Beauty in the Beasts
By David Roark
June 27, 2012
This December, when "Best Of 2012" lists start rolling out, there is going to be a lot of talk about Beasts of the Southern Wild. Set in a forgotten bayou, this film—which won the Grand Jury Prize award at Sundance and a slew of other awards at both Sundance and Cannes—follows six-year-old Hushpuppy's attempts to survive her crumbling family and stormy surroundings by virtue of her boundless imagination. It's a sort of Charles Dickens meets Guillermo del Toro meets Terrence Mallick tale, but with a distinctly American flair. It's exquisitely shot, refreshingly lyrical and emotionally demanding, and you won't see another movie like it this year. Here, we chat with director Beinh Zeitland about the challenges of making an utterly original film, finding goodness in unlikely places and rescuing poverty from politics.
When you made Beasts, did you ever imagine it would be this special – this successful?
We always knew it would be special, but probably special like the way you would feel about finding a dirty crazy kid in the woods. Where you bring him home, and he breaks all the plates and throws food at the guests, and you never invite him back. Turns out, everyone wants to take this crazy kid in. They’re like, "Go ahead; break all the plates. We can get new ones. While you at it, throw some mash potatoes at me; this is fun." How do you feel about all the attention?
You feel everything at once all the time. It's a kind of an out-of-the-body experience. Because we never spent any time imagining this could happen or what it would be like, it feels like going down a water slide without any idea what's at the bottom of it. It’s an incredible thrill. At the same time, we feel very protective of how we did this in all its madness and weirdness and want to be really careful to keep our lives and our working methods intact when the slide ends, and it comes time to make the next movie. The film parallels Hurricane Katrina. What is your connection to that event and New Orleans?For me, the film isn't about Katrina specifically. I began the project in 2008 right after Hurricane Gustav and Ike hit. It was a moment when it felt like South Louisiana was going to exist indefinitely in a storm reality, where every year we were going to evacuate and get clobbered and that life was going to go on in defiance of what felt like an inevitable erasure from the map. I wanted to make a film about the last stand in defiance of that fate. The connection to New Orleans is like a love story. I moved here six years ago, the missus and I are still going strong. How did you avoid exploiting Katrina?
I wanted to take a series of real things that were happening, like Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike but also land-loss, salt water intrusion, global warming, rising sea levels, forced evacuations, and depopulation—and pull them out of the mire of political debate—who should've done what and when, George Bush, Obama, Ray Nagin, drill now, don't drill now—and elevate the story to the realm of a folk-tale or a fable. The film and the experience do not boil down to who to vote for. They boil down to a feeling—what does it feel like to lose your place, what will it feel like if in 100 years there is no such thing as South Louisiana and we have to look back on old maps and talk about it as this extinct beautiful culture that is gone. That is something that I feel transcends politics and has a universality that everyone, no matter their background or political affiliation, can relate to. Though dark and difficult, there’s a genuine optimism about the film. Do you consider yourself an optimist?
Yes. I see good in people, animals and everything, and I live in a place that sees the good in everything with me. It’s an open-hearted, resilient and triumphant culture. For me, the film is a kind of jazz funeral, where a dirge becomes a dance anthem. In the darkest moments, you have to go out dancing because that's how you beat the darkness. In New Orleans, you don't let death win.You’re probably tired of the comparisons, but I have to ask: Has Terrence Malick influenced you as a filmmaker? What other filmmakers and artists have inspired you?
I see good in people, animals and everything, and I live in a place that sees the good in everything with me.
I think there is something in flowing in the universe and nature that is outside the power of human perception, and I think that when you tap into it, there is an exhilaration that different types of people call different things—God, inspiration, enlightenment. I think that Hushpuppy [the protagonist] senses this order in the chaos and a flow in the ether, and though she can't grasp it, she knows it’s there taking care of her in its own psychotic way. How does religion, philosophy, spirituality – those sorts of things – influence your works? What influenced you most?
What influenced me most were people and places—docks, motels, boats, bars, bakeries and all the amazing people I encountered in them. Making movies for me is a way to explore the world and get to experience places I wouldn't never otherwise have access to. I see the film as a collaboration between me and my crazy crew and this incredible place we lived in. All its parts are pulled from the real world as fantastical as the film may be. That said, the way I want to tell stories is always in the form of a fable or a folk-tale—stories that take on important questions like death, family, morality, courage. And I think in that respect, the stories shares qualities with stories from the Bible. I'm not a religious or particularly spiritual person, but I love the Bible—it always takes on the big questions. Do you think spiritual and religious things are important to art?
I think science, art, religion, philosophy and politics are all different ways of interpreting the world and expressing your point of view on it. I don't see any hierarchy among the different forms of interpretation, with the exception of politics which I think is infested with liars and evil men. But even politics, in its purist form, is a way of understanding the universe and trying to affect it with an expression. I think to be really good at any of these forms you need to understand and respect all of the others. I might even add sports to the bunch. I don't know if you can understand anything without understanding boxing.
As the heart and mind behind Beasts, what would you hope for audiences to take away from it?
I want people to feel, for a moment, like they're from the Bathtub [the setting], like they have a little piece of the freedom and open-heartedness of Hushpuppy and her people. Because everyone has their own Bathtub, their own place and culture and people to carry forward and fight for. And hopefully the film inspires people to do that.
Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild will release this Friday.