x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Sharing a secret at ADFF 2012

We speak to the director Benh Zeitlin about his chanting cast, huge hurricanes and avoiding he traps of Hollywood.

A scene from the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is set in the US Deep South. Courtesy ADFF
A scene from the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is set in the US Deep South. Courtesy ADFF

As dream debuts go, Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild takes some beating. Unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it won the Grand Jury Prize - the coveted award previously claimed by such illustrious directors as Todd Haynes, the Coen brothers and Bryan Singer. Then, at Cannes, it collected several prizes, including the Camera d'Or, awarded for the festival's finest debut. Not bad for a micro-budget drama shot entirely under the radar.

A touching father-daughter tale set in the Deep South, in a mythical rural delta known as The Bathtub, "we did this movie in secret of the world", explains the 29-year-old Zeitlin when we meet on a particularly stormy afternoon during Cannes. "No one knew we were down there. Even the Louisiana film commission barely knew what we were up to or how we were doing things. No one knew who we were. We're not going to be able to do it again in this secret way."

Documenting the relationship between a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her volatile, alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry), the backdrop of the film sees a brutal storm flood the region, though Zeitlin denies Beasts is about New Orleans' devastating Hurricane Katrina. "I specifically didn't want it to be based in reality and on specific current events," he says. "Especially in the States, when people start talking about that storm, it becomes a political thing."

A direct polemic this is not, although it did grow out of New York-born Zeitlin's time living in New Orleans, after he made the 2006 short Glory at Sea. "I wanted to make a film about what the pull of Louisiana is and try to make a film that responded to what was going on around the country - 'We shouldn't rebuild the 9th Ward, people shouldn't move there, they should stay where they are, why bother? It'll flood again.' I think I wanted to make a response to that and make a film about people that were holding out, refusing to abandon their homes."

If this makes it sound like a social-realist tract (and Zeitlin confesses he was influenced by the Louisiana documentaries of Les Blank), nothing could be further from the truth. As the title hints, Beasts is as much inspired by myth and legend as anything. With Wink falling ill, and The Bathtub on the verge of being submerged, Hushpuppy also must face the emergence of an army of rampaging prehistoric creatures called "aurochs" that have been unleashed because of the melting polar ice-caps.

While Zeitlin takes magical realism to the very ends of the planet, the reality was somewhat different. Shot around Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, the director's collaboration with his largely non-professional cast was "like an athletic event", he says. "I probably direct more like a football coach. There are a lot of tapes of me screaming 'Action!', trying to amp people up. We'd get into a scene and chant and push each other around. It was almost like you're a general in the foxhole trying to convince your troops to go over the top."

With Beasts credited as "a film by Court 13", the name of a collective Zeitlin formed in 2004, he sees it more like a community art project - a collaboration between the actors and their characters and between the film and its setting. "I want to make sure that everyone who makes the film likes the film," he says, noting he wants to make his next picture in much the same way. So no studio blockbuster next? He lets out a wry smile. "I'm not going to start working in Hollywood."


Beasts of the Southern Wild screens tonight at 7pm at Marina Mall's Vox 6 Cinema and on Friday at 2.30pm at Vox 5 Cinema