Following a year-long journey that began at Sundance and ended in theaters all over the world, Beasts of the Southern Wild endures as one of the most emotionally evocative and deeply heartfelt pieces of filmmaking to be released this past year. The film explores the themes of courage, community, and parent-child relationships through the lens of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), her Dad, Wink (Dwight Henry), and their close-knit bayou community lovingly referred to as “The Bathtub.” With the waters rising all around them, and Wink facing a mysterious illness, Hushpuppy attempts to save both her father and her community. The surrealist southern fable is the brainchild of Lucy Alibar, who wrote the play, “Juicy and Delicious,” upon which Beasts of the Southern Wild is based. She co-wrote the screenplay for the film, along with first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin. In celebration of the film’s widespread acclaim and its recent release on Blu-ray and DVD, I recently enjoyed a wonderful late lunch with Alibar. We spent the afternoon at Petrossian West Hollywood, where chef Giselle Wellman appropriately prepared a juicy and delicious array of oysters for us to enjoy while discussing Alibar’s bayou tale. Here’s what Alibar shared with me about collaborating with Zeitlin on the screenplay, how they were influenced by Southern storytelling, and crafting Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Jackson Truax: Since premiering at Sundance almost a year ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild has won a whole range of awards and is considered a frontrunner to be nominated for Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. What has this journey continued to be like for you, going from a playwright in New York to an acclaimed screenwriter of a globally-renowned film?
Lucy Alibar: It’s still so day-to-day in terms of the things we have to do for it, the screenings, the Q&As. It keeps us really present in this way that’s really enjoyable… [When the film was opening] we were all in LA together. But since then, we split up to take it to different festivals. One of the reasons Fox Searchlight has been so great about putting us out there is that the reach of this film is incredible. Just in terms of how far across the globe and even how rural it’s gotten in America; how many people have been able to see it. So we were away from each other for a long time. We were all like brothers and sisters when we were doing it. I lived at Benh’s house. Then we lived at a fishing marina together. Then when we were shooting, it was like camp. We were all living, eight people in these little houses. Now it feels like that again. And because of that…there’s this wonderful normalcy to it…. I’m able to take it as a day-to-day thing.
JT: Both as a writer and as a human being, you have a unique and incredible sense of humanity, and a remarkable sense of compassion that’s far too rare. Where do you think your sense of humanity comes from?
Alibar: I think probably a lot from my parents. My Dad [Baya Harrison, a criminal defense lawyer who takes on many pro-bono and death penalty cases] doing so much work for people who are less fortunate… People that everybody else has turned their backs on. I didn’t find out until recently that if his clients are executed, he’s with them. He stays with them. I still haven’t really wrapped my mind around that. He says it’s because they don’t have anybody else. He’ll always be that person who will be there. I think a lot of me, my values about the world come from watching him fight for people that, not just have nothing, but have been judged. Not only are they very poor, but they’ve also usually done something really bad that’s a lot of times unforgiveable… We’re just sort of taught to be disgusted by that. Maybe we should be. It’s a really interesting moral question for me to wrap my head around… I think about it all the time.
JT: That sense of humanity and compassion is deeply felt in every frame of the film. Was that something that was important for you and Benh to capture in the screenplay? Was it a conscious effort, or did it come more instinctually?
Alibar: We talked a lot about this concept of…taking care of each other. You have to take care of everybody. We all have to take care of each other. That was so important for both of us to get in there. That’s what both characters are trying to do with each other. It’s what, to an extent, they learn the limits of. Hushpuppy, I based so much of her on me. She thinks she can save her Dad and save her community and save the world. And really, all she can do is be there for her Dad at this moment of crossing over. That’s the most she can ever do. What was interesting to me was…really recognizing the heroism of that, of staying. Hushpuppy says, “The brave men don’t run. They stay and watch it happen.” Just that courage of love and presence was really important when we were writing it.
JT: Even though there are great moments of dialogue, the film feels driven by less by dialogue or plot, and driven more by these characters and their feelings above all else. How did you and Benh capture those emotions and the feel of the story on paper, when you didn’t always have dialogue driving it?
Alibar: I think both of us knew the characters so well. For me, it’s my family. And for Benh, it’s everything I’ve told him about my family and then his own experiences with that. I mean, emotionally, it’s my family. It’s a very similar dynamic. We’re not in Louisiana. So I think even if it’s not dialogue-driven, it’s the scene where continually there’s this problem of her Dad not taking his medicine, not taking care of himself. And the scene where she finally confronts him about it. And she’s so angry that she tears up the house. And he’s so angry that he’s going to leave her behind. He starts tearing up the house, too. To me, the story was the driving force of this. And they’re two very emotional people.
JT: In the passages of the film where the dialogue is sparse, how detailed did you and Benh get in the script? Since Benh was directing it, was it important to map out everything in detail in the script?
Alibar: Absolutely. We knew what it was going to be. The scene where LZA (Amber Henry) goes down and everybody sort of lays hands on her. That was in the play. That’s one of my favorite moments of the movie… I didn’t even intend it to be that much dialogue. There are two lines in it… But at first, I envisioned that as just all quiet. Because I found that…coming from the theater, so much of what people do isn’t what they talk about. Especially in the South, people don’t say what they’re doing. People don’t talk about what’s actually going on… They’re just these moments of action that… I can just see them, as a playwright, as this very natural progression way of telling the story. So it was always very important that we knew what those moments were. It would be in the, I call it the stage direction. Benh, even the other day, was saying, “They’re not stage directions. They’re action lines.”
JT: What about the scenes right after the flood? Was that area discovered during shooting? Or because you went down to Louisiana to write, did you figure it out in the screenplay?
Alibar: We figured that out in the screenplay. We found that area that you see after the flood. Benh, because he found it, [said], “We have to use this. We have to do this. This is her house after the flood…” A lot of times you’ll let the landscape really speak to you that way. It was important that we were always in the driver’s seat and being really strong in the story we wanted to tell. And then letting those other, it felt like set pieces, but they were real-life, come in and help us drive it.
JT: Beasts of the Southern Wild has been called a fable of sorts. Was making the play or film fablistic something you wanted to do?
Alibar: That was really important. Because…I’m from the Bible belt. We tell stories in this really big way. To me it just seemed very natural. It came very early on. And I think for Benh, too. That this was the way to tell the story, as the story that she leaves behind for scientists a thousand years from now. And how you would talk to scientists a thousand years from now if you’re a six-years-old soul. We didn’t even talk about it that much. It just felt very right immediately.
JT: Did setting the story in that sort of reality and from the vantage point of Hushpuppy allow you to get away with things tonally or plot-wise that you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise?
Alibar: It brought us away from our own egos a lot. Because it kept us from commenting…it kept global warming, for example, out of the discussion. Just watching everything my Dad went through, I had a lot of anger about the way a patient is treated once they’re in a hospital. And how they just become this number. And how so many of their needs are not met. I had a lot of anger about that. And that couldn’t be in there. And I couldn’t comment on any of that. Because it was from her point of view… With those restrictions, what there is, and what we see, is…what an incredible miracle the world is. Which is what you do when you are six-years-old. And I do, in flashes now, when I’m back home. You’re able to talk about the emotional truth of things a little bit easier. I just found there’s incredible freedom in writing from that point-of-view. Maybe it’s because I still feel like I’m about seven or eight. It let’s you talk about what you want to talk about.
JT:Although Beasts of the Southern Wild is an adaptation of your play, it feels just as much an extension of Benh’s short film “Glory at Sea” which is now available on the Beasts of the Southern Wild Blu-ray. Was the idea always that you and Benh would bring your play into that world and marry the two?
Alibar: It’s based on the play because it’s these two characters. Benh’s short film is based in Louisiana. It’s the suggestion of New Orleans. The movie is a fantasia on the bayou. But creating this world, creating The Bathtub, was something immediately that we were both really excited about. I think we both have a pretty strong individual sensibility. And marrying those two…I think we’re lucky. We’re not competitive with one another. We really respect each other because we’re best friends. It’s always this very positive, exciting thing… I have tremendous love for Benh. But also tremendous respect for him as an artist. He treats me with the same. It felt like this incredible opportunity for us both to take these characters and put them here and watch what happens and then work from there.
JT: What are your individual sensibilities, and how do you think they complement each other?
Alibar: When you talk about Benh’s work, I think a lot of other film directors and film people will talk about it differently… But the way I see Benh’s work is this tremendous emotional realism. And his tremendous love for watching people… As a writer working with him, he has this love of people. And how unique and different we are. And this tremendous eye for beauty… He sees the beauty in everything. And in every person, he sees what is beautiful in them… Mine, I really like to tell good stories. I really like to write about the people that I know and the people I grew up with. I love writing about fathers and daughters. I write a lot about my own Dad. I write a lot about me and my feelings about things… I’ve always been really interested in parent-child relationships. And that same way Benh’s really interested in the beauty of the seventy-five-year-old dancer in the Elysian Fields scene. And what is really, truly beautiful about her while being completely honest about her face and her body… I’m really interested in really looking at those aspects of relationships that are…unique. I’m really interested in finding every nuance. And keeping on looking at something. Like a relationship. Like a dynamic. A dynamic between two people. Let’s keep looking at that. Let’s see how that keeps changing. Let’s see how that changes both of them. There’s a point that I feel like usually you look away. And what happens if you keep looking a little bit longer? And what happens if you put them in this situation and then you look a little bit longer? I’m so interested in that. Relationships just fascinate me.
JT:As the film is now out on Blu-ray and DVD, I wanted to give you a chance to respond to a criticism. It’s hard for a lot of audiences to relate to the residents of The Bathtub leaving the hospital and refusing that help, especially Wink wanting to die outside the hospital and not stay and try and prolong his life. Was that something you and Benh were worried about when crafting the screenplay, and why was including those scenes and executing them in that manner important to you?
Alibar: I wanted us to watch these characters without judgment… My uncle had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis this year. He made the decision that he was going to live out until he was comfortable. Then when he could no longer enjoy life, he was going to end his own life on his terms. His decision to do that gave his last year of life this tremendous freedom and this tremendous love and joy. And he didn’t ask anybody for permission to do that. He did that. I know both my parents are the same way. So I respect that. I respect that choice to not die in a hospital. Even if it would be a month later, a year later, than when you’d die in your own house… I wanted to suspend my judgment and look at those choices with love.
JT:When rewatching the film since its Blu-ray/DVD release, it’s hard to think about recent tragedies including Hurricane Sandy as well as the recent tragedy in Connecticut, in addition to many of the on-going challenges facing our country. For those reasons and many others, has the meaning of the film changed for you at all throughout the course of this year?
Alibar: Even just writing it with Benh…and figuring out what was the story I wanted to tell, changed me profoundly… I think it helped make me less judgmental of…people’s choices. I think it did also give me this real belief that we’re responsible for each other. And that responsibility isn’t easy. I would say it changed me… The response that I’ve gotten in Q&As when people talk about their relationships with their children. A mother came up to me at one screening I did at a festival… She was talking about her friend who lost her son. I can’t imagine, truly. I don’t want to even… But so many of the personal responses I’ve gotten from this have been about loss and people’s own experiences…of losing somebody. I have such a better idea now of how precious…and delicate and fragile life is.
JT:If Beasts of the Southern Wild were to get an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, what would that mean to you, personally and professionally?
Alibar: In terms of the practical things, how that changes your life, I have no idea. I truly have no idea…but just in terms of getting that kind of respect from your peers. The fact that they’re even our peers now is shocking… It’s so humbling. I think just the acknowledgment of other artists that taught us how to make this art, of other writers that truly taught me how to write. I went through this crash course from playwriting to screenwriting by just watching everything. I watched four movies a day sometimes. And taking notes. And then taking scripts and taking the scripts apart and putting them back together. I think it would be so humbling. And just the most incredible honor to be acknowledged by your peers… That’s what makes it special.