Benh Zeitlin says his raved-about new film is a political statement about people defending their homes, a depiction of a child's fantastical reality, and a rebuke to meaningless indie filmmaking.
Benh Zeitlin's acclaimed first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, tells the story of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives in a fantastical place called the Bathtub. When her father is diagnosed with an unidentified disease, and a storm floods her home, a herd of ancient monsters called aurochs is simultaneously released from their glacial captivity in the South Pole.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, and Zeitlin took home the Camera d'Or, awarded for best directorial debut, at Cannes. Writing for The Atlantic, critic Robert Levin called it a "heady Louisiana fever dream and a unique cinematic vision that never spirals out of control," and Time's Richard Corliss said it was a "perfect storm of a film." It opens in New York City and Los Angeles today, and heads to wider release in July.
A native New Yorker, Zeitlin relocated to New Orleans in 2006 to shoot his short film, Glory at Sea. I met him in 2008, when Glory at Sea played my basement as part of a series of shows called The Weekly Revue. This spring, I sat down with Zeitlin for shrimp and Dos Equis in New York City, where we talked about the ideas that went into Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Glory at Sea have a definite mythological, folkloric feel to them. What do you think in general is the relation between myth and art or myth and reality?
Mythology and folklore have become this thing that is sort of archaic, like the "old" stories. But good movies are constantly updating these classic stories and these classic scenarios. Our idea of what a hero is and what a hero does is an important barometer for where the world is and where our culture is. When you watch how Western heroes evolve over the period when Westerns were really important, you can track culture through the way that that hero changes from 1950 to 1970, when they sort of stopped being made. ET is an incredible folk hero to me, and that was a really interesting moment when we realized this type of being can be a hero. It says something about how people should behave and what it is to be good. That's the thing about a folk tale: It is always addressing incredibly key issues about how you should live and what the right thing to do is, which is really what I'm the most interested in—like the questions that religion takes on. And I think that, for those of us that aren't religious, we need, or I need, art that stimulates the same kind of thinking about what it is to be a mensch, or a good man, things like that.
At times in Beasts it can seem like the line between the mythological and the real becomes a little tenuous, when maybe the real intrudes more than just a myth would want it to. For example, the Bathtub is modeled on a real place, Isle de Jean Charles [in south Louisiana]...
Well, geographically speaking.
And of course the storm is going to recall Katrina. So it seems as though it has an absolute analogue in the real world. How is the audience supposed to understand the connection between the mythological setting of Beasts and the real southern Louisiana?
I think it's very different inside and outside of Louisiana. In Louisiana, especially when you get outside New Orleans, the storm in the film and the issues with the storm are much more inspired by [Hurricane] Gustov and current land-loss in south Louisiana and the levee issues around the Mississippi and salt water intrusion and the oil spill and all this other stuff that for me was actually more the reference point. I feel like that's what it will be for people there, too. It's been interesting as I show it outside there that it's going to go to Katrina, because that's what people think of when they think of storms in Louisiana.
"I don't understand why a lot of indie movies are made ... a lot of it is not any more sophisticated than big action movies."
The reason I wanted to do this story was that I'm interested in the current moment of living in south Louisiana, where there's a group of people, and a world, that knows they're under threat constantly, but they're totally entrenched in living there, and they're not going to leave. I wanted to try to understand that impulse, that impulse as an observer and then also my personal impulse to move there and live there the rest of my life—why do you do that?
The mythological stuff that happens in the film is actually, to me, a projection of Hushpuppy's experience. To me, the reality of the movie exists in actual reality; nothing magical happens. Thinking through how I actually experience childhood, it's like when you're six, there's no separation between what is your imagination and what's not. If you have an imaginary friend, they're just there. So that was an important thing: We weren't going to observe a child having imaginary experiences and then zing into her head and see what she's thinking about. The reality of the movie is the reality of her life. The idea was to respect her experience and not be like, "Well she's just a kid, she doesn't understand." The whole point of the movie is that she does understand. She thinks that the aurochs are coming out of the ice caps and charging toward the Bathtub, and they are. Because I'm older I do have an idea about when we're further into her subjectivity and when we're less, so there is a flux that goes back and forth. But to me its less that reality intrudes on myth, it's more that the film is a piece of realism from the point of view of a six-year-old.
One thing that comes up in this, depending on how you parse out the relation between the mythological setting and the real place, is a question of how are you portraying the people of south Louisiana, and if you're giving them a fair portrayal or doing them justice. There is a criticism that you are glorifying extreme poverty and the uneducated. Would you answer that with the same idea?
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That's been a shock to me. That reaction has been like: "Oh... yeah" [feigns remembering something overlooked]. I see why people have that reaction, but for me, the Bathtub is an invention, it's not a real place. It's based geographically on Isle de Jean Charles, but culturally it's a total fabrication. There's no place like that in Louisiana. It's a mix of New Orleans culture, South Louisiana culture, and the aesthetic is taken from the Bayou, but it's definitely a heightened aesthetic. Especially with the poverty: The bathtub is not a place where money exists. The whole idea of the bathtub is that it's a society where all the things that divide people have been removed. So there's no religion, no politics, no money, no one sees race, there's no rich and poor because there is no currency.