Talking with Lucy Alibar
On Young Playwrights, her movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, and the Oscars
Our Literary Manager, Nick Gandiello, caught up with Lucy Alibar (an alumnus and winner of our Urban Retreat, National Playwriting Competition, and Young Playwrights Festival) to see how she was handling all the excitement of her movie Beasts of the Southern Wild receiving such critical acclaim – including Lucy being nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay. Here’s what she had to say -
To get started, I was hoping you could tell me about who you are as an artist; what you try to do with art or what excites you about art.
That’s a really interesting question. I’m a writer. I grew up reading and hearing a lot of great stories and books by people from around where I’m from: Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. And there are all these incredible folk stories I grew up with, like Eudora Welty. And the Bible; there are all these Bible stories because it’s the Bible Belt. I just grew up in that tradition and I learned so much from it and I wanted to keep telling stories.
Somewhere along that line of telling stories, you linked up with Young Playwrights Inc. Could you tell us about how your experience with Young Playwrights Inc. influenced you as a young theater artist?
Sure! I think it was really seeing the actual staged production with a different audience every night at the Young Playwrights Festival. It taught me so much about who you’re creating for. I’d only written for the page and myself before and this really taught me that then there’s an audience that has a relationship with it. That’s part of writing a play and why it’s a play and not a novel, because it’s meant to be alive and it’s meant to exist as its own animal and have its own relationship with the world. And that was incredible and beautiful to me that I could be a part of creating an experience like that. I got hooked on it. And also you meet such incredible people doing this, you get exposed to so many different kinds of theater makers that you really learn that the only set way is hard work and what comes out of that is so variant and unique and strange and beautiful that I just had to keep doing it.
You mentioned the people you met, and that was one question we wanted to ask you. You met your collaborator on Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh [Zeitlin, also nominated for an Oscar], while at Urban Retreat, right?
Oh that’s right! Yeah, we did the Urban Retreat before the Young Playwrights Festival. That was my first time in New York – I felt really much country mouse, city mouse? And Benh’s mom is from South Carolina and he was raised by folklorists, so we both have this love of storytelling and this love of… I think rock concerts? I mean the different forms that theater could take… I remember we went to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch together and we were just so taken by the urgency and the electricity and the excitement of it. And just how deeply personal that piece was, and so raw, and so textured and it was an incredible experience seeing that and I think our bonding over that was what really birthed our relationship.
What kept you working together?
I would send him all of the plays that I would write, all the short, short films he would make. We never really talked about collaborating. He’s the first person I want to see anything and I love seeing anything new that he’s working on and it just became this very easy, friendly, open artistic relationship that continued for years. We would make each other mixtapes, we would send each other different books, different kinds of music, so it was really we were becoming artists together and it was so exciting.
I wanted to ask you a bit about the play that inspired Beasts of the Southern Wild,Juicy and Delicious. What was the first inspiration to write this story and these characters?
Well, it came from a lot of my diary entries, I mean I wrote the play very quickly. I think it took me about… a week, two weeks maybe to get the whole thing down and it came from a lot of my diary entries when my dad was really sick. It was the first time I really got that parents are mortal, and parents are human, and it really tore me up and it really compelled me to ask some questions that I had never been comfortable thinking about before. What’s going to happen when my dad dies, what’s that going to look like? Will I die when my dad dies? Some of it was logical and normal and some of it I thought was really strange that anyone would think that and all, but I wrote it down, I wrote it down regardless and I sent it to Benh. I think for both of us, what jumped out of the original material was: I saw the aurochs coming out of a cave painting and coming out to devour this group of people with children, and that became a key piece of the entire play. I think we both responded to that as the entry point for the movie. And I really feel this movie is a new creation; it was such a beautiful experience creating this with this group but in terms of what really got dragged right from the first material I think the aurochs were, were key to both.
And it’s such an amazing image. What was that process like, taking those initial images and those ideas and then adapting it for the screen?
Well, a lot of it was me trusting Benh. The aurochs were so important to me and so elemental to the story, and I didn’t know how that would look in a movie. I knew what that looks like on a page but I didn’t even know what that looked like in a theater production. There’s this level of realism to a movie that I think I was afraid of at first, because I didn’t know how this fantasy onstage translates into the medium of film, and Benh said “Trust me, I promise I can make it look awesome.” And I did. I didn’t have anything to lose. But it was important that they didn’t look fake and they really were genuinely scary because they’re such a scary force to this kid. They’re really the realization of your worst fears of losing your parents and being the only child in a world without adults and being an orphan.
I was curious about what went through your mind and what it felt like when you heard that Beasts of the Southern Wild had been nominated for the Academy Awards?
Yeah! That. Well, they were announcing it on TV and there were some that you knew were going to be nominated, I mean Lincoln is an incredible movie, Argo is such an exciting, just delightful, incredible movie. I mean, they’re these incredible movies, and you know theirs are going to be announced but then you see a picture of – Quvenzhane, with the candles, and – I just couldn’t believe it. I think I started screaming but I don’t even know. From all reports in the building I did. I really wasn’t expecting it, though. There were so many strong movies this year. Just to see your name up there with Tony Kushner – it blows your mind. It blows my mind. I feel like, I feel like that’s my win.
I can imagine it feels amazing! So, to wrap up, is there any advice or encouragement you have for writers who are just starting out?
I would say write everything you can. Write everything that comes into your mind and write as much as you can and find someone who will do your plays. I found Youngblood, at Ensemble Studio Theater. They can do a short play of yours a month and that was so important to me, to be getting stuff up. I would say find a way to do it, find those organizations that will do as much as your work as you can do. It’s so important to see your plays get up there. And I think that’s what so special and necessary about Young Playwrights is you do these writers’ first plays, and I think if you look at just the amount of working playwrights that this organization turns out, I think it’s just a testament to what that does. So I say enter Young Playwrights if you still can. I had never heard of it, and they did a mailing to my school. I don’t know why they picked the school in Tallahassee, Florida to do a mailing to, but I’m so glad that they did – it’s completely changed my life. You know, enter all of that stuff. Just don’t be afraid to write. Just do it. It’s the best.
Alright! Is there anything else that you wanted to include about the film or about any other projects that you have going on?
I’m doing The Secret Garden right now for Guillermo Del Toro, and I’m very excited and happy about that. And I’m just so glad that people are seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild and responding to it. It’s really the greatest pleasure a writer can get, to have people engage with their work. We’ve all been so fortunate, Benh and I, and everyone who was a part of making this movie, so we’re really appreciative of anyone seeing it.