Giving Birth To The Beasts

In 2007, Zeitlin, then an aspiring filmmaker from Hastings-on-Hudson (located in Westchester County, New York), packed up his belongings and moved down to New Orleans. One could say that it was his destiny, a fate sealed back when he was just a 13-year-old kid vacationing in The Big Easy with his parents, Steve and Amanda Zeitlin, who, together, oversee the NYC non-profit organization City Lore, which works to preserve urban culture, history, and folklore in the Big Apple.

Since he was just a youngster at the time, Zeitlin couldn’t partake in the legally aged tourist side of New Orleans, though such debauchery wasn’t hard to miss. “I remember walking back to our car after checking out a sight and there was a girl peeing between our car and another one, and then she went running down the street with her pants down,” recalls Zeitlin, with a laugh. “New Orleans just had this kind of dystopian, joyous abandon that I don’t think I’d ever witnessed before.”

And a reckless allure that never left his mind. In 2004, Zeitlin paid the city a second visit, this time with a group of friends, as part of a “road race from New York to New Orleans with three different cars.” Once there, he was able to explore the unique scenery and really get a feel for the landscape. That’s all she proverbially wrote. “That experience was more relevantly why I ended up going back to the city two years later,” he says. “It was because of the friends that I made down there, and this unshakable feeling that New Orleans was a place where I could really thrive.”

Three years later, merging his newfound geographical love with his longtime hopes of becoming a director, and living one of those friends, Zeitlin shot a short film called Glory at Sea. Twenty-five minutes long, Glory at Sea re-imagines a post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana as a dreamlike vista in which the victims of a vicious storm—never identified as Katrina, though—cling for life underneath water as their family members head out to save them on a shoddily made raft. The short eventually won prizes at festivals like South By Southwest and CineVegas. Tragedy nearly struck, however, when, on his way to the film’s SXSW premiere, Zeitlin’s vehicle was smashed by a drunk driver. He was sent to the hospital with a broken hip and pelvis, and was unable to walk for six months.

A lot of America is homogeneous, and there a lot of places that are similar to each other, but South Louisiana is not one of them. —Benh Zeitlin

Those six months weren’t for naught. It was during that immobile time that Zeitlin, eager to make his first full-length motion picture, couldn’t shake an idea of making a film about the reasons why the city’s proudest natives refuse to leave New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Living there himself at the time, the Wesleyan University graduate started understanding what it was that made the Crescent City so beloved by its lifelong residents. “A lot of America is homogeneous, and there a lot of places that are similar to each other, but South Louisiana is not one of them,” says the filmmaker. “It’s almost like a different country down there. It’s got its own culture, its own type of food, its own type of dancing, and it’s got these intangible things in the air, to where there’s a real relationship with the actual environment.”

The citizens’ collective passion isn’t just an issue of unseen connections. Adds Zeitlin, “The food comes out of the water, which is a lot more visceral than when you can find a grocery store anywhere else in the country and get the food that you like. That’s not the case with the food down there. There’s s a quote that I once heard that really struck me. This guy told me, ‘We are made by the marsh. We are this, like, exotic plant that can only grow under these conditions, and if you tried to put it somewhere else it would shrivel up.’ When you’re down there, and you can feel what it’s like and feel how different it is, that makes a lot of sense.”

With his potential feature debut’s thematic hook in place, Zeitlin then needed to figure out who his characters were going to be, and how their interpersonal relationships would fit into the bigger, allegorical picture. For richly developed characters, Zeitlin sought inspiration in the writing of Lucy Alibar, a close friend whom he first met when, as teenagers, they won a New York-based playwriting contest called Young Playwrights Incorporated. A friendship immediately formed, and, during the years leading up to Beasts of the Southern Wild’s birth, Zeitlin would read her stage plays and Alibar would check out his short films, and they’d offer each other notes, advice, and complimentary motivation.

For Beasts, Zeitlin focused specifically on Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, the story of a Georgia kid named Hushpuppy who loses her father to cancer just as monsters, the “aurochs,” emerge from clay and start hunting down youths. “I wrote Juicy and Delicious after my dad got really sick, and I just didn’t really know how to handle it,” says Alibar. “I didn’t know how that could exist, how my dad could be sick in this world, the world how I understood it to be. It was really about living through loss with grace, and finding your place in the universe, and how losing a parent actually brings you closer to your source.”

Zeitlin knew that his spin on Juicy and Delicious, soon titled Beasts of the Southern Wild, needed to be set in New Orleans, so he and Alibar lived in the city’s Pointe Aux Chenes Marina, a fishing locale nestled at the Nola’s bottom. Holed up there for two months, the enthusiastic writers dreamt up a fictional floodplain community known as “The Bathtub,” designed closely in the mold of Pointe Aux Chenes and meant to separate Beasts from any overt allusions to real-life national headlines. “I always wanted the film to be kind of a folktale,” says Zeitlin. “It’s very much inspired by real things in Louisiana, but I didn’t want to make the film something that was attached to current events, or political in that way. I very much didn’t want to make a film that’s rooted in political issues that people already have preconceived notions about, or are divisive.”

Including a mystical variation of auroch cattle, which have been extinct since 1627, Beasts is unmistakably situated in a heightened reality, but not for any genre-minded purposes. “I feel like a lot of times when people start talking about the issues related to Louisiana, you end up in a discussion about oil drilling, the types of cars you drive, and the candidates that you vote for,” says Zeitlin. “Those things are important, of course, but they weren’t really at the heart of what we wanted to say. We wanted to say something that was more emotional, speaking to the feeling of what it’s like to lose this thing that made you, what it’s like to see your creator slip through your fingers. If we could heighten the story and set it slightly outside of the world, and slightly above the politics, [we felt] that it would be something that was more universal and got outside of the debates had by people who would just show up with their already ossified ideas.”

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