Veteran directors like to warn upstart filmmakers of three things that can quickly derail a movie production: Shooting on water, casting very young actors and working with animals.
With his celebrated feature film debut Beasts of the Southern Wild, New Orleans-based director Benh Zeitlin used all three, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We approach filmmaking a little bit differently,” Zeitlin says. “To me, making a film should be like an athletic event, really, not too tightly controlled. We were trying to create chaos with this production.”
Shot over seven weeks throughout rural Terrebonne Parish, Zeitlin’s film captures the holy mess of a fictionalized, oft-flooded island dubbed The Bathtub and a bold 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who lives there with her booze-swilling, ailing father, Wink.
When a violent storm ravages The Bathtub, Hushpuppy, Wink and their friends go on a journey of survival and revelation through the untamed byways of the bayou.
It’s a mystical coming-of-age tale and a thrilling journey, and though he grew up cherishing classic children’s films like The Sword and the Stone and The Secret of NIMH, Zeitlin says Beasts was inspired by more recent action movies.
“I think we watched and talked about things like Die Hard and Point Break more than anything else while making this movie,” he says. “There are universal themes like most folk tales, but having a sense of adventure was really important to me.”
The brave spirit and epic scope of the film would not have been the same without the performance of the film’s young breakout star, Quvenzhané Wallis.
While casting the project, Zeitlin looked at hundreds of children across the state, but when Wallis refused to throw a water bottle at her reading partner during her audition—“That’s not right!” she stopped to say—Zeitlin knew he’d found his Hushpuppy.
“That wisdom and also that defiance she showed proved to be a transformational moment for the film,” Zeitlin says. “With Quvenzhané in the role, we realized we could go directly at the issues we’d been talking about for this movie.”
With impeccable production design—a salvaged-wood floating houseboat is a particularly stunning miracle of low-budget filmmaking—Zeitlin’s team establishes The Bathtub as a world without walls or boundaries or any of the things that so easily divide. What at first appears as a poverty-stricken region blooms into an evocative tapestry that exists without currency and beyond politics. The Bathtub’s religion is life. And its life is a simple, glorious celebration of community.
“The Bathtub’s got more holidays than the rest of the world,” Hushpuppy says in one of her many endearingly elegiac, soft-voiced monologues. “This is what the Earth is for.”
Part of the appeal of Beasts is that it seems, just like the Bathtub, to be in no way divisive. And audiences and critics are responding.
After viewing the picture at the Sundance Film Festival—where it would go on to take top honors—New York Times critic Manohla Dargis called Beasts “hauntingly beautiful” and one of the best films to play at the festival in two decades.
“Hopefully this film expresses some of the openness and inclusiveness that I’ve experienced living in Louisiana,” says Zeitlin, a Queens native and Wesleyan graduate, who relocated to New Orleans a few years ago. “It’s been amazing to see it cross that threshold and connect with audiences.”
Distributed by Fox Searchlight, Beasts is in limited release now, premieres in New Orleans July 4, then expands to additional theaters later this month.
Zeitlin will spend the bulk of 2012 traveling and promoting Beasts, but next year, he sets to work on a new film that will again feature the unique environs and people of the Bayou State.
“Louisiana,” he says, “is the greatest place in the world to live and make movies.” beastsofthesouthernwild.com