Local Talks With NYU Alumna, Screenwriter & Oscar Nominee Lucy Alibar

Eight years ago, Lucy Alibar was studying Drama in the Experimental Theater Wing at Tisch. Now she’s nominated for an Oscar Award for her work writing the screenplay for the film Beasts of The Southern Wild. So what’s it like to be up for the largest award in screenwriting?

“Sometimes I forget,” she tells us, referring to her nomination.

Three years ago, Lucy wrote Juicy and Delicious, a screenplay about a little boy who has to cope with his father’s illness, which later became the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. “As soon as I wrote the play, I sent it to Benh [Zeitlin, Beast’s director]. He came to me soon after to talk about what a film adaptation would look like, and it was just such an exciting concept for me. I think when you’re just starting out, you should just say yes to everything. That’s what I was doing, saying yes to everything, pursuing everything and maybe never sleeping, but it’s worth it because you end up writing so much.”

Before Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lucy was writing and putting out a ten-minute play every month with the help of a fellowship, which she says helped her “learn to work quickly and make decisions really fast.” She considers the experience “the best thing you could do for a playwright.”

“You get more ideas the more you write, it’s not like you use them up. I used to think that there was more scarcity in it, that I would use up all my ideas or something, [but] it actually works the opposite way.”

Besides her large-scale projects, Lucy keeps a daily journal. “I write about whatever’s going on. When my dad was sick, I wrote about that. I write about travel. I write about whatever’s on my mind. It’s just very free-flowing. 99% of it is completely boring and uninteresting and then sometimes I’ll hit on something and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize I was thinking about that, I didn’t realize I was so compelled by this for so long.’ Like, wow, I’ve been writing about meteor showers a lot for the past week,” she laughs. “For me, it’s about taking out any filter.”

To research Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lucy and Zeitlin spent a few months living in a small fishing marina in order to understand Louisiana and the people in the community. As a writer, she paid close attention to the Louisiana cadence and the way of speaking, but also spent time listening to the stories of the residents. “I was really struck by how long their families had been there,” she recalls. “Their families had been there since the 18th century.”

Even after filming was completed, Alibar did not see Beasts in its entirety until five days before it was screened at Sundance. But even then, at the initial screening, it was just her and the filmmakers, not the cast. The first time she saw the movie with an audience was at Sundance. Although she had spent time imagining what the film would ultimately look like, she had never thought of what it would be like to watch others watching it.

“We got a standing ovation, but coming from the theater, everyone gets standing ovations, so I thought ‘oh, that’s what happens at Sundance,’” she said. “I didn’t think a standing ovation was anything. I was happy about it, but, you know.” Even when audience members greeted her later, she was still numb from the overwhelming experience of even showing at the prominent film festival. “I just remember people coming up to me and talking to me afterwards, and I could tell that they were saying something really positive, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying because I was so—I felt like I was outside of my body.” But “in a good way,” she added.

The screenplay is based on Lucy’s own experiences of battling with her father’s catastrophic illness. When we asked her whether it was a vulnerable experience to have so many people watch a film based on such personal grief, she answered, “I used to feel a lot more possessive of it,” but that it’s become “everybody’s experience now.”

Lucy also spoke a little about the beasts of the Beasts of the Southern Wild — the Aurochs. Although she had written them in, she didn’t know what they would actually look like until she finally saw the screening of the film. Was she surprised? Disappointed? The answer: shocked. Throughout the process, she would watch the art department and the crew building miniatures of the Aurochs, but nothing prepared her for seeing them on the big screen for the first time. “Oh my god,” she tells us. “Look at what these incredible people did with very little except their own ingenuity.”

So, what about her time at NYU? “I absolutely loved it,” she said. “It really gave me my understanding that it is more about making a lot of things and putting them up really quickly.” Entering NYU in 2001, she was much more of a perfectionist about her work, but the artistic community at school helped her to put out a lot more work, even when she didn’t feel that everything was finished and impeccable. “It was a wonderful, wonderful time. It was hard—it was really hard—but so rewarding.”

One professor that stood out to her was Rosemary Quinn, who still teaches in the Experimental Theater Wing. “The class was called Self Scripting but it was about creating on your feet. It really became about creating by talking, and then writing about it, which I had never done before. I had always sat down and wrote and my plays started like that. The class, I think, really taught me to write dialogue, it taught me to write action. It taught me to really make a three-dimensional story… It’s really about building a world and teaching you how to do that in a really technical way.”

At the time, she was living with a friend in Washington Heights, working as a nanny on Saturday and Sunday mornings at six, and visiting her favorite fruit cart (which is still there) on 1st and 14th, all while juggling the large amounts of class time and homework. “It was a really intensive program. If you could sleep,” she jokes, “that was great.”

As advice to current students, Lucy leaves three words of Alibar wisdom:

  1. “Do before you’re ready. Don’t wait to be ready.”
  2. “You’re going to know most of the people in your class for your whole life.”
  3. “Take Rosemary Quinn’s class.”

We wish her the best of luck this Sunday at the Oscars!

[Image via.]

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