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

Human Journey

Jeremy Berlin is a generalist, writing about everything from virtual dolphins and actual walruses to African soccer, Sicilian mummies, and Chinese mathematics. Prior to joining National Geographic he wrote and edited for The Atlantic Monthly, The American Prospect, and The Associated Press. His backhand has improved since he switched to an Eastern grip.