How Benh Zeitlin Made Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Oscar nominee for Best Director transformed filmmaking as he assembled a new myth out of Hurricane Katrina

(Ethan Hill)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Zeitlin auditioned several thousand Gulf Coast girls for the role of Hushpuppy, initially conceived as age 9 to 12. “Of the 20 callbacks, half were white,” he recalls. Wallis, who’s black, showed up “looking like a warrior. She wasn’t exactly how we had imagined the character, but her spirit was the spirit of the movie.”

Though Wallis had never acted before, she handled direction and her director like an old pro. After one take, Zeitlin sidled up to her and said, “That was good. I just need a little more subtlety.” Wallis put him in his place. “I said, ‘I’m 6 years old!’” she recalls. “‘Do you really think I know what subtlety means? Come on! Gimme a kid word!’”

By reimagining the project to accommodate a kindergartner, Zeitlin completed a kind of counterintuitive directing trifecta. “There’s an old filmmaking adage: Avoid water, children and animals—they’ll destroy your film,” he says. Perhaps not coincidentally, all three elements are integral to Beasts. “The culture of filmmaking is antagonistic toward chaos. Most movies are designed to maximize order and structure. But if you come into a production with a preordained vision of how everything is going to be, you risk squeezing out spontaneity and ending up with this sanitized thing. I see my role as guiding the ship without controlling it too tightly, discovering the film by making it.”

Actually, Zeitlin didn’t so much make Beasts as mine it, generating material with his cast, then working with each actor individually. He strove for authenticity, paring the emerging possibilities until emotional resonance found its way onto the screen. “The narrative changed and adapted to whatever was going on,” he says. “We tested it against the actual people and places that are in it. If the story wasn’t true, it would break under the weight of those circumstances.”

That story was adapted for Beasts from Juicy and Delicious, a one-act play by Zeitlin’s pal Lucy Alibar. They had met around age 14 when both won a playwriting contest. “I wrote Juicy and Delicious after my funny, vibrant, strong-as-an-ox dad got sick and I was trying to make sense of the world,” says Alibar, who grew up in the Florida panhandle. “The character of Hushpuppy was a boy because the whole thing was easier for me to talk about in detail if it was all happening to someone else. The aurochs came out of the red Georgia clay, grits fell from the sky, and Hushpuppy came into a grace and understanding that I was struggling to reach.”

In writing and re­writing the screen­play, she and Zeitlin jettisoned standard plot and character motivation, allowing the fable to meander from adventure to adventure. “I like taking grand stories and building them by hand, making them out of small parts,” he says. That artisanal approach informs nearly every aspect of Beasts: the ingenuity his kid sister Eliza showed in patching together entire sets out of scrap metal she found on location; the care with which cinematographer Ben Richardson shot the film from Hushpuppy’s four-foot-high perspective and turned detritus into objects of ragged beauty.

Zeitlin’s attention to detail is perhaps most evident in the swirling, Cajun folk-inflected score, which he co-wrote with composer Dan Romer. During marathon sessions in a Brooklyn recording studio, Zeitlin—who polished his musical chops in the high-school grunge band Sorry Porky—and Romer would toss lateral riffs back and forth like footballs. “We’d ad-lib for 20 hours straight,” says Romer. “I feel like Benh intentionally left out certain parts of the movie just so the music could fill it in.”

Such was the improvisational spirit that guided Zeitlin’s vision into cinematic reality. “Every member of the crew was encouraged to contribute ideas and content,” he says. “Whether it was sets, location or actors’ work, the idea was to let the people creating what will end up on-screen be themselves.” To create the marauding aurochs, a herd of Vietnamese potbellied pigs were outfitted with nutria skin and latex horns, then filmed from low angles in slow motion. “We made the movie as if it were a collage or a junk sculpture,” says Zeitlin. “We invited chaos into the process.”

He’s been cozy with chaos since boyhood. He was born and raised in New York City, where his favorite spot was the pinnacle of the Cyclone, the historic wooden roller coaster in Coney Island. He still makes a point of taking the white-knuckle ride every time he visits the city. “There’s a kind of euphoria that comes with knowing you’re about to do something terrifying and beyond your control,” says Zeitlin. “I get the same sort of thrill while making a movie.”

He and Eliza misspent much of their youth in Coney Island. Their parents, folk arts scholars Steven Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan, would bring them along while collecting oral histories at the amusement park. “Our family spent lots of time with carnival barkers and other sideshow performers,” says Dargan, who, like her husband, earned a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. “The four of us share a real love and appreciation for icono­clasts who hold on to older forms of entertainment and keep going as long as they can. They’re extraordinarily wonderful people.”

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus