We recently caught up with Alibar to chat about the origins of this story, which takes place in a magical-realist South and centers on a young girl, the themes that she and Zeitlin both brought to the screenplay while working on it at the Sundance Lab, and shooting in the bayou with the Court 13 collective.
They’re both a little bit fuzzy on the age they met, with Ailbar saying, “We’re always a little confused about that. He says 13 or 14, which sounds about right to me.” But, from the beginning, it was a creative connection for the two young artists: “We both won this playwriting award called Young Playwrights the same year. We got to go to New York and see a lot of plays together, and he and I just responded so quickly and so immediately to the same kinds of theater. We saw a lot of more traditional straight plays, and then they took us to see 'Hedwig ['and the Angry Inch'] and Benh and I just couldn’t believe we were seeing this. We would talk about it, and then we stayed pen pals, and we would send each other mix tapes and I would send him everything I’d write and he’d send me these short films he’d make every weekend. We just felt it was this very immediate artistic camaraderie that we had. It was part of a really wonderful friendship.”
“He’s just always been the first one I sent anything I write to, so when I wrote this play I sent it to him and I heard from him about three months later that he was interested in shooting it as a movie in Louisiana," Alibar says. "We had our first meeting about it and then we just went from there.”
She says about the play that she “wrote from a very gut reaction. My dad was really sick and I just started writing because that’s how I was processing it. I started writing about this kid, he’s a boy, and he’s lot like me, and his dad is a lot like my dad, and his dad gets sick and these aurochs start coming out of the cave paintings and devour this group of kids. And there was something so elemental about that idea of abandonment and what he’s going through in the play and what Hushpuppy goes through in the movie too. He’s very sure that when his dad dies, he’s going to die. I was just thinking about that a lot, thinking about my dad’s mortality in that way. I wrote in my diary, 'I feel like when he dies, I’m going to die,' and I wrote the play from there.”
The experiences that she and her father went through during his illness informed the themes of abandonment, independence and apocalypse that come through in the film. “Hushpuppy learning that she can live independently, and the father realizing that the daughter does depend on him… it’s not just him alone in the world,” Alibar says.
As for the process of adapting the play into a screenplay with Zeitlin at the Sundance Lab, she’d had more time to think about it and also was given the time to evaluate it during the writing process. "Working with Benh at the Sundance Lab made me really get very nitty gritty about a lot of the feelings that I white washed through the play -- just about the anger that might be there, the rushed, violent nature of their relationship, and also the love that’s with that, when he is tender, how he’s tender," she explained. "It was all very therapeutic in a lot of ways. There was a lot of really intense conversation and going away to write and coming back to it. Because he and I have been friends for so long and because I have such deep trust in him, he was the easiest person to do that with, I had just not talked about any of this before.”