Beasts of the Southern Wild co-writer Lucy Alibar is the embodiment of the phrase “sweet as pie.” She’s warm and well-mannered, no doubt thanks to her Southern upbringing, and despite riding a wave of raging success after major Sundance and Cannes accolades, she displayed her refreshingly un-Hollywood generosity when she insisted that I share her car home after our interview (we live close to each other in Brooklyn).
There’s no way to encapsulate all that was said in that car after our 20-minute conversation in the restaurant lobby of a swanky downtown New York City hotel, but it’s safe to say we share a common bond when it comes to our father’s illnesses (some of my personal story is outlined in my review for the film; Alibar’s father blessedly survived his ailment), an inability to watch many of the hospital scenes in the movie and a weakness for Beasts star Dwight Henry’s famous Buttermilk Drops (which we stocked up on before heading out, thanks to a massive selection in the press room).
While at the restaurant -- seated next to Julianna Margulies lunching with a friend, no less, a detail that left us both a little star struck -- Alibar and I discussed writing from personal experience, adapting Beasts from her original play Juicy and Delicious (with the help of the film’s director Benh Zeitlin), the production team’s months-long embedment in Southern Louisiana before filming, writing dialogue for untrained actors, and the influence her family’s potbelly pigs had on the movie’s mythical Aurochs.
Are you constantly barraged with people coming up to you and crying about this movie?
Not just audience members, but journalists, too – has anyone broken down while interviewing you?
I'm really not surprised by that. I'm going to attempt not to add to your tally. But I was tearing up just writing my questions for you.
I mean, I'm a pretty open person, and I wrote my whole life into that play, and so much of my life is in this movie … so for me it sort of equals it out a little bit because I'm like, "Well, I just showed you everything ugly about me!"
Is it odd for you to have people, in a way, take ownership over something you wrote, through their reactions?
No, I actually love that. I really wanted people to have their own experience. That's the most rewarding part of it for me. I'm a playwright – the reviews … I know it means a lot, but I don't even have a concept of, like, even Camera d'Or. I didn't actually know what that was until we got it. I'm not trying to downplay it, I'm just saying I'm from so outside that world. So for me, what I can connect to is people coming up to me – people I've never met. So many people will come up to me talking about their relationship with their dads, and that's the part of this experience that I understand.
The original Hushpuppy in your play Juicy and Delicious, which Beasts is based upon, is a boy. Why didn't you write the character as a girl from the start? Is it because the subject matter was somewhat autobiographical?
Yeah, I had to make the play about a boy … maybe because I identify so much as a girl, maybe because I just needed to write my thoughts – they were so articulate, in a way, that I couldn't have someone who looked like me saying them. Maybe it was a little escapist, but it was sort of like a lie to tell the truth.
But then Benh convinced you to make Hushpuppy a girl while you guys were adapting the play into a screenplay, right?
Yeah, and I was like, "Okay – I can do this now." And sometimes it was really hard. There were days when we were shooting where I just had to walk away, I couldn't do it. There were days when Nazie's [Quvenzhane Wallis, the actress who plays Hushpuppy] mom just had to rub my back, it was just so hard to watch. But it's also been incredible … this makes the experience worth it.
And since you wrote this out of a personal experience, it must be tough to have people share their stories with you – it must churn stuff up.
My dad is still alive. He had this incredible reconstructive heart surgery, and it's like – whatever people's relationship with that is, it's a true relationship. It's one of the deepest relationships you'll ever have. It's the most honest.
What's really striking about this film is that it doesn't have any overt agenda. There are so many elements at play – the displacement of the homeless, rich versus poor, religion, a post-Hurricane Katrina world. But it's more of an immersive feel than a preachy one. How did you guys reconcile that?
Well, I would say all of the Louisiana-specific stuff, like the hurricane and losing the land, that was something Benh wanted us to do when we were first talking about it. I think for both of us – like you say, politics, religion – you see them in the play and I certainly identify very strongly with them. … I happen to be a religious person … because I was raised in the South, went to Sunday school, I'm from the Bible Belt … I'm from South Georgia/North Florida, so the real panhandle, Southern Baptists. But I read this one review … it was very intelligent, but it interpreted the whole thing as this, like, Christian parable. And I was like, "Wow – that's so not what I intended!” Even though that is the whole life I grew up with. So maybe that was in there, maybe people are seeing something I didn't overtly intend. We wanted to focus on the emotional and spiritual realism of it, and let it live in this world of myth so that this emotional realism could really play out. As far as the spirituality, we talked to a lot of people. We were there for three or four months before filming, but it was really intense – that doesn't sound like long, but it was really all day every day.
And were you adapting and rewriting the script as you were living there, too? Because it seems like the location influenced a lot of what was in the script.
Yeah, absolutely – we were writing for that area. And also, just listening to people talk about – in the Bible Belt, people go to church pretty regularly and have this very personal relationship with God. And I found that in Louisiana, people have this very incredibly personal day-to-day spiritual relationship with, sometimes they won't even call it God, but, like, a greater force in the universe.
I haven't read your play, but I'm interested to know how the dialogue in the play was changed for the film, and if it was catered to the actors – who are untrained actors – or the region.
I always write for the actor, so in Juicy I wrote for Brian – he played Hushpuppy – and in this I wrote for Quvenzhane. I think all playwrights know it's going to end up changing depending on your cast, and that's why playwrights and actors tend to have ongoing relationships. So with Nazie, it became a lot younger, and a lot more Louisiana. She was already pretty Louisiana by the time we wrote the script, but she was absolutely instrumental -- as was Dwight [Henry, who plays Wink, Huspuppy’s father].
Hushpuppy has so many zingers in the film, and so many age-appropriate lines. Even something as simple as her calling it the “Iced Age” instead of the "Ice Age." Was that a line improvised by Nazie, or did you write it?
No, that was in the script early on. It was a lot of both – we went through many, many drafts of the script. And then some stuff Nazie and Dwight could connect to, some stuff was just off the mark on my part and his [Benh’s] part. And sometimes we'd have to go away and completely re-write a scene. But I mean, we were all very fluid and … it was all in service to the story. Coming from the theater, I would write these very poetic flourishes and Nazie just couldn't connect to them because they weren't real. She was six during shooting. And so I was like, “Well, no matter how great of an idea it is, it's going. Because it doesn't actually mean anything.” So she was a real barometer for truth and real storytelling.
I think you guys should come out with a book of Hushpuppy wisdom. The things she says would work really well on a T-shirt, too.
[laughs] Yeah, definitely! We should!
What is this that I read about your pet potbelly pigs influencing the look of the Aurochs in the movie?
Yeah, Benh came and visited and interviewed my dad pretty extensively for about a week and I think took some inspiration from the potbelly pigs. And you know, Hushpuppy has a pet pig. I grew up with a lot of those animals – kind of similar to Hushpuppy. We had like eight cats!
Beasts of the Southern Wild is playing in select cities, with more added throughout July http://www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com/screenings/United%20States.