'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Director: Louisiana Is a Dangerous Utopia

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.

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Fox Searchlight

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.

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?

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.

So, I never thought about that because to me the Bathtub is this utopian place. And the poverty thing, to me it's much more like it's been cut off from the world, and it's a survivalist place where they have to build everything by hand, they have to live off the earth. You don't have any commodities to sustain yourself, but to me there's no poverty there. There's this ultimate freedom that exists there. But part of it is that when people see a trailer it's like, "Oh, it's a trailer. Poor people live in trailers." That's how I know it has been looked at, but I think that people are bringing certain preconceptions. When you see a trailer there's a certain association. When you see black people in dirty clothes there's an association. Those are things that people are bringing in because they're used to those aesthetic elements communicating a very specific narrative about misery and poverty. So, it's not that I don't understand the reaction, but I don't know that it's in there.

In a certain sense I see that in an essential way politics has nothing to do with your work. But at the same time you're playing with a lot of themes that are explicitly politicized—global warming, poverty...

It's not that it's not supposed to relate to the world. The Bathtub is a statement, for sure. But to me, within the context of the movie, it's a statement that this is utopia. That's what the movie tells you, and that's what the characters tell you, and that's what I'm trying to say with it. This is the greatest place you could ever live and that you could fight and die for. I want audiences that come from places that are completely the opposite of that to look at this and be like, "Wow, if these things didn't divide me from everyone around me, I would have this incredible freedom and I would fight for this place."

So that's the goal, that people will get behind the Bathtub and accept a lot of things that they've preconceived as bad. I think it's a real thing. When you go down there, there is, without any money, way more fun and joy happening in South Louisiana than there is in New York City. There are people out there with no money at all, no job, going to the water and eating what would be a $300 meal for lunch, like 500 crabs on the table. It's this decadent experience where you don't need money to have a feast every night and to celebrate. That is definitely something that I'm trying to glorify in the film. It's not a miserable place. The poorest parts of that town are not miserable. There are certainly problems that I don't have in the movie. I'm not dealing with the harsh realities, but that's not the idea. The idea is the good parts of it. And it's not a piece of realism, so I don't have to deal with the bad parts of it.

It does seem that there's some kind of implied, not political statement, but when you have the Bathtub put in opposition to this horrible, smoky dystopia on the other side of the levee, and when the government comes into the Bathtub and starts forcibly taking people from their homes, you do get a somewhat anti-American message. Is there some kind of political statement going on there, or is it just simple juxtaposition?

I guess it is a political statement. People should not be forced to leave their homes. The whole movie is about why you can't be pulled out of your home.

The inspiration for making the film was the post-Katrina reaction of, "Why do you still live here? Why can't you just move to St. Louis? This is too dangerous. You shouldn't build there. This is a waste of money. Why would you want to live there?" The Bathtub hopefully is an answer to that question. Because this is the greatest place on earth. We have the most freedom, we don't need money, we don't need all these things that are thought of as necessary. We don't need that because we have this place that feeds us both literally and spiritually.

No one really respects the self-sufficiency of south Louisiana; there's a lot of disrespect for it. When people come in there they think, "These people need help, let's get them out of here and teach them how to be more functional citizens"—as if they're idiots. It's that sort of condescending attitude that the rest of America had toward South Louisiana and continues to. If that's a political statement, that's definitely there. It's not good for people to be put in a shelter in the middle of nowhere. That's not better than them fending for themselves in their homes, even if it threatens their lives. It threatens their lives much more to be removed than it does to stay. There are exceptions to this; it's not like the movie is advocating that people not be rescued from disastrous situations. But it's that condescending notion of, "We know better, you should live somewhere safer," which definitely infuriated me after the storm and that was a big entryway into the movie.

Your movies have a very redemptive feel, but they have a unique vision of redemption, in which it seems like redemption is only possible through complete destruction, or annihilation—as though destruction and redemption are synonymous in a certain way. Does that sound accurate to you?

I think that redemption, or enlightenment, or some sort of truth is found very close to destruction. It's in the most extreme situations where you find this, where you get this abandon that allows you to understand yourself or understand other people. It's part of what fascinates me about Louisiana. There's just some sort of internal and external freedom that exists there that I don't feel anywhere else in America. When I leave and go somewhere else I feel myself being judged in ways that I never am there. There's some kind of enlightenment that exists in Louisiana. There's a fearlessness in the culture down there that has everything to do with how close to death it is. To be there, you have to be brave. It's not for timid hearted people to live down there because it's dangerous, and it's scary, and it threatens your life, and it threatens your children's lives. I'm trying to make the connection between that and what makes people also so openhearted. And I think the ends of both movies have to do with exploring that territory.

What is it about living close to death that benefits your soul as a person? It reminds me of like being at a crazy concert or something, like in a mosh pit, and you come out and your nose is broken and you're all fucked up but you're like, "Wow I just accessed some incredibly important, ecstatic moment." [Werner] Herzog's work is a lot about that. You can't timidly find this ecstatic truth; you have to really push yourself to get there. In both movies I think we try to do that in the production and the films are about going there. It's like a religious experience.

What brings this home to me the most is the ending of Glory at Sea, which does seem to have this very religious overtone to it. But you see it in Beasts too, in the "You're my friend kind of" sentiment [this is Hushpuppy's reconciliation with the Aurochs who have come to destroy her world]. This thing that is destroying the world is in a way my best friend.

Exactly. I think the way people think, the way our brains function, is as essentially an organizational mechanism that puts beginnings and ends on things. It's like: This is where the cup ends and this is where the table starts, so this is called a cup and this is called a table. Language is built in these beginnings and ends. We think about a life beginning and a life ending, and that's where a lot of pain comes from. But that's not actually true. If you were able to not be a human being, and look at nature from God's eye or whatever, you would see this infinite set of particles that's evolving through different forms and that nothing is actually disappearing off the planet.

It's like that really hokey concept that when you die you then turn into a flower. Hushpuppy in that moment is like, "I have to stand by and be sad and experience this tragedy," even though she's coming to understand that there's something larger than that, which is beautiful and which is not tragic, and is actually natural—that the way things flow in and out of one another has this beauty to it that she can't understand and she can't help but be crushed by. I think that Glory is sort of fighting with that same thing. It's like if you go toward destruction, if you go toward death, go toward the thing that breaks your heart and that kills you and that makes you sad, somewhere in there you start to see that that's not going to crush you, or that if it destroys your body that's one thing, but there's something in there that's very true.

For Hushpuppy it's about thinking that the world is there to eat her, nature is there to consume her and coming to understand that she's not actually different from nature, that everything is eating each other and that that's not tragic, and coming to terms with it frees you in some way of feeling like death is a tragedy.

This may all sound a bit dark, but your movies actually have, not happy endings, in the sense that everyone lives happily ever after, but the audience does come away with an overwhelmingly positive feeling at the end of both the movies we've been talking about. Several reviews of Beasts said that the audience at the premiere at Sundance was shocked or bewildered by seeing this movie. Why is it so surprising for smart, aesthetically rich independent movies to also aim to engage the full emotional register, to be meaningfully uplifting?

I don't know. I don't understand why a lot of indie movies are made. I really don't. I feel like indie film is like minor league baseball a lot of the time. It's not competing with major movies. It's its own niche. I don't want to shit on indie film, it's just that a lot of it is not any more sophisticated than big action movies. Action movies are a lot more interesting a lot of the time because they are engaged in myth and genre and culture. You can track your culture through Hollywood, you can't track it through indie movies.

I very much want to compete with big films and big stories. I don't know whether people will go see this movie or not, but that's my interest. I want my art to discuss big questions. For some reason elite society doesn't want to think about that stuff a lot of the time. It's like my frustration with science, which is, OK, you're answering the most mundane questions about biology and nature and you're doing nothing for me as far as how to understand death, or... Religion deals with these big questions, and it gives you an answer, and makes people feel all right about dying. It has the whole explanation of what happens and why you don't need to go insane. And big films do too, but with usually pretty silly answers like, "be a man" or, "don't give up." They give these really stock answers. And then indie film just doesn't address them at all half the time, which is very frustrating to me. The movies that we still watch are all addressing incredibly important, moral questions. That's the most difficult material to take on and the most satisfying to make progress on. So, that's the playing field I want to be on.