Movie Talk

Indie Roundup: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ director Benh Zeitlin

Photo by Fox Searchlight PicturesThis has been one hell of a year for Benh Zeitlin, director of "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

The first-time director finished his movie a mere two days before its Sundance premiere, where it was immediately met with rhapsodic reviews. Critics hailed it as one of the most audacious movies to play at the festival in years. It went on to win the fest's top prize, and then a few months later it won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival. And today, the movie scored four, count 'em, four Oscar nominations including one for best director and another for best picture.

The movie  is one of the most original films I've seen in a long time.  Although shot for very little money, it has the epic sweep of a Greek myth while feeling thoroughly, lovingly handmade. As film journalists are wont to do, I struggled to find some pithy way to sum  up the movie into a quick, pithy nugget.   "Waterworld" as directed by Charles Burnett? A live-action Hayao Miyazaki movie made by John Cassavetes? A Terrence Malick movie with a sense of humor? All are close, but none of them captures the weird, joyous vitality of the movie.

"Beasts" is narrated by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a 6 year-old girl who has all the fierceness of a jungle cat. She lives with her ailing, alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a dilapidated compound in a loose community called "the Bathtub," located right where the bayou feathers into the sea. The film opens with a neighborly celebration filled with fireworks, crawfish, and a staggering amount of alcohol. It's a lyrical, idyllic scene that highlights the utter loss these terrifically independent, damaged people face later in the movie.

The Bathtub's tenuous existence fuels  Hushpuppy's imagination. She starts to believe the collapsing polar caps will not only bring floods to the Bathtub but also awaken frozen pre-historic beasts called the Auroch. And when the floods do come, in the form of a Katrina-like storm that leaves the Bathtub completely submerged, Hushpuppy, Wink, and the rest of the community escape into homemade boats pieced together from junk. Wink's boat is made from the back end of a pick-up truck.

When I sat down with him in a hotel in Beverly Hills back in June, the shaggy-haired 29-year-old director still seemed to be in a state of shock at how quickly his movie went from obscurity to near-universal acclaim. He has been on the road more or less nonstop since Sundance, and his voice was ragged from a sore throat. He drank most of a pot of tea during our interview.

We talked about finding a six-year old, now Oscar-nominated, actress as freakishly talented as Quvenzhane and about his own epic, water-logged production.

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Jonathan Crow: Are you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response you have gotten with this movie?

Benh Zeitlin: Yeah. It's very surreal.  We finished the movie two days before Sundance, and we never had time to think about it, basically.

JC: You finished it before the festival or before the deadline?

BZ: No, for the screening.  There wasn't  a month to be like, "What will happen?  Will people like this movie?"  I was focused on trying to get the movie to a version that I could live with.

But it's been an amazing experience to see the film travel this far.  It just such was a ragtag little film when we were making it.  I don't think anybody ever imagined that the movie would be so big while we were doing it.  It's so cool to hear it resonate with  people who don't have the same cultural context that we do in Louisiana, never mind in America.  It's so crazy.

JC: You were born and raised in New York City, right?

BZ: New York area.

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JC: And then you moved to New Orleans in '06 just after Katrina, is that right?

BZ: Yeah.

JC: Even though the Bathtub is a made up location, it feels very specific to Louisiana. As somebody who didn't grow up there, did you have problems getting yourself into that culture so you could tell these stories?

Benh ZeitlinPhoto by AP ImagesBZ: Not really. There are funny stories about how I went knocking on someone's door and he came out with a shotgun.  Even then, that guy showed up at our gas station two days later, and was like, "I'm sorry.  I thought you guys were trying to kill me or you're from Witness Protection or something like that. I didn't mean to scare you.  You want any redfish?" He'd just caught a bunch.  You get real hospitality in Louisiana.  I think it'd be much harder in another place because the state is extremely open and a more accepting, hospitable place.

JC: You've had just an amazing discovery with Quvenzhane Wallis.  She is phenomenal.  How did you find your cast?

BZ: We looked at 4,000 kids in this massive statewide search, but she just overwhelmed us.  It was a singular discovery.  We could have looked at 20,000 kids and she still would have gotten the part. I don't think we ever imagined that someone that young could play the part with that kind of control and wisdom and poise. I mean, she was 5 when she came in for the audition.  It's  just shocking what she could do.

[Related:

JC: And Dwight Henry who plays Wink is a baker, is that right?

BZ: Yeah, he owned the bakery across the street from our New Orleans casting office.  When we were casting, we would be in his bakery all the time, eating donuts.   One day, our casting director was eating lunch in the bakery, and he asked Dwight to read for the part.  So he came over and basically just told the story about creating his bakery and rebuilding it after Katrina.  He was incredible.  He is an incredibly sweet man but he could turn into this monster.  He had this ability to take this temper there and go to the extremes that we needed the character to go.

JC: It must have been tricky to get that on-screen familial chemistry between a very young kid and a non-actor. How did you do that?

BZ: Dwight helped a lot.  He's just a magnetic, nice person.  He would show up with a bunch of donuts for her and that helped.

We did tons and tons of rehearsals for months before filming.  We would have them cook together and he would teach her how to make macaroni and cheese and stuffed bell peppers.  It was just a process of getting to know each other.   They both had this kind of fierceness in their eyes that felt so real.  Something about that just made them feel like they came from the same blood.

JC: Tell me about the production.  For an independent movie, it seemed remarkably epic --

BZ: Yeah, definitely.  We try to do everything that happened in the movie.  We're shooting in the real places. You drive all the way at the end of the road, get in a boat, go another 15 minutes and you get to these desolate landscapes that are incredibly hostile and ruled by insects. We try to build everything so that it's not a trick.  The boat is actually a boat.

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JC: You're talking about the boat made from a truck bed?

BZ: Yeah. That was once my truck which exploded during the production. We built the boat out of it. The house they live in was something that my sister built out of all these crazy junkyard materials.  She lived in that house during the production. It's just incredibly rewarding to build the world that you're imagining and just living it and experiencing it.  It allows you to shoot the film not as articulately as you maybe want to.  You don't have fly-away walls and you can't get these perfect little nifty camera moves. But you do get this ability to shoot like a documentary and create the sense of things really being there, because they pretty much are.

JC: So what's next?

BZ: I'm trying to keep the team intact, and I'm going to go and try to make the hardest movie I can possibly think of while I have the momentum to do it.

JC: So no superhero movies in the future?

BZ: No.

See a clip from 'Beasts of the Southern Wild':