MCN Columnists
Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

DVD Interview: Benh Zeitlin on Water

Benh Zeitlin and I talked about Beasts of the Southern Wild, water, humidity, Hushpuppy as superhero of her own life, walls of music, coming to film from music and animation, and the influence Emir Kusturica and Bob Fosse on June 11, 2012 at the Palomar Hotel in Chicago.

PRIDE: We can start on water. Discuss!

ZEITLIN: Shooting on the water or the water in Louisiana?

PRIDE: Water, big. It’s like New Orleans water makes it what it is. Water brings the life, water brings the death.

ZEITLIN: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s a place, it’s so viscerally connected to the water. There’s a real humility that comes from this sort of feeling when you are there, that New Orleans is very close to death in this way. It’s a presence in a way that I have never experienced anywhere else before, and it is all about… Every time it rains, water has this reminder of what it can do, and that your existence is this precarious thing that can be taken anyway at any moment by the water. Then at the same time it’s also where all the best food comes from! It’s an endlessly fascinating relationship and when I started making this film, I saw this. You look at a map, and you see this place where the water and the land are sewn together, where there is no clear border. And I wanted to explore what was at the frontlines of that place. So I would drive as far as I could go out into the marsh on all these different roads, and at the end of one of these roads was the town that became the film.

PRIDE: And it’s nice that you do so much of that through implication, there’s no blunt thesis about the topography. So you can bring as much to it personally as you want. You’re alluding to it being an alluvial delta; it’s the run-off of the entire continent.


PRIDE: This is all the rich stuff that the rest of North America has allowed to run off, and were left with…

ZEITLIN: Yeah, yeah, the shards, yeah absolutely.

PRIDE: So you’re involved with the music, music is part of you, you don’t have to tell anyone, I want the music to sound like this, you’re actively involved in this very frontal musical assault, this barrage? [Zeitlin laughs]… this wall of sound. Talk a little about that, what that means in terms of filmmaking for you.

ZEITLIN: It doesn’t feel like a separate thing to me. I come from music before film, and I am probably more naturally, like y’know, I have to work harder to make a film than I have to write a song. That is where my mind goes, and I think that the structure of the film is more musical than it is narrative in a lot of ways. It’s really an emotional structure, and music is an emotional….

PRIDE: You have variations and repetitions—

ZEITLIN: Exactly.

PRIDE: —as opposed to a two- or three-act structure.

ZEITLIN: Exactly, it moves in verses and choruses, and the way it is shaped has more of a musical momentum, and so to me, music is very much kind of sewn into the way that I think about story and I want to… it’s not a series of intellectual points, it’s like a build of a feeling that I am looking to create. You know, when you get to the end of a great song, this heightened thing where you are overwhelmed by feeling. So I think that that… it doesn’t feel like a separate mental tool, and then more fundamentally, in this film it’s supposed to be like a folk tale, but at the same time you don’t have these sort of Robin Hood versus the Sheriff of Nottingham, John Henry versus the Railroad events [or an expected] protagonist and antagonist. So you know, the way that it is going to feel like a folktale and an adventure, because that’s the way that she sees it, her experiences of her own life are in that way. And so the score was a way for us to understand the way that she reflects on her own experience, the way that she interprets the events that she is going through.

PRIDE: A recent film with a similar affect, which your film opens up in its own way, is the new Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom, and if you read it through this prism, as you are describing like reading it through Hushpuppy’s point of view, in that film you realize this is just this onslaught of feelings and emotions which are partly memory. It is almost like as if someone older has a really vivid memory of that rush of sensations.

ZEITLIN: Right, right.

PRIDE: And it is something that is music, sound and finding just the right performer. The idea of you talking about the folktale thing and you don’t have a traditional genre, but still the idea of that you have someone who’s so small, and you have hero shots of this obstinate small child.

ZEITLIN: Yeah, Yeah. Absolutely.

PRIDE: And she becomes this force of nature and you are going “but this tiny little Hushpuppy can’t be this force of nature!”

ZEITLIN: Yeah, but she sees herself as one and therefore it’s her film, and because it’s her film, she is. Y’know?

PRIDE: The music was bracing, a happy thing in the mix of good and indifferent things I saw at Sundance [2012] was the fact the music is even more jubilant than exuberant. Exuberant is a word I might have scribbled in the dark… but it’s almost like there is a celebratory life/death/music thing going on in all of the musical cultures of New Orleans. But there is also something always very celebratory, sometimes when you get that wall of music, and right now my brain is confusing the film with the trailer, which I like quite a lot. The music’s probably different from where it is placed in the film. But it is just like…

ZEITLIN: Yeah, it is supposed to be like…

PRIDE: It’s a wellspring; it’s a geyser of, y’know.

ZEITLIN: It’s like a jazz funeral; the film is structured like jazz funeral. And it’s something when you experience that, it’s that mix of feelings that is more powerful than the kind of strait: New Orleans is always mixing hope and tragedy and death and life in these ways that are… you can’t articulate it. It has this spiral thing, where things are moving in both directions at the same time and it almost hypnotizes you. Because there is so much joy, and so much tragedy, and they’re happening as forcefully in the same moment, it is almost as if it gets you outside of your intellectual ways of processing things and it turns into this kind of emotion, this overwhelming feeling. And so I wanted to do that with a film, where you’re hitting both sides of that as hard. And it just unlocks something that is very much New Orleans to me.

PRIDE: My best, sustained experience of the city was a few years ago, before Katrina, at the end of two weeks in July, when there is no one there but natives, “Oh, we can get you into that restaurant anytime you want. Because there’s nobody but you and the waiter.” Weather. The humidity, the smell, the wall of… There is a humidity of smell, the dankness of rotting things, the water, but it is also the smell of old bar that has never locked its doors. It’s the smell of food; you are on the streetcar and you’re smelling. You say to yourself “Does the streetcar really smell that old?” But then you smell beignets over here and you smell po’ boys over here…

ZEITLIN: There is so much water in the air everything is… The air has a presence that it doesn’t in other places.

PRIDE: And what I was trying to get around to, the film has a sensation that just staying in that living space that just gets cascaded with water. Everywhere. Plus, what are we, seventy-to-eighty percent water? Our bodies. This film is constantly finding new ways to use water as different sorts of undefined metaphor. It means so much.

ZEITLIN: It’s my favorite, I always think of like a palette, and that is my favorite tech paint or something. It just…

PRIDE: There is a reason that in romantic comedies people run to each other in the rain.

ZEITLIN: [laughs] Yeah. Definitely.

PRIDE: “We are washing away the tears with our love!”

ZEITLIN: Yeah. I love putting the camera on the water, it’s the most, y’know it has its own… I never want to sort of see exactly what I saw when I was writing the film. I want that broken apart by the actual production and there is no better way to do that then putting your scenes on the water, because the water will control where the cameras go, it will control where the actors go, it has its own… you just can’t fight against it. It has its own agency and you just have to react to that. It’s tumbling in a way that the story is humbled to the water. And everything is humbled to the water.

PRIDE: I like the stories of filmmakers who have either the courage or the stupidity to let it, to let the shoot wash over you. It brings you these things you can’t, this is what is terrible about all this CGI stuff, “Well, we can plan all this beautiful stuff.” But it is the wonderful little accidents you could never plan for, and the water and whatever it is, is giving it to you.

ZEITLIN: I always feel like your film ends up having the personality of what made it. You know what I mean? It’s like the parent. Its as important as the child and I always think about these CGI films, that the last person to touch it was some guy at a computer who had nothing to do with the story and nothing to do with the ideas behind it. And the lasting flavor of it is that guy, it’s not the director; it’s not the person who thought of the story. You want everyone touching the pieces of your film to do it with the same kind of love and the same kind of respect that you start with.

PRIDE: It’s a problem when you have a data wrangler instead of a swine wrangler.

ZEITLIN: Exactly!

The hungry hog in Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat.

PRIDE: You had a background in animation, and you worked with Jan Švankmajer?

ZEITLIN: Yeah, not personally. I was over there with a team of animators, the stayed in Prague after and were making their own films, and I went out to work with them. And I started doing animation; my first two films were animated shorts.

PRIDE: What is the leap from? You said a moment ago that music is more where you come from, but what then was the leap from animation to live action? Because I think you do have a bit of, Terry Gilliam is a great example of someone, you watch his live-action movies and can’t help but say, “Oh, you have the soul of an animator, Mr. Gilliam.”

ZEITLIN: Right. I have the same problem, where I see things, where my story imagination is operating outside of the realm of physics. Then you end up in the world of physics making the film, which drove my producers crazy.

PRIDE: “You have one million dollars, but that one sweet scene would cost you $49 million.”

ZEITLIN: Exactly, but I think I was doing animation, because the ideas I had, I couldn’t figure out how to execute in the world. And then at a certain point I just got too lonely. I was like, “I want to be in the world!” I am more interested in the world than I am in my own imagination, so it was the process of bringing my imagination to a bunch of very tangible things, and letting that alter the way I tell stories.

PRIDE: That all shifts my perspective on the film. Viewer seeing the film cold at Sundance, knowing nothing about you, immediately put the stamp of Terrence Malick over here on the side. I don’t have any problem with precocious voiceover, but then to throw in people like Kusturica and Mike Leigh and Cassavetes. It seems you have honored that disparate stew of influences.

ZEITLIN: That’s awesome.

PRIDE: There is a little bit of all of that in there.

ZEITLIN: For sure. And Fosse. I realized I haven’t been talking about Fosse enough.

PRIDE: Dear Christ. Bob Fosse! But first, Kusturica, I got a British copy of Black Cat, White Cat recently, you can’t get it here, and I just remember that the huge pig in that—

ZEITLIN: —That eats the car!

PRIDE: That eats the Trabant, the cardboard car. And you’ve got your huge pigs, the Aurochs.

ZEITLIN: Yeah. Yeah. If there is anyone I am literally “stealing” from it’s him. That is the only person that I feel like, you know, there is not enough of that type of cinema in the world and there is no harm in like, I would love, I just want to use the same kind of tools that he was using.

PRIDE: A few years ago in Greece, I got to go on stage to photograph one of his No Smoking Orchestra concerts.

ZEITLIN: That’s awesome.

PRIDE: And I am actually on stage behind him and all of the other crazy guys doing all this crazy stuff. And I go back and there’s like 300 photos, and maybe there’s one that is objectivity bad. His personality comes through so physically in his persona. As a musician he’s a big crazy person, too. Okay, Fosse. Give me some Fosse love here. That man was an editing-mad motherfucker.

ZEITLIN: Yeah, we are too. We cut this for two years. All That Jazz that sort of, it’s such a realistic film but it recognizes the fact that real experience is not just people talking to each other. It’s like your real-life experience is full of these hallucinations and dreams and the way that you go through a realistic experience is actually not what we consider realism. It’s a much more heightened thing and the way he sort of takes on… He always is taking on big questions, y’know, this is the film about… death. Humongous questions and he is very humble about it. You feel like the films are so much about questions, and not about answers. And also formally the way that he mixes memory and reality, I think is some of the most sophisticated stuff that has ever happened, and nobody ever really talks about him. They talk about Welles but they don’t talk about Cassavetes, and they are so similar. Lenny is like so much…. It’s like the next Citizen Kane for me. It’s so crazy the way that tape and memory, and the interview in real life are mixed together with this narrative story. It’s… Yeah… He’s… I love him.

PRIDE: It’s in the mass culture, the cliché made of his style of choreography, as distinct as Martha Grahams, but in fact the editing style itself is another form of choreography. And yet he transposes it from the proscenium of dance, to each dance, to film.

ZEITLIN: And that’s another way I relate to him, I’m a musician, and writing music is part of the way that I make my films, but to me, he took this skill from one part of his brain and effectively wove it into making a film, which can encompass so much more than a more specific art form.

PRIDE: There’s the Wagnerian precept, the Gesamtkunstwerk, where that was the form that everything then could be poured into, opera as “The art that encompasses all other art.” And someone like, Cassavetes is a radically different example, but all these people are talking about who say our art is a bathtub, full of all of these different things instead of being a radio play that’s been photographed.

ZETILIN: Yes. Film can have dance, and music, and all this photography stuff embedded inside of it. I think Fosse is one of the best examples of people who pivoted from one art form into film, and did it in a way that preserved what he was doing on stage.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and for download now. Transcription assistance by Julie Gavlak.

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One Response to “DVD Interview: Benh Zeitlin on Water”

  1. EM says:

    This revery of Emir Kusturica is curious. Let’s also mention the problematic nature of his films (wrapped up with his politics of genocide denial in Bosnia)…the otherization of minorities and a fervent nationalist perspective…….here’s zizek on kusturica:
    or levy & zizek: “Joyously, Zizek spreads arms out and declares to Levy: “I hope we share another point, which is – to be brutal – hatred of [director] Emir Kusturica. ‘Underground’ is one of the most horrible films that I’ve seen. What kind of Yugoslav society do you see in Kusturica’s Underground? A society where people fornicate, drink, fight – a kind of eternal orgy.”….”Levy, trying to keep up with the sarcasm, comments only that Kusturica is a case in which a man is so much less intelligent than his work that it cancels out the opposite possibility.”


Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon