Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

An Interview with Benh Zeitlin

by Todd Kennedy

The following interview between film professor Todd Kennedy and filmmaker Benh Zeitlin took place as part of the Fletcher Lecture Series at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, on October 24th, 2013. Zeitlin was fresh off the release of his first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which had garnered broad critical acclaim, box office success, and four Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay). Zeitlin, a native of New York City and resident of New Orleans since Katrina, set and shot his film on and around the bayous of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes. Kennedy is best known for his work on Sofia Coppola, but has also published articles on the films of Robert Altman, Ang Lee, Julio Medem, and Gordon Ball, as well as Bob Dylan’s music.

At the end of the transcript you will find an embedded YouTube video of the interview.


Todd Kennedy: Besides directing Beasts of the Southern Wild, you also co-wrote the script, wrote the score, and purportedly helped build sets. Additionally, you have past experience in cinematography and in editing. At first glance, considering that you seem to have your hands in everything, you would seem to take the notion of a filmic “auteur,” or author, to new extremes. Yet, in interviews, you have repeatedly discussed your directing style and presence on set as being one that attempts to foster more autonomy for each member of the crew within their role, giving freedom and clear voice and influence to a wide array of people. Given the Fletcher Lecture’s interest in writing, what are your thoughts about authorship both in your film and in film in general?


Benh Zeitlin: You know it is like this strange balance between, as a director you are controlling a lot of the decisions, but at the same time you need to—in our process in particular—I have worked on a couple of film sets and it was always this miserable, fascistic experience. It operates like an army: these are your orders and you do them. I do really feel like everybody who participates in any work of art is affecting it in some way, rather that is tangibly on screen—like you are noticing the way a particular artist would paint the wall or something like that—it’s even more about the personality. I think a film set has a real personality. It’s like showing up at a dinner party. You very quickly know this party is going to suck, or this party is going to be great. You feel an energy in the room that is very palpable, and so I think that on top of just trying to harness a lot of people’s creativity, you’re trying to create a personality to this organism which is a film crew. It’s not that when you make a film collaboratively you are surrendering control and just letting actors say whatever they want, it’s not about random input, it’s just about trying to pick people who you feel understand what you are trying to say and who are going to use their own imagination to feed into the larger idea of the film and hopefully generate creativity that you wouldn’t find otherwise. And also create a feeling of communal creation as opposed to doing just exactly what is in the script. I think what you end up with is something spontaneous. Our set was very spontaneous. We weren’t improvising or anything, but the feeling you would encounter wasn’t what you’d expect or write because of the culture of the set.


TK: You built the set over the period of months and rehearsed for months so you were really looking at that space a lot before you ever filmed there, correct?


BZ: Yeah, the sets were built in this incredibly….I mean for us, and “us” means this community of artists because the best part of the film isn’t the film crew. It’s painters and musicians and people who do their own thing, that come together to make this film, and the reason we all did it was to go on this adventure was to go out to the swamp and pretending to be Wink, my sister went out into the swamp, this kind of area behind a gas station on Highway 55, and the owner, Claude, sort of doesn’t throw anything out so you go into the woods and there are these volcanoes of trash—or not trash. Treasures. We just had this idea that when we got there we’d play this out the way that Wink would have arrived on the land and built this house. So, she used entirely materials found in this pile of Claude’s junk, and we built thinking like Wink. It created a very real world for the actors, especially for non-actors. They don’t have to go in and pretend something is real when it’s not. It just gets something in the air that this is not all fake—that you’re actually doing something together.


TK: I see a lot of Werner Herzog in Beasts. I don’t mean that in a reductive way at all. I think you have a lot to add to it. But simply the way you seem to see our souls as remaining in a constant war with nature. The end of your film, to me, seems to almost argue that we have to embrace nature even if we know it will consume us. And that reminds me a lot of Herzog. I’m thinking Aguire the Wrath of God, Grizzly Man, and Encounters at the End of the World, in particular, but really Werner Herzog in general. I’ve seen where you’ve mentioned Herzog several times in the past in interviews, so I know you feel there is some sort of connection. Please talk about it.


BZ: I think what really inspired me about Herzog—what I really love about him—he’s really used making movies as a way to explore the planet. That was really inspiring to me, before I really knew I wanted to make films, the idea that you could have this job where you could pick the most remote parts of the world and have a good reason to go and explore them. He’s really inspired me from what he’s done. As far as being interested in nature, I think when you start to explore the world, that’s sort of what you find. You get past the city, you get past civilization, and you feel very intensely that the questions of making a film moves away from what is it to be a good person and into what is it to be a good animal, a creature on this planet, how do you navigate the environment in a way that is trying to be a true factor. Something I love that someone said to me, they asked me, “Are you a true factor?” I took that to heart, you know, how you function on this planet, what are you doing here. I feel a lot of Herzog’s films are tied up in that question of recognizing when you get up against enormous natural forces, when you go down to the end of the world of Louisiana and civilization stops and you enter the territory of black flies and fleas and mosquitoes, you really feel how insignificant one person is. That is a lot of what Beasts was about—Hushpuppy trying to find her place and trying to understand both her smallness and largeness in relation to gigantic natural events her town is up against. I think he’s [Herzog] kind of hammering at that same wall. It’s always interesting to see what he’s doing, and it’s something I’m kind of obsessed with too.


TK: Your film has met with just about as much praise as I can remember seeing for a first film, but it has not been without its share of controversy from critics who argue that you essentialize regionality, poverty, and race. In June of 2012, you addressed these concerns in an interview with The Atlantic by discussing the imagined space that constitutes the bathtub. You attempted to re-frame the debate by claiming that the Bathtub is a space where “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.” I’m curious if you think such a space is either possible or desirable? One could argue that we wouldn’t want a society that doesn’t notice, appreciate, and respect difference. Given that debate, how does the Bathtub imagine difference? Is there a space available for it? Or is it a necessary casualty of progress?


BZ: I don’t think that the Bathtub ignores difference. It just respects it. It’s not a subject of hostility. It’s not a bunch of people that are exactly the same in some sort of drone state. I think it’s clearly the opposite of that where you have wild, unbridled individualism, but you just have an immense respect for difference. When someone is different in the Bathtub, that is something that is beautiful. I don’t know that that place exists on the planet. That wasn’t the idea, but I think the culture of the Bathtub in that way is something that I think there is a kernel of in Louisiana, which I never feel anywhere else in America—certainly not in New York where I came from—and it’s not like that’s happening all the time, but I feel like there are moments when you are listening to music, and you look around the room, and there’s children and old people and people of all different races and you have this immense diversity and you have a moment of connection where you feel an immense feeling of freedom. That’s what the bathtub was really about to me. This is a place that’s truly free. And to me the most important expression of that freedom is that the people’s minds are free enough to not hate one other for incredibly superficial reasons. It was trying to express a place that was extremely enlightened. South Louisiana is certainly not like that on a day-to-day basis but it has moments. That’s what the Bathtub was—a place where the best moments were happening all of the time. That’s what we were going for, and that’s what I was trying to say in that quote. You know, one of the things I was totally blindsided by in the reaction showing the film outside of Louisiana was the fact that people thought the film was about poverty. That totally shocked me. And I understand why people think that going back and looking at the film, but it absolutely never crossed our mind. For us it was imagining—not a place without problems or issues, not the perfect world—but a place with spectacular abundance. You can pull a feast out of the water whenever you want to and wake up in the morning and do whatever you want to and feed your family and have a good time, and what more could you want. That was where we were coming from, so it was really interesting to take that other places and see it read like it was an urban slum or something like that which obviously is not in there.


TK: You’ve talked a lot tonight and in the past about the Bathtub as an imaginary space, not linked to a specific location. It is obviously influenced by the lower Mississippi delta, both in Southeast Louisiana and Mississippi, and potentially even by the low-country of South Carolina, but you have always maintained that it should best be understood as an imagined community not linked to a specific place. And, with the exception of a lone license plate and an advertisement for Jax Beer, there are no official markers of where this film is set if we didn’t happen to know it was filmed in Terrebonne and LaFoourch. In spite of that however, you’ve also been quoted as saying that Louisiana has a “special” feel to it, especially in relation to the “danger” you sense when you are here. That seems, in a way, to be very much about a specific place—Louisiana. How do you reconcile your discussion of what makes Louisiana unique with your desire to create a fictional location and a space that is your own?


BZ: I guess what I was hoping to do with the culture of the film is to get not a historical or anthropological or factional representation, but to get at a personality, like a spirit kind of personality—like a philosophy I think is really, truly unique and special and which I’ve truly only really ever experienced here. And so the goal was not to educate people. It wasn’t like we are going to teach you about the culture in Southeast Louisiana. There is nothing educational about it. But the goal was to make people feel like they were here, or feel like I feel when I’m here. And for me, coming from the outside, moving to New Orleans was this shocking, overwhelming experience and then discovering South Louisiana was the same thing of just really feeling truly redactive towards life and a real sense of freedom, which I keep coming back to. The idea was to get the audience, somebody who lives in a tiny apartment building in Chicago or Mexico, to feel what it’s like to be here on a great day. And I think that we did that pretty well. Taking it around the world people’s response was overwhelmingly ‘I just felt so good in that place. I don’t know where it is.’ Half the time you show the film and people think its shot in Africa. They have no idea—especially when we show it outside the country—people don’t even know this exists. But when people would describe how it feels, they got it. They understood the people in the film, what they were about, why they wanted to stay, why they wanted to protect it. And that was really the goal. A lot of the film came out of the question ‘why did people stay?’, which is a question that when I would go back home to New York that I’d be asked constantly, especially between 2005 and 2010, “why would p[eople stay there?” So a lot of the motivation of the film was to explain that. And it’s not something to consistently say ‘you just have to go there.’ ‘I can’t give you a series of reasons and intellectually explain to you why nobody is ever going to leave this place but if you went there you’d understand immediately.’ So that was the goal, to communicate the feeling you get when you come and you are at dinner with somebody.


TK: I think that one of—what is to me anyway—the most unfair criticisms of Beasts was written by Time Out’s Ben Kenigsberg. I’m going to go ahead and read some of what he had to say: “It allegorizes Katrina as George W. Bush might like to remember it. In the Bathtub (standing in for the Lower Ninth Ward), every day is a holiday, and the largely black residents are depicted as alcoholics, inattentive parents or fools who accidentally set fire to their homes. When authorities do intervene, they’re helpless anyway: Bathtubbers run from the hospital. Forget FEMA; in a message amplified by Hushpuppy’s valediction, the movie implies hurricane victims would rather take care of their own. […] With only a little of Hushpuppy’s childlike spunk, it turns out, those residents could have helped themselves off their roofs.” Based on our discussions thus far of the natural world versus the civilized world, it would seem to me that your film is more of an indictment of the civilized world’s inability to understand or appreciate the natural world, and how that gets in the way of the civilized world being able to provide meaningful help. What is the relationship between civilization and nature? Is there a place for civilization? Or do you think we all just need to embrace the beast?


BZ: Ha. Yeah, I mean, certainly the Bathtub was never a sort of like ‘this is how everyone should live.’ That was never the point, ‘lets all move together inside the levee and look at the trees.’ There was never a philosophical ‘back to nature’ thing. I think what the film is about to me is just respect. It’s about respecting how people want to live which was, to me, the key thing that was so insidious about those arguments people were having after Katrin—and still talk about—like they shouldn’t live there, or they should move. I think a lot of what underlies that argument is a lot of what is being expressed in that Time Out piece. Just complete misunderstanding of the region, but also a real lack of respect for the way people want to live and the culture. And so, to me, the reason why the civilized world in the film is unable to help the Bathtub is that they fundamentally don’t respect the way the people in the Bathtub want to live. And it is very hard to help someone when you don’t actually care about them and you don’t actually respect them. Which I think is a scenario you really feel a lot. There is a lot of condescension from the civilized world to people that choose not to live in the civilized world. Its not that one needs to override the other, its just that both sides need to respect the way the other choose to live.


TK: You spoke earlier today about your surprise that some of the most resistance you met came mostly from the places—such as the northeast—where you expected people to be the most receptive. And I think that is interesting going back to Kenigsberg’s quote. I think he would agree with you at being offended at people who would say we should just move away, yet he doesn’t have much more respect for the culture that is here than the people who would say ‘move away.’ It’s almost like your having one conversation and they are having another.


BZ: Yeah. I think that a consistent thing you run into in mega-civilized places—places at the front of the first world, technology, etc—there is a perception because those people are working so hard to have all that stuff, there is a perception that if you don’t have those things you must be miserable. And that’s not true. There are very happy people who don’t have cell phones and its not because they are ignorant or stupid. That’s where a lot of that venom comes from. I think a lot of that conversation around the film was this idea that we were portraying people who could not possibly be happy as happy, and that that was somehow a false thing to do, and that there was some sort of insidious motivation behind portraying people without cell phones as happy, because that’s just not possible in the mind of some people who really love civilization, who really love their cell phones. And that’s fine. But you’ve got to respect people who live a different way.


TK: You’ve been asked and at times even attacked for your representation of African American fatherhood, and masculinity certainly is a dominant question in the film. For instance, Hushpuppie’s need to fend for herself, to burp like a man, to not invade his masculine, private house, etc. But what doesn’t seem to have been discussed, as much anyway, is the role of femininity and motherhood in the film. To me, the most beautiful portion of this film other than it’s amazing final shot, are the scenes in Elysian Fields, the heavenly imagined boat housing “the girls” for sale and Hushpuppies mom. It also doesn’t seem to be an accident that Hushpuppie’s entire group of friends who visit the boat are little girls. Can you talk about femininity within the bathtub?


BZ: Yeah we always talked about Elysian Fields as the ‘Heavenal Mother Sequence.’ And it was really important it was all these orphaned little girls. Hushpuppy is not technically orphaned, but the other little girls don’t have parents, and it was this sort of mythical boat of women who don’t have children either. And this beautiful fleeting moment where they get to experience this moment of motherhood and daughterhood that is not in anybody’s lives in that moment. And it was a really important piece of the emotional arc of Hushpuppy. She’s being raised by this guy who doesn’t know what to do with a girl, he’s not in touch with his feminine side, so he’s raising her like a little boy and the only way he knows how to raise her is to teach her to be like him. And they basically hit this breaking point where that form of taking care runs its course. When they are in the hospital and fighting like brutes. You hit an impasse where neither person knows how to show any sort of tenderness or affection or nurturing for the other one. So the Elysian Fields sequence, which makes no sense whatsoever if you actually think about what is happening, was incredibly important because it is this emotional need that has not been satisfied in this little girl. She has learned everything she can learn about being a man but does not know how to take care of somebody, how to hug somebody. Basic things. Elysian Fields is about both her and the audience getting a big hug. Narratively nothing happens, but both the audience and Hushpuppy need a moment of tenderness and sweetness in order to understand how to go back and forgive this man for everything he’s done in his final moment and just give him a hug. It’s such a basic thing but it’s been deprived of her throughout the film. To me the film is sort of making a joke that that’s a purely gendered dynamic. Its not that being a man is all about toughness, or a woman about sweetness. It’s a play off the joke ‘be a man’, which was always meant to be funny. But certainly the two sides of strength—which are physical toughness strength and emotional sweetness strength—was something we tried to embody in the mother, in giving her these two sides. The gator hunter and this incredibly warm, sweet side. That dichotomy was something we definitely wanted to play with in the narrative.


TK: I think it’s interesting in relation to that that Wink shows his emotional side in the scene where she returns from Elysian Fields, almost as if she’s brought that back.


BZ: Yeah. She opens that possibility. He teaches her throughout the film until she goes to Elysian Fields and then she has something to teach him, and that’s what allows him to pass on with a sense of peace.


TK: A lot of discussing has gone on about your allegorical use of aurochs in the film. It leads me to think about a very influential and I think important Spanish film by the director Julio Medem called Vacas, or “Cows.” The film is essentially about identity and community within Basque culture, and the ways in which the film feels their culture is misunderstood and underappreciated by Spanish culture. The film uses the allegory of the farm’s cow, and particularly the cow staring at the audience through the camera’s lens, as a means of making the audience engage with the ways in with our relationship to nature helps define our social and national identities. First, I’m curious if you’ve if you’ve seen Vacas, and if so if you anything to say about it’s relationship to Beasts. Second, even if you haven’t, I’d like you to address your use of aurochs in the film.


BZ: I have seen Vacas. I think it’s awesome. I haven’t thought about it in a long time so that would be all I have to say about Vacas. But it’s great. I really like that director a lot. But yeah, the aurochs really emerged from the cave paintings which were a central part of how Hushpuppy constructs her own personal mythology. The reason we really liked that image is that Hushpuppy is really seeing herself as this creature on the verge of extinction in a culture on the verge of extinction in a place on the verge of extinction. She talks a lot about the scientists in the future and imagining when she is gone and her father is gone and her place is gone and there is no record of any of them existing, what are people going to look back on and her as and remember this place that once was as. That’s why we were really drawn to the cave paintings as this sort of thing left behind from a lost ancestor of ours that we look back and try to interpret and try to understand who these people were from these very simple images drawn on caves. So the aurochs emerge from that mythology and Hushpuppy sort of seeing herself as this little warrior up against this much larger creature. She goes from thinking that she is basically a morsel of food waiting on the planet to be consumed by a giant animal to understanding that she is deeply connected to this other creature on the verge of extinction, that the two of them are the last of their kind, and that there is an immense respect between these two survivors. And so the aurochs hopefully in the film move from being these horsemen of the Apocalypse to being what she says at the end of the film, “her friend, kind of.” They see each other as equals. And she actually wrote that line, so I can’t take credit for that. I asked her what would she say. I got to the day of the shoot and I just actually hadn’t finished the scene. I’d written a thousand speeches for her to say to the aurochs and they all sucked. So I went to Quivajene and I explained to her, ‘so you are going to meet this creature, this is what you feel, what would you say?” She just immediately said “you’re my friend, kind of.”


TK: That’s amazing, one of the more poigniant lines in the film….


BZ: Written by a six year old.


TK: You’ve had some semi-critical things to say about independent cinema and the ways in which it creates its own clichés and expectations, yet you obviously seem very reluctant to lose artistic control to corporate entities. Do you see yourself forging a new niche in film between the two?


BZ: I’ll try not to be a hater. But yeah, I think something has happened over the last—since Harvey Weinstein basically—but I think that independent cinema has sort of become a genre more than actually an idea of independence. It means something very different from what we call independent film, which is really its own genre with its own market, with its own theater system. The same way that horror or anything else has its own targeted industry around it. Independent films are films that are still being made by huge corporations. I really wish the lines would be re-drawn around what is corporate cinema and what is outside the corporate cinema. I just feel like a lot of times we are talking about the difference between McDonalds and the Olive Garden. Yes, the Olive Garden has slightly more personality but this is still something that is being generated by a think tank and figured out how to be marketed in a very specific way and built in a corporate machine. And certainly there are many, many exceptions to that that are independent cinema. But I think it’s a weird thing that you are grouping together films that are being made by people—I mean you have filmmakers making a film in rural Mississippi by themselves and it’s being slotted to the same sort of mechanisms and competitions and being forced to compete against something that is made literally on the same lot as Avatar with the same machine behind it. We certainly made this film outside of corporate—it couldn’t have been further from the industry. And I think it would be nice if they could figure out a way to redraw those lines because I think there are a lot of voices out there, but there is a real lack of imagination about how you can make a film because independent film has been corporatized. So people really think that in order to be a filmmaker your have to go out and climb the different—but very much corporate—ladder to get their chance in L.A. in the industry and make their independent film that way. There is very little room for things that are happening outside of that. But hopefully in the last couple of years, I mean what happened with Beasts was like an extraordinary thing, and it happened this year again, films find their way out there. Hopefully we are edging toward an era where films that are made truly independently can start to compete against this stuff. To me, it’s really about the golden era of independent film was a director-led time, the time when directors were creating ideas for the films and then realizing and creating control over them, in the seventies basically. What is happening now is generally producer-led cinema, which is why you have so many remakes and why you have material that is defined. And the other version of that is you have films where people who are already movie stars want to play an interesting part so they enable the films and are able to control it. But I think it is important that directors are able to create and exert a control for the ideas and material and create things that have a unique structure.


TK: And you’ve talked about this in the past too, you need structure to sometimes defy the aesthetic we try to impose on independent cinema. I was thinking about your decision to shoot in film. There is a way in which because independent cinema used digital cinema greatly to tear down Hollywood clichés, but now it’s almost—they wouldn’t accept you as independent cinema because you shoot on film, or because it’s too hopeful. It is almost like you can’t make a hopeful film it has to be ugly or dirty or depressing, and that makes the idea of a third space interesting.


BZ: Yeah. You don’t want to play minor league baseball, and that is sort of what it is becoming. Independent film—any film really—should shoot to compete in the major leagues. There is a way in which creating a minor league that people can play in actually cripples the ability and the imagination of what a film can be.


TK: My final question is the most open ended. What other directors have influenced you and how so?


BZ: I could go on forever about this. There are tons of films in terms of films I like. I truly grew up on my VHS collection at home watching huge blockbusters, and I love those types of movies and those types of stories that are really big. But in terms of directors that really inspired me it’s people like John Cassavetes, people like [Werner] Herzog and [Jim] Jarmusch. People who just as a sort of lifestyle just invented their own way of making movies. I’m a notorious workaholic, so I’m never able to separate my life from my films and it is all one big thing, so it really inspires me how some of those directors really took making their films to be their whole life. Their life was an expression of their movies and their movies as an expression of their life, and there wasn’t any line between that. Just people that really took film as a way to live in a state of adventure, and that’s really kind of the most inspiring thing—how can you tell stories and make things and also live the wildest possible life. So directors who have done that really inspire me.