Writers often draw from their real life pain when searching for material, and that is true of Lucy Alibar, who wrote the play upon which “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is based. She also co-wrote the screenplay with director Benh Zeitlin and, as she told Gold Derby, the idea for the story came from her father’s health scare.
“It was a series of medical emergencies where his whole body was breaking down,” reveals Alibar. “It made for a more panicked situation. The story was really about my dad’s sickness and how it changed my idea of parenting and my idea of the universe.”
Unlike her protagonist, Alibar was in her early twenties when her father fell ill. “Benh and I wanted to keep it at a child’s point-of-view so that she didn’t even know what exactly was wrong. My father’s illness regressed me in a lot of ways, since my relationship with him was really forged when I was seven or eight, so returning it to that understanding was really important to us in the writing.”
Like the father in the film, Alibar’s father, “panicked about the unresolved business of raising his daughter. That was a really important motivation in why he’s so frantic and scared and why he lashes out sometimes.”
In the film, mythical creatures called aurochs threaten Hushpuppy and her community. “I wanted to write about a kid encountering the end of the world. The death of a parent brings the apocalypse, and with that comes these Biblical beasts. I had this sense of time coming upended and Hushpuppy’s sense of order becoming unwound. It was Benh’s idea to have them coming from the icecaps.”
It was also Zeitlin’s idea to turn the play into a film, and take the story and characters and place them in the Louisiana bayou. “The play had become so visually demanding, and Benh had this incredible idea of how to do it cinematically. He felt the bayou really added something to it, something unique.”
“We were really influence by magical realism, and seeing how we could make that work cinematically. I wasn’t sure how Benh was going to do it: he told me to write whatever I wanted, whatever I found compelling and exciting and not to worry too much about how he would shoot it.”
Alibar drew upon a wide variety of influences when writing the script. “I was really influenced by a lot of Southern literature: Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor. In particular, I was influence by a collection of short stories by Breece Pancake entitled ‘Trilobites.’ I was also influenced by Jose Rivera and Tom Stoppard.”
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When Zeitlin came aboard the project, he put Alibar through his own film school. “I had never seen a John Cassavetes film before, and those you have to approach differently. Once that clicked, I understood that you could drive a film with emotion. Those films are so much about the character’s lives, and once I realized that a movie could look like that and be driven by these incredible characters, that was a huge leap of understanding.”
Alibar also found influence in films like “Babe” (1995) and Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” (1982). “That film was a huge influence in the way Spielberg directed the children. It was very natural, very much in the same vein we were going for.”
During the writing of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Alibar was making ends meet by working three jobs. “I was a waitress, a sandwich maker, and a T-shirt presser,” she says. With the film’s success, those days are behind her.