The Rise Of Hushpuppy

When Zeitlin and Alibar had finished penning their Beasts of the Southern Wild script, a seemingly Herculean task awaited them: They had to find a 6-year-old actress capable of pulling off some rather grown-up material. Aiming to cast only authentic New Orleans locals for every role, the Beasts creative team took a grassroots approach to finding talent. For a little powerhouse of a girl born to embody Hushpuppy, flyers were posted in nearby elementary schools, churches, and community centers. Upwards of 4,000 kids auditioned for the part, but there was only special kindergartener rightly equipped: Quvenzhané Wallis.

Initially, before Wallis ever stepped foot into the casting office, not everyone on board the Beasts machine was convinced such an enormously gifted rugrat was even out there. “Our producers had that nervous feeling at first, but for Benh and I it just made sense that the character would remain 6-years-old,” says Alibar. “It really made the character vibrant and interesting, and it made the whole world make sense in a really interesting way that it might not if she was, say, 11. Though, I think part of it was we didn’t really know what rules we were breaking. In our minds, it was the shared thought of, Why can’t a 6-year-old tell a story? Why can’t a 6-year-old carry a movie?”

Especially when said 6-year-old is on Wallis’ level of professionalism. As written by Zeitlin and Wallis, the character of Hushpuppy is the script’s emotional core, and an incredibly sturdy one at that. In one moment, she’s breaking the viewer’s heart with believably tender vulnerability akin to any little boy or girl who’s scared; in the next, she’s armed with a penetrating scowl and ready to crush any and all adversity, declaring, “I’m the man!” When Hushpuppy, angry at her alcoholic, abrasive, yet unarguably loving father, lashes out with, “I hope you die, and after you die I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself,” you feel both her pain and not-so-childlike fury. But when the 6-year-old defiantly exclaims, “It wasn’t time to sit around crying like a bunch of pussies,” you know she means business.

All the credit, per the filmmakers’ words, goes to Wallis herself, who’s now 8 years old and universally primed for Academy Award recognition. “She was 6 when we shot [Beasts] and she was 8 when we were doing the voiceover, so, all of the sudden, Quvenzhané had this newly fledged ability with language that was, for us as writers, this Lazarus kind of moment,” says Alibar. “She could all of the sudden just say all of these pretty grown-up things, which was incredible.”

Whether she was 6 or 8, Wallis’ single-digit age gave Zeitlin and Alibar an indispensable amount of realism to weave into the movie. “The advantage of working with someone like Quvenzhané is that she has this real transparency to her—if she can’t connect with it, it’s inauthentic in some way, and we’ll make it real for her,” adds Alibar. “It was a matter of taking away some of what I thought was really poetic and beautiful language. She was a real barometer for emotional truth in this script, which was a really wonderful advantage to have.”

Even though Wallis has deservedly received the bulk of the film’s praise, Beasts of the Southern Wild isn’t a one-kiddie show. As Wink, Hushpuppy’s hardened father with a dying heart of gold, fellow acting rookie Dwight Henry turns in an equally impressive performance. To find Henry, another New Orleans native, Zeitlin and company didn’t need to meet thousands of middle-aged male hopefuls—he was merely feet away the whole time. Henry is the proud owner of Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café, a breakfast spot located directly across the street from the Beasts office and from where Zeitlin and his associates would buy doughnuts every morning.

In its purest form, the paternal character of Wink stems from Alibar’s own dad. “I certainly mined the hell out of my life and my relationship with my father,” she says. “I think it was this amalgam of southern fatherhood that we all had grown up with, so it felt like this intense collaboration with several people to make this character.”

The most intense alliance, however, was forged between Zeitlin and Henry. Always during “bakers’ hours,” from midnight to as long as six o’clock in the morning, the director and his inexperienced star would simply open up about their own lives, getting to know each other on a man-to-man, personal level before discussing Beasts or its actual script. “We’d take things from his life and try to attach them to moments in the script,” remembers Zeitlin. “I would write a scene, bring it in, and say to him, ‘This is what the character could be doing,’ and then he’d say, ‘You know, I actually think my focus would be over here,’ or, ‘I think I’d make this choice.’ So all of those things were written into the film. With every line, I’d ask him, 'Is this how you would say this? How would you say this?' I tried to get the language to come from his mouth.”

In our minds, [we thought], Why can’t a 6-year-old tell a story? Why can’t a 6-year-old carry a movie? —Lucy Alibar

That degree of regional accuracy was also applied to production itself. Zeitlin’s crucial decision to shoot the entirety of Beasts in New Orleans rendered the job difficult at times; for instance, on the first day of actual shooting, the BP oil spill took place, resulting in efforts to work around the Army’s unstoppable occupation of many of the film’s locations.

Even when there wasn’t a government’s containment mission to contend with, the world of Hushpuppy required a hands-on, get-down-and-dirty approach. Zeitlin called upon his artist sister, Eliza, to design the little girl’s rickety home; per her self-imposed method, she lived in the shack as she built it using materials found in the surrounding marshland. “That’s how she likes to build her own universe,” says her brother. “That’s how she felt that house had to be made.”

Genuine touches of that nature allowed Zeitlin to shoot Beasts almost like a documentary. “You want to create this world that feels very real, but the traditional way you do that in a film is you do it on a soundstage and fake things,” he says. “Like, if you’re not going to shoot the house from a certain angle, then you don’t bother painting that side. She wanted that place to exist and be lived in, so she basically built her own place in the way that Wink would live in it, and I think that gives a certain reality to the movie. It also gives the actors the ability to inhabit their world in a way that feels very real for them.”

From Sundance Surprise To The Year’s Movie To Beat

After over four years’ worth of hard work, endless dedication, and heartfelt loyalty toward the city of New Orleans, the filmmakers behind Beasts of the Southern Wild are currently meeting all of the film’s esteemed approvals and admissions of joyous weeping from recent audience members with sincere humility, not to mention unmasked excitement.

But now that The Little Film Festival Darling That Could has opened in cinemas across the nation, albeit a minor number as the word spreads, will Beasts be able to sustain its forward motion all the way to year’s end, when Oscar talk hits overdrive? Only time will tell. Unless Christopher Nolan's soon-to-explode The Dark Knight Rises proves to be a staggering masterpiece, though, Beasts seems to have the “best movie of summer 2012” distinction locked.

Zeitlin, for his part, simply appreciates the opportunity to share his passion for New Orleans, as well as his goal of telling a yarn about resounding optimism in the face of probable downfall, with whomever is open-minded enough to receive it. “Everyone involved in the making of this film put their all into it, wholeheartedly, and I couldn’t be prouder of both them and the film,” he says. “Knowing that people are connecting with Hushpuppy and her story makes it that much better.”

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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