Interview: Director Benh Zeitlin on ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Benh discusses Beasts, his decision to cast first-time actors and how he molded the script around their talent

Director Benh Zeitlin’s wonderfully vivid, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is one of those films you watch and think, “How did he do that?”

The film is visually stunning, has an incredible best score (which he co-wrote!) and features two of the best performances you’ll see on film all year. Add to that, he worked with two first-time actors (Dwight Henry and 8-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis) as leads and most of the film was shot on location in the bayou of New Orleans.  

The critically acclaimed film got rousing receptions at both Sundance and Cannes and by now, should be opening up at a theater close to you. The film is the story of a father (Henry) and daughter (Wallis) who refuse to leave their hurricane-destroyed home on the outskirts of New Orleans. It’s full of heartbreak and devastation and Zeitlin manages to show us a world that we (I) never knew existed.

I talked with Benh (with a special appearance by Dwight Henry) recently about Beasts, his decision to cast first-time actors and how he molded the script around their talent.

Benh, the movie is based on a play? 

Benh Zeitlin:  It was really sort of inspired by a play.  The film started as an idea that I had to make a film about hold outs, in sort of the last town as you drive south to the marsh and want to see what’s out there at the end of the road.  I wanted to make a film about kind of a last stand and a place that was about to get swept into the water. 

And then I sort of at the same time was working on this play about a little girl who’s losing her father and I realized at a certain point that I was working on the same thing in two different venues.  You know, both things about this sort of emotion about a community losing its homes had a similarity to a little girl losing her parent and sort of realized the two things should be combined. So the play sort of became the characters and tone and the voice through which I was able to tell the story that I was working on separately.

It wasn’t so much like an adaptation as it was an inspiration and a template that we used.

You had written the script and then you cast some wonderful, fantastic actors and I read that you kind of re-molded the script after them?

Benh Zeitlin:  Yeah, you sort of do that with everything though.  You try to write the script as well as you can and then it evolves and becomes collaboration between the place where you’re going to make it, the locations where you’re going to make it and then also the people that are going to bring the roles to life. 

You want either the voice, the characters to become something that is partly what we wrote and partly the way that these guys and the other people in the cast –it becomes something that’s inspired by their experiences and their voice and sort of adapt the two things. 

It’s not like it’s one or the other.  You sort of bring both things closer to each other and you get something that still tells the story but has something that feels very real because it’s not like something I envisioned in a dark room and applied something.  It’s much more both sides trying to find a truth in the middle.

beasts-zeitlin-directorWhat was the decision to use non-actors?

Benh Zeitlin:  You know, it wasn’t like a principle.  There were certain roles; Dwight’s role was one where we had always intended to use an actor because we felt like the role was too difficult and that you would need experience to sort of play such a dynamic character.  I don’t think I ever imagined that someone without experience could play that role and I never imagined also that someone as young as Quvenzhane’ could play the role the way that she did, so these guys really sort of showed up and shocked me and Dwight won that part over people who have years of experience just by his natural talent and charisma and also sort of the experiences he brought to the character and he brought like a reality to the character that I was never able to write.  He sort of taught me things that became the film.

There are plenty of movies that use non-actors and I just want to rip my hair out because they’re awful.  They both knocked it out of the park.

Benh Zeitlin:  Yeah, I think non-actor isn’t quite the right – these guys didn’t have experience. But I think a lot of people, when you think of a non-actor film, it’s almost like a documentary or they’re trying to get people to play themselves or something.  These guys aren’t playing themselves.  They’re playing characters who are very different from who they are.  They’re talented actors.  It’s just that they didn’t have any experience before this film.

So after these guys were cast, did you rehearse?

Benh Zeitlin:  It was a combination of we did a lot of interviews, not even interviews, but me and Dwight would hang out in the bakery all night long and share stories about our lives and relate those stories to the script and rewrite the script based on things that he told me about and that sort of process of adapting the script to something that made sense to both of us.  And then beyond that, the three of us would rehearse.  We would rehearse a scene that was written and certain things wouldn’t feel right and he would change words and he would change words and we would rehearse it and rewrite the script based on improvised rehearsals until we felt like the scene worked and then at that point we would write it and it would become the scene and that’s what we would shoot when we actually got to the shoot.  But we rehearsed pretty much every scene in the movie.

Dwight Henry:  He would take a script like this and he would write it and he would say, how would you say this in your words, versus trying to say it in his words.  He wanted it to be the way we would say it and he would rewrite it to the way we would say it, not the way he would say it.  But it would say the same thing, but in our own words.  It always seemed more natural when it’s coming out, just like me and you are talking, and it’s so natural coming out because it’s my own words coming out.  But if I was trying to talk to you with somebody else’s words, it wouldn’t seem as natural.

The actors have some pretty emotional moments in the film.  How many takes would you do?

Benh Zeitlin:  A lot. [laughs]  Probably, I feel like a lot of times the guys would know that you had a scene before I would know that you had a scene.  Especially her.  She knows when she gets something.  I’ll often times be like, take three, and I’d be like, okay let’s just do one more and she would say, Ben I got that.  Like, that was good, and sure enough when we went back to edit, it would be take three. 

But we shot a lot, and we shot in a very different way than we normally would, sort of piecing together scenes and doing things one line at a time and stuff like that.  We didn’t do a lot of like long takes where we would play out with both of them on camera at the same time playing out an entire scene.  But there were a couple moments where, you know, the cat fishing especially was this amazing thing where we didn’t have time to shoot the scene the way we normally shot it and lots of takes and pieces and that was one where there was like 15 minutes left in the day and I told these guys, you know, we have no time to rehearse this or practice it, we’ve got to get it.

Dwight Henry:  We have got to get in one time.

Benh Zeitlin:  I just said we’ve got to get it, and we just drove our boat away, drove it back, cut the motor, drifted towards the scene and these guys just played that scene in one take and nailed it.  So, I think after that – you know, it’s a learning curve. I learned to direct and these guys learned to be real actors as we shot the film, and that was about in the middle.  I remember form that point on our tools grew and grew as we made the film and we were able to do more and more of our stuff.  It’s like I said, you start off as a non-actor but by the time you get through this film you’re an actor.

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