resistance that’s in Glory at Sea, and the nature is on so much of a bigger scale as well.
Yeah, it’s a much more rural movie.
I read a bit about your upbringing and how you were very much immersed in stories growing up. What is it that drew you towards film? Why not writing or photography or other mediums where stories can express themselves?
I think it was because it was because I was interested in so many different things, and with film, all of those things are a part of it. So, if you’re interested in photography and writing and music, and sailing boats, you get to do all of those things within film. As opposed to being a writer, you write a story and they you actually get to go out and live it.
And you can bring more people in as well, which I know is a big feature of your filmmaking.
Why are you so dogmatic about using non-actors?
I don’t think it’s something we’re actually dogmatic about, ‘cos I mean the original design was that it was going to be a mix of professionals and non-professionals. I think if there’s anything we’re actually dogmatic about it’s that casting is not a resume-based form. The spirit of the person playing the role is always going to be present, no matter how far away from themselves their performance is, so we were really looking for more than just acting chops...it’s like we’re trying to find people whose life reflects the characters and—something about them, is, feels like they’d be living in the Bathtub. You’re looking at a much broader set of qualities than you normally are when you’re trying to cast...I think we gravitate towards non-actors because they bring in, you know, like a whole world and set of textures that we’re interested in, as well as whether or not they can act.
Do you see this film as very much reflective of how you’ll work in the future?
Yeah. It’s not like the culmination of a theory, it’s just like: this is how we make things. And, it’s a funny thing too because you start off with non-actors but then, now they’re all actors, so we have this great cast of people that I’m interested in, and love working with and I think a lot of the same actors will appear in future films.
Do you know what kind of themes you’ll focus on in the future, or do you have any ideas for future films?
Yeah, I mean I have a whole list of movies I wanna make so, I think it’s a question of which one it’ll be. I definitely am going to make the next one in Louisiana, trying to get back home. It’s this sort of form of trying to tell big folk tales built by hand, that’s what I like to do I think.
Do you anticipate that you’ll use other stories, or kind of come up with your own?
I don’t know, I think it’ll all be original material...but I love mythology. Glory at Sea was inspired by the Orpheus myth, and Beasts of the Southern Wild had a lot to do with this play by Lucy Alibar. I like taking a text and then re-interpreting it. So I think that, not everything will come out of thin air but I don’t think I'm going to start making sequels or anything like that.
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems as thought Beasts of the Southern Wild can have quite environmental overtones, but then I read something from your artist’s statement that indicated that the film is more about the power of people and how we deal with tragedy, or loss, or destruction as it exists in nature and in the world. To what extent is Beasts of the Southern Wild an environmental film, if at all? Could you talk a little bit about nature in Beasts of the Southern Wild? So much of it is replete with like natural forms, it’s all so visceral...
Yeah, I mean that’s one of the things I love about the place where we made is it’s so connected to the land. It’s like you pull your meal out of the water and then you cook it and then you eat it and then you throw the shells back in and other animals are eating them—the food chain is very present.
I mean I don’t consider myself an environmentalist in like a political sense—I’m just not a political person. It’s not that I don’t—I love the environment and I love nature, but I don’t really care for political TV or politicians, or political movies and things like that. I’m much more interested in the human experience of nature and how it affects your life to see nature dying in front of you and how that affects a community and how that affects culture, how affects individuals. If you get me started on the environment in South Louisiana and what needs to be done about it, I have a whole set of opinions but to me, it’s just not an artistic question. If I had to get into politics, I would use a different form because I don’t think it really is a very effective thing to do in cinema, which I think is an emotional and story form.
Well, you can alienate people as well, because what’s so nice about cinema is that it’s about emotion. I think another really cool thing about Beasts of the Southern Wild is that the images that you’ve used really appeal to universal sensibilities.
Yeah and we didn’t want it to be divided. I think so many films, before you even get people to see them people know: ‘oh this is a leftie movie, this is a conservative film’, and then the only people that watch are the people that are already on your side and it doesn’t do anything. So I was interested in taking away that kind of divisive context. And it’s how I feel as well...I mean the film was made in a very red state, people that are very conservative politically worked on the film. I would never want to make a film in a community where the people in the community couldn’t watch it because it somehow had some political agenda—it’s a very complicated issue.Beasts of the Southern Wild is released nationally today.