Quvenzhane Wallis as on the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Photo Credit: Jess Pinkham
Since being the breakout hit of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild has become a sensation, universally loved by critics, festival juries, and audiences all over the world. Since opening in limited release in June, the film has broken box office records, and is now considered the film from the first half of the year most likely to be a major awards contender at year’s end. Much of the critical and commercial success of the surrealist southern fable derives from the fact that although remarkably specific to a particular setting, the film hits on a handful of universal truths about family, home, identity, and community. Beasts of the Southern Wild is based on the play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Benh Zeitlin. I recently enjoyed a spirited and insightful chat with the ever-effervescent Alibar. Here’s what she shared with me about how a personal tragedy led her to writing “Juicy and Delicious,” writing on location with Zeitlin, and crafting Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Jackson Truax: In addition to the great reviews and recently winning awards at Cannes and the Los Angeles Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild is now breaking box office records. What’s your experience been during all of this? How do you respond to such a strong reaction to your work?
Lucy Alibar: It’s really been thrilling… I’m really aware of how fortunate I am for all of this. A lot of playwrights work really, really hard. And a lot of screenwriters work really hard. I think so much of this is just the completion of a lot of great people working really, really hard. I think we’re starting to see it pay off now after five years… There’s a tremendous sense of gratitude and relief… Seeing how much preparation was done on this, especially on the production end. We were so careful that we weren’t going to shoot until we found the right Hushpuppy. It took four thousand little girls before we found Quvenzhane Wallis. I think taking our time like that, and really being determined to not go forward without everything fully in place was really key to the success of the movie.
JT: How did you initially come to write “Juicy and Delicious”?
LA: I wrote it after my Dad got really, really sick… I am a pretty stable person. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m smart. But I have it together… My Dad getting sick all of the sudden, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. It really just floored me. To the point where I wasn’t functioning that well. My hair starting falling out. I looked really crazy. I lost thirty pounds. I just couldn’t grasp it. I started just writing it as a play, with Hushpuppy being a little boy. Because I couldn’t make it about me…so I made it a little boy… I’m from the South. I had Sunday School, vacation bible school, and went to this really good public magnet school. So I was educated. I had this really good spiritual education and this academic education. I didn’t realize how unprepared I was to go through the loss of a parent. I just felt like I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was supposed to be doing something and I didn’t know what it was. And I didn’t know how to handle myself. Then I saw this production of Hamlet that the Wooster Group did in New York, which is one of my favorite theater companies. It was really out there. There was all this technology. I’m not sure if I took away what they wanted me to take away from it, but it was one of the most shocking, raw, intense, vibrant, electric productions and stories and experiences I’ve had in my life… To me, what that show distilled was losing your Dad, and then the order of everything falls apart. The time is out of joint. Everything is unrendered. To have that articulated for the first time…all of the sudden I had a way of talking about it… Then I started to write this play about this little boy. His Dad gets sick and the world starts falling apart. And these Aurochs start coming out of the caves and out of the Georgia clay and the other kids at school and his Dad and his teacher are getting the kids ready for the end of the world when the grown-ups won’t be there anymore. Like the end of the world is when there are no more grown-ups. And so, if there are no more grown-ups, all of a sudden, you’re not a kid anymore. Because it’s just you. So even writing it was this incredible journey for me spiritually and artistically… I could really, all of the sudden, give voice to that. I will forever be so grateful that I was able to do that. Because that really pulled me out of it. Then, doing it with my friends, and just having to keep articulating what the play is about, how it actually feels, made me talk about my feelings more. And talk about my relationship with my father. So it was incredible. It was artistically transformative. I feel like I became a much better writer. It was fun. I learned so much doing it. I’m a very different person than I was before I started doing it.
JT: How did you know that a play was the initial artistic format in which you wanted to explore and deal with all of this?
LA: It’s just always been the format in which I’m the most comfortable. I’ve been writing plays since I was fourteen… To write a play, you can put it up and make it with your friends, which is what a lot of playwrights do here in New York. You can do it pretty quickly and pretty [economically] compared to doing a film… You can get it off the ground with significantly less support and not nearly the amount of money. That’s the practical side. I think personally and artistically, I can make these worlds and work with so many talented actors, designers, and directors to make something really spectacular.
JT: I know you and Benh had been in the same playwriting workshop. What was your initial reaction to Benh wanting to adapt the play into a screenplay, and what was the beginning of that process?
LA: My initial reaction was, “That’s great. Let’s start. Let’s go.” Neither of us had any feelings about how challenging it would be. The challenge was so exciting, how these Aurochs that were these dancers on-stage, were now these real, live animals that are now a real threat to a child. So I think the process for a while was just figuring out what was new. It was important to Benh that this be very specific to Louisiana. So that was being there, seeing how people talk to each other, the way people sound, how so much of life is spent on the water, how the water is so important to your life. So much of that just really made Hushpuppy’s world. Trying to distill out that story, and expand on that relationship between the father and daughter, the father and the place. They’re all of the land. The father’s full heart is made up if this place.
JT: I know that changing the character of Hushpuppy from a boy to a girl came out of the casting process. What fueled that decision?
LA: Early on, Benh really wanted it to be a girl. We had to go with the best Hushpuppy. So we were very open. Whoever was the best kid that we found was going to be our Hushpuppy… I think that with Quvenzhane, she’s so young and so small… Quvenzhane is very open and interesting and aware. Her mind is always working and just taking things in.
JT: Film is a medium where visually it’s easier to communicate magical realism and surrealist elements. Did you want more of that in the film? How did you and Benh decide how far you could take it?
LA: That was a lot of conversation. It was really important that this film be Hushpuppy’s point-of-view. So because it’s her point-of-view, we didn’t want them to look imaginary. We didn’t want them to look like fantasy monsters. We wanted them to look like what a six-year-old girl thinks of monsters bringing the end of the world. It took a couple of months of talking. “Does the magic of the story work the way Pan’s Labyrinth does? Does it work the way The Dark Crystal does? Or is it our own? How is this different?” And the answer is it works differently than those other really beautiful, really successful movies. It’s more…expressionist… It’s more of an idea. It’s more of her fantasy.
JT: In the movie, your pot-bellied pig came to serve as the basis for the Aurochs. Was that the initial inspiration for them when you wrote the play?
LA: The movie was more inspired by the pig. I pictured the Aurochs as being closer to cows or cattle. I grew up around a lot of those too. But I was definitely thinking of those spotted golds or things like that… Benh came to my house and saw my pot-bellied pig and said, “What the hell is that? Really, what is that?” We need an animal that looks like that. He loved that. The Aurochs changed from cows to pigs, I think. They’re their own animal. But the basis for them was [the pig]. Also, it’s a lot easier to work with a pig than a cow. You can train a pig, and sort of have control of it. I think that might have been another big factor.
JT: You were talking about how you and Benh wrote the movie while basically living on location. What did that add to the screenwriting and the script that you wouldn’t have gotten out of writing anywhere else?
LA: I didn’t know anything about Louisiana. I had never been down the bayou. I had never heard that speech before. I had never really seen how people live down there. How you can be completely self-sufficient between your garden and the water. It’s an incredibly different, startling, beautiful way of life I had never experienced before. That’s the basis for Hushpuppy’s world. I had to be there to know what I was talking about.
JT: What was the collaborative process as you and Benh were writing? Were you writing together? Sending pages back and fourth? What were the mechanics of that?
LA: It was a lot of everything. We had two different laptops. I had mine. He had his. A lot of times, we would both work on different scenes and then trade off halfway through the day or the next day. Sometimes, with a difficult scene it was tossing it back-and-forth and really getting very clear on that… Similar to [casting] Quvenzhane, we wouldn’t rest until we knew it worked. Until then, we wouldn’t move on. Scenes like when she punches her Dad in the heart. We worked really hard on getting those just right.
JT: How would you say the script evolved as you were writing it to become different from the play?
LA: It became a lot more specific to Louisiana. And not just about how she’s losing her Dad, she’s [also] losing her land. And what they’re doing to try and stay on it. In the play, it’s very much just about their relationship. So just broadening it to Louisiana, making it about the levy and the floods and what the people were going through being evicted. And about the experience of being there and growing up there; being there and choosing to stay.
JT: With Beasts of the Southern Wild now playing across the country, do you yourself continuing to write for the stage? Or do you see more screenwriting in your future?
LA: I think both. I don’t think there’s a reason I can’t do both. I’m doing a project for Escape Artists right now that I love. It’s an adaptation of another one of my plays. I’m also working on a new stage piece. I don’t feel like I need to choose. It’s not like I’m ever going to be a studio writer. They’d never call me in to write the next teen vampire movie. For better or for worse, I can really only write stories that are really important to me and stories that really resonate. So that doesn’t make me perfect for all Hollywood projects. I guess, in a way, it gives me time to write my plays.
JT: When the credits roll on Beasts of the Southern Wild, is there anything in particular you hope audiences will be thinking or feeling?
LA: It’s hard to say, because people have such different reactions to it. I get a lot of response from parents, saying it makes them think about their kids and their relationship to their kids. That means so much to me. Because I don’t have children. And I don’t really know what that’s like. So I love that I can engage in a way that’s useful. Am I trying to say anything? That people should take care of each other. That we have to take care of each other. I hope that it inspires that. I guess more than anything, I’m more interested in people telling me what it makes them think. Because I’m more interested in listening than in giving a message.
Filed under: LiC Interview