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Benh Zeitlin

Citypaper talks with writer/director about his first feature

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Director Benh Zeitlin consults with Quvenzhan� Wallis on the set

Writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild (co-written with Lucy Alilbar), won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes. He spoke with us about working with a magic concoction of unpredictable elements.

City Paper: There are some pretty strong parallels between Beasts of the Southern Wild and your previous short film, Glory at Sea, but I’d also heard that Beasts is based on a play by your co-writer, Lucy Alibar. How did these two separate pieces come together to form a feature-length film?

Benh Zeitlin: It sort of started as two separate projects, actually. I was trying to find a follow-up to Glory at Sea. I had gotten to know a bunch of people who were sort of holding out in New Orleans right after the storm, when I moved down there, and [were] interested in telling a story that celebrated the point of view of hold-outs. Lucy’s play we were working on separately and, at a certain point, I started to realize that I was kind of telling the same story in two ways.

CP: So you were planning on making two feature-length films?

BZ: We were intending to make Lucy’s thing into a short, and then the Louisiana movie was supposed to be a feature. It was all kind of unclear. Really, we were just researching two different projects, and then we got a call from the Sundance Labs, asking about what script we had, and then all of the ideas just ended up converging in a very organic way.

CP: What was that process like?

BZ: It was great. The whole idea of what I sort of wanted to do with the film and in general was very much about collaboration, so it was really cool. It’s not just my vision in there; it’s really an idea that I had combined with Lucy’s world and then also combined with the voices of all the actors in the film, who all get a tremendous amount of agency to change the script. [It’s] also a real collaboration with the community and the locations where we shot the film.

CP: So, on set, if an actor felt like a line didn’t work or they wanted to go in a different direction, they were welcome to do that?

BZ: Yeah, I mean that largely happened before we were on set. We did months and months of rehearsal and interviews and developing the characters, alongside finishing the script and alongside finding the locations. We tried to keep everything really fluid and let the different elements of the process flow into one another.

CP: The nice thing about the film is that it does feel very open, but at the same time, there are a lot of rules still governing it. It feels very self-contained. How did you keep things from getting too sprawling?

BZ: It’s something that Sundance Labs helped us out a lot with. It’s a real disciplining program, where you get very sure about what your story’s about and what the emotion of the story is and where it comes from in your life. The film actually has a very straightforward structure that’s about emotion. While the events can be unpredictable and the plot doesn’t follow a plot you’ve seen before, there’s an emotional trajectory, almost the way a song has an emotional trajectory. It always felt like one event followed the other. There was a natural flow that kind of builds to this symphonic ending.

CP: This is your first feature, and your two stars were non-actors. Did you find yourselves learning together?

BZ: It wasn’t just us. Our financiers had never financed a film. The producers had never produced a film. It was really the first time out for almost everybody on the crew. There was sort of a bit of a recklessness and a bit of a fearlessness that comes with that.

CP: Was there some stumbling along the way?

BZ: Sure. [Laughs.] It’s a chaotic system. We are intentionally using a lot of elements you can’t control in the film. We want to be spontaneously reacting to water or spontaneously reacting to children or animals—all these things that are actually impossible to predict. It feels sometimes like we’re setting the film in motion and then chasing after it in some ways. You have your successes and your failures, but I think, in the end, you end up with a fabric that feels like it’s lived-in, and it has real love and real passion in every stitch.

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