Beasts of the Southern Wild may be director Benh Zeitlin's first feature film, but it certainly doesn't feel like it. Aside from winning four awards at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, the film got picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight - the studio behind such indie darlings as Little Miss Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, and last year's The Descendants and The Tree of Life. And Beasts may soon be joining the ranks of these award winners, as the film is already getting Oscar buzz this early on.
The fantasy drama plays like a whimsical kid's film for adults, told through the point of a 6-year-old. Think Where the Wild Things Are, if it were set in a post-Katrina NOLA bayou and included mythical prehistoric beasts that may or may not be real. Shot entirely in the swampland of our neighboring Louisiana, the film is comprised of a cast of native first-timers, including its stars - Dwight Henry and the young, sassy, and brilliant Quvenzhané Wallis. You can see it in Dallas this weekend when it opens at the Angelika.
I recently sat down with Zeitlin, Henry, and Wallis to discuss Beasts of the Southern Wild and the film's unique storytelling methods..
Observer: The film is very obviously influenced by Hurricane Katrina and the effect it had on the region where it's set/filmed. What did you pull influence from for this kind of backdrop?
Benh Zeitlin: I actually started writing the film right after Gustav and Ike, which were the second set of hurricanes that happened most recently. It wasn't so much about Katrina specifically as much as it was just the feeling that these are going to keep on coming and it's going to be an eternal state where storms are going to happen every couple of years...the idea started out wanting to make something about hold-outs that are really defying and standing by their home despite the fact that it could get wiped off the map at any moment.
Dwight Henry: We actually shot the first scene in the Mississippi River, because Mr. Zeitlin doesn't like to simulate scenes. We could have done that scene in a warm swimming pool and no one would have ever known it wasn't the Mississippi! But he actually wanted us in the river in the water that way you can actually see the realness of the film. Nothing in the movie was simulated. All our animals [including the prehistoric beasts] were trained for the film. We shot all of our scenes in the woods and bayou. And it brought a real authenticity to the film, and really helped someone like me who had never acted before.
BZ: Yeah, it's important to note also that all the mosquitoes are not digitally added! (laughs)
Quvenzhané Wallis: Believe him when he says that! They were real, real big!
Quvenzhané, this is also your first film! How old are you?
You are way cooler at 8-years-old than I will ever be.
QW: Everyone says that!
BZ: (laughs) With Quvenzhané, we looked at 4,000 girls across South Louisiana over the course of about 9 months and it wasn't like a close race. She stormed the movie and took it over...why don't you talk about coming in for your first audition?
QW: Well, I was actually too young but my mom's friend forced my mom to bring me to the library and it was for 6 through 9-year-olds and I was only 5 so we just snuck in and acted like I was 6! Then they called back and asked for Nayzie - which is my nickname that I gave them - and my mom said "Oh, you must be looking for Quvenzhané!" and they almost hung up because they thought they had the wrong number.
BZ: Yeah, she almost slipped away!
Dwight, how long did it take you and Quvenzhané to come together as father and daughter?
DH: Well, it was very easy for me...I have a 7-year-old daughter! But the first time I was going to meet Quvenzhané, they actually told me that there were two other actors that were casted to play her father but she didn't feel comfortable with them. So, ultimately, whoever played her father she has to feel a connection with. So, when I knew I was going to meet her, I had tho think of a little strategy. So, I packed up some brownies, some buttermilk drops, some cookies, all kinds of stuff. And when I first saw her, I put a big smile on my face, I handed her the sweets, and she immediately got this huge smile. And I knew I had it!
QW: They were good too! (laughs)
DH: Yep, then I had to bring them to her everyday! (laughs)
QW: That's my favorite story from the movie. Ben, not only did you write, direct, and produce the film but you also composed the score. Can you talk a little about the music in the film and what the influences behind it were?
BZ: Yeah, the score was similar to a lot of processes. The real challenge was to get the score to feel like it was coming out of her head. It was always meant to be a reflection of how she was seeing herself at any given moment so even though what's really happening is a little girl running around with sparklers, for instance, she sort of sees herself as this mythic folk hero in this moment of cultural importance that's happening to her. So, we wanted a score that felt like "America the Beautiful" or "Auld Lang Syne" - these iconic folk songs that felt patriotic. Every time you would hear it you'd be reminded of a beautiful bathtub that was being taken away from these people. That was kind of the basis of how we wrote a lot of the music.
The blend between reality and fantasy in this film is fascinating. Where did that element come from? And how of the film do you personally see as fantasy?
BZ: You know, I never really thought about the film as a fantasy. To me, it's a story told from the point of a 6-year-old. When I was 6, there was no separation between real and imaginary. I had an invisible friend and there was no one who was going to make me believe that person wasn't really in the room. I wanted to make a film that really respected the reality of being that age as opposed to how you're used to seeing it where it's looked at from an adult point of view, saying "She's pretending. That's not really there." I wanted it to be something where her ideas were totally respected because she's the wise one in the movie. I guess the audience could look at it and try to figure out what was in her mind and what isn't but that's not really the point. If Hushpuppy thinks it's true, then the film also thinks it's true.