Beasts of the Southern Wild features cast of unknown actors
NEW ORLEANS — Despite the many movies made in Louisiana these days, these productions, usually lured to the state by an up to 35 percent motion picture industry tax credit, rarely win great reviews or film festival prizes.
Low-budget independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exception. Not the product of a conventional Hollywood studio, the film is a co-production of Court 13, a collective of filmmakers, storytellers, artists and musicians, and Cinereach, a non-profit film foundation and production company.
Made for approximately $1.5 million and featuring first-time, local actors in leading roles, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells a surrealistic tale about a south Louisiana community threatened with watery extinction. It won the Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize and excellence in cinematography award in January and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palm d’Or in May.
Fox Searchlight Pictures picked up Beasts for distribution and launched it June 27 in limited release in the U.S. The movie opened July 4 in New Orleans and is scheduled to open Friday, July 27, in Baton Rouge.
North American movie critics reacted with overwhelming enthusiasm to Beasts, using words such as unforgettable, transporting, imaginative and stunning in their reviews.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times placed it “among the best films to play at Sundance in two decades.” Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times named it one of the year’s best films. “Sometimes miraculous films come into being,” he writes, “made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius.”
A small film of grit and soul that fits most comfortably in the realm of art-house cinema, Beasts of the Southern Wild has earned, as of last weekend, $1.6 million domestically. The film’s south Louisiana-saturated flavor may make it especially interesting for local and regional moviegoers.
Filling The Bathtub
Beasts of the Southern Wild’s writer-director, Benh Zeitlin, a New York native who moved to New Orleans in 2006, and his co-writer, New York playwright Lucy Alibar, crafted their script in the Louisiana locale where the film is set.
Zeitlin and Alibar resided in Pointe Aux Chene in Terrebonne Parish while they adapted her play, the Georgia-set Juicy and Delicious, into a Louisiana story. The story’s fictional community, The Bathtub, is modeled upon Isle de Jean Charles, a tiny community on a ridge of land beyond the protection of the area’s levee system.
Zeitlin and Alibar, both 29, agree about the benefits of writing Beasts of the Southern Wild in south Louisiana.
“It’s all those things that you learn by exploring and meeting people,” Zeitlin said during a Beasts press day in June at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New Orleans.
“I didn’t know anything about Louisiana,” Alibar said. “So it was important to me that I get this (place).”
Alibar had also found lack of authenticity and condescension in the many Louisiana-set films made by outsiders.
“It is a very different culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wrong culture or a stupid, cartoonish culture,” she said. “I saw a lot of mean-spiritedness and snobbery in a lot of these depictions. I’m like, ‘Why the snobbery?’ ”
Actors in Beasts of the Southern Wild, cast from south Louisiana, influenced the script, especially Dwight Henry, a first-time actor from New Orleans who plays principal character Wink.
When a storm blasts The Bathtub, Wink, a single father who lives in a semi-camp with his young daughter, Hushpuppy, and his neighbors are nearly swept into the Gulf of Mexico.
“Dwight couldn’t be more different from Wink,” Zeitlin said. “Dwight is a refined, sweet man. But I’d always say, ‘Dwight, how would you say this?’ And we’d rewrite the lines the way he’d say it. I’d try to be humble and make sure that the actors spoke in their own voices. I learned a lot about the characters in the movie by collaborating with the actors.”
Henry, a baker and chef who operates the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, experienced the disastrous consequences of hurricanes multiple times. He’d actually lived Wink’s determination not to abandon his home in The Bathtub.
“I was 2 years old when Hurricane Betsy came and my mom had to put me on the roof of the house,” he said. “The whole Lower 9th Ward flooded. Camille came after that, ran us again. So it’s a long list of things that make us strong and resilient. I brought that passion to my part in the movie. An outsider couldn’t have brought that passion. I go through this.”
Henry experienced more flood water after Hurricane Katrina. His home was almost completely underwater but just a foot of water entered his business, then located at St. Claude Avenue and Mandeville Street.
“The water didn’t stay in there long,” he said of his bakery. “The only thing I had to do was replace equipment and put some Sheetrock in there. But a lot of people who had businesses in Gentilly and the Lower 9th Ward, their whole buildings went under.”
Henry’s attention-grabbing performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild helped him get his latest role in Twelve Years a Slave. Brad Pitt is co-starring in and producing the film, now in production in south Louisiana.
“Baking and acting are two different careers but both of them are arts,” Henry said. “And if you love what you do, that’ll get you a long ways. I work hard and put passion and determination into anything I do. You put that into it, it’s going to show.”
Henry’s 8-year-old co-star, Quvenzhané Wallis, sat next him in a Ritz-Carlton conference room. Wallis, who’ll be a fourth grader at Honduras Elementary School in Houma next school year, said she isn’t like her Beasts of the Southern Wild character, Hushpuppy, but that they could be friends.
Wallis’ mother stayed with the then 6-year-old actress on the Beasts set and helped her study her role at night.
“She likes to pretend,” Qulyndreia Wallis explained of her child’s natural acting ability. “She likes to role play and becomes the character.”
Talk of post-Beasts projects sparked what may have been jealously in Wallis of Henry.
“He does but not me,” she said almost regretfully.
“We’re just waiting, getting to one thing at a time,” her mother said.
Walking red carpets is her favorite part of being a movie star, Wallis said, especially the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Yes, that was the real red carpet,” said the actress known as Nazie to family and friends.
“It was amazing,” Zeitlin said of reaction to the film at Cannes. “We had a 20-minute standing ovation. At Cannes people clap for however long they feel is appropriate. I was standing there, looking around, waving. I held up Nazie. It was unimaginable.”
“Everywhere we screen the movie,” Henry said, “we get a standing ovation and warm audiences who love the film. That makes everything so much worth it.”