“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a lyrical tale of a six-year-old girl and her father living in “The Bathtub,” a fictitious community based on condemned parts of southern Louisiana. In an almost post-apocalyptic setting with no electricity, running water, phone, government, or business, they have a life filled with danger and deprivation but also with joy and a strong sense of home. The film has won prestigious awards at Sundance and Cannes and opens in theaters this Friday.
A small group of journalists met with stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry and writer/director Benh Zeitlin to discuss the film. Henry told us that he owns the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in New Orleans, which was across the street from the studio where the auditions for the film were being held. “All the guys from the production company would come over and get donuts, get coffee in the morning, back and forth for the course of about a year. We would sit down and talk about a lot of things. They would put flyers in the bakery if anybody wanted to audition for this upcoming film.” Henry auditioned but then he relocated the bakery and the producers could not find him. They finally found him and offered him the part but he could not take it because of the demands of the business. He turned them down three times and then managed to work things out so he could do it.
He talked to us about his character’s behavior which at times seemed harsh and angry. “I often throughout the course of the movie was trying to emphasize with a passion and an urgency for her to learn how to do these things I’m trying to teach her because her daddy’s dying….She’s the most important person in the world to me and she don’t have her mother. So it is important to me as her father that she learn how to feed herself, take care of herself, and survive and be strong because Daddy’s not going to be here.” He identified with his character. “Everything I try to do in real life, the businesses that I’m building and everything that I’m doing is something to pass on to my children. No selfish needs for myself. Everything is for them. I brought that same passion about working things out in real life to make sure my kids are all right — I brought that same energy and passion to the movie. As fathers, that’s what we have to do.”
He had never acted before, but “you can’t get better than real life experiences. You could have brought an actor from outside. But I was in real water this high from storms. I was two years old when my mom and dad had to put me on the roof in the lower 9th ward when Hurricane Betsy came and flooded the whole 9th ward. I was in Camille. What better experience than actually going through that versus bringing in some actor from the outside that never done this before, that never seen a hurricane, that never been in a hurricane, that never had to evacuate their home, that never lost their home, that never lost their loved ones? I’ve seen bodies floating in the water after storms. Seeing things like that gives you a passion. I felt what they felt because I’ve gone through that in real life.”
Quvenzhané Wallis told us that the scariest part of the movie for her was the animals. ”I wasn’t a fan of the pigs. I’d never even touched a big, I’d never even seen a pig, I didn’t know what a big looked like. I just knew what a pig was. It got me scared and they were forcing me to do it but I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t know what I was doing. I just didn’t want to walk up to it and touch it.” She said she enjoyed acting and wants to do more. And she talked about trying different things as they would do many different takes. “Every mood that’s in the catalogue or the emotion log, that’s what he wanted me to do….Benh just wanted to make it look like a real story.” But it did not take a lot of acting to show her character’s strength and ferocity. “That is me!”
Zeitlin told us the film is “a heightened reality that’s “a bit of a love song to the region.” There’s no place that exists in the world that is The Bathtub, but it’s all built of real things.” The crew would create the buildings the characters lived on out of trash, just as the characters would have. “Every piece of every house is something that we found somewhere in South Louisiana. It’s almost like a junk sculpture where you’re collaging together a lot of different things. It isn’t real in that you could go make a documentary about it but it is real in that it is all made from real stuff. It’s not a fantasy movie. It’s about what the world seems like when you’re six.” The movie is loosely based on a play where the character is an 11 year old boy and played by an adult. But Zeiltin realized that the character would understand everything differently as an 11 year old and he wanted the poetry of a six year old’s point of view.
They looked at between 3500-4000 children and Wallis was “so clearly the person” that “we knew what we were doing from then on.”
The Deepwater Horizon explosion happened the day they began filming and Zeitlin talked about what it was like to film in the midst of the spill and clean-up. “That cloud was hovering over the town, getting closer and closer every day. It added a lot of weight to what we were doing that really transformed the film.”
“The film is almost to me like a jazz funeral. No matter what is happening, you celebrate anyway. Dwight talks about this. He says, ‘We were partying before the storm, we were partying through the storm, and we’re partying after the storm.’ That’s not a superficial thing. It’s a refusal to feel sorry for oneself or be crushed by the weight of tragedy, a refusal to get defeated.”