The experience of watching Beasts of the Southern Wild is like looking in on another universe through a keyhole. You watch the scenes between Hushpuppy and her father and wonder: how was a camera even present in this moment? Visually speaking, the film is pure poetry, shining a light on a unique corner of the world and presenting it in a way that’s entirely magical. But it’s the performances given by everyone in the cast, especially Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, that truly capture the essence of what the film is really about: people having the courage to love and defend the people and place they call home. But before Beasts of the Southern Wild, there was Juicy and Delicious, a play by Lucy Alibar about a boy who feels like the whole world is collapsing as his father is dying. And it’s from that play that Alibar and director, Benh Zeitlin, adapted Beasts of the Southern Wild, carrying through the same themes of loss and strength, all set in a mythical world that’s as brutal as it is beautiful. We sat down with Alibar to see how her play transitioned from its original form, having a strong female hero, and seeing through tough exteriors.
You and Benh had known each other for a long time, but how did you get into writing the film?
Benh came to me to do an adaptation of one my plays but set in Louisiana; all my plays are set in Georgia because it’s where I grew up and it’s where my dad’s from. The land really lends itself to this wild imaginative universe, but he wanted to set it in Louisiana where he had driven down to the end of the road. Then we went and lived in this fishing marina for a couple of months adapting it, going through the Sundance labs, going back to the marina, going to New Orleans, and just doing a lot of location scouting.
Had you been only writing plays at that point?
Yeah, but I write stories too. I never thought I wanted to do a film before.
So you and Benh met at playwriting camp in New York?
Yup! It wasn’t quite camp—they put on your plays. But it was so long ago. We were babies!
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Florida and South Georgia, so I had never been to New York before that. I had never had Chinese food before, and I had never seen live theater that wasn’t, like, a crucifixion scene.
How did you know that you wanted to start writing plays?
I went to this very good public school in Tallahassee, Florida, and in the library they had a copy of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls…, and it just blew my mind because it’s just voices. It’s all first-person narratives, and a lot of southern literature is like that, too. Then I realized that the stuff I was reading like Flannery O’Connor—all these first-person narratives could be theatrical. That’s when I realized that my voice could be theatrical and could be on stage in this way that I never knew from reading Ibsen or any of that stuff.
Did Benh contact you about adapting it?
He wanted to do his first feature with these characters because we write about much of the same stuff. I write a lot about parents and children and the dynamics of unconventional families, and I think he has a similar story. I also write a lot about mythology and southern folklore; his parents are folklorists, and we just had a lot of similar things we were interested in. And visually, he can really put up these images and make these worlds that I just found incredible to look at.
But in your play the Hushpuppy role is a little boy.
I wrote the play about me and my dad, but I had to have some distance from it so I could actually write it. I wasn’t in therapy; I was kind of immature, I guess, but I just had to have some distance. This way I could write everything I was actually thinking.
I love that it was a little girl in this because if it was less conventional to make her so tough.
That’s one of the things I’m proud of now at this stage. We made a hero story with a little girl in it, and she is fighting for her family, not her boyfriend. I never saw that growing up, I thought I had to be a little boy to be a hero.
Were you part of the casting process?
When they narrowed it down I would watch videos, but I would have to rewrite for whoever Hushpuppy was and that could have been anybody. Because it was a non-actor, that part would have really changed depending on who that was. So for me, I couldn’t watch all of them because it became such a different movie every time. So I just watched as they started to narrow it down, and then they showed me Quvenzhané when they found her and I was like, Oh six years old? Sure. I’ll do it.
How did you find her? What did she do for the audition?
Behn tells it better than I do, but for the auditions they did a lot of structured improvisations to see what the kids could do. She had to have a fight with Michael, our producer, because they had to see about that scene where they’re trashing the house and they turn over the table. So she and Michael are fighting and Ben gives Nazzy an empty plastic bottle and is like, Throw this bottle at Michael. She would start to and then she wouldn’t, then she’d start to and she wouldn’t. So Ben was like, Throw the bottle at him! And she turns to him and says, “No I can’t, it would be wrong to do that.” Ben was really struck by that strong sense of ethics and morality that even when there’s a grown-up telling you to do something, she didn’t do it because it was wrong and it involved hurting someone else. So much of the movie is about taking care of people and the courage of empathy and she just had that so strongly—that’s Nazzy’s primary characteristic. She’s so vibrant, too; she’s like flint, shiny flint.
For someone so young, her performance was really incredible.
She was five when we made it! She lied about her age, which I didn’t even know until about a month ago, but the lowest we were going to look was six. Then she lied so she could do it when she was five.
I loved how there was so much brutality in the world they were living in and they were all so tough, but you could tell on the inside they were all very sensitive and sweet and that was echoed by the fact that it was telling this harsh story. But it was visually so beautiful.
I think that was something both of us thought about. That’s how the rural south is for me, and that’s how Ben and I both found Louisiana to be. There are these tough exteriors, but underneath there’s so much. In the Bayou and in the south, the first priority is always family. It’s not like here where what you think about is you. I think that was pretty clear to us early on; there was this real love under this tough exterior that we both really loved to write about.
When you were writing did you meet people and listen to people’s stories? What was your research?
We lived in this fishing marina for a couple months and talked to a lot of people about why they would stay, what would make them ever leave, and hear their experiences of losing loved ones. I remember this one gentleman that was a priest who talked about being in the room when his father died. Just the way he spoke about it was amazing; he was from the Bayou, so he had that way of speaking about it, and he was also a Catholic priest. I did a lot of listening.
The first time you saw it completed, coming from your play to this, what did you think?
I felt like I had been given this great gift from a couple hundred people who I didn’t know before this started. They became my family through doing this. I just felt like I gained this entire world of these incredible artists, so smart, so generous, so hard working. So many people worked so hard. Gratitude isn’t quite the word; I think it is more like graciousness. I felt this real awareness of my fortune—my good fortune.