Greenpoint playwright and screenwriter Lucy Alibar mines her childhood for the magical movie ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Nine years in Greenpoint but playwright and screenwriter Lucy Alibar still clings to her Southern accent like a “cracker” badge of honor.

She’s a proud storyteller from the land of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner and not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about her childhood on the Florida Panhandle with her death penalty defense attorney father, Baya Harrison III.

Lucy Alibar (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Alibar, 29, credits her rural childhood for inspiring her biographical play “Juicy and Delicious” and its movie adaptation Beasts of the Southern Wild, the tale of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her sickly father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a cut-off southern delta community outside New Orleans.

The smash of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and the target of a competitive bidding war won by Fox Searchlight, Beasts of the Southern Wild is sentimental, rousing, eye-popping and one of the biggest art-house hits of the summer. It’s also Alibar’s first experience in moviemaking, co-writing the Beasts script with longtime friend and Queens-based playwright Benh Zeitlin.

In order to gain an understanding of movies, Alibar says Zeitlin and Beasts producer Dan Janvey sent her to film school, or at least their version of film school held tableside at the Bowery location of Whole Foods Market.

“I had never written a movie before and Dan gave me this huge list of movies and took me to Whole Foods with his laptop,” Alibar says, pushing back her long blonde hair. “We sat and watched every movie on the list frame-by-frame and talked through it. That was my film school, meeting with Dan at Whole Foods.”

Southern folklore and movie magic of the Tim Burton variety come alive in Beasts of the Southern Wild with Zeitlin, filmmaker, composer, animator and founding member of the independent film company Court 13, shifting Alibar’s story from North Florida to Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, outside New Orleans, and changing the young female lead to a six-year-old African-American girl.

Alibar remembers long talks with Zeitlin on the rooftop deck of the Brooklyn Banya bathhouse and looking over his sketches of mystical beasts as well as a new climax of Hushpuppy leading a rousing march across an isolated land bridge.

Non-actors like Wallis come together to help tell Alibar’s magical tale of a father and his young daughter fighting against the elements; fighting against the world. It’s a theme that continues to resonate with Alibar during her nine years living as a Southern ex-pat in Brooklyn. In fact, the critical acclaim for Beasts, from Sundance to Cannes, and packed cinemas, from Brooklyn’s BAM to The Landmark in LA, help persuade Alibar to keep writing and performing stories about her childhood and her father who she describes as a “Redneck Atticus Finch with five guns and lots of animals.”

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” crew pick up their Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (photo by Steve Ramos for Hyperallergic)

“I’m always shocked at how much the audience connects with my stories,” adds Alibar, who wrote the plays “Gorgeous Raptors,” “Home Baking Made Easy” and “Mom Says I’m Pretty on the Insides,” before tackling the script for Beasts. “It’s the same fear I have with Beasts. I don’t know if I should be talking about these things. I don’t know if I’m divulging too much. Will people think I’m weird? Will people think my family is crazy?”

Alibar flashes a wide smile across her round, Moon Pie face describing the invaluable support she receives from fellow playwrights at her resident companies like the Slant Theater Project and New Perspective Theatre Company.

There are countless differences between her childhood in the Florida Panhandle and her current life in Greenpoint. The polluted Newtown Creek reminds her how much see misses the bayou waters of her youth and McGolrick Park is a poor replacement for unspoiled Florida nature. Still, Alibar gets her Country Western music fix at Pete’s Candy Store, and most of all, holds onto the deep-rooted sense of magical realism that many Southerners carry throughout their lives no matter where they call home.

“There’s so much magic where I’m from, like the expectation that animals talk,” Alibar says, drawing comparisons to the great Columbian novelist, Gabriel García Márquez. “People talk to God all the time. God is right there with you living between the physical world and the metaphysical world.”

In fact, Alibar, one of the prettiest Southern belles you’ll likely to meet, credits her deep-rooted magical realism for coping with the catcalls at the Greenpoint Avenue subway stop and daily hassles of life in the New York groove.

“I feel like I see interconnectedness a lot more than people think there is,” she says. “I see people in the subway and people I work with in the theater and people out on the street harassing me or cat calling me but I still see this real heartbeat to everyone. This heartbeat makes me love them as opposed to what I feel like you’re supposed to do in New York, which is hate people after awhile. But I just feel like loving people more. You see humanity out there and everyone is so desperate but I love everybody.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild, from Fox Searchlight, is playing cities nationwide.

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Steve Ramos

Steve Ramos writes about art and art cinema; contributing to New York, indieWire, and The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel among others. He programmed a monthly film series for...