As indie sensation “Beasts of the Southern Wild” makes its way through the awards season, and director Benh Zeitlin and star Quvenzhané Wallis pick up countless breakthrough prizes along the way, it would be worth bearing in mind how the identity of the film grew from a little play by writer Lucy Alibar.
In the stage production “Juicy and Delicious,” there is no little girl. There is a boy, whose father is dying, much like Hushpuppy’s in the feature film, and for Alibar, it was a way of working through emotions she was feeling in the midst of a health scare with her own father.
“My dad got sick and I know it’s an irrational fear and I’m usually a pretty rational person but for some reason I just had this horrible sense that when his life ended, my life would end,” Alibar says. “So I was interested in exploring that and just figuring that out. I was really focusing on just that loss of a father, and that sense of when your parent dies, you die, too. And the parts of the parents that you hold onto and the parts of yourself that are related to your parents.”
Alibar’s father raised her in a forthright way, she says. It’s not all that unlike Hushpuppy’s father and his insistence on strength above softer emotions. “He raised me like a boy,” she says, “and I was really interested in why he did that. And the way he showed love was always very much about arm wrestling and letting me flex my muscles. He’d never tell me ‘I love you’ but he’d tell me how strong I am. He’d tell me ‘I’m the man.’ We would always arm wrestle and he would let me in; I never really knew that he was letting me win. The details of that relationship I was interested in exploring with a real child.”
And so, it’s fair to say Hushpuppy, as played by Wallis, is a surrogate for Alibar in many ways in the film. But this was never something she expected would have the scope of cinema. It was always a cobbled-together piece of handmade intimacy on the stage, until her friend, Zeitlin, came to her with an idea to expand not only the world of the film, but the thematic structure as well.
“Benh came to me with the idea of taking these characters, a father and a child, the father at the end of his life and the aurochs coming down to devour the children, and set that in south Louisiana,” she says. “He had driven to the end of the road and found a lot of what you see in the movie and thought the story of the play would be an echo of what’s happening to the land down there.”
Indeed, as Zeitlin told us in a separate interview in June around the release of the film, that setting spoke to the ideas of losing a way of life and culture that percolate throughout the film. “It’s a very ferocious, very resilient culture of people that have fought back against a lot,” Zeitlin said at the time, “and it values fearlessness and it values a strength in a way that you probably don’t see in a lot of other places.”
Alibar chalks Zeitlin’s connection to culture up to the fact that his parents are folklorists, “but he had this really keen sense of what you hold onto as your culture is vanishing,” she says. “We were both interested in loss and what you keep when everything’s being taken away from you.”
Adapting it into a film also allowed her to really expand on the idea of the aurochs (which look more like giant prehistoric boars than giant prehistoric cattle). With a “complete lack of budget” on the stage, it was a design element that never really had a chance to be developed. And of course, in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the use of practical effects makes those sequences some of the most compelling of the film. “I had no idea how Benh was going to pull that off,” Alibar says, “but that was such an important part of the story, this impending doom that Hushpuppy sees closing in.”
And while Hushpuppy is a surrogate for her in many ways, Alibar is also quick to note how Zeitlin projected plenty of his own youth and sensibilities into young Wallis. “He talks about her as the hero he’s always wanted to be,” she says. “But so much of my relationship with my dad is in the movie.”
Take any film from Sundance through a summer release and into the Oscar season and you’re bound to hit a fatigue wall at some point. That’s a long haul with busy high marks along the way, and the film shows no signs of stopping yet. For Alibar, though, it’s been a humbling ride, but a meaningful one as well.
“We’ve met so many people who share their own stories about their parents or their children or the land that they’re from, and it makes it this incredibly personal, deep, unique experience every time,” she says. “And also just traveling with the group. They’re all like my brothers. Mazie [Wallis’s nickname] feels like my daughter at this point, so it feels like we’re all family and it’s just a wonderful time. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to be spending my time with.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is currently available on DVD/Blu-ray and you may just be hearing even more about it in the next two months.