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Lucy Alibar  

The movie that Alibar cowrote, Beasts of the Southern Wild, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah; at Cannes in May, where it was given a 15-minute standing ovation, it scored the Camra dOr prize for best first feature.

Three years ago, Lucy Alibar was about to take the subway to the reading of a friends play; Alibar was to play the role of a secretary named Ducky, who ends up getting killed. She was thinking about the character and the play, and she had no idea that the screenplay shed cowritten had just been chosen for development by the Sundance Institutes Screenwriting Lab.

No one could call her with the exciting news because her phone service had been cut off two weeks earlier; shed fallen too far behind with payments. In order to support her writing, Alibar had been leaving her Lower East Side apartment at 5 A.M. for a job making sandwiches and salads (I cant remember the exact number, but it was a lot), then returning to her apartment to write, then bartending, then home again to write, then waitressing.

But just before she headed for the subway, she finally got the good Sundance news, via an e-mail from her friend and cowriter, Benh Zeitlin, the films prospective director. She soon scraped together enough money to get her phone service restored, rewrote (and rewrote and rewrote) the film, helped cast it, worked on more rewrites as it was being shot in Louisiana, and then learned last winter that it had been selected to be shown at the 2012 Cannes film festival.

In January, the movie that Alibar cowrote, Beasts of the Southern Wild, had won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah; at Cannes in May, where it was given a 15-minute standing ovation, it scored the Camra dOr prize for best first feature. Beasts went on to garner ecstatic critical reviews upon its June release and became a surprise indie summer visitor at multiplexes across Americathe little art-house movie that could. In August, Oprah Winfrey raved about the film on her Super Soul Sunday television program; it had been recommended to her by President Obama.

She likes Dolly Parton, Tony Kushner, Flannery OConnor, and horror movies. Shes an excellent baker and a middling cook. Her meals tend to taste like garlic and end up on the raw side. (She suspects it has something to do with understanding the concept of restrictionshe says directors tend to be good cooks, writers good bakers.) Shes working on an autobiographical play about growing up in a Pentecostal Southern Baptist community with an atheist father and also on a Southern-comedy action-adventure movie about a troop of Georgia Brownies. Her plays have been produced in South Africa, France, and the UK. She lives with her Brazilian film-editor boyfriend, whom she met on the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild and who was the captain of his countrys national rugby team and also happens to be a trained chef (he made the gelato that helped fund her trip to Cannes).

Alibar grew up on the Florida panhandle, near the Georgia border. Her father, Baya M. Harrison III, is a criminal defense attorneylike Atticus Finch, but with a lot more ax murderers, she says. Her maternal grandmother, Alice, was a newspaper columnist, and her mother, Barbara, is an artist. She created her last name by combining their names and legally adopted it the day she turned 18, right after she got off her waitressing shift at the Village Inn on the Apalachee Parkway. (I wasnt the best waitress in the world, but I was cheerful and worked hard, she told a reporter from the Tallahassee Democrat. Most of the-customers were stoned, anyway, and only there for the all-you-can-eat pancakes. But I loved hearing them talk. I grew up sort of isolated in the countryso it was exciting being around that many people.)

My grandmother and mom showed me how to be an artist, how to be a woman, Alibar says. They both had families, these very happy lives, and they were both committed to their art, and it never seemed like a mystery to me how they did it. My grandmother had six kidsone died as an infantand she was dirt-poor, and all her kids got an education. And my mom grew up poor. And they both worked so hard and cultivated so much of their own happiness. I wanted to have that like an amulet. Not like armor, but like a magic feather. Like Dumbos magic feather.

She moved on to more naturalistic characters and settings, and when she was 14 she won a playwriting competition and got to attend Young Playwrights Inc. in Manhattan. There, she met a Jewish kid from QueensBenh Zeitlin, the son of folklorists. I remember there were a lot of drunks being existential in his stuff, and I wrote about a lot of Southern kidsand we became instant friends and made this immediate, wonderful artistic connection.

She came to New York City again in 2001 to study playwriting at New York University. She had never tasted Chinese food. She didnt have much money, but she had her writing, and her family, and her tight group of theater friends. Then, when she was in her early twenties, her father had quadruple-bypass heart surgery and a stroke, and she thought he was going to die. She realized that despite all the quizzes about what to do if a man with a gun stopped you and told you to get into his car in the woods, she had never really heard fromor talked toher father about love.

So she wrote Juicy and Delicious, the one-act play that inspired Beasts. It was about a boy named Hushpuppy confronting the illness and death of his father, a man capable of enormous love but apparently incapable of putting that love into words.

People have responded to Beasts as a tale about environmental degradation, or race, or political anarchy. And all thats fine with Alibarthough none of it is what she intended with Juicy and Delicious.

Im just telling a story, she says. Its about a little girl and her father. I just want people to engage. Because everybody has a dad, and everybody loses that dad, on some level.

Alibar says writing the play helped her understand her fatherand her feelings for himbetter. Watching the film she helped create, she says, helped her understand him even more.

When I saw Dwight Henrys performance on the screen [as Hushpuppys father], I for the first time really got his terror, even when hes at his worst moments, when hes angry. I got that its because hes so afraid of leaving his child defenseless in the world. I love my father, and thats why I wrote this, and I really needed that to come through. I really needed his whole humanness to come through.

To Alibars immense relief and delight, her father loved the movie. He called me and said, This was the best day of my life. You stole a lot of my lines, but thats all right. That Benh Zeitlin, hes a genius, Boss! Hes a genius!

Alibar quit her day jobs last January. She writes full-time now. When she feels distracted or is struggling, she goes for a run. Or to yoga. Or she bakes. Then she returns to her work.

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