Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Since its worldwide premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, in January, a little movie called Beasts of the Southern Wild has been riding a wave of nonstop momentum that the creators of films three times its size would kill for, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
For those who are only hearing about Beasts of the Southern Wild, here’s a brief recap of its pre-theatrical-release whirlwind of adoration: After the aforementioned Sundance premiere, which inspired a thunderous standing ovation, first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin’s magical, pseudo-reality tale of a tough-as-nails, motherless 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy living in Louisiana’s southernmost section, and forced to withstand a dying father’s worsening condition and a devastating storm, was awarded the fest’s top honor, the Grand Jury Prize in its dramatic competition. It was promptly picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight.
Four months of word-of-mouth buzz and “Wait until you see this one, folks” musings from critics, the film screened at the even more prestigious Cannes Film Festival last month to an even louder burst of applause, before Zeitlin took home the Camera d’or title for best first film.
Now that Beasts of the Southern Wild is finally playing in a limited number of theaters, for the time being, our choice for the year’s best movie so far is set to win over art-house consumers galore on its way to, hopefully, a wider release, and, if the energy persists, awards season glory come the end of 2012 and early 2013. Made for a reasonably humble $1.3 million, and shot totally on location in New Orleans, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the kind of success story that fills cinema purists with joy, offering a much needed alternative to this summer’s surplus of massive blockbusters and R-rated comedies.
At the film’s center is 8-year-old, first-time actress Quvenzhané Wallis, a natural leading lady who, through effortless charisma and the script’s potent voiceovers, gives the resilient Hushpuppy a gravitas that’s as formidable as it is stunning. In a year that’s already seen films led by strong female characters resonate with audiences (see: The Hunger Games, Brave), Hushpuppy is the best character of the estrogen-powered lot. Standing strong against her daddy’s illness, Mother Nature’s wrath, and mythical razorback-like creatures known as “aurochs,” Wallis’ on-screen persona, so expertly conceived by Zeitlin and his co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar, helps Beasts of the Southern Wild transcend beyond mere inspiration, of which its empowering story of New Orleans pride and fighting for one’s home delivers in spades. The film is fairy-tale-level enchanting.
Not bad for a 29-year-old guy from New York and a stage play writer from Florida with no feature filmmaking experience between them. They were just a pair of fresh-faced storytellers united by a shared affinity for New Orleans and a desire to mine deep emotions from a human narrative made within independent means.
Giving Birth To The Beasts
In 2007, Zeitlin, then an aspiring filmmaker from Hastings-on-Hudson (located in Westchester County, New York), packed up his belongings and moved down to New Orleans. One could say that it was his destiny, a fate sealed back when he was just a 13-year-old kid vacationing in The Big Easy with his parents, Steve and Amanda Zeitlin, who, together, oversee the NYC non-profit organization City Lore, which works to preserve urban culture, history, and folklore in the Big Apple.
Since he was just a youngster at the time, Zeitlin couldn’t partake in the legally aged tourist side of New Orleans, though such debauchery wasn’t hard to miss. “I remember walking back to our car after checking out a sight and there was a girl peeing between our car and another one, and then she went running down the street with her pants down,” recalls Zeitlin, with a laugh. “New Orleans just had this kind of dystopian, joyous abandon that I don’t think I’d ever witnessed before.”
And a reckless allure that never left his mind. In 2004, Zeitlin paid the city a second visit, this time with a group of friends, as part of a “road race from New York to New Orleans with three different cars.” Once there, he was able to explore the unique scenery and really get a feel for the landscape. That’s all she proverbially wrote. “That experience was more relevantly why I ended up going back to the city two years later,” he says. “It was because of the friends that I made down there, and this unshakable feeling that New Orleans was a place where I could really thrive.”
Three years later, merging his newfound geographical love with his longtime hopes of becoming a director, and living one of those friends, Zeitlin shot a short film called Glory at Sea. Twenty-five minutes long, Glory at Sea re-imagines a post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana as a dreamlike vista in which the victims of a vicious storm—never identified as Katrina, though—cling for life underneath water as their family members head out to save them on a shoddily made raft. The short eventually won prizes at festivals like South By Southwest and CineVegas. Tragedy nearly struck, however, when, on his way to the film’s SXSW premiere, Zeitlin’s vehicle was smashed by a drunk driver. He was sent to the hospital with a broken hip and pelvis, and was unable to walk for six months.
Those six months weren’t for naught. It was during that immobile time that Zeitlin, eager to make his first full-length motion picture, couldn’t shake an idea of making a film about the reasons why the city’s proudest natives refuse to leave New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Living there himself at the time, the Wesleyan University graduate started understanding what it was that made the Crescent City so beloved by its lifelong residents. “A lot of America is homogeneous, and there a lot of places that are similar to each other, but South Louisiana is not one of them,” says the filmmaker. “It’s almost like a different country down there. It’s got its own culture, its own type of food, its own type of dancing, and it’s got these intangible things in the air, to where there’s a real relationship with the actual environment.”
The citizens’ collective passion isn’t just an issue of unseen connections. Adds Zeitlin, “The food comes out of the water, which is a lot more visceral than when you can find a grocery store anywhere else in the country and get the food that you like. That’s not the case with the food down there. There’s s a quote that I once heard that really struck me. This guy told me, ‘We are made by the marsh. We are this, like, exotic plant that can only grow under these conditions, and if you tried to put it somewhere else it would shrivel up.’ When you’re down there, and you can feel what it’s like and feel how different it is, that makes a lot of sense.”
With his potential feature debut’s thematic hook in place, Zeitlin then needed to figure out who his characters were going to be, and how their interpersonal relationships would fit into the bigger, allegorical picture. For richly developed characters, Zeitlin sought inspiration in the writing of Lucy Alibar, a close friend whom he first met when, as teenagers, they won a New York-based playwriting contest called Young Playwrights Incorporated. A friendship immediately formed, and, during the years leading up to Beasts of the Southern Wild’s birth, Zeitlin would read her stage plays and Alibar would check out his short films, and they’d offer each other notes, advice, and complimentary motivation.
For Beasts, Zeitlin focused specifically on Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, the story of a Georgia kid named Hushpuppy who loses her father to cancer just as monsters, the “aurochs,” emerge from clay and start hunting down youths. “I wrote Juicy and Delicious after my dad got really sick, and I just didn’t really know how to handle it,” says Alibar. “I didn’t know how that could exist, how my dad could be sick in this world, the world how I understood it to be. It was really about living through loss with grace, and finding your place in the universe, and how losing a parent actually brings you closer to your source.”
Zeitlin knew that his spin on Juicy and Delicious, soon titled Beasts of the Southern Wild, needed to be set in New Orleans, so he and Alibar lived in the city’s Pointe Aux Chenes Marina, a fishing locale nestled at the Nola’s bottom. Holed up there for two months, the enthusiastic writers dreamt up a fictional floodplain community known as “The Bathtub,” designed closely in the mold of Pointe Aux Chenes and meant to separate Beasts from any overt allusions to real-life national headlines. “I always wanted the film to be kind of a folktale,” says Zeitlin. “It’s very much inspired by real things in Louisiana, but I didn’t want to make the film something that was attached to current events, or political in that way. I very much didn’t want to make a film that’s rooted in political issues that people already have preconceived notions about, or are divisive.”
Including a mystical variation of auroch cattle, which have been extinct since 1627, Beasts is unmistakably situated in a heightened reality, but not for any genre-minded purposes. “I feel like a lot of times when people start talking about the issues related to Louisiana, you end up in a discussion about oil drilling, the types of cars you drive, and the candidates that you vote for,” says Zeitlin. “Those things are important, of course, but they weren’t really at the heart of what we wanted to say. We wanted to say something that was more emotional, speaking to the feeling of what it’s like to lose this thing that made you, what it’s like to see your creator slip through your fingers. If we could heighten the story and set it slightly outside of the world, and slightly above the politics, [we felt] that it would be something that was more universal and got outside of the debates had by people who would just show up with their already ossified ideas.”
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.”
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)