BEHN Zeitlin’s first feature film is one of the most accomplished and exciting debuts to emerge from the US in years. And the fledgling director knows why. Interview by Stephen Applebaum
‘I don’t want to make movies with the Hollywood system, I think it’s a tired way of making films,” asserted Behn Zeitlin, following the Cannes screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild. As the film is only the 30-year-old’s first feature, this could make him sound cocky and pretentious. But the Zeitlin isn’t some swaggering braggart. Nor is he in any way deluded about what he has achieved.
Made independently, with financial backing from a New York-based non-profit organisation called Cinereach, Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the most exciting, most ambitious and most accomplished debuts to emerge from America in years. Think Badlands. Think Donnie Darko. Sundance loved it, and Cannes was about to shower it with another four awards.
This is what happens when you give a filmmaker complete freedom, Zeitlin argues. “In America, almost all funding is attached to celebrities. You have to cast some person that means a figure in the box office, and make choices that protect your investment.” Cinereach didn’t have to worry about making a profit; they just wanted to make a good film. They’d been so impressed by Glory at Sea, a lyrical 25-minute film that Zeitlin shot in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that they offered to fund any feature the young director wanted to make, without interference. Their only demand was that is was cheap.
“These guys were really about a paradigm shift,” he says. “They had a purely creative agenda and first-time filmmakers just don’t get that in America. If other people have the freedom I did to be reckless and take chances, there would be a lot more good movies coming out of America.”
Raised in New York by two urban folklorists, Zeitlin relocated to New Orleans permanently after making Glory at Sea. He’d gone to the region eight months after Katrina, “when it was like a ghost town, and really dangerous”, intending to leave when he finished filming. “But then right near the end, I started to realise I was not going to go back home. That I somehow had my feet stuck in the marsh, essentially.”
He was struck by the tenacity of Louisianans who refused to leave their homes despite the ever-present threat of meteorological ruin, and he co-wrote Beasts in the wake of hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Everyone there knows they could be wiped out by a storm at any moment, he says, and yet people stay. “Because it’s a place that’s so close to the edge – it’s like there’s death in the air, you feel the humidity and you feel a storm’s brewing – I think it causes the place to be populated by very brave and very courageous, wild people. I wanted to try and make a film about that spirit.”
A near-fatal car crash on the way to presenting Glory at Sea at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, forced Zeitlin to put his plans on hold, however, while he recovered at his parents’ house back in New York for six months. It was while lying in bed, he says, that the ideas for the film started to cohere. By merging plans he’d had to adapt the funny and surreal world of Lucy Alibar, a playwright and storyteller he’s known since childhood, into a short film, with other ideas he had about people clinging stubbornly to their homes against the odds, “I started to figure out what I wanted to talk about and how I wanted to talk about it,” he says.
Zeitlin and Alibar took themselves off to a fishing marina “at the very end of the last bit of land that exists before you hit the Gulf of Mexico”, and started writing what would eventually become Beasts of the Southern Wild.
A richly realised bayou fable, the film is told through the eyes of six-year-old wild-child Hushpuppy (the extraordinary Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives outside the levees in a community known as the Bathtub, with her angry, ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry). When her home is destroyed by a storm, Hushpuppy sets out save her father and her people.
Given a free rein, Zeitlin cast a New Orleans bakery owner as Wink, and an untested five-year-old, chosen from around 4,000 children, as Hushpuppy. Henry, who had lived through Katrina with his daughter, “unlocked” Quvenzhane, says Zeitlin. “She was great on her own but had a bit of trouble performing with someone else. Him coming in and being such a good-hearted person allowed her to feel safe in such a violent relationship that they have [on screen].”
Hushpuppy is the heart, soul and voice of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film is poetic and free-spirited, and seems infused with the chaotic energy of the region and people with whom Zeitlin has fallen in love. It wasn’t easy to make, but that’s just how he and his production company, Court 13, formed with friends from Wesleyan University, Connecticut, like it, says the filmmaker. “We want to live the adventure that the characters go on in making the film, not fake it or synthesise anything. It was like an extreme physical endurance test, shooting in the heat on the water with the bugs - but that’s what everyone signed up for. All of our films, we try to get a lot of love and blood and sweat in the stitches. And put more importance on that than executing a perfect plan, or getting a really elegant shot. It’s more set it loose and chase it.”
• Beasts of the Southern Wild is in cinemas now
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