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Film screening features Hushpuppy and her ‘Beasts’

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ was screened at RISD with a lecture by director Benh Zeitlin

For Hushpuppy, heroine of director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the world is filled with beasts great and small. A young girl living with her dying father in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Hushpuppy narrates the film, reimagining the catastrophic storm the only way she knows how — with a six-year-old’s intuition.

A two-night series hosted by the Rhode Island School of Design and the Ivy Film Festival featured a screening of the film Wednesday followed by a lecture and question and answer session featuring Zeitlin and his sister, RISD alum Eliza Zeitlin, Thursday.

The film opens on the mundane beasts in Hushpuppy’s life — the chickens, pigs and caterpillars that inhabit the harsh land she calls home — and gradually introduces the supernatural aurochs, mythical prehistoric animals that appear as her world crumbles. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is “about this girl who thinks she’s caused the end of the world,” Zeitlin said at the question and answer session held at the RISD Auditorium. Her young mind perceives her father’s mysterious illness, the rise of the imaginary aurochs and the impending hurricane as parallel incarnations of the apocalypse.

The lecture and screening mark Eliza’s first return to her alma mater in five years. While at RISD, Eliza spent time thinking about the significance of art in her life and developed a perspective she has carried with her, she told The Herald.

The lecture was intended to give student filmmakers insight on making their first feature, said Evan Sumortin ’13, IFF executive director.

When making “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Zeitlin was in the same position — one of an artist creating his first feature film — that many students will soon be in, and his experiences with the industry and logistics are a valuable resource for undergraduates, he said.

Jess Chen, a RISD student who helped bring the film to Providence, worked as an outreach coordinator for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” last summer.

She said the film radically transformed her perception of filmmaking, adding that it defied the stereotype that in order to be a successful filmmaker, one must be well-connected and well-funded.

Zeitlin described his directing style as an attempt to break down the filmmaking process. “We were trying to find a way to really live the stories that we were trying to tell,” he said. “If a scene requires fun, we try to actually have fun.”

Zeitlin said he was inspired by a town on the southern tip of Louisiana and his encounters with its inhabitants.

“The way people were insulting each other on this dock was just so spectacular,” he said. “There’s a real creative life in this town.”

The culture of the ‘Bathtub,’ the fictional island on which Beasts of the Southern Wild is set, “was a renegade culture,” Zeitlin said. It exists in opposition to the mainstream society beyond the levees in Louisiana.

In its early stages, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was a vague myth, beginning with the question, “Why do people stay?”

The concept was fleshed out in the creation process, from casting to budgeting to selecting locations. Each artist brought something different to the piece that informed its evolution.

The filmmakers originally intended for the soundtrack to be inspired by Cajun music, but the end result, which Zeitlin co-wrote, more represents Hushpuppy’s interpretations of the world and adopts a childlike, grand cinematic style.

Eighty-five percent of the special effects were done in-camera, Zeitlin said, adding that the final scene, a confrontation between Hushpuppy and the aurochs, was the only one to use a green screen.

The imaginary aurochs were actually pigs outfitted in swamp rat skins, said Eliza, adding that she has done significant work with animal hides — even tanning a cat she found in the road as a costume for her Chihuahua.

“There’s a million ways to tell a story,” Zeitlin said. The filmmakers were forced to adapt to a tight budget of approximately $800,000 and to the hostile environment of the Louisiana Bayou, where “anything that touches you leaves with a piece of you,” Eliza added.

“The catastrophes were daily,” Zeitlin said in response to a question about the most stressful part of filming.

“Deep Water actually exploded on day one of our shoot,” he said, adding that this required the crew to navigate the threat of oil and fights with BP to arrange filming. But there were other, happier accidents during production. Hushpuppy’s father Wink’s boat, the ‘Turck,’ was crafted out of Zeitlin’s own defunct pickup truck.

“The spontaneous combustion of that vehicle was an asset to the production,” Eliza said.

As for advice to students, Zeitlin noted the importance of maintaining focus and understanding that no one needs to fear poverty or get permission to make art.

“It’ll kill you much more slowly than having a job you hate,” he joked.

One student in the audience asked Zeitlin how he dealt with self-doubt.  Zeitlin responded that the prospect of failure is terrifying enough to be motivation in itself.

“You suppress it with all your might,” he said.


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