Story by W. H. Bourne • Red Carpet Photos by Odin Lindblom
Louisiana cast and crew of Beasts of the Southern Wild arrived in downtown Los Angeles for the 18th annual Los Angeles Film Festival. The festival, produced by Film Independent, the non-profit arts organization that also produces the Spirit Awards, featured Beasts as a centerpiece gala.
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts is a folk tale focused on life and survival in bayou country in the southernmost part of Louisiana. Shot in Terrebonne Parish, the film uses locations in Pointe Aux Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles to create the fictional town of “Bathtub,” a concentration of all the cultural elements of Southern Louisiana in one place.
“It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of tenacious people keeping a place alive,” observes Zeitlin about Pointe Aux Chenes, where he and Lucy Alibar would live while co-writing the script, and Isle de Jean Charles, where they would frequently visit. “There’s a tragic side to it, and yet the spirit is not all morose. It’s so much fun to be there, and there’s great food and it’s just glorious. That whole feeling really inspired the characters and their choices to keep celebrating life and to never abandon the people and places you care about.”
While one would assume that a film that portrays this intimate a look at life in Louisiana was written by a local, Zeitlin was born and raised in New York.
“After I got out of college, I was traveling around Europe looking for a place to shoot my short, Glory at Sea,” recalls Zeitlin. “While I was in Europe, Katrina hit. I wasn’t happy with anything I saw in Europe and I was wanting to come back to America because I felt like the film really happens there. Several friends kept telling me that I needed to come to New Orleans to shoot it. I asked them if I could easily find trash to build a boat out of. They said if you want trash, this is the place to come. There’s trash on every corner.”
He continues, “This little film took a year and a half to make, with people coming down from up north to help, and it eventually led to what would become Court 13, a group of friends who were excited about being filmmakers and making Beasts of the Southern Wild. I fell in love with the city while filming Glory at Sea.” Zeitlin now calls New Orleans home.
Glory at Sea won awards at several festivals, including SXSW and New Orleans Film Festival, and it was a key factor for Zeitlin to get funding for Beasts. “I applied for a grant through Cinereach, a non-profit, using Glory at Sea as a sample of what I wanted to shoot,” says Zeitlin. “It was the first time Cinereach funded a feature, and it allowed us to work in a different way. The budget was somewhere between $1 and $2 million. I know that we went over budget and the tax incentives really helped us increase our budget.”
“We were picked up by Sundance early on in the project for their labs,” he continues. “We did two writing labs, one directing lab, and one production lab. We knew our best chances for the film were at Sundance, but we missed the first deadline and spent another year in post-production. We sent a rough cut in to Sundance that was missing the VFX and the score.”
“It was surreal going to Sundance,” says Zeitlin. “We finished the sound mixing two days before the festival. Even when it first screened at Sundance, I was mixing sound in my head. I couldn’t really enjoy it, and I didn’t really notice that other people did. After Sundance, I spent another three weeks working on the sound.”
Beasts may be a folk tale, but for the cast it’s been a fairy tale. Zeitlin was intent on using local talent to portray the characters in his film, even the leads.
“It was a tremendous experience and the best feeling when everyone saw the film at Sundance, and when it was over and 1,500 people stood up and applauded,” says Dwight Henry, who plays “Wink,” a dying man who feels the urgency to teach his daughter the survival skills she’ll need to survive in the Bathtub.
Henry is a self-made businessman. For the past 15 years, he’s been the owner of Henry’s Bakery and Deli and he is the current owner of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café, located at 1781 N. Dorgenois St. in New Orleans.
“You have to understand the region we’re living in,” says Henry. “It’s a very dangerous situation. You have to face the real-life situations of losing your home, losing your life. I was always trying to emphasize what it was like losing your father and needing to learn to take care of yourself.”
“I’ve always worked with non-professional actors,” says Zeitlin, “but with this film, I never intended to use all non-professional actors. (But) we weren’t able to cast professional actors. They were beaten by locals from Louisiana. And they added so much to the script and the film. I’m not a native New Orleanian, so I learned from my cast, in particular, by interviewing them and then tailoring the script based on their experiences.”
He continues, “Casting people who are acting for the first time, they’re not playing themselves. They had to learn these parts, even though they had an inborn charisma. We tried to collaborate on every aspect of the film with them. I wanted to let the people who are playing the parts teach us about what it would be like to go through some of the incidents we portray in the film. I would bring the script to the bakery at night, and we would revise it based on Dwight’s experiences and the way he would say things so the script would feel more natural and organic.”
Zeitlin auditioned over 4,000 girls before he found the star of his film, Quvenzhané Wallis, from Houma.
“We were looking for someone between six and nine years old and not having much luck. Quvenzhané’s mother got a call from a neighbor telling her about the auditions at a local library. Quvenzhané’s mother was reluctant to send her to the audition since she was only five, even though she could read,” says Zeitlin. “I’m so glad she auditioned. She is wise beyond her years and fearless.”
“It was fun because I really wasn’t expecting all this commotion,” says Wallis, who is now nine and in the third grade at Honduras Elementary School in Houma. Wallis acts like a pro on the red carpet and at press interviews, answering journalists with insight and honesty.
Zeitlin is asked how long it took to make the film. “It was a long shoot—about 52 days,” he says, and then hesitates.
Wallis jumps in, “It was three months for the shoot and three years to make the film.”
“I had to learn a lot of things to play ‘Hushpuppy,’” says Wallis. “I had to learn to act, to swim, and to touch a pig. I cried the first time I touched the pig. And I had to learn how to be dirty with the mud because I’m not really like that.”
Adds Henry of his training regimen, “(Zeitlin) had acting coaches working with me at night while I baked doughnuts at the bakery. I have a daughter that’s seven years old, so it was easy for me to relate to Hushpuppy and to being a father to her. We did a lot to bond together, like cooking and baking.”
Zeitlin talks about the many challenges he faced while shooting.
“Day one of our shoot was when Deepwater Horizon blew up,” he says. “The marina I wrote the film in, BP was using to navigate the cleanup. We had to get them to move the booms and let us in and out of the marina while shooting. You get down far enough (in Louisiana), you’re not in an area ruled by people, you’re in an area ruled by nature. We wanted to live the adventure and the experience. It’s a really challenging place to shoot, but it was really rewarding.”
Zeitlin reflects about the movie’s meaning and the impact of writing the script down in Terrebonne Parish.
“I wrote this after (Hurricanes) Gustav and Ike and while that influenced my writing, it’s not about any one specific storm,” says Zeitlin. “It’s about standing strong and enduring in that place. It resonated with residents of Isle de Jean Charles who just hoped that ‘I can continue to live my life on this island and die on this island, even though I know my children won’t be there.’ I want people to know what it’s like to live in a place that will someday no longer be on any maps.”
At Los Angeles Film Fest, Beasts of the Southern Wild was generating Oscar buzz, citing the incredible performances of Wallis and Henry, as well as the captivating script and direction. It combines the harsh realities of a girl losing her father, her home and her community. Yet her creativity and imagination gives her the strength to endure.
“I tried to think back to how I thought of the world when I was six and everything was very real,” says Zeitlin. “Hushpuppy has the strength and sweetness to preserve this culture. The film is her film. She’s the person I want to be.”