“Beasts of the Southern Wild” might be opening in mid-summer, but it’s as far from a seasonal blockbuster as one could imagine. A Sundance award-winner, it’s a strange combination of realist parable and dreamlike fantasy that conjoins the story of a ragtag community living on a patch of swampland off the Louisiana coast threatened by a coming storm with that of a young girl, living there with her father, who has to come to terms with his approaching death. As Benh Zeitlin, director, co-writer and co-composer for the picture, said during a recent Dallas interview, “I feel like this film is a mix of a more lyrical type of cinema and the dumbest AMC power stuff that I loved going to every weekend. All the things that don’t make narrative sense, make emotional sense—that was really the guiding principle of the structure of the film.”
The script was written by Zeitlin along with Lucy Alibar, whose play “Juicy and Delicious” is cited as a source. “The play is by a friend of mine I’d met at a playwriting camp when I was thirteen years old,” he explained. “I knew her work, and she’d send me her stories and plays. I was actually working on doing something with her separately from the idea of this film, but sometimes when you work on things you discover what you’re interested in through the commonalities, and we realized that there was this thread between her story, which is about a little girl losing her father and the end of the world coming as that happens, and my story, about this holdout community that was losing their place. And so it was the similarity of emotions in the two stories that made me realize that they should be told as one. It’s not like the film is actually an adaptation of the play. It’s inspired by the play, but there’s no scene from the play that’s in the movie. It’s really the character and the tone and the idea-—t was always going to be a total reinvention.”
Zeitlin was accompanied by Quvenzhane Wallis, the six-year old who plays Hushpuppy, and Dwight Henry, who plays Wick, her father. Both are non-actors chosen for their parts because of the authenticity they brought to the characters.
Zeitlin recalled that he and his staff interviewed some four thousand children before encountering Wallis, of whom he said, “as fierce and intelligent and independent and strong as she was, that was the moment we knew we had our person.”
Of making her feature debut, Wallis opined, “It’s good. Fun, too. You meet different people.” What did she enjoy most about the shoot? “Doing the water scenes and the different things I had to do, like burping and screaming.” And what was the most difficult? “Being in the fire, when I set the fire. I was actually pretty scared, because I wasn’t expecting that pop, and it was actually hot. And I went into a box, and that made it worse! And mosquitoes kept coming in and in and in! All the lights were attracting the mosquitoes from outside, and the would come in and bite you.”
Wallis said she also helped with the script. “We would stay after all the shooting was done…and do a scene, go through the script that we would do tomorrow and fix all that up. We worked on his computer and would do the scene so it all just came out natural,” she recalled.
Zeitlin added: “We would have different things for her to do everyday in pre-production. She would hang out with the animals, and get comfortable touching the pig, holding the chickens. We would have her and Henry cook meals together and bond—things that got her acclimated to the role.” And about the script he added, “She’s incredibly intelligent. But it was probably the biggest challenge, just retaining information. We had to redesign the script. If she was supposed to say a long line in sequence, what she’s talking about is a lot of times we’d look at it at night and we would look at a line and she’d say, ‘This line is too long, I need a break in the middle.’ So I’d think of something for someone else to say, or some reason for us to cut away at that moment. Also, just in terms of any words she didn’t recognize, or a phrase that she didn’t think she would say, I’d let her change it and put it in her own words.”
After Wallis was chosen, the man playing her father had to be found. Henry, who was eventually cast, was the owner of a bakery/restaurant across the street from the production office whom Zeitlin and his colleagues got to know and eventually persuaded to audition. “We tried several other people as Wink, and we couldn’t get the chemistry right,” Zeitlin said. “It wasn’t until Mr. Henry came down, raw as can be as an actor but it felt like our father and daughter intangibly. I think they reflected each other’s fearlessness. And just the commonality of experience—they’re both from the region. That’s something that glued the film together in a way that’s hard to describe.”
Henry added, “You know, she had to feel comfortable with the guy that played her father. The first two guys that they had in mind, she didn’t feel comfortable with, so they didn’t work. So when I was going to meet her for the first time, I had to capture her heart, so I put a whole bunch of pastries together—some cookies and buttermilk drops and stuff like that—and I handed it over with a big old smile and I knew I had it. She was six years old, and had to be comfortable with who she’s working with. We did some things on set to bring us together. I have a daughter her age, so it was kind of easy for me. I was able to communicate with her. The same things I do with my daughter, I did with her. It was easy for me to relate to her.”
Asked whether the shoot was hard, Henry said, “There were a lot of difficult elements, because he didn’t want to simulate situations. We were in the Mississippi River, we were in the bayous, in the woods, with real mosquitoes. Some of the elements were difficult, but it brought a realness and an authenticity to the movie.
“It was hard getting some of these emotions out of me. But I’m from New Orleans, so a lot of these things that we go through in the movie—the possibility of losing your home, losing your family, losing your loved ones, getting flooded out, getting caught in dire situations and not wanting to leave under the worst circumstances in the world…they’re the things we go through living in the Gulf Coast. So that brought a certain realness and a certain passion I had from actually going through these things in real life. I brought a passion to the movie that an outsider that had never been through this wouldn’t have brought.
“It shows the resiliency of the people who live on the Gulf Coast. Just like in the course of shooting this movie, we had to go through the BP oil spill, we had to stop shooting and move all our sets because the government came in and told us we had to move. It’s an ongoing series of problems that we’ve gone through and are going to have to go through in the future. [Zeitlin] could have brought in a whole outside cast that had never been through this and couldn’t understand about loss, but getting a cast that had actually gone through this stuff brought a certain aspect to it that an outsider couldn’t have. Denzel Washington couldn’t have come in and played my part the way I played it.”
Zeitlin took up Henry’s mention of the BP disaster: “The actual first day of shooting was the day the Deep Water well exploded. There was this very visceral parallel that was happening as we shot. We shot largely in sequence, so as nature dies in the film, that was what was happening in the water. The town where we were was one of the closest places to Deep Water—the marina where we wrote the film was taken over by BP as their base of operations for the cleanup. Several of our locations were on the wrong side of the boom, so the water was contaminated and we had to negotiate with BP to get our boats past the booms into the area. It’s one of those things that make you feel you’ve written a story that is true and important.”
Zeitlin also emphasized the very personal way in which “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was made. “We tried to set it up…so that it’s not this controlled thing where you very delicately paint by numbers in an air-conditioned studio,” he explained. “It’s about pushing yourself to the limits physically, going to extremely hostile locations, hostile environments, building things like they’re real instead of building facades. It was all about challenging ourselves in the moment…to capture the story, we wanted the production to reflect that battle of man against nature. We kind of replicated that for ourselves. It was physically grueling.
“We think of this film not as the culmination of something,” Zeitlin added. “As a group we’ve developed a set of tools from the ones you normally use to make a film. Our production process is totally unconventional, largely out of inexperience but also very much by believing in certain ways of going about it. We consider this a first, and we hope to make more films that are completely different but with the same principles and the same kind of process.”
Zeitlin already has a second film in mind. “It will come from the same world but be a new story—another big, epic folk tale that’s built by hand,” he said.