Beasts Of The Southern Wild first drew attention when it premièred at Sundance in 2012, and that attention grew following its well-received screenings at Cannes. While the film seemed to come out of nowhere, it’s in many respects long in the making. Born in New York, director Benh Zeitlin has lived in New Orleans since 2006, and his feature debut draws heavily on his experience in the city and the bayous of Southern Louisiana. An adaptation of a play by Lucy Alibar, a friend since Zeitlin’s teen years, Beasts uses life on the edge of civilization as the inspiration for an audacious, apocalyptic fantasy that doubles as a moving, lyrical coming-of-age story. For his cast, Zeitlin chose area non-actors, including Quvenzhané Wallis—a Houma girl chosen from thousands who auditioned for the role of Hushpuppy, the film’s tiny, tough protagonist—and Dwight Henry, a New Orleans baker, who plays Hushpuppy’s troubled-but-caring father, Wink. (Now 9, Wallis was just 5 when she won the part.) While visiting Chicago, Zeitlin, Henry, and Wallis talked to The A.V. Club about their unusual film over the course of two conversations, the first with Zeitlin, and the second with Henry and Wallis.
The A.V. Club: You moved to New Orleans in 2006—was that your first experience with Louisiana?
Benh Zeitlin: No, I’d been there as a really little kid. My parents took me, and that was a major event. It became this sort of haunting… I don’t remember whether I loved Tom Waits before or after I went to New Orleans. But it became this thing for me. And then I was there again with all my friends in 2004. We went on this road race down to New Orleans and had this crazy experience down there. So it was always this place that haunted me, and I always talked about moving there all through high school. And when I actually did move there, I wasn’t planning on staying, but something happened where—I don’t know whether it was that visceral memory coming back or what it was, but I definitely got stuck in the culture, and making films there was a completely different experience from making films anywhere else. It just was this thing that became inseparable from the place.
AVC: What struck you about that first trip as a kid?
BZ: It just is unlike anywhere else in America. It has this kind of dark magic about it that I connected to. But it didn’t feel like walking through the real world. Things happen there that feel supernatural. It is a city full of ghosts, and it’s so close to the edge. I think about that a lot. It’s really a place where death is in the air. Water has this death about it in New Orleans: It’s this thing that can take your life away at any moment, and then it’s sort of in the air, in the humidity, and then it’s also where your food is all coming from. And it has this sort of haunted connection to nature. There’s just a fearlessness about it, and an openness that I think emerges out of that fearlessness that has everything to do with living on the precipice and knowing your life and home and history can be taken away at any moment. And that leads to this culture that very much appreciates the moment, and is unafraid in this way that I was inspired by when I first went there, and feel very much connected to now that I live there.
AVC: The feeling comes through in your film that if you live in a place like this, you have to really want to.
BZ: Definitely. I mean, the population is definitely sculpted by the danger. It’s a place populated by brave people, because if you weren’t brave, you would leave.
BZ: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. The film started more fantastically. I think when I just imagine something—I come from an animation background—I will imagine a folk tale in this heightened universe. And then, as we make the film, that fantasy gets pulled through a filter of reality, and only what feels true and what can be built from real things is what ends up remaining, and everything else goes away. So I think it’s about taking this heightened folk tale and collaborating with the people that play the parts, who are all real people from the area, disciplining the scenes so their stories and their point of view and their language… I would imagine the geography in a town with a 25-foot wall and then right on the other side was the other world, but that doesn’t actually exist. But you get down to the bottom of Louisiana, and then you drive over the levee, and there’s this tiny little road that goes for three miles to this tiny little island called the Isle De Jean Charles. And so you find that place, and that geography doesn’t make any sense with your script, but then you just throw the script out and rewrite the film to reflect that place, because you want to find your story in the world and then let the world be the story, as opposed to just your vision being the story.
AVC: How did the community react to you filming down there?
BZ: It was a lot of fun. It was a real collaboration. The film is really done in this grassroots way where lots of people from the community worked on the film, and are acting in the film. We weren’t living in a hotel somewhere and coming down in our trucks; we were in people’s houses and their trailers. It became a big sort of family/community art project, almost. It’s a very open culture. The culture is a culture of hospitality and openness, and we were really welcomed in this crazy way, where it’s like, “I have my Cajun parents now.” I go down there, they cook for me, they take care of me, and all that kind of stuff. So it’s a really wonderful, hospitable place. And I think making narrative films has a great quality to it, where it sort of opens doors. Everyone wants to be a part of a movie, so very quickly, people got excited about being involved.
AVC: Was there any kind of resistance to you, being a non-native Louisianan, coming in and telling this story that could only take place in this part of the world?
BZ: You get made fun of a lot. [Laughs.] There’s no way to pass. Everyone knows everything that’s going on. You drive down the road with New York plates, everyone knows you’re in town. I think it would be very different if I went down there and was like, “I want to do an interpretive dance about the sea level rising in your town.” That would be real hard. But I think going down and being like, “I’m making a movie about the end of the world; I’m interested in the end of the world.” And people there were very much always like, “Well, you’ve come to the right place. This is it. This is where it’s happening. We are on the edge.” Because it’s not just a factual, realistic portrait, it’s not trying to document a specific place or speak on someone’s behalf or something like that. It’s a folk tale about the emotional experience of what it’s like to have to survive the end of your world, and to lose the things that made you. And I think that theme connected and opened a lot of doors. I just had a great experience learning what that meant in the place where we shot.
AVC: Your parents are both folklorists. How did that play into your process in shaping this film?
BZ: It’s hard to articulate, because I am who I am and they made me who I am. It definitely was not something I thought about until people started writing about the film and saying it was folkloric, and then you’re like, “Oh God. I’m in the family business without knowing it.” [Laughs.] But reflecting on it, my parents really always recognized the highest art form being dinner conversation—like, jokes and sideshow barkers, and this sort of poetry and art form of oral history, and communication being as valuable and as sophisticated as what you would go see in a museum. And I think the way we go about making the film is in this very grassroots way, where we’re trying to learn from the communities as opposed to bringing our idea and just making it somewhere else. I think the process we go through is very much like people going out and doing field recordings. The early stages of writing are all about research, and research that happens at the docks, in the bars, around people’s fires—that’s sort of how we go about discovering the story, and I think that probably is something that gets handed down a little bit.
AVC: Did you have any ideas you had to discard in the process?
BZ: Definitely. I mean, you really test the story against the real elements. Me and Dwight would sit up… I’d written that character in a very extreme—it still is a very extreme character, but I’d written it probably even crazier. Before we touched the script, we went through his whole life and I learned, from his childhood all the way to now, everything that had happened to him, and we would talk about what we’d been through. And when we brought in the script, I’d sort of say, “Here’s what I think Wink would do in this scenario,” and then he would sometimes say, “I don’t think that’s what I would have done here. I think I would have been thinking about this.”
You know, he has a daughter, he lived through the storm, so he had firsthand experience with a lot of stuff I didn’t. So we’d take that scene and throw it out, and then I’d rewrite it based on where he thought his motivation would be, what he thought his actions would have been. And then you take that and let him reinvent the language. It becomes this sort of collaborative thing where a lot of what you envision ahead of time gets thrown out, but that’s part of the design, is that you respect the elements of the film and respect the world it’s being told in, and don’t try to force your preconceptions onto it.
Dwight Henry: Well, the part came after me, because I owned the bakery across the street from the studio where they did the casting. And they used to come put fliers in the bakery: “If anybody wants to audition for an upcoming feature film, pull a number, give us a call, set up an audition.” All of the people from the production company used to come over and eat—get breakfast, get doughnuts—so we developed kind of a relationship. So I decided to go over there and audition. They called me back for another reading after I did that audition. Then I moved from one location to another location—within that time period, they was actually looking for me to give me the part, and no one could find me. So they was asking all kinds of people around the neighborhood, “Anybody seen Mr. Henry?” “Nobody’s seen him.” So two days after I opened up, he came in, gave me the part, but I had just opened up two days ago, and I couldn’t commit to it right away. So I actually had to turn him down. He gave me a little time, he came back, I had to turn him down again—I wasn’t ready. So I actually turned him down three times for the part, because I wouldn’t sacrifice my business—under no circumstances am I going to sacrifice my foundation that I’m building for my kids for a possible movie career. So I kind of worked it out, because they’d seen some things in me that I didn’t see in myself, and they had so much belief in me, and so I kind of worked things out after about a month. They gave me some time to work things out for me to be able to go do the film for them.
AVC: [To Wallis.] You didn’t have a burning desire to be an actress, though?
Quvenzhané Wallis: No, I did it just for fun.
AVC: Was it fun?
AVC: [To Henry.] You have years of experience as a baker going into this. How did that help you with this part?
DH: Certain things the character goes through in the course of the movie—facing the possibility of losing the land he loves, facing the possibility of losing the people he loves, his home—I go through that in real life, living on the Gulf Coast in New Orleans for years. I was 2 years old when my mom had to take us and put us on the roof, my mom and dad. House underwater, Hurricane Betsy, the industrial-canal levee blew up or broke or whatever happened to it, we getting flooded out, we had to get people to come get us in boats and things, and losing our home, losing loved ones. So it brings a certain realness to the film vs. getting someone from the outside, from Hollywood, who’d never seen a storm, never been in a flood, to actually bring the emotion from somebody who actually goes through this in real life. So I brought a certain passion and emotion to this film that an outsider never in a million years could bring to this film, because I go through this. I was in Katrina in neck-high water and facing the possibility of looking at bodies floating in the water and things like that. So I had a passion. Once we started shooting, I realized the significance and the story that this movie is actually telling, I brought a passion to it that an outsider never in a million years could have brought to this film.
AVC: It seems like Benh was really open to collaboration with his actors.
DH: Oh yes. As we worked on the script, he wanted things to be as natural as possible, just like me and you are talking right now. I think we’re talking naturally, back and forth, about things. He’ll show me the script, we’ll read the script and we’ll take the script, throw it to the side. “Mr. Henry, how would you say this in your own words?” Because his words is one thing. He wanted me to say the same thing, but in my own words, because it just feels more natural. So he was real open as far as collaborating with the script, as far as the way it’s said. You can kind of see that in a film, when you’re trying to read off a script.
AVC: Quvenzhané, can you think of a moment where you contributed to something that wasn’t there in the script already?
QW: Yeah, we’ll take some words out. And if he misspelled a word, I would just correct it. And we would just sit down and laugh and change the scripts and we’d do different things. We had to delete something out of it.
AVC: You were just 5 when you started filming. You were just starting to read, right?
QW: I was 5 whenever the auditions came in, 6 whenever we started filming.
DH: She was 6, but she was 13 in actuality. She was way ahead of her age.
AVC: If you’re anything like your character, that’s very apparent. In your bio, you talked about how you like to listen to your iPod. Do you use music to inspire your acting?
QW: That’s a secret. [Laughs.] It’s something that I do with my music. I just put my headphones on and just listen to it. It gets me hyped.
AVC: [To Henry.] Did you want to act when you were young?
DH: No, never. As soon as I got out of high school, I got into the food and baking business. Worked at this local bakery in the neighborhood and worked at different doughnut shops, different catering services, hotels. So I’ve always been in the food-and-beverage business, and never had no inspirations to be an actor, but these guys seen something in me that they needed in that same character. Wink—he was this guy everyone looked up to in the movie. And when a problem occurred in town, Wink had to solve it. He was like the leader of the town. And as the course of them coming to the bakery, we used to be sitting in the bakery—me and Michael and people from the company—they seen how when people come in my bakery, how they have so much respect for me, how I led my little community. Everybody that come into the bakery, they called me “Boss,” “Mr. Henry”—they had so much respect for me, and that’s the same thing they needed in that character right there. So they seen some things through the course of them eating at my restaurant, and how I led, and how people looked up to me in my community, and so I brought a certain realness to that character they needed.
AVC: How have people in the community responded to you being in the film?
DH: I was already a certain type of person. People looked at me in a wonderful way, being a minority in mainstream business in the same neighborhood I grew up in. So people already knew me and looked at me in a certain way, and now they’re seeing me on the newspapers about the movie, and magazines, and things like that. So, you know, they’re looking at me in an inspiring way. Kids look up to me and they tell me how much I inspire them. If I can inspire some younger kids to change their life and get a little bit of hope for the possibility that they can do the same thing I can do, that’s one of the things that I would enjoy more than anything.