Director, cast talk Fox Searchlight’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
June 23, 2012 by Dana Feldman
by Dana Feldman
The beautiful, powerful film BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is set in a bayou community that is all but forgotten, cut off from the rest of the world by a vast levee, where many including six year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), exist on the brink of homelessness and orphan hood. When a fierce storm catapults her life and everything she knows into utter chaos, she’s able to survive by using her vivid imagination in conjunction with her belief that the natural order of things is in balance with the universe. Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar co-wrote the screenplay, based on Alibar’s stage play “Juicy and Delicious,” with Zeitlin directing, and the result is a film that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. This is a film for anyone who has ever suffered loss of any kind.
Forced to quickly grow up, Hushpuppy fights to survive life in the Bathtub as unstoppable epic catastrophes and the painful fact that her father is ill shake her sense of place in this world. Zeitlin describes this imaginary place that Alibar and he created as this realm on the other side of the levee described as a concentration of all of the exhilarating cultural elements of Southern Louisiana. “The Bathtub is definitely not a real place. We built this heightened world out of very real, inspired parts.” At one point in the film Hushpuppy says, “They gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”
“This as a film about those who never abandon the people and the places that they care about. “ Zeitlin says. “Hushpuppy is facing losing a parent, her community and their place in this world, and of being alone. The Bathtub is this place on ‘the other side,’ a place that’s been cut off and left out in the same way that it’s been geographically chopped off of America. It’s not like anywhere on Earth. It feels like a real place if you’d just step off the edge of the map.” Explaining further that the Bathtub is a place where there’s nothing but community, he adds. “There’s this inexhaustible spirit. I’ve always been interested in holdouts. Why do people stay in a place that’s difficult to live in, or that’s dangerous, or that puts your life at risk? Why do people stand by their homes in times of disaster?” Hushpuppy answers this at one point by saying, “Daddy says brave men don’t run from their place.”
No one in this film had ever acted before. Zeitlin explains his casting decisions. “I want to fill my life and my films with wild, brave, good-hearted people.” Wallis won the role of Hushpuppy over four thousand girls who auditioned. In regards to Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, “Neither he nor Quvenzhane had any previous experience acting, but when you look in their eyes, you see fearless warriors, and you know they can do anything.” He tested the strength of the story and the family that would make it against every element trying to break it. “I got hooked on South Louisiana because this mentality is everywhere.” He went there six years ago for what was supposed to have been a short visit, but he’s been there ever since. “It’s the home of the most tenacious people in America – an endangered species.” It was this fierceness, he says, that brought him to this story.
“The real question to me is how do you find the strength to stand by and watch the place that made you die, while maintaining the hope and the joy and the celebratory spirit that defined it?” Finding the answers in the ferocious people that he met and cast in the film, Alibar and he created Hushpuppy. “She’s a little beast who, in order to survive, has to find the strength of South Louisiana at the age of six.”
In regards to the prehistoric Aurochs in the film, Zeitlin was insistent that there be no technology or computers used in the making of what he describes as the harbingers of death. “At first, Hushpuppy thinks they’re coming for her, but then she realizes they’re not going to destroy her. She ends up relating to them. All that’s going on for Hushpuppy manifests itself in the Aurochs. They don’t just exist in the dream world to her, the ideas in her head are real.”
Wallis was asked what she feels that this film is about. “It’s about a little girl who lives in the Bathtub and she realizes her Daddy is dying.” Henry, owner of Henry’s Bakery & Deli and the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café, both in the region, adds, “This is a dangerous region we live in, living in the Gulf Coast. There’s a possibility of losing your family, your home, of being displaced.” While he baked goods for his store in the middle of the night, he was also working with an acting coach and Zeitlin to prepare for his role.
Shot over the course of seven weeks, fifty-two shoot days, in extreme conditions, Zeitlin brilliantly created the relationship between father and daughter. “Wink is raising Hushpuppy not to be afraid. He’s going to let her fall down and learn.” Per Henry of his role, “He might seem tough on her, but he’s passionately trying to emphasize how important it is for her to take care of herself.” Principal photography began on April 20th, 2010, the same day as the BP oil spill just miles southeast of the film’s bayou home. Eleven men were killed in what has been called the worst petroleum accident in history.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD won the Grand Jury Prize as well as Excellence in Cinematography at Sundance. This film opens Wednesday, June 27th. This film is Rated PG-13 with a runtime of 93 minutes. Watch the trailer here.