CONVERSATIONS: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Triumphs at Sundance and Cannes

Each year at the Sundance Film Festival held in January in Park City, Utah, one or two presentations become talked about as the films to see. This year, the standout screening at the festival in the U.S. dramatic film category was Beasts of the Southern Wild, a debut feature film directed by Benh Zeitlin ’04, produced by Michael Gottwald ’06, Dan Janvey ’06 and Josh Penn, and co-written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar. (A total of 28 Wesleyan graduates worked on the movie.) The film was hailed by critics and warmly received by audiences when it premiered on January 20.

In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis said the movie was “among the best films to play at the festival in two decades,” while Robert Levin in The Atlantic wrote that “the picture is a wholly original post-Katrina bayou fairytale: an amalgamation of iconic Cajun imagery, end-of-the-world allusions, roving monsters, and family drama. … the film’s care- ful injection of a warm, humanist spirit into an elaborate magical realist vision sets it apart.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild was shot in southern Louisiana and cast with nonactors. The film received several prizes at Sundance, including the Grand Jury Prize (Drama), a prize for Excellence in Cinematography (U.S. Dramatic), and the Indian Paintbrush Creative Producing Prize.

The story of the film centers around Hushpuppy, an intrepid six-year-old girl (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in “the Bathtub,” a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink teaches his daughter to be tough in preparation for a time when he’s no longer there to protect her and the world unravels. When her father becomes ill, nature around the young girl falls apart—the tem- peratures rise and the ice caps melt, releas- ing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. In the face of impending disas- ter and Wink’s health fading, Hushpuppy embarks on a search for her lost mother.

The film’s positive reception at Sundance resulted in immediate interest by several major indie dis- tributors including The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features, and U.S. rights to the movie were acquired by Fox Searchlight, which plans to release the film in late June.

In May, the movie had its international debut at the Cannes Film Festival in France, where it got a stand- ing ovation after its screening and received two prizes, the FIPRESCI International Film Critics Award and the presti- gious Camera d’Or for best first film.

Director Benh Zeitlin and producer Dan Janvey recently talked to Wesleyan magazine about the film.

DAVID LOW: When did you start working on this project?
BENH ZEITLIN: I started in 2008 after I finished Glory at Sea, my short film about a group of people during the aftermath of a giant storm in New Orleans.

DL: Your feature film was developed at the Sundance Institute filmmakers labs. Would you talk about that process?
BZ: It was a great experience for me because beyond Wesleyan I didn’t do more film edu- cation; I didn’t go to film school proper. It’s kind of a boot camp where they really force you to examine every element of your script and every choice that you’re making as a director. They test those choices and force you to explain them in a way that’s logical and coherent, and that connects with the central idea of what you want to say. They draw that out of you in a pretty amazing way.

DL: You decided to set the film in Louisiana. What was the shoot like and what kind of challenges did you face?
BZ: The whole film was shot where you drive all the way down the highway and you hit the end of the road. The movie was inspired by places in southern Louisiana—Pointe-aux- Chenes, Montegut, and Isle de Jean Charles (in Terrebonne Parish), which I found when I was looking for a location for the movie. I stayed down there for a lot of the time I was writing it. Isle de Jean Charles is the best and closest approximation geographically to the kind of mythological town called the Bathtub in the movie.

This region is kind of ground zero for soil erosion, and places that used to be these wide 10-mile islands are now reduced to tiny little ridges and strips, where all the trees are dying. It’s the place where the gulf is eating away the bottom of America, and this very resilient group of people are still living and surviving there. We wanted to shoot the film on location and in the water and on those marshes that are crumbling, and use this environmental apocalypse as a stand-in for the mythical apocalypse that’s happening in the movie. The movie tells an almost mytho- logical biblical apocalypse story but elements of it are almost all taken from real things. It sounds like a challenge but it’s actually an incredibly wonderful adventure to figure out how to get cameras and actors and effective scenes in places where it’s almost impos- sible to get to and it’s almost impossible to survive in.

DL: Did you know a lot about Louisiana culture before you started working on the film?
BZ: I’ve been living in New Orleans since 2006, so I knew New Orleans really well but I didn’t know south Louisiana at all, and I really wanted to. I had heard about it. I’ve had friends from there but I hadn’t really experienced it. In the very early stages of this process, I had an idea of what I wanted to write about. When I found the towns down there, the story emerged from there, as opposed to my having the story already and applying it to the setting.

DL: You decided to work with non-actors. Would you tell us about that process and the casting?
BZ: The casting process was massive. We spent about eight or nine months trying to cast the main part of the young girl and looked at about four thousand little girls. Then Quvenzhané Wallis emerged. She blew us away and was a thousand times more sophisticated as an actor than I ever could have planned for a six-year-old character. That was the starting point; some of the cast were people who worked on my short Glory at Sea and some were new.

I’m incredibly proud of the performances they gave. The film didn’t come from my personal experience, and I needed the help of the cast to propel the story in a truthful direction. I think of the performances and what the script ends up being on screen as a real collaboration between me and the cast, who taught me how to express some things that I didn’t go through myself. I didn’t come in with a locked script. I came in with ideas of what a scene needed to say, and then through workshops and interviews about their lives, scenes ended up taking shape.

DL: Dwight Henry, who plays the father in the film, was a baker in New Orleans. Did you know him before?
BZ: I did. The place where we did all our cast- ing in New Orleans was directly across the street from the old location of his bakery, and every single day we’d be over there eat- ing donuts and smothered pork chops for lunch. Dwight is an incredibly charismatic person. His bakery is like a community center. It’s a whole world where people sleep at night if they don’t have places to stay. It’s a really special place and he was the leader. He originally had no interest in acting and we couldn’t get him to act in his first audi- tion. Then he started telling stories about the bakery and his life experience connected with the character. When we finally got him to act, we were blown away by how good he could be and eventually convinced him to take the role. He definitely helped shape that whole character.

DL: You’ve worked with non-actors before so you obviously see there’s some sort of ben- efit from this kind of process. Do you think you’ll continue working this way?
BZ: My operating principle of making movies is that I want to work with people who I really care about and love. I want to fill the screen with my best friends, and that’s more important than the actors having training and skills. I’m not saying that everyone on screen is playing themselves. That’s definitely not true; all are very much playing different characters. But there is something that resonates for me with a non-actor, and with really great actors as well, where you feel their real personality in the fabric of the film.

DL: Would you comment on the cinematography in the film and your relationship with Ben Richardson, the cinematographer?
BZ: We worked very closely together. One thing that is different about working with non- actors is that you don’t block in the same way you would with trained actors who always hit the same mark and always look in the exact same angle towards the camera as they control their bodies. In this type of film, all of the shots are handheld and it’s more chaotic because you don’t necessarily know where the non-actors are heading or where they’re going to look, and you don’t want them think- ing about that at all. And so the cameraman almost becomes another actor who has to respond to what’s happening in front of him and to the actors’ performances. I would almost direct the cameraman the same way I would an actor where I would say to him, okay, you’re walking into a scene and you wouldn’t know that this girl is going to go pick up this pot so you can’t look there before she looks there. The camera had to react all the time instead of being omniscient within the scenes. That required a lot of sculpting moment to moment, shot to shot, and even within a shot, saying rack focus to this, there’s something happening over here—guiding the way that the camera was capturing a scene.

DL: Several film reviewers describe the film as mythological, an example of magical realism. Do you find that’s an accurate depiction of your film or are they just trying to place it in some sort of category?
BZ: I don’t think it’s exactly magical realism. The way I approach the magic in the film is that when you’re six years old, there’s no real separation between reality and your imagination. I remember having imaginary friends that I thought were in the room— when you’re a child, you don’t have this kind of divide where you’re breaking apart reality, magic reality, and imagination. To me, the film is a realistic portrayal of the experience of being six and going through an extraordi- nary event. A lot of the things that I think are described as magical are projections of this little girl’s experience. My understanding of the fantasy in the film is different from what you’d normally think of as magical realism in which cats can talk and cars can fly.

DL: How was this film financed? Did you have any trouble trying to raise money?
BZ: We had a completely unique financing situation. Cinereach is a New York-based nonprofit organization that has primarily given grants in the past. They decided that they wanted to fully produce a feature film.

DAN JANVEY: Very early on in the develop- ment process we starting meeting with our partners at Cinereach. It was clear right away that we had a lot in common in terms of filmmaking goals and the types of stories we were interested in telling. One of the hallmarks of the partnership is an embracing of challenges, specifically those related to pursuing an ambitious production on a low budget. We systematically figured out ways of creating efficiencies in typical filmmaking so that every dollar could end up on screen. Our crew shared this philosophy, and no one was in it for the money. Everyone—from Cinereach down to our craft service wizard— was on board for the adventure of doing something this big without lots of resources. When thinking back on our time in the bayou, it seems like it was one of the greatest, and least likely, teams in history. Cinereach believed in us every step of the way. UPFRONT

David Low

David Low '76 writes about arts and culture for the Wesleyan magazine and Wesleyan Connection. He is associate director of publications in the Office of University Communications. He is also a published fiction writer. E-mail: dlow@wesleyan.edu