Beasts of the Southern Wild puts New Orleans in a whole new light

We sit down for a chat with Benh Zeitlin, director of the artisan-like, Oscar-nominated film Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a girl who fears that her fantasy mammoth-like monsters will run rampant when the polar ice caps melt. Reuters
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When Benh Zeitlin dismissed the Hollywood way of making movies as "tired" in Cannes last year, the first-time writer-director had the film to prove it. Beasts of the Southern Wild looked and felt unlike anything else, not just because of Zeitlin's talent, but because he was funded by a non-profit organisation in New York. They'd been so impressed by his short, Glory at Sea, that they gave him complete freedom to pursue his vision. All he had to do was keep it cheap.

An artisan-like project made with a cast of amateurs drawn mainly from around the New Orleans area that the New Yorker has made his home, Beasts has repeatedly scored with critics and awards panels. It created buzz at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year and, last month, it competed for four Oscars, including Best Picture and, incredibly, Best Actress, making Quvenzhané Wallis the youngest-ever nominee in the category at just 9 years old.

The film pays homage to the hardiness of South Louisianans who have refused to leave their homes in the face of terrible ecological odds. When Zeitlin first went to New Orleans to film Glory at Sea in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was like a "frontier town", he says. Nevertheless, he became so attached to the area that he decided to stay.

People back home thought he was crazy. "They said: 'Is New Orleans even there any more? They shouldn't rebuild there. People should leave.' I was so horrified by that notion. I'd say: 'How can you advocate that we just chop this off the map and say it's not worth trying to save it?'."

Working with his childhood friend Lucy Alibar - her play, Juicy and Delicious, partly inspired the film - after hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Zeitlin developed a loosely constructed screenplay that left room for changes as locals brought their personal experience to the table.

"It wasn't Katrina-specific," he says, refuting many people's automatic assumption about Beasts. "It was more about envisioning a future in New Orleans, which was a constant storm world. Storms were just going to be an annual event, and one day one of them would come and take the place away. So it was the entire environmental crisis down there. And then the oil spill happened [in the Gulf of Mexico] right as we were shooting. So just the general disregard for South Louisiana and the amount of affection I had for it made me want to wave a flag and yell about it."

Taking a grass roots approach to casting, he enlisted a New Orleans bakery owner and hurricane survivor, Dwight Henry, as Wink and, following a massive search, cast the equally untried Wallis as his daughter, Hushpuppy. She is the film's protagonist and narrator: a soulful spirit with a warrior's heart who sets out to save her off-the-grid community, The Bathtub, after it is hit by a devastating storm.

"We looked at 4,000 kids for Hushpuppy before even having callbacks," says Zeitlin. "We just knew that that was the movie, and that everything was going to ride on a completely impossible idea, which was that a 6-year-old girl could carry a role like that." He wasn't at Wallis's first audition, and says she only "clipped" into the callbacks. When she returned, though, "it was sort of a ground-shaking, amazing moment ... She had this ferociousness inside of her, and this wisdom and maturity. I don't think if we'd seen another 10,000 kids, we'd have found another one like her".

Wallis's performance is remarkable given the conditions under which the film was made. They shot on land and water, often in sweltering heat. To make matters worse, "there's a different plague of insects like every single day", says Zeitlin. "It just feels like all life is attracted to this meeting point of water and land. It has this crazy energy to it that's both thrilling and inspiring, but it's dangerous.

"It was like an extreme physical endurance test but that's what everyone signed up for."

Beasts of the Southern Wild didn't win any Oscars, ultimately, but it has marked Zeitlin out as one of America's most promising young filmmakers. Meanwhile, Wallis is capitalising on her success by taking the lead in a new version of Annie, while she and Henry will also both be seen in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave.

Beasts of the Southern Wild opens in UAE cinemas Thursday

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