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The Story Behind “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Pop Omnivore spoke with director Benh Zeitlin and co-producer Michael Gottwald about the myths and movie magic in their new award-winning film, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

How did you choose aurochs—an extinct but real animal—to be the mythic creatures in your movie?

Benh Zeitlin: They came from cave paintings I’d seen—Lascaux, Pech Merle, and a bunch of caves around there. The young girl in the film, Hushpuppy, sees herself as the last of her kind, on the verge of extinction. “How are people going to look back on my civilization?” she wonders. And she sees herself as being in the same position as cavemen: We look back on them and understand them by their paintings. So it’s that parallel that inspired us to use the aurochs. What Hushpuppy sees as coming to destroy her is literally what a caveman painted.

Michael Gottwald: Benh’s always been interested in the cave paintings at Lascaux. And our film plays best as a myth. So he was looking for some sort of frame of reference for the film being its own myth: an animal—a bygone large mammal—that had been prominent earlier but had gone extinct, yet could cause destruction.

So the aurochs tattoos that appear on a character’s leg in the film—that’s a direct nod to the Lascaux cave paintings, where aurochs are depicted?

BZ: Yes, absolutely. In the play that the film is based on [Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote Beasts of the Southern Wild with Zeitlin], the teacher refers specifically to Lascaux as she teaches a lesson about cave paintings. We sort of reinterpreted that. Plus we thought aurochs would make a great tattoo!

MG: The film is trying to create its own intrinsic mythology. And it makes sense that the character Miss Bathsheeba—as the passer-down of knowledge, an educator who understands the past and the way things work—has the aurochs on her body. In our movie, the equivalent of an animal appearing on a cave wall is the tattoo on her thigh.

What do aurochs represent or symbolize in Beasts of the Southern Wild? What might it mean at the end, when Hushpuppy stands up to a whole herd?

BZ: I think [the aurochs’ meaning] evolves over the course of the film. At the beginning, Hushpuppy’s relationship with nature is that she’s a morsel of food that’s going to be consumed by a larger force. The only way she understands death is a big thing eating a smaller thing—the food chain. All the things that are bigger than her and that have created her are being consumed by things bigger than them—her father being consumed by his illness, her home being consumed by storms and floods and saltwater intrusion and land loss. That violent relationship is the way she begins her understanding of nature.

But over the course of the film her view evolves into a more enlightened, complete view of nature as a flowing system—something in which everything has its place and everything plays its part. She comes to peace with it.

The idea of the aurochs really began at the end of the movie, and I worked back from that confrontation. What interested me is that you have these two animals on the verge of extinction that are designed by nature—one is supposed to eat the other, and the other one is supposed to kill its predator in order to stay alive. But both creatures are these wise, honorable animals that understand at the end of the film that the greatest sin you can commit is to kill an animal on the verge of extinction—to kill the last of a kind. So it’s not just about your own survival. It’s about allowing each other to go on.

MG: If nothing else, the film is a new way of rendering a story from a child’s perspective. We went to great lengths to really represent Hushpuppy’s reality. When you’re a kid of that age, there’s no separation between reality and fantasy. In Hushpuppy’s world, her dad dying and the storm coming means the world is falling apart. And the aurochs are a key reflection of that. As she says in a voiceover, “Everything has to fit together just right. If it doesn’t, it all falls apart.” So the vision of her dad shaking on the ground while a storm brews above her—for a 6-year-old, that’s larger than those two elements.

In terms of facing the herd, I think that’s her recognizing the harmony that she’s always talked about in nature. Everything is its own being. There is a natural point at which organisms in nature show weakness and allow for each other to exist—the same way she learns from her friends in The Bathtub [the fictional Louisiana community where Hushpuppy and her father live] to take care of each other. The aurochs recognize her as a similarly ferocious beast. And so they give way.

In the movie, aurochs are encased in Ice Age glaciers, then set free by the same storm that floods the protagonists’ Louisiana home. Tell me a bit about this.

BZ: The way we developed that stuff was very unscientific, very literalist—in the ways you understand how matter works when you’re a young kid. Lucy, my co-writer, is the first to admit she’s really bad at science. So I would explain something about, say, particle physics to her, and she would explain it back to me as well as she understood it. And then I would explain that back to her. So we sort of played this game of telephone until the science got really surreal and basic—the way a kid might understand it.

Louisiana is in the most precarious place in terms of sea-level rise. I thought the way Hushpuppy would understand the sea rising is if an ice cube melts, the water will rise. And one way she would understand death is if something freezes, it becomes still; when it thaws, it goes back to the way it was. So she might understand that the Ice Age froze all these creatures and they “died.” But if that gets reversed, then the Ice Age unhappens—death unhappens—and these creatures come back to life. We extrapolated the mythology through her logic.

MG: Where we shot the film in southern Louisiana, the environment is changing in a way that’s extremely visible and more aggressive than it is in a lot of other places. People say, “Twenty years ago, that was a field. Now it’s not. Now I have to take a bridge to get there.” What the film does—and what the aurochs do in their transition out of the ice—is take that already accelerated process and accelerate it even more.

Aurochs were actually ancestors of modern cattle. But in your film they resemble tusked, horned boars. Why the shift from bovine to porcine?

BZ: The source of that was my visit to where Lucy grew up, in the northern tip of Florida. She was the one who brought the aurochs into this story, and I wanted to see where her sensibility came from. She had these two gigantic Vietnamese potbellied pigs in her yard. They’re so big they’re practically unable to move. They just sort of haunt the yard, these two monstrous animals.

The film emerges from Hushpuppy’s view. And I felt like these two monstrous creatures may have haunted Lucy as a child. So those same fears could be extrapolated from the idea of a horrifying, all-consuming creature—pigs that are out to devour the entire universe and pass it through their body. And something about that made sense for how Hushpuppy might create this creature for herself. We weren’t trying to be scientific.

MG: Obviously aurochs are more like cattle than the animals in the film. But like anything with this film, you won’t get very far if you interpret the film literally. People tend to think, “Well, that storm is definitely [Hurricane] Katrina.” Or, “That’s definitely a place that exists in Louisiana.” I think in this case the aurochs are a descriptor of an extinct species that could come back to life. There was no attempt, ever, to accurately portray them.

If the DNA breeding program, Project TaurOs, succeeds and aurochs can be genetically re-created, would you use the real thing in another film?

BZ: Definitely! I’m always up for taking on nature in the name of cinema.

MG: We are not scared of using wild animals in our features. But I would think that if we found actual aurochs and filmed them, we’d portray them as being ten times more ferocious than they actually are. Or we’d have to invent a new mythology with a new word, so we’d be using actual aurochs to “play” a new species that we’d created.

— Jeremy Berlin

Comments

  1. Dawn C
    Austin Texas
    June 16, 2013, 10:26 pm

    I saw this film and it was very moving and very symbolic. For those who said the movie was not meaningful then perhaps you are too used to seeing mainstream fluff. The film was realistic in that the people from that area of Louisiana do live like that. Drinking is a social activity and the residents appreciate what little they have. The houses were realistically depicted. I can speak objectively as I am a native of Louisiana who only moved away from home in 2010. And during hurricane Katrina those in low lying areas saw the worst of the storm.
    I think the references to the extinct creatures drew a parallel between the strength of Hushpuppy and their own strength. Most of the movie in my opinion was allegorical and wasn’t meant to be so black and white in its meaning.

  2. Barbara Dreier
    Long Island, NY
    May 23, 2013, 7:29 pm

    I felt the respect from the herd of aurochs represented Hushpuppy’s mother’s love. How an animated beast can look sympathetic and empathetic is almost impossible to imagine, but in the scene where they bow down to Hushpuppy, you can see the love and respect and admiration in their eyes.
    This film is a wonder and I will save it and watch it again and again.
    The narration reminded me a bit of Linda Manz in “Days of Heaven”

    Thank you
    What was Wink’s illness?

  3. archdriver
    May 3, 2013, 11:30 am

    couple more thoughts/ questions….

    I bet Wink could drink $20-$30 /day of cold beer !

    How they keep it cold anyway? What kinda gas do it take
    to run that old pick up boat…. not to mention the snazzy speed boat. Bring me another bottle of booze off the freedom isle.

  4. archdriver
    May 3, 2013, 10:42 am

    Cant quite get excited about this movie. Cute little girl and good presence on the screen…. Thought the father was good actor as well. Struggle to see any subtlety of symbolism in the aurochs., except facing your worst fears with courage.

    If the theme is real world ‘shit happens and you gotta deal with it instead of being a pussy’ then, it woulda been more consistent to have the auroch reach down and bite her in two , swallow her whole. and I woulda dealt with that.

  5. P
    March 16, 2013, 9:30 pm

    That was the dumbest movie I ever saw. And the person that played Wick can’t act a lick! He screamed all his lines.

  6. [...] category had creatures that were storyline drivers with significant on-screen time. Neither Beasts of the Southern Wild (which featured extinct aurochs) or Life of Pi (which featured a CGI Bengal tiger named Richard Parker) used real [...]

  7. Picture Archive | destroyinfo
    February 25, 2013, 5:59 am

    [...] category had creatures that were storyline drivers with significant on-screen time. Neither Beasts of the Southern Wild (which featured extinct aurochs) or Life of Pi (which featured a CGI Bengal tiger named Richard Parker) used real [...]

  8. [...] picture category had creatures that were storyline drivers with significant on-screen time. Neither Beasts of the Southern Wild (which featured extinct aurochs) or Life of Pi (which featured a CGI Bengal tiger named Richard Parker) used real [...]

  9. [...] movie that has won its share of awards and is nominated for Best Picture. It is seemingly related to climate change. But it hardly counts as a popular movie, scoring a whopping $12 million in [...]

  10. [...] movie that has won its share of awards and is nominated for Best Picture. It is seemingly related to climate change. But it hardly counts as a popular movie, scoring a whopping $12 million in [...]

  11. [...] movie that has won its share of awards and is nominated for Best Picture. It is seemingly related to climate change. But it hardly counts as a popular movie, scoring a whopping $12 million in [...]

  12. Eric G.
    Washington DC
    February 25, 2013, 12:31 am

    Is Hushpuppy’s dad in the movie “Wink” her father in real life? I thought that I heard that from somewhere, same place I heard that it was the 1st movie for the both of them and he owns a restaurant or something in real life. They both did a great job with no training and experience. I’ve been wishing for a break like that my whole life. Acting is not that hard to do but it is definitely hard to get into and make money. I love the fact that they are regular people and have gotten so much positive attention.

  13. [...] movie that has won its share of awards and is nominated for Best Picture. It is seemingly related to climate change. But it hardly counts as a popular movie, scoring a whopping $12 million in [...]

  14. [...] movie that has won its share of awards and is nominated for Best Picture. It is seemingly related to climate change. But it hardly counts as a popular movie, scoring a whopping $12 million in [...]

  15. [...] picture category had creatures that were storyline drivers with significant on-screen time. Neither Beasts of the Southern Wild (which featured extinct aurochs) or Life of Pi (which featured a CGI Bengal tiger named Richard Parker) used real [...]

  16. [...] movie that has won its share of awards and is nominated for best picture. It is seemingly related to climate change. But it hardly counts as a popular movie, scoring a whopping $12 million in [...]

  17. Bianca Williams
    February 3, 2013, 6:55 pm

    I read a great ACA article (http://bit.ly/Xcfhhm) which discusses the larger context of the film. From the author’s point of view, not everything is simply black and white, there is a deeper complexity to the issues presented in the film.

  18. Susan
    Everett, Washington, USA
    February 2, 2013, 1:19 pm

    Having read all of these wonderful comments, I myself feel ignorant. I had to look up what this movie was protraying. I had to look up what the symbolism was using Aurochs…I didn’t get that she was left alone…I didn’t pick up on there only being female children, I didn’t pick up on the part where her father was making her say ‘I’m da man…I’M DA MAN”.. So thank you all for writing such great comments. I have now a much better understanding of this amazing movie and want to see it again…like Marilyn said, it was like an onion, each layer revealing something else about these characters and their surroundings.

  19. Hugh
    Kamloops, BC Canada
    January 10, 2013, 3:41 pm

    I just listened to a film reviewer for a national Canadian newspaper say that she couldn’t stand the film because of the ramshackle houses, and she said the children all needed access to penicillin.

    I don’t think it was necessarily intended, but this film portrays the world of the near future, with the ocean water level rising combined with the planned depression that is “austerity”. I am sure that evolved during the organic nature of doing the film from the heart rather than straight intellect. The iceberg “calving” shots certainly implied releasing the Aurochs from centuries of imprisonment in the ice. I had the amazing luck to have just watched Herzog’s wonderful documentary on cave art, “Caves of Forgotten Dreams”. I almost feel that being shown as a double feature would enhance both films,as the Herzog film helps one to appreciate the cave art refernce in the film. The profound honesty of the film I think precisely predicts the future. The present austerity created unemployment rate of over 50% of youth in Spain is a harbinger, just as the arctic ice being melted by climate change raising the ocean level. The film is marvellous because it has no conscious political purpose, it simply is looking realistically at our world in a geographic environment that slightly exaggerates the changes. The film communicates far more than than the makers intended, because they had the confidence to follow their creative intuitions.

  20. [...] discovered in southern France, represent a greater metaphor for the story that Ben Zeitlin told National Geographic: “[The symbol of the aurochs] [evolve] over the course of the film. At the beginning, [...]

  21. Aj
    Anna Maria Island, FL
    December 9, 2012, 9:33 am

    Completely unique and very creative. Not a movie i’ll likely forget. I wish more movies released so mainstream were as original as this movie was.

  22. [...] like more info on the film, we spoke to director Benh Zeitlin and co-producer Michael Gottwald, who talked about what the aurochs mean to them and about the movie in general. Keywords: aurochs, Beasts of the [...]

  23. Kaori
    WyXtEQwij
    October 23, 2012, 3:07 am

    Thanks for the reply Definitely interesting that the betass were so specifically meant to represent climate change, but I guess it makes sense as any small effects that global warming has on us will hit places like the Bathtub hardest of all. It’s also very interesting to me that The Bathtub is based off of a real place, I’ll have to show this to my girlfriend who was saying that it was entirely fictional.Just curious, where did you go to school for finance? (Or maybe you were self taught, I never know what to assume these days)

  24. Hendriyadi
    gULushbTd
    October 21, 2012, 9:30 am

    Wonderful, detailed reievw! I saw this movie as well, in Nashville, at just about our only progressive theater (the other theaters often won’t have films such as this it is too controversial’).Mr. Parker, the co-producer, was there along with Mr. Henry ( Wink ) and answered audience questions. Later, Mr Parker clarified some of the details which had confused me: the beasts were meant to represent global climate change (I took them to be the overbearing government outside of the Bathtub). The plot was meant to be interpreted, more or less, by the viewer and to cause people to think about our preconceived notions of many cultural norms. And, Mr. Henry, from New Orleans, explained there is a real Bathtub which is an island off the coast. Once inhabited by 300 families and about 30 by 30 miles in size, it is now about 3 miles square and inhabited by only 20 to 30 families. Hushpuppy’s experiences are based, somewhat, on real life.And that was the shocker to me!Thanks for visiting my blog to read what I had to say (not nearly so detailed and expert!) about the movie. I am a 67 year old, retired grandmother (I am not from the South, but I was a stockbroker for a while financial industry, your field of study, interesting coincidence? by the way) who likes to see intriguing movies. Thanks for the great write up!

  25. [...] In other poses, like the one at the top, they remind me of the chimeric aurochs of Beasts of the Southern Wild. [...]

  26. John
    AUS
    September 27, 2012, 1:24 am

    Beautiful Film

    all the people out there saying they didnt like it, and its not for children… THATS BECAUSE ITS NOT A CHILDRENS FILM

    the scenery is beautiful and the acting is very well done
    i hope more people can apperciate a film for more then just entertainment and look into what its trying to say even if it dsnt make u feel good at the end

  27. Charlene hill
    savannah.ga
    September 4, 2012, 7:57 pm

    Just went to the movie to watch beast of the southern wild. After watching Oprah interview the writer/actors.i am very disappointed. This is what happens when you listen to high profile people. Oprah said she had talk with our president. He spoke highly of this movie.next time i will do my own . Reading and research. And not listen to higher people…the movie was ok.i was lost when the children went in the ocean to a whorehouse iin a boat..i do not think this is a movie for any age children.it took me one hour of work tto pay for this movie, popcorn and a drink.i got cheated. Charlene. In savannah.ga

  28. sue brett
    August 31, 2012, 11:30 pm

    I just saw the film. I was disappointed. I didn’t care for it at all. The little girl was a very good actress, but it wasn’t enough for me to really appreciate it. Maybe it was over my head. I understood the correlation with nature and the fact the people in the “bathtub” were cut of from the rest of the world, but by choice. The rejection of the so-called “normal” society was ok, however, the constant drinking and what seemed like wasting their life away without any regard for the future of their children wasn’t appealing. I idn’t feel pity, I didn’t feel sadness, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I didn’t see anyone crying in the theatre. Most people were baffled and not much was said afterwards.

  29. jan
    ABQ, NM
    August 31, 2012, 7:26 pm

    The return of Hushpuppy and the rest of the girls by water to their own beginnings, a house of pleasure, where they could renew themselves in the life giving force and strength of the love of their “mothers” is a brilliant bridge from despair to confirmation of the importance of the smallest bit, Hushpuppy, to the whole.

  30. Judy
    Nambe,NM
    August 31, 2012, 3:39 pm

    I don’t think this movie was meant to be understood. To me, it was like being admitted into an impressionistic painting or poem. It moved me like no other movie has in years, eclipsing “on the Waterfront” as my favorite.

    This movie washed over a completely silent audience. At the end, many of us were crying.

  31. Barbara Kostreva
    Madison, WI
    July 29, 2012, 11:03 pm

    Superb acting…Yes, the little girl was wonderful. Kudos to Henry, the character was complex and became likable. It took amazing energy to play that out. The mythical, fantastical nature was presented by a child, but it took this adult in…. lots of emotional impact.

  32. deb Woodson
    CT.
    July 29, 2012, 6:26 pm

    excellent movie, I loved it.

  33. Linda
    Delray Beach Florida
    July 29, 2012, 8:35 am

    Loved the film! Took hold of my senses from the opening frame. The use of all female children was not lost on me. I am always teaching and telling my granddaughter that she must always know how to feed herself, pay her rent and function in life without a man for ” she is the man” as hushpuppy’s daddy told her. Kudo’s to all of you please keep making this kind of Cinema keep sending these messages we need them.

  34. [...] Katrina; according to “The Story Behind ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’”: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/17/the-story-behind-beasts-of-the-southern-wild/, the intent was to portray a type of southern myth where many tragedies happen to the [...]

  35. Priscilla Meyer
    Middletown, CT
    July 24, 2012, 11:19 am

    When I read the first reviews, I exulted that Benh was referring to Humbert’s final lines in LOLITA: “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.” But you were going straight to the primary source in Lascaux. It’s great to hear the whole tale from Benh in his words!

  36. marilyn
    long island, ny
    July 17, 2012, 8:36 pm

    The movie is like an onion. I was fascinated with the anthropological bent that contributed to making of a developmental story/myth of this girl. She was able to establish the symbiotic relationships of humans with each other as well as with nature. The music contributed the heartbeat that ebbed and flowed as did life. Well done…suburb acting by all.