Zeitlin’s is not new to film making although perhaps new to many viewers. From Sunnyside Queens, New York, he helped put together Court 13 in 2004 and would travel to New Orleans in 2008 for his film GLORY AT SEA which received many festivals including SXSW and the Woodstock Film Festival.
After my interview with Nazzy and Mr. Henry, I sat down with Benh to talk about his film choices and casting for this film.
I was there at the screening watching the reaction of the crowd. It was interesting to watch them be uncomfortable about laughing about certain things. Once it was accepted the felt more in on the joke. It was really interesting. You could see the uncomfortable level, the living situation of Hush Puppy and the audience trying to wrap their minds around someone actually living like that.
It’s a totally different place and how people react to that.
They were mentioning that this idea came from a stage play. What made you decide to take that and run with it.
It was really two things. It didn’t purely come from the stage play. The original thing I was working on was making a film about holdouts. I wanted to explore these five roads in Louisiana that go all the way down to the gulf to see what was there and make it about the last town on the edge. So that’s where it started. There was something else I was working on adapting a friend of mine’s play to try to create a play out of her world and I found a connection between the community losing its place and a girl losing her father and how it was one of those things where you realize they are the same story. It was a blending of the two things more than adapting the one thing. I found a character and a voice that got at the heart of what I was interested in.
After seeing Nazzy, when you saw her, this is a hard role for such a young girl to take on. What did you see in her?
I saw fearlessness. She was uncomfortable in the early auditions but she was defiant and unafraid to the point where she wouldn’t listen to me. She was five and I was telling her to do things and she refused to do it but – never broke character. With other kids they break character when they don’t want to do what’s asked of them. Like there was one scene where she has to throw a teddy bear at her father. I’d whisper to her, ‘throw it at him’ and she would shake her head ‘no’ and I’d cut the scene but the whole time she’d never break character. After I’d say cut I asked, ‘why won’t you throw it at him?’ and she’d say, ‘you’re not suppose to throw things at people.” So here was this tiny little person defying someone she didn’t really know and told by her Mom to do what I say and yet she wouldn’t do it. That is so essential to that character – that she have this eternal sense of right, wrong, fearlessness and defiance along with this moral code that she lives by. She’s struggling to figure out how to live by her principles. That was what kind of lept out and it was something we had never ever seen before in kids twice her age or in anyone other than Mr. Henry who has the same quality of ‘this is who I am’.
When you look at Nazzy you see an old soul. Its one of those things where you see something deep in her eyes.
Yes, a wise woman in a tiny body.
With Mr. Henry you say – a baker? What did you see in this baker that said he is going to be able to pull this off. His character is angry for many reasons whether it be his health, his wife, raising this child so much so that they have separate houses because of memories. How did you see Mr. Henry playing this character?
He’s not just a baker, his bakery is his life and the original story he was telling at an audition about how he got that bakery was amazing. He told how he would buy one piece of equipment and then six months the next piece. It was that sort of faith in himself and strength, confidence and fearlessness too. It comes from his life and this crazy story and I didn’t know those things when I cast him. I didn’t know he had been through the storm and such. He has such strength and we made the mistake early thinking the character needed to be obviously angry. We looked at people who were violent and had a bitterness to them, which this character does. When we tested them with Nazzy and the dynamic didn’t work at all, it was scary for her to be with someone like that. It was when Mr. Henry came into the picture because he had the ability being in such extremely situations to turn on that fierceness and violence. When we’d yell ‘cut’ he’d come back to this good-hearted person. It allowed Nazzy to go to scary places knowing that she was with someone who was goodhearted and kind and understands because he has a daughter of his own.
Instead of having this character being angry enough to frighten her, his anger was more productive. Almost as if his anger kept him going, focused him and showed him how to fix things. Even when he’s laying out in the woods after Nazzy punches him, even though he’s angry with her there isn’t hating anger – its something else.
There is a bed of love for her. Not being a parent I misinterpreted that honestly. I think I originally thought of the character as a man who thought he hated his daughter, thought he didn’t want a daughter or bitter about having a daughter but grew over the course of the film to love her. That was a total misinterpretation of that situation.
Do you think that when people see how they live apart, do you think that’s what it will cause it to be seen like that?
I wanted to push it there and I think we do but I think what he brought is that even though you don’t see it in early scenes that’s what he brought to the role and taught me about being that kind of father. There is this understructure of love, as hard as he’s going to be on her he does it because he loves her and is trying to teach her how to survive. In creating that base for the character is what brought the film to life and brought their relationship to be something I feel that is true. For me I wanted to make a story about a parent that is teaching and values fearlessness. That’s a very present thing and sort of the way children get raised that I admire in Louisiana parents that is also in my culture. Now we raise them to be afraid more than we raise them to be fearless.
There were people in the audience who couldn’t believe they were living in separate quarters. But I saw it as two things; one, there were things he couldn’t deal with in his life, and two, how to be able to take care of herself. She didn’t have a problem taking care of herself.
Yes, in his situation he knows he’s not going to be there and self reliance is going to be the difference between her surviving and not. He knows he needs to teach that to her.
What is your next project?
We are going to use this method to shoot in Louisiana. We want to preserve the system that made this film and the method of grass roots story telling and grass roots productions. It’s going to feel different with the world now watching.
Do you feel more pressure?
I put so much pressure on myself that I don’t even feel the pressure that might be coming from somewhere else!
Perhaps both director and his amazing cast can sit back and enjoy some of the accolades being given for BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. So far the film has worn awards from the Cannes Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Seattle International Film Festival. Also at the Sundance Film Festival, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD took home the Cinematography Award and the Grand Jury Prize for director Zeitlin.
This is a must see film and I do so encourage everyone to witnesses this amazing film of resilience, love and hope in a place that one would expect none!