Fox Searchlight releases Beasts of the Southern Wild at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on June 27th, 2012.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally while finding moments of comic relief?
Benh Zeitlin: To me, emotion is entertaining as long as it comes with a sense of humor. My taste in movies is a radical split where I love Superbad and Felliniís Amarcord, and I donít really make a distinction between those two affections. I want to use lyricism and the films to feel beautiful like theyíre reaching into realms that you donít normally see. I donít find that the elements of art films that are in this film are things that are distancing. I want to use the elements of artistic cinema that draw you into characters and that feel inclusive and that make you think about important issues. The thing that I love about Hollywood films is that they always deal with really important issues. They sometimes deal with them in really dumb ways, but itís always about ďWhat is the right thing to do?Ē and ďWhat is it to be a hero?Ē They deal with death and family, and itís done sometimes with lowbrow platitudes that arenít that interesting, but I do like the kind of size of the questions in epic Hollywood films. There are tools to use that investigate those questions in more interesting ways without making the film boring. I always think about the Emily Dickinson poem where she writes, ďTell the truth, but tell it slantĒ which to me means that you canít just go directly and tell somebody what to think. If you want to get inside them, thereís an arc to it----you use humor, emotion and entertainment. Those elements draw you into characters and opens up your heart. When that happens, then you can really deal with an issue and hopefully stir something important.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How important and challenging is it for you to take risks as a filmmaker? How has your attitude toward risk evolved?
BZ: We almost use risk almost like the camera. The risk is as important to the structure of the film as the camera. Itís always there. We really take a lot of extremely risky choices intentionally because of how difficult they are and because of the effort that itís going to require to accomplish them and to bring the reality to the screen. For us, the reason to take risks is to do something more authentic, to get the camera 15 miles below the coast, into a swamp and on the trees that we talk about when we refer to soil erosion---all these chaotic elements that hopefully get sweat and muscle into the texture of the film. It requires so much sweat and muscle to actually get those shots as opposed if you were to synthesize it on a sound stage. You maybe would get the same image, but the edges wouldnít be as textural and wouldnít have that kind of feeling of how hard it was to get the footage. As for how my attitude toward risk evolved, I think that certainly Iíve had some great producers who have convinced me to not take certain risks that were incredible. My imagination is so tied to reality that when I want to shoot a storm scene, my instinct is to just wait for a storm to happen and shoot during it. There are strategic ways of shoot it thoughóthat was really stupid, so we didnít do that. We controlled that and found a way to shoot the storm without having storm which ended up being a better scene probably than what I would have tried to do. Other things like that flood on the road, thereís no way to synthesize something like that. You have to design a process where, every day, somebody is monitoring that, and the moment that environmental phenomenon happens, you have to have the flexibility to be able to pack up and run and try to catch something and get these real events onscreen. So, you find a balance and a way to manage it, but certainly risk is like the currency of the entire production.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why do you think filmmakers take few risks nowadays than back in the 60ís and 70ís?
BZ: In the 1960ís and 70ís, the industry fell apart and directors took over. Right now, films are controlled by stars and producers who own content. When thatís where the power is, you donít take risks because the ultimate motivation is a financial, box-office one. For us, we had an incredible production called Cinereach that funded this film. Itís a non-profit company that has no financial motivation. Itís not like they werenít participating in the film and just let us do whatever we want; we would go to them and say, ďListen, about this lead in the film, we know we said we were going to cast an actor for this role, but we think that this guy, Dwight Henry, whoís a baker, can pull this off,Ē and they would say, ďGreat. Go with him.Ē Thatís so much of why the film is what it is Ėitís a credit to them empowering the filmmakers to take chances that normally people are too scared about the box office consequences to take. Cinereach gave us that freedom. I think if more people had that kind of freedom with these kinds of producers, and producers were to take their hands off of directors in the way that they did in the 70ís, you would have more variety and stronger films out there.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Is it fair to classify this film in any particular genre(s)?
BZ: I wouldnít know what to call it. Iíve called it an adventure film, but that makes people think of movies that are not like this. To show more love for Cinereach, we were never able to pitch this film and it never made any sense. Itís something that you really need to see to understand what it is.