Interview: Screenwriter Lucy Alibar of 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'
The Oscar-nominated scribe on Hushpuppy, magical realism, her own father and making a dream of a film ...
Going from stage to screen -- and changing substantially along the way -- "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was originally written as a play by Lucy Alibar; in collaboration with her longtime friend and "Beasts" director Benh Zeitlin, the material became a screenplay, and then went on to be one of the breakout films of Sundance 2011, even making the trip to Cannes later that same year. We spoke with Alibar in Los Angeles about her writing process, creating the character of Hushpuppy and her world, and the acclaim "Beasts" is receiving during 2011's end-of-year Awards discussion.
MSN Movies: How exactly do you go from having a piece of material as a play to it becoming one of the most acclaimed films at Sundance?
Lucy Alibar: A lot of work and collaboration and dedication with Benh. I think the central idea that Benh came to me with was taking the characters of this father and child in the South and these aurochs that are coming down to devour the children as the grown ups get sicker. He was interested in transposing that to South Louisiana and to the bayous there. And it really started from there. From moving down to thatfishing marina and just spending all our time and making that almost a third character in Hushpuppy's world.
And you were saying Mr. Zeitlin had been in New Orleans for a while working on his acclaimed short "Glory at Sea" and really just, your great phrase was, went until the road ran out.
Yeah, he drove all the way down to the end of the road and just found this incredible ... especially when he showed me the pictures in our first meeting, he showed me that causeway that you see at the end of the film. But the characters, when they're walking across it the waters rising up in this way, that looks like they're walking on water. And to me, being from the Bible that was what really, really hit home that I knew this was, I knew that his vision was the way I wanted to tell the story next in this new way.
I mean parts of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" really tap into this kind of Faulkner-ian sense of like fire and flood and mud and blood, and it's all very primal. That was in the original play obviously, but where do you think that came from? Was it just you writing about your relationship with your dad?
A lot of it, yeah. I mean I always whenever I was having trouble with the movie, I would always go back to that relationship because that was where so much of it came from. My dad, like many Southern men, is this very emotionally expressive person who isn't as articulate in words about his feelings as he is with breaking a chair or something like that. And he does that all out of all strong emotions, but I was really interested in really watching that behavior change because I watch my own dad's behavior really change as he got sick and how that really changed our relationship.
What was your dad sick with?
e had a lot of things that happened all at once. He had prostate cancer that ... he just never went to doctors so it became much more of a problem, and then he suffered a stroke and had to have a quintuple bypass and lost an eye. And I just kept hearing about it. I think there was this part of me that just didn't, I didn't understand what was happening, and I also didn't understand how this could happen to somebody that strong and that invincible that I'd grown up with.
It's always weird right? 'Cause you grow up and all of a sudden at one point your dad is shorter than you are, and you're like how the hell did that happen?
Yeah, and all of a sudden you see them. It's just this turning point where you see them not only as mortals who have faults and who could've been wrong about things in this way that I never thought my dad could've been wrong about things. But then also you get idea that they're not going to be here forever and that you're going to watch them through that. You have to watch them, if life works the way it's supposed to, I mean the ideal situation is you do watch your parents reach the end of their lives. And that was something I felt ... even though I've been to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, that I considered myself relatively, I don't want to say intelligent but I could get by. I just had no idea how to live with that, how to wrap my head around it and how the world could exist as I knew it if my dad could still be sick. So much of the play and the movie as well that Benh and I worked on is Hushpuppy wanting to be cohesive, and Hushpuppy trying to find an order to the universe, and understanding that she can't see it, and the frustration not being able to make sense of that, which is very much right what I sat down to write the first pages of the play from.
I mean you look at all the great stories about kids, or a certain kind of story of about kids like "Night of the Hunter" or I don’t know if you've seen David Gordon Green's "Undertow."
Oh yeah. Yeah …
... All these circumstances where it's interesting that kids have all the sensory apparatus they need to comprehend the world. But they don't have the intellectual and social apparatus. They don't know what an hourly wage is.
They don’t know how a divorce works.
And I think that having a kid's perception of the world is a great way to get people out of their own ossified perceptions of the world. Was that part of the pleasure of it? Bringing people into Hushpuppy's perception of the universe flawed, as it is unique?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think that it felt a little bit too like the unreliable narrator for Faulkner, where you're seeing a little piece of it like Benji's seeing everything through the fence in "Sound and the Fury."
And that was a real treat for us because we get to ... I think starting from that voice was so important and that voice really leading us to what those experiences were and how she receives new information. And sometimes Benh would send me questions of Hushpuppy talking about death, of Hushpuppy talking about being displaced, or what happens when your parents die, what makes every animal unique. I mean he would send me question that I would answer as Hushpuppy. From there we would make the, write the next scene.
Because you're not just trying to get into the psychology of it; you're trying to get into the language of it, too.
Yeah, absolutely. To me the voice has always been the way to start any character. Once I find that, I'm good to go. And for Hushpuppy, she's six in this way that is being six is different from being nine and different from being four. I mean at this age where you really start to see other people in the world for the first time. And we were really interested in, I guess in translating that experience and just the unfiltered honesty you could bring that that.
Miss Walls, you were saying that they sent you a tape. They looked at 4,000 young ladies, I mean 4,000 actors. They weren't going to film until they had somebody, and then you said you saw the tape and you instantly knew bang, that's it. I mean not to suggest that it was required, but once you got to know her, was there any rewriting predicated on "Okay, now we know what she can do ..."
Of course, of course. Well there was a lot of rewriting because we never expected her to be that young. We were thinking nine to12, ideally closer to nine. But again because it was non-professional actors Benh really wanted to use real kids, and he wasn't going to make the movie until he found Hushpuppy. I knew that we had to be, I knew that I just had to be very open to that, and I was very open to that. When I saw her she has this immediacy of focus, she pays attention, she changes with the other actors who are playing opposite her, she has a sense of humor, she has this great heart, and she had a tremendous amount of personal courage that you just see in her when she's working. And so then working with her at six, I mean she turned six, and you know the vocabulary is going to be a little bit different. She happens to be very verbally gifted, so it wasn't as a big a challenge. I think with ... I guess I can use the word "average," it wasn't the same as writing for an average six-year-old because she's still very, very bright. But some of the way she talks about things had to be a little more six than nine, if that makes sense.
A lot of child actor performances, you wind up looking at them like "Who hit an adult with a shrink ray?"
It's this adult mentality of this adult worldview coming out in this little tiny body, and it's just phony, phony, phony. And with that, with Miss Wallis, there was never a danger of that. She can't help but be real.
Yeah, she can't, and the same way with Dwight Henry who plays her father. I think that was ... I don't want to speak for Benh's choices, but he was very set on using a real child and by that not somebody who's pretending to be cute or pretending to be older or more sophisticated. I mean I feel so much of the joke you see with children characters is when they'll say something that a kid shouldn't know how to say.
"Time to start saving to my 401K."
Yeah exactly, exactly. We didn't. We were really interested in that authentic childhood experience so, and she's just the way Benh works with actors too is just so, he's so hands-on and sincere, and he creates this environment on set that's so comfortable and so focused and dedicated that I think he really brought out so much of who both Dwight and Quvenzhane are as people and really just gave them this incredible freedom and facility to work together.
The film won a lot at Sundance and has been playing extraordinarily well since then. I guess this is the time to ask somebody directly to their face, is it in fact an honor just to be nominated?
To be nominated for what? (Laughs)
For any award you've been nominated for. I mean people say it's an honor just to be nominated, and you've been nominated for several awards and we have yet to see if that's going to happen.
You guys were disqualified from the SAG awards, but I mean is it exciting or strange to be in the mix for other awards?
It's a little ... I'm like "To be nominated for what?" (Laughs)" Wait, what did we get?" You know, I didn't. No, it truly is incredible for your first movie just to see your name next to those other people. I mean to see my name next to, I feel uncomfortable even saying it, but to see my name next to Tony Kushner's name in some of these Critic Circle groups is just I can't even believe that, like I can't. so honestly, some of it doesn't even sink in.
Yeah, it doesn't emotionally. I mean I'm very happy with how well the film has been receiving and the personal connections people have to it mean a tremendous deal to me. But yeah, it really is. It feels like ... my friend Graham said this thing where he's like, "Just take the win. Don't worry about, don't think about what it means or what it means if you don't. Like when you get nominated for something, when you get anything just take that as a win, and don't worry about the next thing." And that's helped me. I think about that all the time 'cause that helps me really appreciate it and just enjoy it.
The horrible irony is that all of this year-end stuff is supposed to be good for film, which is supposed to highlight films. And then every critic says, "We're going to take the whole year in film and boil it down to one movie, one screenplay, and one director. That's it. That's all there is to celebrate." I'm not sure it does that as well as it could.
Yeah, I guess my perception of it is different. This is my first run with this whole process, but I feel with all the critics groups that's been happening, with all awards that have been happening, you really do see different movies being celebrated for different reasons, and it's, I mean "Zero Dark Thirty" hasn't even been released yet and it's…
Kind of unstoppably mowing down awards, yeah.
It is, and it's also just so exciting to see. I mean I feel that it exists in this way that ... it exists in a world where "Lincoln" can also exist and you can also appreciate. So I feel like, I mean I personally feel like there are a lot of incredible movies this season. I don't, I think that there could always be more distribution. There could always be more of a reach for many of us, especially independent movies. But I think there's some great, great films out right now, and just this year has been an incredible year for film.
And the distribution and the acclaim for "Beasts" is, as your friend says, the win you'll take?
Yeah, I will take that win. Absolutely. Just being able to honestly make the movie, get your first screenplay made, it is a win that I don't know who else that happens, I mean that happens so rarely. And to have been able to make it with my best friends and have it be the story that we all wanted to tell was just ... that was incredible.