No one could be blamed for missing them. With their nondescript Montegut, La., headquarters housed in an antiquated wooden warehouse behind a battered old gas station, there was little to identify the odd group of young people that cropped up in the spring of 2010. So no one minded too much when they spent a few months puttering around the yard among chunks of broken picket fence, handmade masks and thrift store clothes. Neighbors in the know said the kids were making a film, one expressing his hope that it wasn’t “another one of them swamp-thing horror movies.” Far from it. In fact, writer/director Benh Zeitlin had moved his tight-knit community of filmmakers down from New Orleans to make Beasts of the Southern Wild, the film that would take this year’s Sundance Film Festival by storm, winning Excellence in Cinematography and the Grand Jury Prize for Drama.
“You do these things, and you are doing them by sheer will,” Zeitlin says of his filmmaking process. And he must have a steely resolve indeed. He and his film collective, Court 13, began Beasts by breaking the cardinal rules of a college advisor—“Don’t shoot on the water. Don’t shoot with children, and don’t shoot with animals.” And if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Zeitlin and company then faced shooting a film that took place largely on the water during one of the biggest natural disasters of our time—the BP oil spill.
“We were basically ground zero,” Zeitlin says, recalling filming during the spill. “We had to negotiate with BP to get to the other side of the boons, and we were out in this water that had been declared that it probably had oil in it. We were shooting this scene where the truck boat [a real, seaworthy vessel Beast’s crew made from the bed of a pick-up] was on fire. There was one time we ran out of lighter fluid and had to sub gasoline, and there was an explosion. [laughs] Someone had their eyebrows restyled, but they survived.”
Beasts, written by Zeitlin and playwright Lucy Alibar, takes place in The Bathtub, a society of slightly wild and fiercely independent people living in the bayou, outside the protection of the levees. The story centers on Hushpuppy (played by the pint-sized but powerful Quvenzhané Wallis) a young girl who lives there with her ailing father. Too young to understand what’s happening as her father’s health fails and natural disaster descends on her home, Hushpuppy feels responsible for the devastating storm that drives away all but The Bathtub’s most stubborn residents and threatens to wipe out their way of life for good. As her world crashes down around her and apocalyptic beasts make their way toward her home, Hushpuppy must find the strength to survive.
Wallis was only 5 when she was cast as Hushpuppy, after her mother took her to audition at the urging of a friend. Though Zeitlin originally conceived of the character as being much older, he says Wallis was the undeniable choice to play Hushpuppy, “a warrior in the part.” On screen, she seems quite precocious, infusing Hushpuppy with a hardiness and ferocity far beyond her years. Up against the formidable talent of Dwight Henry, who plays her hard-drinking, often angry but ultimately loving father, she holds her own in every scene. In fact, Wallis seems so strikingly wise beyond her years on screen, it can be a little jarring to realize she’s still just a kid. Now 8, she describes her favorite part of the film: “Whenever I was looking for my dad is my favorite part to watch,” she says of a scene early in the film, when Hushpuppy’s father disappears for days. “My voice was so small, and I don’t sound like that anymore.”
Wallis, Henry and much of the rest of the cast are non-actors, culled from the coastal Louisiana neighborhoods where the film was made. But their performances yield some of the most lovingly crafted and believable characters seen in a feature film in a long time. Zeitlin, who grew up in Queens, says this is no accident.
“I’m not from there,” he says. “As I’m teaching these roles to these actors, they are teaching me about their characters. They are helping me as a person and a writer to understand events and types of people that aren’t my upbringing. It’s an incredibly rich way of working and just on a life level, I love all the people in these films, and they are my great friends.”
This spirit of community is one of the things that led Zeitlin to make films in the first place, and it’s present across his oeuvre, including his Wholphin Award-winning short, Glory at Sea. “I saw a couple of films that spoke to me and the life that I could see behind films, the lifestyle that film had the potential to create,” Zeitlin says. “This is the way that I can keep all these different art forms in my life, and a venue for all the people I love to stay in my life.”
Zeitlin has indeed brought his friends along for the journey. Take Josh Ente, who left an apartment and a job as an animator in New York to join the art department for Beasts. “I’m doing something I believe in,” he said as he swatted mosquitos in a scuffed-up old recliner outside Court 13’s Montegut headquarters in 2010.
That’s the heart of Zeitlin’s strength as a leader and as a director. With his incredible passion and sheer force of will, he has created on the set of Beasts an environment where everyone is doing something they believe in, both in telling a compelling story and in creating the community they want to live in. “You get into making these things, consistently making reckless choices and walking in an unadvisable direction,” he says. “Somehow no one gets hurt and you land on your feet. It feels sometimes like you’re on the right path. If you live by the code, nothing will go wrong.”