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Beasts of the Southern Wild Oscar Nominee Lucy Alibar on the Real-Life Story Behind Her Surprise Hit

Jan 10 2013 - 8:15am

One of the first things you might notice when meeting Beasts of the Southern Wild writer Lucy Alibar are her arms. They're visibly strong, sculpted to a sinewy, solid perfection by the yoga she practices so frequently. Much like her Beasts main character, Hushpuppy, the petite screenwriter — and her biceps — proves that forces to be reckoned with often come in small packages. Lucy's imaginative coming-of-age story has become one of the year's most beloved little movies that could. It's already racked up no less than six dozen awards and nominations, including four Oscar nods this morning. The film's young star, Quvenzhané Wallis, made history today by being the youngest best actress Oscar nominee [1] ever. (Now 9 years old, she was just 5 when she auditioned for the role.) The movie is also up for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay.

Based on Lucy's play Juicy and Delicious, Beasts was her attempt to detangle her own complicated relationship with her father in the midst of his serious illness. The writing of it would transform Lucy's life in more ways than one. She was living in NYC in 2009, too broke to even afford cell phone service, when she found out that the Sundance Institute's Screenwriting Lab had decided to put Beasts — which she cowrote with childhood friend Benh Zeitlin, who would go on to direct the film — into development. Earlier this week, as we sat in her publicity firm's offices in LA's gleaming Pacific Design Center, Lucy reminisced about what she would have been doing on this same date, three years ago. "Let's see. It's almost Christmas . . . selling t-shirts for Silence of the Lambs, the musical."

Odd jobs aside, Lucy seems to have never considered trading in her dream of a life committed to writing. "Oh, no. It's always been such a pleasurable thing for me to do. That would be like giving up sleeping or something like that. Or giving up yoga."

For our Q&A with Lucy, just read more.

PopSugar: Being from Florida, how did your own Southern upbringing impact the movie?
Lucy: The reason I even wrote the play to begin with, and where it all started was, my dad was really sick and I was up in New York. I think it was trying to explain his parenting or our relationship. It might even be a rural thing vs. an urban thing, I don't know, but Southern men yell. They break sh*t when they're angry — you know, sh*t gets broke! And I think a lot of people just didn't get that about my dad, and they were like, "Well, he shouldn't yell, he shouldn't have hit you." I think maybe it started from me defending my dad a lot to people who didn't even realize they were criticizing him, but were maybe criticizing his way of parenting. Then, growing up in the South, you have this real ear for other peoples' stories. People talk in stories and you just find out a lot about other peoples' business.

The language in Beasts is so poetic. The one line that really stuck with me is when Hushpuppy says, "I want to be cohesive." I thought that captured so many themes of the movie, so how did you hit on that line?
I was really feeling that. When my dad got sick, I was really trying to make sense of it. I'm from a very Southern Baptist area, where there's a sense that God has a plan for everything, so grief is almost a selfish emotion, because that was God's plan. And so everything God gives you is God's intention, so you should just accept that, and that's what grace is: just accepting that. When my dad got sick, my reaction was so far from that — so angry. I didn't understand how this was good for anybody, how this was right for him, how this was right for our family. I think a lot of it was just my rage at being so wrong at how I was supposed to understand something.

There are things that Wink [Hushpuppy's dad] does, obviously, that as a viewer you kind of cringe at, but you get such a sense of his connection with Hushpuppy, especially by the end of the movie. Did you have a similar bonding moment with your dad after he had a chance to see the film?
Yeah, I did, actually. I was so afraid that he would see it and have a heart attack — another heart attack! — because it was so much about him, the way he talks, these scenes from our lives. And he called, and he was like, "Boss, I'm a goddamn legend, boss! You stole my lines, but that's all right. Boss, this is the best day of my life! I'm a goddamn legend."

So he saw it as a flattering portrait then.
Yeah. I was really happy because that's what I meant. Hushpuppy's dad is her hero. Benh and I were talking early on, and Hushpuppy learns that her dad is the coolest person in the world. But in between that she's feeling like I was feeling, which is very disconnected. Literally, you don't understand how all the parts fit together, and I think the line about cohesion . . . so much of it was me feeling like I was this leaf blowing in the wind and I didn't attach to anything. When my dad got sick, I felt like I lost my mooring and my home, and I felt like I was just floating, and I wanted to be cohesive. I wanted to be whole again. And that's Hushpuppy's central ache, I think.

The first time that you met Quvenzhané, or saw her screen test, what really struck you about her?
I actually kind of stepped back when we started looking for the actress who would play Hushpuppy. Each possibility was so different, and they looked at 4,000 kids. But I remember they sent me her video link and it was immediate. It was just so quickly clear that this was the right decision. She has this incredible instinct and this incredible ability to listen. She has this focus that I'm personally very jealous of. She has a great sense of humor, too, which is important for this role because it felt really alive. And she has this tenderness — she and Dwight Henry [who plays her father, Wink] have this incredible dynamic together.

It must have seemed like a challenge at the outset to find such a young kid who could really pull this off.
Absolutely. I think that was another thing that helped, that I trusted Benh so much and so implicitly as my writing partner, because he wasn't going to start shooting until he found Hushpuppy. So we wrote the script and I want to say it was about three months, four months, that we were done with the script and just waiting to find her.

Time has passed and she's grown up a lot since filming, so have you stayed in touch?
Oh, yeah, we're all around each other all the time. I love them. It feels like this incredible tribe and this wonderful group of . . . "friends" isn't even the word for it. I guess it feels more like my family, but my family that I like a lot, and nobody has political opinions that make me just want to jump out a window!

You and Benh have been friends since you were, what, 12 years old?
Twelve or 13. Before puberty.

Back then, did you collaborate on any creative little projects?
No, we would just make each other mixtapes and I would send him every story I'd write. I introduced him to Gram Parsons. He introduced me to Nick Cave. Both of our lives were immediately changed after that. I took my Nick Cave album to school and they took it away from me, because they thought it was bad. It was Murder Ballads — not middle-school-appropriate, but one of the greatest albums ever made. We just had this incredible friendship that's always been very deep, like brother and sister. It's never been romantic.

In translating this from the stage to the screen, and having to really visually portray the fantasy elements like the aurochs, did you worry that special effects might distance people from the heart of the story?
I didn't, because Benh and I have been friends for so long, and I had no idea how he would do the aurochs. Zero idea. And they were so important to the story of the play and then in the movie, and I knew he understood that, because we wrote the movie together. He has this incredible . . . I guess "artistic integrity" is a word for it. I just knew he wouldn't do anything that wouldn't look right.

They looked amazing.
Yeah, and I had no idea. They green-screened pigs . . . they were little pot-bellied pigs. They're very smart, soulful animals.

What's your perception, now that you're in the Hollywood swing of things, of the treatment and success of female screenwriters, where they fit in, how they've progressed?
Well, I don't know, because this is my first movie, but certainly, the next movie I'm making is much more within that system. I feel hesitant to say I've never experienced it, because I don't want to say at all that that doesn't exist — I definitely have heard horror stories. I think it's changing truly ever year. I don't want to project anything, but what Kathryn Bigelow's doing — she's on top of it and she has this incredible collaboration with Mark Boal. Nobody questions it. People definitely asked me, a couple of years ago, if [Benh and I] had ever dated, and people don't really ask me that anymore. I think it's because the climate has changed. I think there are people like [Kathryn], there's Lynn Shelton — they're women not necessarily working as writers, but putting things out there in a way that I think is leveling the playing field for me.

What do you think you would have been doing on this day three years ago?
Let's see, it's almost Christmas . . . selling t-shirts for Silence of the Lambs, the musical, right before this! [Or] waitressing, which is a fine way to support yourself, and something I could always do. I'm physically pretty strong, so I could work doubles, no problem, for many days in a row, and then I could go home and write and my brain wasn't tired.

The Silence of the Lambs t-shirts make for a pretty good answer.
Oh my god. The worst job I ever had.

Struggling for those years in New York, was there ever a low point when you seriously considered giving up the writing thing?
Oh, no. It's always been such a pleasurable thing for me to do; it would be like giving up sleeping or something like that, or giving up yoga. It's just always what I've done to center myself and to organize myself. I never really thought about the best possible scenario, what would happen in the future. I've always just written because I love to do it.

Going back to yoga for a second — I could not help but notice you have maybe the best yoga arms I've ever seen in my life.
Oh, thanks! I love yoga like nothing else.

How did you get into it?
My friend Bryan started working at a yoga studio, so I just started taking all these really good classes. And I think for me it felt really good to do something where I was really bad at it, and it was OK that I was bad at it, because I'm a perfectionist in my own life and I like to be good at everything. I'm really bad at yoga and I fall over all the time; I'm distracted, and so I just enjoy the freedom of failure.

For somebody who started writing so young, is there a through line you can see in your writing style, or the topics that interested you then and now?
I always loved to read more than anything else, so I think I've always loved first-person narratives, [like] Eudora Welty's. I've always loved really strong character voices [in] Faulkner. I just started writing what I like to think about, and what I like to read, which are these very strong voices telling you their story, and you see their story by how they're telling it. What they're telling you and what they're not telling you.

Are there any real standout books you read in 2012?
There's this fantastic biography of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. It's one of the best biographies I've ever read. It's so interesting because it's about his process and his journey, just starting with the song.

Tell me about the movie you're writing for Escape Artists and where in the pipeline it is right now.
I'm still writing it. This is what I've been doing when I'm not on the festival circuit. I'm adapting a play about a group of girlfriends around the age of 9, third-grade Brownie scouts. I think it's an incredible age — I'm so interested in that age.

What do you envision for your future now that you've had such success with Beasts?
I just want to keep telling stories and keep making movies with my friends. Stage pieces, music, movies. I have an incredible family at Court 13 [production company] and I've made some incredible friends and collaborators in my life. I just want to keep working with great people.


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