A conversation with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin

2/6/2013, 10:34 a.m.
Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”...

Are script revisions normally something you allow for?

It’s definitely part of the plan. It’s probably my favorite part of making films. It is a process of you getting to know people and getting to learn about people and experience things that are far from my life and my upbringing. That process of getting to know not only him but the other actors in the community where we shot was part of the plan. It was always part of the plan that they’re going to inform what ends up on screen as much as my imagination.

There were two lines in the movie that struck me. The first is “Everything is a buffet of the universe”; and the other line, by Hushpuppy, is “The whole universe depends on everything fittin’ together just right.” The universe is a central part of the story. Did these lines mean something to you?

There’s a real humility to living on the edge of the world. It’s not like living in a city. You forget you’re part of nature. You forget you’re not just a person but an animal on a planet. When you’re down there, you sense that so viscerally. The water can come and take this place away. The water is something connected to icecaps in the South Pole. Your actual place is in the balance of a global environment … What’s after you is so much larger than yourself and all you can do is learn how to survive. Hushpuppy internalizes that and is thinking about that interconnectedness. When something happens, she’s trying to piece it together with what she knows not just of her little world but with the giant span of human history and the planet itself.

When you first saw Quvenzhané, did you think she was right for the role?

When she started to do the scene that we had done 4,000 times and completely did it differently than anyone else ever had. She brought this intensity to it that no one had ever brought to it. We never thought that we’d get someone that young to play these scenes so directly. We always thought somehow we would have to set a kid loose in this world and sort of document it. She actually had the ability to control her performance. She’s a real actress.

Were you looking for specific ethnicities for the roles?

Hushpuppy’s role was cast race-blind. We had kids of all different kinds and the same is true for all the characters. We always wanted the Bathtub to be a diverse place. We didn’t want it to be homogenous in any way. That was always part of the idea. We were never able to cast the father until we cast her. And, we wanted her to look like the father and she was cast first and we built out from there.

Were the people in Pontchartrain receptive and open to being on camera?

It’s not a realistic film. The Bathtub is definitely a fabricated culture and a fabricated place. We had unbelievable hospitality down there. People really welcomed us. It wasn’t like we just showed up with cameras. It was a real collaboration with the town. We had tons of locals working with the film and on the film. It felt like a big family project. It’s not a piece of realism. It’s not a documentary. It’s not about the town specifically. Everyone understood it was an adventure movie that was related to the town and not about the town specifically.