Several years ago my wild, brilliant, invincible father started getting sick. Really sick. Prostate cancer led to heart complications, which led to a stroke and more complications. He lost an eye and had a jagged scar across his chest. "Could be check-out time, boss," Daddy'd say. "At my funeral, no crying, no Jesus. I want people playing music and smoking ganja." I felt breathtakingly unprepared. I couldn't wrap my head, or my heart, around my parents' mortality. So I wrote a play, called Juicy and Delicious, about a frail, cowardly kid in the hot red clay of South Georgia named Hushpuppy—a boy, since I was too close to the story to make him a girl—and Hushpuppy's daddy, who was a lot like my daddy; and Hushpuppy's teacher, Miss Bathsheba, who was a lot like many of the ferocious, courageous Southern women who have been my teachers; and a herd of aurochs. I don't know where the herd of aurochs came from. Juicy was staged at the Tank/Collective: Unconscious in New York, and after many nights of seeing Hushpuppy survive the end of the world, I started feeling like I'd be all right. I returned to waitressing and writing more plays.
A few months later, I was exhausted and covered in bacon grease from a brunch shift, and I met my friend Benh Zeitlin on the roof of the Russian and Turkish Baths. Benh and I had won a teen playwriting contest when we were fourteen. If memory serves, his play was about a bunch of vulgar and poetic drunks, and mine was about a Southern Baptist sex-ed class gone horribly wrong. Though he lived in New York while I was in Florida, we became instant friends, trading books and mixtapes. He introduced me to Nick Cave; I turned him on to Gram Parsons. I kept writing plays; he made short films. That afternoon on the roof, as he was drinking Czech beer and I had carrot juice, he asked me if I wanted to do my play as a movie, set in the Louisiana bayou. He pulled out a portfolio of sketches he'd made, photographs he'd taken. He showed me the Causeway, the dying trees. He suggested the aurochs could come from Antarctica instead of the Georgia clay. Suddenly I forgot that I was tired and had half-and-half in my hair.
It took us a year and a half to adapt Juicy and Delicious into Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was, for me and most of the crew, our first feature film. Hushpuppy became a little girl, because finally I could do that. And after an exhaustive search, we found the transcendent Quvenzhané Wallis at a school audition just miles up the road from our production office. Mr. Dwight Henry, who owned the Buttermilk Drop Bakery across the street and had never acted a day in his life, proved heartbreaking in the role of Hushpuppy's daddy. The clay hills and black swamps of Georgia became the bayou and Gulf. (Benh had a long-standing love affair with Louisiana, and after my first few days in Pointe-aux-Chenes, I did, too. Have you been there? Sweet Jesus.) And the confrontation between Hushpuppy and the fierce aurochs became infused with a grace that required years of working through all of my deepest fears and furies to reach.
This is the play as I wrote it many years ago, covered in bacon grease, raw, angry, and—like Hushpuppy—realizing at last that there's an order to the universe. Our little hero faced down great beasts—and, in the film, worked with explosives—but she found her bravery in taking care of her own.
Juicy and Delicious and other stories from the Fall 2012 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.