When actors and a director collaborate their fresh energy to construct their first movie, creativity can spark magic. This is the case with the gritty and poetic Southern drama “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Prix de Camera d’Or (best first feature) at the Cannes Film Festival is an anomaly of an accomplishment for a debut film. However actress Quvenzhane Wallis, actor Dwight Henry, and director Behn Zeitlin flawlessly executed an emotionally powerful debut feature with “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” I recently sat down with all three to discuss the challenges of completing their first film and their hopes for the future.
Casting the precise actors for a believable independent film can make or break a feature. Tryouts for the character of Wink were taking place across the street of Dwight Henry’s bakery. As the individuals conducting the selection process visited the bakery during casting breaks, they realized they found their actor in Dwight Henry. Acting coaches were instructed to train Dwight Henry in the middle of the night due to his very early morning schedule of running a bakery. One of the struggles Dwight Henry regards overcoming insecurities due to his perfectionist nature.
Dwight Henry was cast because he was familiar with the Louisiana region of the location. As ‘Beasts’ focuses on the various struggles of the battered, poverty-stricken region during a hurricane, Henry claims he was a perfect selling point in the casting for the roll of Wink.
“I brought a certain thing an outsider couldn’t bring because I’m from New Orleans,” Henry said, “A lot of the elements we go through in the movie I faced in real life.”
During the sit down interview, Quvenzhane Wallis was a typical playful 8-year-old girl, quiet and shy yet more intuitive and precarious then rampageous for someone her age. Ms. Wallis makes a stunning film debut holding her own in the film as Hushpuppy. She mentioned what she felt during her first filmmaking process.
“It was fun because I got to meet different people,” Quvenzhane Wallis said, “You meet them at different places you don’t expect. The director was nice and cared what you think.”
Even though many critics and movie pundits claim ‘Beasts’ is set during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, actor Dwight Henry wanted the clarify the setting of the film and the intentions of his performance.
“We don’t want to relate the film to Hurricane Katrina because it’s a long line of things we go through in the past and the future. We don’t like to relate the film to one specific incident,” he said.
30-year-old director Behn Zeitlin first film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to win the top prize as well as playing very strongly at the Cannes Film Festival in May. A film such as ‘Beasts’ is a wildly original, stunning accomplishment for an under 30 filmmaker’s first feature.
Being from the New York area, Behn Zeitlin was initially drawn to Europe for another film project, but focused his energy in an unfamiliar setting due to a friend’s recommendation. This led to the creation of a small production studio Court 13 which its site declares it’s a ‘grassroots’ organization “seek to tell huge stories out of small parts.” It was the core values of this production company that allowed Behn Zeitlin to put necessary details into “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
“I wanted to find a different process in making films,” Zeitlin said. “I care very much about how the film was made and what the experience was like making the film as much as the finished product.”
The most challenging scene to shoot was the [spoiler warning] deathbed scene to describe it as an “emotionally devastating experience for all who was involved.”
For a first time director, pulling off a logistical challenging scene could be difficult, if not impossible to execute. For Zeitlin, the scene involving Quvenzhane Wallis sprinting in a field as a building burns in the background.
“The shot where the house was on fire and [Quvenzhane’s] running. We only had a couple shots at it. The fact that we got that shot is a miraculous thing.”
During filming in 2010, the BP oil spill devastated Louisiana’s shore and the film crew had to negotiate with BP to get their equipment across restricted areas. Despite various demands on ‘Beasts’ production, Zeitlin’s toughest experience involving the filmmaking wasn’t so much the production of the movie as much as the reaction to the completed film on the big screen with audience as well as the overall presentation.
“That first screening [at Sundance] was a devastating physical experience,” said Zeitlin. “I was so physically broken by the end of the process that sitting in the theater in Sundance and seeing your movie on screen was emotional…and I was concerned about sound levels.”
With solid Oscar buzz emerging in its favor for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Behn Zeitlin isn’t setting his hopes to high for appeasing the Academy. This issue isn’t of concern to a young, fresh director making his introduction into the Entertainment Industry.
“I try not to think about it,” Zeitlin said. “I don’t have any expectation. I’m so happy that people like the film…that’s sort of the satisfaction.”
If ‘Beasts’ becomes an Oscar contender, it will appeal to Academy voters who were passionate about “Winter’s Bone” and “Tree of Life.” Multiple nominations seem to be likely especially since Fox Searchlight is distributing the film and could get behind a strong campaign. However, Behn Zeitlin agrees there are one significant benefit and even a motivation to being nominated for various critics and industry awards.
“Awards are amazing because they allow us to do this kind of work,” Zeitlin said.