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Rampaging Horned Pigs Pace ‘Southern Beasts’: Interview

Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy in
Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy in "Beast of the Southern Wild." The film is directed by Benh Zeitlen. Photographer: Jess Pinkham/Twentieth Century Fox via Bloomberg

Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) -- The Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs don’t speak much beyond grunts and snorts, but they earn their place in the title of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

An enchanting film that was acclaimed at last year’s Sundance Festival and has made many Best of 2012 lists, “Beasts” tells the story of a pugnacious 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, her fierce, dying father Wink and “the Bathtub,” a lush Mississippi Delta town near New Orleans.

The Bathtub is practically underwater even before a storm, and a terrifying herd of ravenous beasts called aurochs (played by those piggies) brings apocalypse to the tight-knit, multiracial community.

I spoke last week with Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Benh Zeitlin, at Bloomberg’s offices in Manhattan.

Gerard: We’re watching this movie about a cantankerous dad and his resourceful little girl when suddenly we hear thundering hooves and snorts.

Alibar: I wanted these mythical aurochs to come out of cave paintings, devouring the children as they were losing their parents. That was the conceit behind it. We used Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs and added little horns and green-screened it. They’re really smart. You can train them to run, sit, stop and kneel.

Autobiographical Play

Gerard: The kneeling is one of the most inspired and touching scenes in the movie. “Beasts” is based on your play, “Juicy and Delicious.” Is it autobiographical?

Alibar: My dad got sick and I started writing this play about a kid -- I made it a boy so I could really write about me and my dad and protect myself a little bit. I think father-child relationships -- there’s a reason everyone writes about their dad.

I was just figuring all that out when I started writing the play. I wrote “Juicy” without thinking about how I was going to stage it, which in retrospect is probably an important thing to consider.

Gerard: How did a play about Florida become a movie about Louisiana and mythical creatures?

Alibar: The stage play didn’t quite tell the story the way I wanted it to. It really was about the world ending because you were going to lose your dad. It was a lot more expressionistic, a little blurry compared to what we did with the screenplay.

Gerard: And then Benh Zeitlin saw the play.

Bayou Setting

Alibar: Benh came to me and wanted to turn it into a movie. We got into the Sundance Lab and that’s where it got to be a distilled way of looking at why I wanted to tell that story. He wanted to set it in south Louisiana.

Gerard: You met in New York as kids.

Alibar: We were 13 and in this playwriting contest called Young Playwrights. It’s an incredible organization. At night they take you to see plays and Benh and I loved the weird ones. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” I’m from the Florida panhandle and I’d never seen anything like that, where it was OK to talk about gay people.

Gerard: And Benh?

Alibar: He’s from Queens and his parents are folklorists, they study the way different people tell their stories. So we both have this love of storytelling.

Gerard: The scenes between Hushpuppy and Wink are so intimate.

Too Rough

Alibar: Working out Hushpuppy and Wink’s relationship was a big part of what Benh and I talked about. In the first draft there were a lot of comments that the relationship was too rough, that he was too mean to her.

My dad is a great dad and he’s very Southern, very old-school Georgia. So there was never any hugging or “I love you” or anything like that, but it never occurred to me that he didn’t.

Gerard: The denizens of the Bathtub are black and white, young and old. They are impoverished but have incredible zest, and nature abounds.

Alibar: I grew up in a very mixed black and white area. I never saw an Italian person or a Mexican person or an Asian person or a Jew until I came to New York for Young Playwrights.

I was interested in people taking care of each other. How much are we all responsible for each other? We wanted to make the father and the place where Hushpuppy lives synonymous. He belongs there in this environment only they can live in. That same kind of wildness, joy, aliveness and lust for life -- we wanted to create a place like that.

Muse highlights include Craig Seligman on movies and Katya Kazakina on art.

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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