Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Director David O. Russell’s past efforts include the much-lauded “Three Kings” and the Oscar-winning “The Fighter,” but it is “Silver Linings Playbook,” the story of a bipolar teacher, that he sees as his most personal drama to date. The film is a contender for eight Oscar, including best picture, all four actor categories and received a directing and an adapted screenplay nod, as well, for Russell.
In a telephone interview last weekend, the director’s voice shook with emotion at times as he described how he was inspired to make the film to honor his 18-year-old son, Matthew, who suffers from bipolar disorder as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life,” Russell said.
Matthew first exhibited emotional disturbances as a small child, as Russell was directing his 1999 war drama, “Three Kings.” The boy later attended Kenter Canyon Elementary School in Brentwood for a time, but by the time he was 12, his symptoms had shifted, and Russell and his then-wife, Janet Grillo, had to make the heart-wrenching decision to send Matthew to a boarding school in Connecticut that could better help him cope. “It was devastating to me when he went away, but it was probably the best thing we did for him, because it put such a specific order in his life,” Russell said.
“It’s almost making me cry right now, because the shame would almost be crushing for [him] if the illness wasn’t,” said Russell, who is Russian-Jewish on his father’s side of the family and Italian-Catholic on his mother’s. “It’s the shame of, ‘Look at me, I just keep wrecking things.’
“But my son also taught me the value of finding the silver lining in any situation, that you shouldn’t go down any dark path too long — and the gratitude you have for everyone around you, because it takes everyone, the entire family, to deal with this kind of challenge, and that’s what the film is about.”
It was through this lens, as a father, that Russell first read Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, “Silver Linings Playbook,” when Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella gave him the book several years ago. What caught his eye first was the story’s protagonist, Pat Solitano (played in the film by Bradley Cooper), a young man newly freed after an extended stint in a mental institution. The story describes Pat’s struggles to get his life back on track with the help of his hot-blooded family — including his obsessive-compulsive father (Robert De Niro) — and of Pat’s relationship with a tempestuous young widow (Jennifer Lawrence), who is battling her own depression and mood swings after the death of her husband.
“I wouldn’t have taken the book as seriously as I did had I not already been looking for a story that could include someone like my son — something to give him hope and the sense that he was part of the world,” Russell said of his first book-to-film adaptation. “And the story would include a family like ours, and could do so in a way that was very real.”
The sense of family rallying together while in crisis — in a specific neighborhood, on a specific block and even in a specific house — has a consistent theme in Russell’s recent films, from the Irish-Catholic working-class clan in Lowell, Mass., with a drug-addicted son in “The Fighter,” to the Italian-Americans in Philadelphia battling mental illness in “Silver Linings Playbook.”
Russell said he drew heavily on his own family’s speech patterns and interactions to create the characters: “The way Robert De Niro speaks reminds me of my father,” he said, recalling the late nights he spent with his dad bonding over Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks movies. “A lot of the rhythm of how Bob talks is what I would call the intimacy, the warmth or the haimish nature of what I wanted to convey in the movie.”
Russell, 54, grew up in Mamaroneck, in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., but he often visited his mother’s relatives in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as his father’s extended tribe in Manhattan and the Bronx. “It was all very colorful, and it revolved around food, or whatever people were talking in politics; there was a lot of arguing, a lot of loud talking, and there was always a TV on and a lot of music playing,” he said.
Like the fictional Solitanos, the Russells could be volatile, albeit in amusing ways, the director recalled. There was the seder, when David was 13, where he drank far too much wine: “It was the first time I got drunk,” he said. “My father wanted to kill me, because he felt that I embarrassed him, but it was his friends’ kid who kept filling up my glass!”
Russell’s Jewish grandfather, a butcher on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who had lost many of his relatives in concentration camps, refused to have anything to do with his sister, Frieda, one of his few relatives to survive, after he fell on hard times and she refused to lend him money. “We had a lot of family on both sides where two people wouldn’t talk to each other and it would go on for, like, 30 years,” Russell said.
His mother grew up in Catholic schools, and his father attended Hebrew school, but neither parent wanted anything to do with religion. So much so that when David requested to become either a bar mitzvah or be confirmed in the Catholic Church, or at least to know “what’s my story,” they replied that he was Italian and Jewish and Russian and “so what?” he recalled. “Of course, that made me have a great deal of interest in all things spiritual, and now I can recite to you either a Jewish or a Christian prayer.”
When Matthew needed spiritual guidance, Russell took him to counselors of both faiths, including time spent with Moshe Rosenberg of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles.
Asked how he felt when the character of Pat becomes enraged and unlikable after going off his meds, Russell said, “Anybody who struggles with this kind of thing is not always likable, but we tempered all of that in the performance. … Pat’s [outspokenness] is like a lightning rod for everyone else in the film. He makes all the bulls--- stop. He makes all pretense fall away.”
To avoid any sense of pretense in the performances, Russell shot long sequences using a camera called a Steadicam, which was attached to an operator who could seamlessly weave his way among the actors. “It felt haimish because it involved the least amount of hardware,” Russell said. “There’s no dolly or track or crane or boom arm; it gets that out of the room, so it’s just the people, and the actors really got lost in it, like being in a play.”
Matthew Russell himself appears in the movie as a nosy neighbor who rings the doorbell to ask about Pat’s rages, which Russell found “kind of sweet,” he said. “Matthew is usually the kid in Pat Solitano’s shoes, who people are asking about, and I loved the fact that he was getting to be the one to ask those questions.”
His son is “extremely proud” of the film, Russell said, adding, “It’s a story that will be a landmark for our family maybe most of our lives. We’ve already referred to the story many times — Matthew will say, ‘How did Pat handle this?’ or ‘What did Pat do to pull himself together?’ ”
And, not surprisingly, Oscar nominations have meant a great deal to Russell’s entire family, but when a reporter concluded the interview by suggesting that he “break a leg” come the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 24, the director had a different idea.
“Since this is the Jewish Journal, why don’t we just say mazel tov?” he said.
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January 23, 2013 | 3:32 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Elizabeth Gabler was warm, even motherly, as she ushered a reporter into her chintz-filled office in the cozy bungalow that houses the studio Fox 2000, the division of 20th Century Fox where she has served as president for the past dozen years. Dressed elegantly in an olive-colored dress and matching sweater, she insisted upon sitting in a hard-backed chair while her guest took an overstuffed armchair.
But over the course of a 40-minute interview, Gabler exuded not only the graciousness but also the steely resolve that has made her one of the few women to head a studio in Hollywood — and which served her well as she has spearheaded her passion projects to the screen, including “Unfaithful,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and, most recently, Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” a transcendental spiritual epic that was widely considered unfilmable until she took on the movie a decade ago.
Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 best-selling novel, the film — which has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards — tells the story of the journey of a 16-year-old Indian boy named Pi confined with a tiger in a small lifeboat drifting across the Pacific Ocean after Pi’s family and the remnants of their zoo perish in a shipwreck.
For Gabler, spearheading the adaptation of Martel’s novel was like taking the proverbial tiger by the tail. She fought ferociously to bring the story to cineplexes: “It is the biggest, riskiest gamble I’ve ever taken,” she said.
And not just because the movie was shot in 3-D with lavish visual effects on a monumental $120 million budget and with unknown actors, including Suraj Sharma in the central role of Pi. While studios often eschew stories with religious undercurrents, “Life of Pi” draws heavily on the book’s spiritual themes — not only the three religions that Pi practices simultaneously (Hinduism, Catholicism, Islam) but also upon a perspective influenced by Jewish mysticism and the Old Testament, notably the story of Job.
Even Gabler, whose diverse work includes “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Walk the Line,” wasn’t sure “Pi” could be adapted when she first read the book in 2001. “I was fascinated by the subject matter of this boy adrift with an animal,” she said. “But at the same time, I was overwhelmed by the questions of, ‘How would you make it into a movie? Who would be that great of a filmmaker who could bring it to life?’ So I waited to see how the book took off with readers.”
In 2002, while on maternity leave, Gabler witnessed how the novel was displayed everywhere, as it remained a best seller week after week. “It wasn’t going away,” she said.
So Gabler was receptive when producer Gil Netter phoned her at her Santa Barbara farm to pitch the project. Netter has said that every other studio had passed on “Life of Pi” before Gabler said yes on that October day in 2002. “I knew it was going to be very tricky,” she said. Yet she believed the film, in the right hands, could be commercial — an adventure story appealing to all ages, even teenagers, who could relate to the young protagonist.
She saw the bold religious content as a plus, with spiritual connections that “transcended cultural, religious and language barriers,” Gabler said. Raised Catholic in Long Beach, she is married to Jewish TV agent Lee Gabler, a cousin of the famed novelist and pundit Neal Gabler. “The film tells of a communication between an animal and a person and nature. And I felt that it reached out to people of all religions because it doesn’t just embrace one faith.”
Nevertheless, three directors, including M. Night Shyamalan, signed on and off before Gabler found herself coaxing Lee, who won a best-director Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain,” to try his hand at the film.
“I didn’t see it as a movie,” Lee said of his initial reaction during an interview with the Journal last year.
“I think Ang met with me because his curiosity was piqued, mostly because he thought I was crazy,” Gabler admitted. “But I told him I felt it could be the first international all-audience movie, that we saw it as a big commercial film and that he was the only person I thought could bring the book to the screen. Not only does Ang have the ability to tell a very large-scale story, but he is also a courageous man. Anything that scares him, he wants to do.”
Persuaded, Lee traveled to India with screenwriter David Magee, who adapted the book in an attempt to absorb the religious and cultural aspects of the story. But just as production was about to commence, in 2010, Gabler received a disappointing call from Fox co-chairs Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman: They were pulling the plug on the film. “It was just too much money and too daunting,” Gabler said. “I was saddened and just numb.”
With her heart heavy, Gabler waited up until midnight to break the news to Lee, who was traveling in Taiwan. “It was surreal,” Gabler recalled of that conversation. “It was pitch dark, and I was in the sunroom of our house, which is all glass, and just looking out over our farm in the night. I almost felt like Pi on the raft, surrounded by the vast skies. I thought Ang was going to say, ‘This is a terrible thing, but thank you.’ ” Instead, he said, “ ‘I’m getting on a plane and flying out to Los Angeles tomorrow.’ ”
Gabler pointed to the flowered armchair where Lee sat in her office the following day as he showed her a DVD of Sharma’s audition as well as a luminous previsualization sequence of the film’s shipwreck scene.
“I phoned Jim and Tom and said, ‘You’ve got to come to the screening room right away,’ ” Gabler recalled. “And they both saw it, and afterwards everyone was breathless, and our head of marketing leaned over the front of his chair and said, ‘We’ve got to make this movie.’ ”
The condition was that Gabler had to slash at least $25 million from the budget, which she did, in part, with the help of financial incentives from the country of Taiwan, where the production set up shop in an abandoned airport in Taichung.
Gabler’s gamble paid off when “Life of Pi” opened to good reviews, quickly earned $450 million at the box office and snagged 11 Oscar nods — only one less than Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” — including for best picture and director.
“I was just floored,” Gabler said of the Oscar news. “I was so ecstatic to hear that almost every person who made such major contributions to the film was recognized.”
January 23, 2013 | 12:41 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Herschel Savage, the skin-flick actor best known for his appearance in “Debbie Does Dallas,” was perched beside a bare mattress on the floor of the Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood, preparing to rehearse a scene from “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal” in which he plays a director. The new play by David Bertolino follows the making of the most famous sex movie of all time and the free-speech controversy that erupted after its release in 1972.
At the rehearsal, cast members were fully clothed, although they were about to run through a sequence in which their characters shoot a porn loop — some will be naked onstage during the show, and a couple of explicit sex scenes will be simulated (you’ve been warned).
Savage, 60, who keeps his clothes on throughout the play, was trying to figure out just how to artfully slip off the robe of Natasha Charles Parker, who portrays Linda Lovelace, the “Deep Throat” star. “This is the unveiling scene, make something of it,” advised the play’s director, Jerry Douglas, who is also an award-winning adult film director.
Later in the run-through, the action turned from campy fun to a serious discussion of the First Amendment. Douglas reminded Savage that his character utters the phrase “free is a good word” four times in the play: “Make it sound carved in stone, or at least embroidered on a pillow,” Douglas said. “Frame the hell out of the word free, because that’s what the show is all about.”
Savage, who in his boyhood attended a Conservative synagogue, portrays Gerard Damiano, “Deep Throat’s” director, an intense fellow who regarded himself as “the Hitchcock of adult cinema,” said Savage, who worked with Damiano. Savage also portrays First Amendment attorney Alan Dershowitz.
But the drama largely revolves around the journey of Harry Reems, the movie’s male star (played by Marc Ginsburg), whose real name is Herbert Streicher and who introduces himself in the play as a “nice Jewish boy” from Westchester County, N.Y. As the show opens, Reems aspires to become a hippie and an actor, and he goes on to star in assorted off-off-Broadway productions, and even plays Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” before money woes prompt him to take a chance on porn.
His luck turns as he’s cast as a lusty doctor opposite Linda Lovelace’s nurse in “Deep Throat.” However, when the film opened in New York’s Times Square — a haven for X-rated films at the time — it was immediately shut down by the authorities, catalyst for a publicity blitz on censorship that turned the film into the topic of water-cooler conversation and spurred the term “porno chic.” As a result, we learn in the play, the hour-long movie earned a whopping $600 million at the box office and made Reems practically a household name. Meanwhile, the Nixon administration, in an attempt to crack down on pornography, pursued Reems, and he was tried and convicted in Memphis on obscenity charges, and faced jail time until attorney Alan Dershowitz got him acquitted on appeal.
“This case is not just about the law; it’s also about politics,” Dershowitz warns Reems at one point in the play. “The Christian right has a well-oiled PR machine — you’re going to need one, too.”
Playwright Bertolino grew up in an Italian-Catholic home outside Boston, and he knows a thing or two about PR. Ruddy faced, jovial and clad in one of his trademark flamboyant shirts on a recent Saturday, he was planning to hire fake protesters to picket outside the Zephyr — the same publicity stunt used by the film’s original backers to draw people to the movie in Times Square. He’ll also have actresses clad in nurse costumes giving out tongue depressors in the lobby, and he envisions porn legend Ron Jeremy, who has a cameo in the play, walking with a giraffe (“Deep Throat” — get it?) down Melrose Avenue.
Even so, Bertolino said he views his play in part as a cautionary tale on the boundaries of free speech — and it’s a very Jewish story, as well. “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal” spotlights not only First Amendment lawyers like Dershowitz, but also calls attention to the Jewish porn stars who thrived in the industry in the 1970s, all the while viewing themselves as protestors against the Christian establishment and purveyors of the sexual revolution.
Some of the most famous of those stars will appear in onstage cameos in “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal,” including Jeremy, nicknamed “The Hedgehog” because he is short and hirsute, porn impresarios Nina Hartley and Bill Margold as well as Savage. Of the preponderance of Jews working in the porn industry at the time, Margold said, “It was all about [social] rebellion.”
“Jewish families tend to be more liberal than Christian ones,” Jeremy said in a 2001 Journal interview. “They aren’t obsessed by the fear of the devil or going to hell.”
Bertolino said he first saw “Deep Throat” on a double bill with “The Devil in Miss Jones” around 1976, but he had nothing to do with the industry — nor had he ever written a play — until a fortuitous meeting in 2007. He was in the process of selling a haunted-house theme park called Spooky World that he owned near Boston, when his costume business brought him to the Las Vegas International Lingerie Show, where he set up a booth to hawk his sexy nurse and flight attendant outfits. The booth drew the attention of a spokesman for Arrow Productions, an adult-film company with a booth across the way, who asked Bertolino if he could stencil the words “Linda Lovelace” on the nurse costume. “I can, but we’d both get sued,” Bertolino said. The man promptly replied that Arrow Productions owned the rights to “Deep Throat.”
A Linda Lovelace nurse costume ensued, and — as Bertolino became more and more intrigued by the stories that Arrow Production’s owner, Raymond Pistol, told him about the movie — so did the idea for “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal.” Bertolino was fascinated to learn that the flick had been mob-financed and was shot in a Miami motel — and that backers actually bribed a judge to shut down the film in New York to generate publicity. The trial, he added, “stands as one of the great battles against censorship in modern American history — taken up by Alan Dershowitz, helping to expand the career of one of America’s best-known attorneys.”
Bertolino undertook a series of interviews with people involved with the film, including Reems, who, he said, hung up on him the first three times he phoned. (Reems, Bertolino said, is currently ailing at his home in Utah and does not endorse the play.)
After “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal” gained an audience during a four-and-a-half week run with a largely different cast off-Broadway, Bertolino was able to persuade real porn veterans such as Savage to appear in the Los Angeles production.
While smoking a cigarette during a rehearsal break, Savage said he was drawn to the play, in part, because “it’s like a case of déjà vu.” And not just because he’s used to the on-set goings on the play describes.
“I see a lot of similarities between myself and Harry Reems,” Savage said. Like the “Deep Throat” star, he initially aspired to become a professional actor, studying with Uta Hagen and Stella Adler before he found himself on a porn set to help pay his bills. He discovered he had a proclivity for the business and went on to star in hundreds of films. But along the way — also like Reems — he discovered that his adult cinema activities inhibited his ability to snag mainstream plays and films. Now out of the porn business, he’s recently starred in a Neil Simon play in Santa Monica; he’s been working on his standup-comedy routine and is hoping “The Deep Throat Sex Scandal” will help further his acting career. “But I don’t know if I’ll use the name ‘Herschel Savage’ in the credits,” he said. “Even 40 years after ‘Deep Throat,’ there’s still so much bias out there against the industry.”
The show, which begins previews Jan. 24, opens Jan. 31 and runs through March 3, will feature guest cast members in two cameo roles every week: Amber Lynn and Bill Margold (preview week, Jan. 24-27), Sally Kirkland and Bruce Vilanch (Jan. 31-Feb. 3), Nina Hartley and Christopher Knight (Feb. 7-10), and Georgina Spelvin and Ron Jeremy (Feb. 14-17). For tickets and information, visit deepthroattheplay.com or call (800) 838-3006.
January 9, 2013 | 8:27 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“It’s an honor to be insulted by you,” I told Judd Apatow during an interview about his new comedy-drama, “This is 40,” about the midlife angst suffered by record label owner Pete (Paul Rudd) and his wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann).
“Yes, exactly!” Apatow replied.
I’d interviewed the comedy mogul several times over the years, most recently about his flick “Funny People,” starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, and about his book “I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some that Might Not be Funny at All.” He’d opened up to me about how his Jewish childhood with atheist parents instilled in him a “frightening, empty” view of the universe that “certainly did more damage than they were aware of at the time.” Whenever I’d asked him if he read the Journal, he’d responded with an enthusiastic, “Oh, yeah!”
So I was thrilled – and initially a tad mortified – to see that “This is 40” actually had a scene with a Journal reporter, which is played for laughs: A schlumpy journalist wearing a yarmulke turns up to interview Pete’s star client, Graham Parker, asking him, “Why is this album different from all other albums.” “It isn’t,” Parker retorts.
Yes, parody is a form of flattery, but is that what Judd really thought of the Journal? Can we possibly appear less hip? And is this what he thought of me? “Well, I insult myself all the time in my films, so why not you?” he quipped when I asked him that question.
Q: Where did the idea for the Journal scene come from?
A: What I wanted to write about is that Pete feels like maybe he’s slipping. He’s in the music business but he kind of likes the older bands, not the newer bands, and it’s a symbol that his taste is not keeping up with what’s happening in the world and it terrifies him. He has this business model he thinks will work, which is, he’ll take these older artists, and he will have very little overhead; they don’t need to sell that many records and that’s enough, but then he’s not even going to be able to sell that many. So when it came to, who’s interested in talking to Graham, we thought, the only people who want to talk to Graham is the Jewish Journal. And we have our friend David Wilde, who writes for Rolling Stone magazine, playing the reporter from the Journal. And then the joke in the movie is that the old people who still buy hard copies of records are older Jews because they don’t download; they don’t understand what that means. (Laughs.) Which is probably because of the fact that my dad probably wouldn’t know how do download; he doesn’t have an iTunes music library. I’m sure this makes no sense to the reality of the Jewish Journal, or who reads it or the ages or any of it; it’s just a general, we didn’t get Rolling stone to cover this.
Q: Does the character reflect any of your impressions of the Journal?
A: No, not at all. But when you think of like the cutting edge of the music scene, you don’t think of the Jewish Journal. I don’t mean to insult your readers, but they are not going to find out the next hot band in the Jewish Journal.
Q: You never know.
A: Well, you should change that. If you find them, then you will prove my joke incorrect. You and I have done a bunch of interviews over the years, for a long time, but the joke is literally coming from the fact that it just sounds funny. Comedy is so much like a rhythm idea. And to me, although there’s been many great Jewish rockers over the years, you don’t instantly think that our people are rocking that hard, although the truth is that they probably are (laughs).
Q: Someone on our staff was thinking of doing a videotaped response to your Journal scene.
A: Yes! That’s right. You could, and it would be a great video for every person who doesn’t realize that the guy from that punk band is Jewish, or that the guy in that great rock ‘n’ roll band of all time is Jewish. You could show all of them. We could even get Adam Sandler to record it.
“This is 40” is now in theaters.
January 2, 2013 | 3:10 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In 2008, while doing research for what would become his first feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin climbed inside the pickup truck he had purchased for $500 and drove down each of the five roads leading to the bayou’s edge about 80 miles south of New Orleans. At the end of one of those roads he discovered the Isle de Jean Charles, a remote fishing village made up of a swampy enclave of about 20 shacks connected by planked walkways over brackish water. Mattresses patched sagging bridges, discarded refrigerators served as wading pools, and dead cypress trees loomed like skeletons.
“I got chills, because I had been trying to write about holdouts at the end of the world, and I sensed that this was truly the last stand,” Zeitlin said of his post-Hurricane Katrina mindset. “It was almost as if there was a different kind of air there; the atmosphere was so salty that everything rusted, and all the dead trees and shattered houses had this incredibly apocalyptic feel. [In another town], I asked someone why they didn’t try to replant the population somewhere else, and they said, ‘We were made by the marsh; we’re like this exotic plant that can’t grown anywhere else.’ ”
Zeitlin thought about the dying towns and their stalwart residents, and how they reminded him of the characters in a play by his childhood friend Lucy Alibar titled “Juicy and Delicious,” in which a child struggles to achieve a state of grace after he learns his previously robust father is dying.
“I realized I had two stories that were both circling around this one emotion: What do you do when the thing that made you starts to die in front of you? And how do you survive the loss of the things that created you — whether a community or a parent?”
The result is Zeitlin’s haunting, operatic independent film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a fable about a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who is pondering her place in the universe as her father ails and her harsh but utopian hamlet is threatened by a raging storm. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the Camera d’Or at Cannes and has four Independent Spirit Award nominations and is now enjoying Oscar buzz alongside the likes of such major studio features as “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Along the way, it’s joined the ranks of a growing number of acclaimed films (think “Life of Pi” and “The Tree of Life”) that tackle spiritual concerns onscreen.
Zeitlin, 30, called in for an interview from the stairwell of the New York Public Library, where he retreats to work on projects whenever he visits his native New York. His home these days is a rundown house on the outskirts of a construction site in the upper ninth ward of New Orleans, where, he said, his used car recently died. “I’ve pretty much lived in varying forms of shanties or shacks since I moved down there [around 2006],” he said.
The heroine of “Beasts” is left homeless when a hurricane destroys her detritus-filled hovel; only on the precipice of destruction does she come into a kind of spiritual enlightenment, Zeitlin said. “An important moment is when she regards the funeral pyre that is cremating her father and watching the sparks fly out into the air,” said Zeitlin, who directed the film and co-authored the script with Alibar. “She realizes that just because she cannot see them anymore, they have not disappeared — in fact, that nothing disappears, but things live on in different ways. It’s her understanding that while both her father and her community are going to be gone from the earth, the wisdom passed down from them is internalized in her, and she is now the vessel that will carry that forward into the future. She starts to feel like the intangible parts of the universe are taking care of her, as opposed to trying to destroy her, and that moment of enlightenment is related to visions of what God is.”
The funeral scene was influenced by Jewish thought, Zeitlin said — specifically the midrash of two ships, one leaving the harbor as another heads for shore, which suggests that one should rejoice over the returning ship, just as one should celebrate the death of a righteous man. “It’s one of my favorite pieces of wisdom,” Zeitlin said.
Zeitlin’s parents, both folklorists, celebrated all kinds of wisdom and fables; they studied carnival barkers, traveling medicine shows and, during frequent trips to Coney Island, they jotted down histories of the residents of the local freak show. Zeitlin remembers hanging out with a contortionist called the Elastic Man, who could slither his way through a coat hanger, as well as Otis the Frog Boy, who rolled up and lit cigarettes with his mouth.
“The myth in my own family is that we had basically one relative who escaped the pogroms in Russia in a hay cart,” said Zeitlin, whose father is Jewish and mother was raised Protestant in North Carolina. “My father very much studied Jewish culture and mythology, and he wrote several compilations of Jewish stories, folktales and jokes. He was always reinventing Jewish customs and making sure that the tradition was very much part of our lives. Every Shabbat we all had to bring a reading or some piece of wisdom we’d discovered during the week, along with a ritual where we would remember all the people we had lost.”
Not long after his backyard bar mitzvah, Zeitlin traveled with his family to New Orleans, which he found to be “an almost supernatural place where both death and joy are in the air.
“All Jews are obsessed with death, right,” he added, only half joking. “It’s recalling all the people before you who have died, and using their knowledge in your own life.”
Zeitlin moved to New Orleans after graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, initially to make a short film, “Glory at Sea,” and then to embark upon “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” He began writing the film several years ago while recovering from a shattered pelvis after a drunk driver rammed his car as he was on his way to a film festival. When he could walk again, he returned to Isle de Jean Charles, hanging out with his laptop at the town’s marina and interviewing locals, who initially hazed him as an outsider.
Over seven weeks in 2010, his largely improvised production came together in 100-degree heat, amid swarming flies and mosquitoes, with sets cobbled together, in part, from abandoned scrap metal. After Zeitlin’s pickup truck exploded in a fiery maelstrom, his crew transformed the charred shell into the boat in which Hushpuppy and her father traverse the swamp in the film. Zeitlin persevered even after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred on the first day of production, jeopardizing the locals as well as the movie.
The shoot, which took place in 20 locations, proved to be an exercise in independent filmmaking at its most extreme — which is why the low-key Zeitlin particularly appreciates his movie’s Oscar buzz. “It’s certainly not why I make films,” he said, “but any time a film gets recognition that was made outside of the film industry, the more leverage it gives to other filmmakers who are trying to tell stories in ways that are unconventional. So it’s just trying to forge that space in the world.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox Searchlight.