Oscar-nominated ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ director Benh Zeitlin on finding his pint-sized star
Photo by Fox Searchlight Pictures
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.
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.