Monday, July 9, 2012

On 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

Few would argue that indie director Benh Zeitlin’s first film -- Beasts of the Southern Wild -- hasn't scored big. In January, the film won the top jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Four months later, the movie received the coveted Camera d’ Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a prize awarded for the best first feature in the festival.

Beasts of the Southern Wild was shot on the Isle de Jean Charles, a low-lying slice of Louisiana land populated by the descendants of Cajun and Native American fishermen. Beyond Isle de Jean Charles? Nothing but the encroaching waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The 29-year-old Zeitlin -- who grew up in New York but now lives in Louisiana -- battled mosquitos and 110-degree heat to tell the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy, a girl forced to deal with an impending storm that not only threatens her survival but the survival of the very ground on which she walks. To further complicate matters, Hushpuppy must deal with Wink, a father who’s hellbent on schooling her in survival, sometimes in ways that appear almost abusive.

But plot isn’t the only point here: Zeitlin and his 90-member crew captured a near-primal sense of reality as they struggled to bring a modern-day folk tale to life -- all with locals who had never acted before.

Here, then, a few words from the director and from Dwight Henry, the actor who played Hushpuppy’s father. Eight-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis was also on hand during a recent Denver publicity tour, but by the time I spoke to her, she seemed understandably bored and tired, publicity not being a favored activity of eight-year-olds. Wallis said making the movie was fun and that she wanted to continue acting, but I figured it was enough that she gave a terrific performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild without me pushing her into small talk.

The instantly engaging Henry more than made for Wallis's reticence. When he's not acting, Henry operates the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Cafe in New Orleans's Seventh Ward. New Orleans could not have a better ambassador than Henry, who remained in the city throughout Katrina and who talks about his hometown with preacher-like zeal.

At Sundance, where Beasts of the Southern Wild had its premiere, Henry showed up with 1,500 doughnuts for the audience. Unfortunately, it was impossible for him to supply samples of his baking prowess on a city-to-city publicity tour, but you get the feeling that if he could have, he'd have been handing out doughnuts everywhere he went.

Benh Zeitlin:

“A lot of this film is about what it's like to live in a place where every year you take your chances on what's going to come. It's not set in the future, but it's about a time when the future is very precarious. I want people to think about the emotional experience of having the place that you're from wiped out. ... The film is not about Katrina; it’s about living under an assault of storms. I think that's more universal than the political dialectics around Katrina.

"Nature is way more powerful than we are. You sense that down there. There's a real respect for nature that comes living in a place where nature is so clearly powerful. It's interesting that in a place where nature is the most violent, there's the most respect for it. The people in the film are on the front lines of where nature takes back what it owns.

"Risk was embedded in every element of the film: the place, all the different actors. There were so many impossible tasks on our plate. Our mandate was never to back off any of them. But had we not found Quvenzhane Wallis, it would have been a terrible film. She's an extraordinary actress. We looked at 4,000 kids -- even before we finished writing the script.

“Directing non-actors is not so different from directing actors. ... You're trying to help people generate the emotions they have to generate for the scene. We interview for weeks and weeks before we touch the script. We rehearse every scene three times before we get to the shoot. Every time we rehearse, we rewrite to get closer to the voice of the person who’s playing the character. You have to be open to adapting your vision to the changeable elements of a performance. A lot of this movie is not from my experience, so I gained a tremendous amount through this process. I learn a lot about the world and about different kinds of people from people I chose not because of their previous work, but because they're such great people."

Dwight Henry

“Everywhere we go, it seems like people were born somewhere else. But us from Louisiana? Man, we're from where we're from. We're not leaving under no circumstances. It's just the type of people we are. We love the land that we live in. We love our culture. We love our people.
"I didn't leave during Katrina. I was in neck-high water. They had people sitting on a bridge for days. People just dying because they weren't getting medicine. It took the government days to respond to people dying on roofs. We were waiting on helicopters and boats to come to the rescue, and nobody's coming.

“Before Katrina, I had two businesses open. I lost one of them. I was able to recover and recoup the other. My business grew so well that I actually had to move from one small location and get bigger. When I opened up after the storm, there was only one business in that whole area, a tire shop. They opened up because there was so much debris in the streets and people had to get their flats fixed. I came back with so much will and determination, I opened before big companies: McDonald's, Burger King, Dominoes, Pizza Hut.

“My first business was right across the street from the casting agency. The people from casting used to come over to the bakery to get coffee and doughnuts and to get breakfast and lunch from me. They put fliers in the bakery asking for people who wanted to audition for an upcoming film.

"I never had any aspirations to be an actor. I'm a restaurateur. But they kind of seen some leadership things in me through the course of coming to the bakery, seeing how people looked up to me in the community.

"They seen some of these qualities in me and wanted me to audition for the film. One day me and Michael Gottwald (one of the film's producers) were sitting at the table talking, and I said, 'I'm going to audition for the film' I went over and auditioned, never expecting to get the part.

“My heart is in being a restaurateur. That's my foundation. I have five kids and that's something I can pass on to my kids. I can't pass an acting career on to them. In the movie, my kid is the most important person in the world to me, and I'm doing everything possible to ensure that she understands some things. (In setting Hushpuppy on a survival course, Henry's Wink can sometimes seem cruel. Henry sees Wink's behavior as education bred by necessity.) He’s emphasizing a point with urgency. It's important that when he's not there, she'll be OK. And in real life, that's important to me, too, to make sure that my children are OK."

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