“I’m just telling a story... It’s about a little girl and her father. I just want people to engage. Because everybody has a dad, and everybody loses that dad, on some level." -Lucy Alibar
Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin met as teenagers more than 15 years ago at a playwriting summer camp. At the time, they were just beginning to nurture their love for storytelling but would forge a lasting friendship that would lead to their eventual collaboration on the screenplay for Beasts of the Southern Wild, now nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.
On their first time meeting, Lucy told Indiewire:
We both won this playwriting award called Young Playwrights the same year. We got to go to New York and see a lot of plays together, and he and I just responded so quickly and so immediately to the same kinds of theater. We saw a lot of more traditional straight plays, and then they took us to see 'Hedwig ['and the Angry Inch'] and Benh and I just couldn’t believe we were seeing this. We would talk about it, and then we stayed pen pals, and we would send each other mix tapes and I would send him everything I’d write and he’d send me these short films he’d make every weekend. We just felt it was this very immediate artistic camaraderie that we had. It was part of a really wonderful friendship.
For the long time friends, Beasts' success and its recent Oscar nominations are as thrilling as they are completely unexpected, especially considering the long road it took to get there.
Northern Florida native, Lucy Alibar distinctly remembers the moment she realized that she could find a voice for her stories on stage. She recalled to Blackbook Magazine:
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.
As she began to develop her voice, Lucy found most of her inspiration was coming from personal experiences, the surroundings and cultures she grew up in, especially Georgia where her father was from and where all her plays her were based. Writing one play in particular, Juicy and Delicious, served as a coping mechanism when her "vibrant, strong-as-an ox dad" grew gravely ill.
In an interview with Tribeca Film, Lucy explained:
I wrote the play right when my dad was starting to get sick. Usually I’m a pretty in control person and pretty poised, but for some reason I couldn’t really process it; it really threw me for a loop. So I started writing a play about this kid named Hushpuppy losing his dad, and his world starts to fall apart in terms of time and order and space. Grits start raining down from the sky and the Aurochs start coming out of these caves through the red clay of Georgia to devour schoolchildren, and the teacher and the father are trying to prepare the children for the end of the world...Looking back on it, I think I was writing about me not being a child anymore—figuring out how I’m actually going to live through that. Because you can’t be a child if there aren’t any grown-ups, and I felt like my grown-ups were falling away. So that was the start.
She elaborated on the role her own father played in shaping the characters and relationships in her play:
My dad, like many Southern men, is this very emotionally expressive person who isn't as articulate in words about his feelings as he is with breaking a chair or something like that. And he does that all out of all strong emotions, but I was really interested in really watching [my character's] behavior change because I watched my own dad's behavior really change as he got sick and how that really changed our relationship.
As she often did with everything she wrote, when Juicy and Delicious was finished, Lucy sent it to her old friend from camp, Benh Zeitlin.
Around the same time, Benh was a Wesleyan graduate and had moved down to New Orleans where he was swiping his last few credit cards to finance his short film, Glory at Sea.
The short, set in a southern delta community, deals with the aftermath of a flood and "the community’s Orpheus-like efforts to keep alive its old traditions and loved ones". Shot over the course of five grueling months, including 3 work stoppages due to money shortages as well as a run in with the Coast Guard, Benh emerged from the experience with one very defining revelation. He would set his first feature in the same Bayou community that he had fallen in love with shooting Glory. He tells Salon:
From the moment I came to New Orleans and the first time I saw Louisiana in general, it has this magical quality. It’s so different from where I come from and where I grew up. It has this sort of majesty and magic to it.
As Benh was just beginning to develop the seeds of his idea for a feature film, Glory at Sea was accepted to the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The filmmaker and his friends were on their way to the film's premiere in Texas when their car was rear ended by a drunk driver. Benh recounts to The Hollywood Reporter:
It was 5 in the morning, and we were at a stoplight, and the driver was drunk and ran into us at full speed. I was in the back seat, and the collision collapsed it into the front seat, like an accordion. It turned my leg backward and shattered my pelvis, and I had to move back to New York for eight months. And that was when I started writing Beasts.
Benh had a clear vision of where he wanted to set his feature, a sinking piece of land on the coast of southern Louisiana that he would call the Bathtub. He was transfixed with the idea of this place at the end of the world, inhabited by a community of hold outs unwilling to compromise their physical and spiritual concept of home. As he began to flesh out the world his movie would exist in, he recalled the characters of his friend Lucy Alibar's play, Juicy and Delicious, and saw how they could easily fit into the landscape of the Bathtub. He reached out to Lucy about his idea and so began their collaboration on Beasts of the Southern Wild. Benh said in his No Film School interview:
The original setting, it had several similarities. It was sort of off the grid, it was out in the woods, it was rural, it was in a wetlands culture and alligators were part of it. There’s a lot of things that connected North Florida off-the-grid Wetlands to South Louisiana off-the-grid Gulf bayou culture, so it made a lot of sense and it all came together. There was just some weird synergy where I just felt like the two things were floating around like this and they just kind of glued together.
Lucy added to MSN:
I think the central idea that Benh came to me with was taking the characters of this father and child in the South and these aurochs that are coming down to devour the children as the grown ups get sicker. He was interested in transposing that to South Louisiana and to the bayous there. And it really started from there. From moving down to that fishing marina and just spending all our time and making that almost a third character in Hushpuppy's world.
Throughout the course of the following year, Benh and Lucy swapped ideas, notes and drafts back and forth from New York to Florida to Louisiana and back.
The process was truly a labor of love as Lucy juggled several part time service jobs to sustain her career as a writer. In fact, she tells Elle Magazine that nobody could get in touch with her when the script was accepted to the Sundance Institute's Screenwriters Lab because her phone service had been shut off due to lack of payment.
At the Lab, the pair refined the script through several revisions and under the guidance of seasoned writers like Michael Goldenberg (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and Scott Frank(Out of Sight), eventually deciding to transform the character of Hushpuppy to a 9-11 year old girl and focusing on how the impact and stress of illness and environmental apocalypse affects their father/daughter dynamic. Lucy tells the film blog No Film School, "It sort of became more grounded as it went. I think the play was much more lyrical and much more fantastical and much less attached to real things, and the process of transposing it to Louisiana and taking these Apocalyptic events and attaching them to actual environmental phenomena."
As the film headed into casting and pre-production, the writers allowed the actors and the ever shifting landscape of the southern Bayou to serve as constant inspiration for Beasts. Again, from Blackbook:
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 discovery of Quvenzhané Wallis motivated the pair to channel the world through the tiny lens of a six year old child. And, self proclaimed "Caucasian", Benh Zeitlin turned to his local actors to rewrite dialogue that felt more sincere and natural to them. Benh tells Variety:
We did a massive revision of the script in collaboration with the actors, going through each line and asking, 'How would you say this?' It wasn't like we locked the script and then went down there and executed it. We had a very fluid plan responding to the world that we were discovering as we did our research.
The pair's creative commitment to one another as well as the community they invited into the process resulted in a film with deep emotional roots. The Beasts family will be celebrating our favorite storytellers' vision, craft and collaborative spirit for years to come.
Congratulations to Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin on their Academy Award nomination!
*All photos provided by Lucy Alibar.