Can you talk about the challenges of shooting on location and how you went about creating the look and the vibe of The Bathtub?
Zeitlin: We tried to build everything actually as opposed to building facades or fake things. Even though it may have been easier to build sets with flyaway walls or anything like that, we wanted to be able to shoot the film and allow these guys to operate on the sets as if they were real. Wink’s shacko, where they go through the storm, was a real house that my sister built. It’s all from materials that she found in the woods in that location and she actually lived in that house while she was building it throughout production, and so all those animals are her animals. It wasn’t like we had to fake it. It actually existed in the place. It wasn’t like we had to hit marks and avoid things. It felt lived in and you could shoot almost like it was a documentary. We tried to take that to every set and every big set piece. We wanted to actually experience what it felt like and let that find its way into the performances and the fabric of the film.
What about the floating palace that’s out in the middle of the water that advertises “Girls, Girls, Girls”? Is that a real location?
Zeitlin: Well the sign we put on. A lot of the art direction in the film was finding these crazy, bizarre places, and that was this boat that’s sitting on the north shore that this guy got into a real estate dispute over the ownership of the land, and to get revenge, he sank that boat out on the property to claim it and it’s been sitting there for twenty, thirty years. That’s actually there, and then I took the idea for the place from these riverboats that existed in New Orleans in the 20s and 30s, these kind of floating places where they’d have gambling and boxing matches. I thought about where Hushpuppy might imagine that her mother had gone to. Wink probably didn’t tell her the whole story. He probably just said “Your mother’s gone away; she swam away,” and not give her any more information. And then, I tried to build the place based on the mythology that Hushpuppy would have created around where her mother might be.
In the middle of this very real environment that you created, you also threw in some fantastical elements with the Aurochs. How did you approach CG versus practical and decide what they should look like to fit in with the rest of what you’d created?
Zeitlin: We wanted everything in the movie to be organic and that very much comes from the place. I mean, the Bathtub doesn’t have after effects in it. There’s no technology. There’s no computers. We wanted everything to feel organic and alive. And so, not even knowing how we were going to execute it, we decided very early on that the Aurochs had to be real animals, that we had to figure out a way to train animals and work with animals to get them to play these parts. I don’t think of them as imaginary. I think of it as the film is Hushpuppy’s film and for her everything is real. But they needed to emerge from her and so Hushpuppy’s world is built of these organic things. We wanted the effects to be organic and so 80 percent of them are all in camera. We would add things and remove things digitally, but the heart of the effect is reading 1980s practical effects magazines and trying to imitate some of the ways that people used to do things back before we could create them out of digital.
To what extent do you consider this to be a fairytale story not set in the real world?
Zeitlin: I don’t. For me, it’s a very real story. I try to think back to the way I experienced the world when I was six. It’s set at a moment before you start parsing out what’s imaginary and what’s real. I remember having an imaginary friend when I was six years old that was absolutely sitting in that chair right there and no one could tell me that he wasn’t there. I wanted to make a film that didn’t condescend towards that and say no, they’re just a kid. They’re just seeing things. I actually took it seriously and respected that point of view, because to me, she is the wise woman of the film and she’s the one who has both the strength and the sweetness to preserve this culture inside of herself. It’s because of her and the unique way that she sees the world. Although you could look objectively as an adult and say she’s imagining certain things and she doesn’t understand everything, the film is her film and we wanted to let her point of view and her reality speak for itself.
You never say Katrina in the film but that comes to mind when you watch it. The Bathtub that’s set in the southern bayou seems like it may as well be another part of the world. Is that part of the sense you have too from spending time there?
Zeitlin: Yeah, definitely. The Bathtub is definitely not a real place. It’s not like we just found a place that was like that and photographed it. It’s definitely a synthesis of a lot of different elements of South Louisiana culture that are all geographically disparate. There’s New Orleans culture in there. Cajun culture is in there. Creole culture is in there. And it’s all being consolidated and concentrated in this little island that we call the Bathtub. That was sort of the idea to build a heightened world out of very real parts and to try to tell this story as a fable. It certainly is inspired by a lot of real things that have happened, and the reason to stay away from mentioning Katrina or anything specific is that we get caught up on that event because it was on TV so much, but it’s really a continuing thing. I wrote the film in 2008 after Gustav and Ike had happened, in this moment that felt like storms have aways come and they’re coming more and more frequently. I wanted to tell a story about moving on into the future and living in a place where every summer the possibility of getting wiped off the map always exists and what it’s like to stand strong there and stand by the place and refuse to leave and fight for it. I don’t want to get bogged down in the politics of George Bush and Nagan (former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagan) and drill now and don’t drill now. To me, that all seemed superficial in the face of something. Down in the bayou, down at the bottom in the marsh, on this island called Isle de Jean Charles where we shot, somebody said to me “I hope that I can live my life on this island and die on this island, but I know that my children are going to be telling their children that once upon a time there was an island called the Isle de Jean Charles and that it doesn’t exist anymore and that culture is not here anymore.” That emotion, to me, transcends all the politics and it’s something that I feel can be universal. That if anybody thinks of a place where they were born and come from and imagines that it’s no longer on the map that there’s an emotion there that can cross the oceans and go anywhere and people can feel what it feels like to have your home threatened into the future.
Quvenzhané, how would you describe this film and what it’s about?
Wallis: It’s about a little girl who lives in The Bathtub with her father and she thinks her father is kidding about how he’s dying because that’s what they mostly do, and she just realized how he was dying even more and she thought it was serious so she started thinking about how she should take care of her father.
You get to do some really cool stuff in the film like running around with firecrackers and sparklers and lighting the stove on fire with a can of hairspray. Was that fun for you?
Wallis: Yes, but that can of hairspray, I have no idea if that was real.
Benh, what did you do to monitor her safety when she was doing these things?
Zeitlin: We made a real effort to make it look like she was in danger. Whenever there were pyrotechnics on set, we had pyrotechnics people and safety people and fire trucks. No one’s life was ever in danger while making the film, but we got to play with some fun toys. I’m going to tell a story about Lynn (Colugia??). When we were doing the fireworks scene, that shot that’s on the film poster, when we were about to do that, our producer went up and talked to her and said “We’re going to have these live sparklers and they’re non-flammable. They’re not hot. We just want to make sure it’s okay for her to do this.” And she said “Oh, she’s gonna do it. She’s got to step up and be a woman and do this.” It was always a challenge but always in the spirit of the film – to be fierce and sort of be wild and not be afraid. There was no real reason to be afraid, but we certainly got to push ourselves to do some pretty crazy things.
Do either of you have a favorite scene that you shot?
Wallis: Burp, scream and crawfish. [She lets out a high pitched, piercing scream.]
Zeitlin: That was one of the first things she ever did when she came to work.
Henry: Mine was sitting down and eating all the seafood at the table and I’m looking at her over there eating the seafood wrong and I go over there and tell her to ‘beast it.’ We were really eating that seafood. We ate all that seafood. That was real barrel seafood down there.
Wallis: It was good. Everybody that was under the table came out from under the table because they ate that whole big thing down there.
Zeitlin: The crew was stealing crabs off the table. That was a real feast.
Wallis: That was good too! I wish I was doing that right now.
What kind of animals did you use on the set and were they cooperative when you had to act with them?
Zeitlin: Almost all the animals in the film are me and my sister’s animals. We have a bit of a menagerie in New Orleans. One of the big challenges was touching the pig. That was one of the first things she had to do, that giant pot-bellied pig she puts her hand on. (to Quvenzhané) That was one of the scarier things you had to do, I think.
Wallis: Yes, I actually cried for that one little scene.
Zeitlin: But she managed to do it. It was a big sleeping thing. It was asleep when she did it, but it’s still quite a monster.
What were the Aurochs? Were they cows?
Zeitlin: That is a top secret. I can’t give it away.
How many shooting days did you have?
Zeitlin: I think 52. It was a long shoot. That might include the special effects shoot. There were about seven weeks of principal photography.
Wallis: It was three months, and for all of the movie, it was three years.
Zeitlin: We shot about 2-1/2 years ago at this point. She’s grown up since we’ve been editing.
Wallis: If you want to start from the audition, I’ve gone from five years old to eight. And if you want to start from shooting, I’ve gone from six to eight.
Quvenzhané and Dwight, you both went away for three months to make this movie. Now that it’s finally coming out, are you excited that your friends will finally see what you were doing?
Henry: They know already. Everywhere I go, people are starting to recognize me from different things that we’ve done and people seeing little things, so they’ve got a hint about it already that it’s real and it’s coming. They’re waiting to see it in theaters now and make sure you all tell everybody.
Zeitlin: They recognize me when I go into the bakery now. They know who I am when I go in.
Henry: We are starting to be recognizable.
When did you first realize this film was going to be something very special?
Zeitlin: It was very surreal going to Sundance. We finished sound mixing the movie two days before it screened for the first time. There was no real time to think about what was going to happen or how it was going to go, and even the first time I saw it, I was still mixing sound in my head and thinking I need more magenta in this shot. I couldn’t really experience the movie yet. Some of the early things that were written about it, when I read them, it sort of took me back to 3-1/2 years earlier being on the docks ranting to my friends about what this film could be and what it was going to be like and what it was going to say. Seeing that that had gotten across was kind of a turning point moment where I could manage to step out of making the film and realize that we’d said what we set out to say. I’d probably even forgotten what that was, but hearing it rearticulated was really moving, and you just start to realize that it was in there, that what we were trying to communicate was in the film. That felt really good.
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens in theaters today.