Interview: Benh Zeitlin

It’s no surprise that Beasts of the Southern Wild writer and director Benh Zeitlin is just as curious about exploring the world as his protagonist Hushpuppy. I was ecstatic to steal away some moments with the filmmaker and talk about how working with young students inspired the story, his fascination with fables and fairytales and his favorite writing spot in all of Louisiana.

TSL: You worked with elementary school kids in Manhattan, helping them make short films. Did this experience inspire you in some way to make Beasts about a child?

Zeitlin: Definitely. There are even a couple of lines in the film that were said by kids from the school I taught at. It was great getting to work with kids who became conscious but aren’t subconscious yet. They just have a different notion about how things are connected. I started to become interested in the way those kids saw stories. I had always wanted to make a film from Lucy’s  [Beasts’ screenwriter] world. The moment I read her play Juicy and Delicious, I knew it was the one. I was in Louisiana at the time and doing a bunch of interviews with the people who lived there. I wanted to set Lucy’s world here. You wonder why these people stay, and I’ll always remember one of them told me,  “We’re made by the marsh, we’re a plant you couldn’t grow anywhere else”  This moment sort of informed the notion in Beasts that when you lose the things that made you, the whole universe falls apart.

TSL: I’m sure working with Q was incredible. She’s outstanding. I often feel children teach me more than adults. What are some of the things you learned from her? About the script, the character, or even yourself?

Zeitlin: Q was an incredible resource! Lucy and I were able to re-write up until shooting. We had the ability to take lines, and in rehearsal we could modify them. She offered her input. I always want the actor to be drawing from something personal, and they can explore this in rehearsal. You want the actors to see themselves in the role; it’s the same as a writer with their screenplay. You want an authentic performance. We did take more time because Q and some of the other cast members needed to learn technique and just how to “act.”

TSL: I saw This is 40 last night, and I really started to think about working with your family in film. My cousin and brother are both filmmakers. What was it like working with your sister Eliza?

Zeitlin: Well, Lucy’s brother was also working on the film! There were many sibling duos. When you’re making a film, you usually end up calling people closest to you for help. Eliza was involved a lot in the aesthetic of the film. Lots of the animals were hers. She lives in the woods and takes care of animals, so much of Hushpuppy is inspired by her. It was also nice to have someone on set that can articulate what you’re thinking or want without you having to do it. She has the credit,  “Featuring the art of” because all the funny homemade-found-art in the film is made by her.  She’s a sculpture artist, and she even built the tree house we used. She had a defining role in what the film looked like.

TSL: You also made the film with a sort of team of your Wesleyan alum. What’s it like working with that team? Do you plan to work together again?

Zeitlin: We credit the film to the collective, not to the individual. We’re making film in this unconventional way. We’ve developed this message together. It’s a great thing to have designed a life where you get to work with your favorite people. There’s a bunch of us living in New Orleans together.

TSL: Beasts has been called “Magic Realism.” Is this a type of genre you wish to explore more?

Zeitlin: With Hushpuppy, when you’re 6, there’s a mixture of imagination and reality that’s fluid. I’m just interested in finding a way to tell fables and fairytales in a realistic way. I’ve always loved Greek Mythology and Orpheus and the art of mythology for modern kids. You see this in E.T. or Robin Hood. Huck Finn was always an important character to me. I want to tell stories that transcend generations and cultures.

TSL: You’re sort of a jack-of-all-trades, acting as the composer, cinematographer, editor on many of your films. What’s it like wearing all those different hats? Is there one you enjoy most?

Zeitlin: Largely, it all feels like part of the same thing. I never had a career attitude towards what I was making. It all feels like this is what I do to make a story complete. I guess the most natural for me is writing music, even more so than writing a screenplay. But overall I don’t know that I could do one without the other.

TSL: I asked this same question of Lucy: What’s on your writing desk? Do you have a gold placard quote or mantra? 

Zeitlin: I never write at desks. I tend to have this method that I’ll write at one place till I have a bad day and then move to another place.

TSL: Do you have any sort of writing “nest” in your apartment?

Zeitlin: I draw my stories on cards, and I always have a mini keyboard next to me. I have giant piles of books. I love Ronald Dahl and the Ocean’s Almanac. Since I live in New Orleans, my apartment has a lot of black mold and like crumbling leaves! I do like writing by the water. There are lots of hidden ways to get near the water. I write by the canal, the river or travel down to the bayou.

TSL: Any certain spots you love to go? [he hesitates] Or you don’t have to give away your secret spots if you don’t want to!

Zeitlin: Exactly! Then they wouldn’t be the same! But I will reveal this incredible sculpture garden. It was built by hand and then the guy just waked away without shoes and no one ever heard from him again. Chauvin-it’s a hidden treasure.

TSL: Have any advice for writers? How do you keep your writing tools sharp?

Zeitlin: Keep your rent low. If I wasn’t able to do my work every day because I’m struggling to make ends meet, I’d have to change the ends. Don’t waste brainpower and emotional energy on paying the bills.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is out on iTunes and DVD!