The hottest independent movie in the country right now is Beasts of the Southern Wild. Set in a fictional mix of South Louisiana locales, it was filmed within a two-hour radius of New Orleans by Court 13, a collective of motion-picture artists most of whom call the city home, and whose work is guided by a DIY, communal mission.
That emphasis on the group is reflected in the story of Beasts itself. The movie centers around a young girl, Hushpuppy, and her father Wink. The two live in the Bathtub, a town caught in the marshes on the wrong side of flood protection walls. It seems like the edge of the world. The town and its members are materially poor, with little more in their possession than a constant bounty of seafood. It’s a place of joy though, one with an extended family of friends in a state of perpetual celebration. Then disaster strikes, partly in the form of a major flood, and the film’s core comes both from the characters dealing with catastrophe individually and the group fighting to survive.
The greater film community has responded favorably. Earlier this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild won Sundance Film Festival’s top award—the Grand Jury Prize— and received the prestigious Cannes Film Festival’s Camera D’Or prize for best first feature.
It opens locally on Independence Day for a two-week run at the Prytania Theatre, and it will play at the AMC Elmwood Palace 20 and the Theatres at Canal Place as well.
OffBeat spoke to the director, two lead actors, and three primary producers.
Part 1: Swept Up
Benh Zeitlin (Director): The way the project started was that I wanted to make a film about holdouts right after I finished Glory At Sea, inspired by a lot of cast members of that film. I wanted to drive down and explore the roads that go down into the marsh.
Michael Gottwald (Producer): For Dan [Janvey] and me, it goes back to working on Benh’s thesis film in 2003, in college. That started Court 13, which continued through Glory at Sea, the short that we made in New Orleans in 2007.
Dan Janvey (Producer): Court 13 dates back to Benh’s thesis film at Wesleyan. It’s called Egg. The stop-motion animation was all done in a squash court that was literally squash court number 13 in an abandoned squash court building. Benh and Ray Tintori [Special-Effects Unit Director for Beasts] moved into this squash court and lived and slept there. They just animated 24 hours a day. That’s where the spirit of Court 13 comes from. This is about being in a derelict environment, with no resources, giving everything you have to animating, or bringing to life, these tiny pieces of art.
Gottwald: And telling a story that’s large with those tiny pieces. Even Egg is an epic in its own right. It’s grand in scope, yet Benh made half of it in a tiny squash court with miniatures.
Janvey: To me, the question of “how you got involved with Court 13” is actually, “At what point did you realize your life was going to take part in this big adventure?” And I think that’s what Court 13 is. At some point, you get swept up on the adventure of making films with Benh, and you become part of a community that’s committed to telling these stories and going on these journeys to do so.
Josh Penn (Producer): I joined Court 13 several years after these guys. I grew up with Ray Tintori and came down as sort of an assistant to the producer/intern for Glory at Sea. I got a call from Ray, and he said, “Why don’t you come down to New Orleans and help us with the movie for four weeks?” And now it’s five years later. I don’t know if there was an exact moment, but there was a reoccurring thing with Glory at Sea where it was the logical thing to leave. We ended up shooting intermittently over the course of about six months, so it was pretty intense throughout those six months. It kept making sense to leave. I got very close to packing up my car a few times, but I just loved it too much and it got in my blood, and I think that’s a pretty common experience.
Zeitlin: [My parents] brought me to New Orleans a couple of times as a kid. They actually played an active hand in [my moving here]. I remember feeling like it was a magical place. I came down when I was ten or eleven, and it had this totally other feeling. It felt like it was haunted, but not in a bad way—haunted by good ghosts and bad ghosts equally. It had this feeling that there was dark and beautiful magic that existed. I can’t remember whether I fell in love with Tom Waits or New Orleans first, but certainly that kind of energy was always a big part of my life growing up.
Dwight Henry (Wink): I grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, a place that floods a lot. Every time we have a problem with the weather, the Lower Ninth Ward is the place that suffers the most. The poorest parts of town are always the places that suffer the most. When I was two years old, my mom had to put me on the roof for Hurricane Betsy. We had to go through Camille—there are a lot of things we go through here in the course of our lives, but we refuse to leave. I mean we could’ve left when I was two years old—my family could have packed up and left after we first lost our home, but no matter what the situation is, we’re not going to leave our home and the land and people that we love under the worst circumstances in the world.
Zeitlin: I wanted to make a short film from Lucy [Alibar, co-screenwriter]’s world in general. I’ve known Lucy since I was thirteen years old. I met her at playwright camp in middle school. We focused around this idea of a little girl losing her father and a community losing its land, and what the [shared] emotion of that is. What is it like to lose the thing that made you, and how do you survive that? What’s the right thing to do in that moment, and how do you not get crushed by the weight of that? How do you maintain your hope and your spirit?
Part 2: On the Bayou
Janvey: We spent quite a bit of time after Glory at Sea talking about the type of film we wanted to make. We developed the project with Benh.
Penn: Beasts is really about Benh exploring Louisiana and meeting people. And it’s through that process that his stories start to come to life.
Zeitlin: The very last thing on the road as you go down is Pointe Aux Chene Marina. [Owner] Gary Fungi was one of our first friends down there. He gave us this little room that fishermen stay in when they’re going offshore. We basically moved in and were there on and off for about six months, hanging out on the docks and getting to know people and hanging out in the bars. We were trying to write and incorporate all the things we were learning into the script, to make the script emerge from the place as opposed to just writing something and showing up and trying to shoot it.
Gottwald: The casting and the location-scouting process was inextricable from Benh’s creative process. He was going down and meeting people, and we were meeting people and looking for places. As he thought out the story, he was looking at the places he would eventually use. We were down there quite a lot during that year and a couple of months before we actually [started filming].
Janvey: It’s a constant snowballing the way [Benh Zeitlin] makes movies. You’d go down, spend some time in a town, meet a person there, that person would audition for the movie, through that audition process we would become friends with that person, he would then join the crew and help out. Every time you go on an adventure, the community gets larger and larger. It’s a very inclusive process, I think.
Gottwald: Walrus, specifically, the guy who plays him actually makes an appearance in Glory at Sea. He’s a coffee-maker repair guy from New Orleans. He works for Try Me Coffee.
Janvey: Benh writes a character and then finds somebody that he likes, and he sort of merges that personality into the character. But no one would see the movie and be like, “Oh, that’s clearly based on so-and-so.”
Zeitlin: The geography of the film is very much inspired by [Terrebonne Parish] and its issues. There are several properties—Gary’s [marina] is one of them, and Isle de Jean Charles is another one—that are being left out of the system made by the Morganza Spillway to the Gulf levees. When we were there, there was a lot of debate about that. The Corps of Engineers was in town talking about their plans for the levee, and all of these people were basically being cut off the map. We were talking to them a lot about what it feels like to know that everything you’ve worked for your whole life—your whole culture—that someone’s shown up and decided it’s not worth the time and money to save your place. You go out on the island and you talk to people who say, “I hope that I can finish my life here on this island, but I know that for my kids and their grandkids, this is just going to be a story that people tell them about Isle de Jean Charles. It’s not going to exist anymore.” A lot of that emotion and a lot of those stories, specifically, came into the script and redefined it from what I had originally imagined.
Janvey: [The filming] was centralized in Terrebonne Parish. There was a little bit in Lafourche Parish and in St. Bernard Parish. A section of it was also shot on the North Shore. The two towns that influenced the film the most, creatively, were definitely Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe aux Chene. We shot the film in Bourg, Montegut, Pointe aux Chene, a little bit in Houma, and Isle de Jean Charles.
Zeitlin: One of the biggest traumas that people would talk about was not being able to come back home, just getting stuck outside the flood. A lot of these places have counter-productive levee systems where the town floods and the levee just holds the water inside the town, so the amount of time it takes to drain [the town] these days is way more than it used to be before those levees were built.
Janvey: You’ll notice the word “Katrina” is never mentioned once in the film. But I hope, in New Orleans, people have a much stronger personal connection to that experience of the characters in the Bathtub.
Gottwald: The thing about the film is that it’s less of a Katrina movie and more of a movie about a storm, which is a way of life in South Louisiana. It’s not a specific storm, it’s every storm. It could be Katrina, it could be Betsy. In the area where we shot, Katrina actually caused less damage than Gustav and Ike and Rita. What we were trying to do is tell a story of a town that is continually at odds with storms, but it’s engrained in their way of life. I mean, they have a parade, they throw a celebration, for storm season.
Janvey: The idea of making this film is that we’re going to tell a folk tale. The Bathtub is a folk tale about those cultures of southern Louisiana. To live in Louisiana is to experience the joy of many different cultures, and to me, the Bathtub puts them all together.
Zeitlin: The idea was never that the film was a realistic documentary portrait of bayou culture. The culture in the film is really a combination of bayou culture, New Orleans culture, and West Louisiana culture. It’s really supposed to be the “Island of South Louisiana” and everything in South Louisiana kind of finds its way into that place, even though there’s nowhere that actually exists like that. It’s a fantastical interpretation of a lot of different places that aren’t as mixed as they are in the film.
Henry: When people ask me about where I get my passion [in the movie] from, it’s from going through all of these things in real life, versus bringing somebody in, an outside actor to do the part. He wouldn’t have the passion that I have by actually going through these incidents in real life.
Janvey: One of the things that intrigued me about the film is how the story of Mother Nature attacking this town, the story of the Bathtub being destroyed, reveals things about the story of a daughter seeing her father die. And inverted as well. The strength that Hushpuppy needs in order to face both of those things is what the movie’s about, to me.
Zeitlin: A thing someone told me that always stuck with me was, “Down here we’re made by the marsh. And we’re not like a plant you can uproot and put somewhere else. If you pull us up out of our soil and put us somewhere else, we’ll dry up.” I wanted to express that sentiment. It’s a dependency on your home and on your place to feed you what you need to be happy.
Henry: The community that’s in the movie is the same type of community that I live in, in New Orleans. I mean, when we faced some of the worst times in the world, we refused to leave and that’s the same thing that the movie’s about. These people love the land they live on, and under the worst circumstances in the world, they’re not leaving. I’ve faced, sometimes, some of the worst circumstances in the world: losing family, losing loved ones, losing my home, things like that. And we refused to leave.
Gottwald: It’s about emotional bravery, or emotional courage. What do you do when something you love, be it a person or your home, is falling apart in front of you?
Penn: It’s also about loving and holding on to something even when it’s hard to love and hold on to. Hushpuppy’s father and land are both difficult, but they’re still the most important things for her.
Zeitlin: A lot of time you start with your fears, and I think losing a parent is something that I’ve always been terrified of. At the same time I was trying to explore what it was that was so magnetic about Louisiana for me. Why is it that you’re so drawn to a place even if it can be hostile?
Henry: [After the levees failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina] I was in neck high water because I refused to leave. That’s when my bakery [Henry’s Bakery & Deli], was over on St. Claude Avenue, and I refused to leave my business and let vandals take it over. So I stayed back to protect something that I love more than anything in the world. I stood and protected my business and got caught in neck high water, and I still came back and still never thought about leaving. I refused to leave under the worst circumstances in the world. Still refused to leave.
Part 3: Building Community—Casting
Zeitlin: Originally, we had planned to mix professional and non-professional actors. There were a couple of roles in the film that we felt were probably too dynamic and too difficult to play for someone without experience, but Dwight—his role was one of them—really won that part fair and square against some very experienced actors.
Gottwald: We were in this abandoned school, Colton, that had been turned into art space. A classroom there was our default production office. It was where Benh would work on the script, and it was also sort of like a casting office. I was looking for Hushpuppy the whole time—throughout spring 2009 into the summer and fall—but once a week I would hold an open audition time for adults in New Orleans. The method was to just go to places where I thought foot traffic would see a flyer: barber shops, corner stores, bakeries. Pretty frequently, we would go across the street to Henry’s Bakery & Deli. They had amazing yams and red beans and rice. I didn’t even know about the pastries at the time.
Henry: They used to put flyers in the bakery when I was on St. Claude, so that if anybody wanted to audition for this upcoming film they could give them a call. Benh, Michael [Gottwald] and the whole crew used to eat over by the bakery every day, and we developed a relationship.
Gottwald: It’s a natural fit for a place to hang a flyer. You’d go in there and there would be people playing dominos, sometimes there was a TV on, it just had a very comfortable vibe. Dwight always likes to say that I pressured him into coming, but he was actually like, “Maybe I’ll come over myself,” and I said, “Absolutely, you should come audition.” He came over one day and told his story, which was always what we had people do first during auditions—tell us a little bit about themselves, where they come from, their life story. And Dwight told his with such charm and charisma. It was about how he got his bakery started when all of these banks turned him away from loans, but he was just determined. People would laugh at him when he said he wanted to be a baker, but he persisted.
Henry: One day I did a reading for them. They called me back for another reading, but when I moved [the bakery] from St. Claude over to Dorgenois Street, no one could find me to tell me they wanted me to do the part.
Gottwald: Whenever Benh would look at adults, he kept coming back to Dwight. He said, “I really like this guy, we should try to find him again.” A few months pass by and I go out to look for him again, and the bakery is no longer there. It’s shuttered up. I asked the neighbors where he was and I asked the landlord, who had actually auditioned too, and they directed me over to this new bakery of his [Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Cafe—the best donuts in New Orleans]. I went over there and found him and he had just set up.
Henry: Two days after I opened up my new location on Dorgenois street, Michael comes in and says, “Mr. Henry, Mr. Zeitlin would love for you to have the part. He loves what he’s seen.” But I couldn’t take the part because I was committed to what I was doing with my bakery. They gave me some time to work things out, but the second time they came I wasn’t ready to do it, so I had to turn them down again.
Gottwald: At first I just wanted him to come audition again, but trying to get him was impossible because we were calling at the wrong time. You know, he was a baker and we were calling in the afternoon. He had just opened a bakery, so I went in and tried to give him [the part], but he demurred. Then, I think, me and Josh [Penn] went in and talked a little bit more concretely with him. And then me, Dan [Janvey], and Josh. And then there was this epic night where me, Dan, Josh, and Matt Parker, our line producer, all went and really gave him the hard sell. We read the script to him, and we knew Benh was going to come in and see him in the morning so we wanted him to be prepared. It was like a six-hour marathon session with Mr. Henry. We finally hit it off, Mr. Henry agreed to do the movie, and that was that.
Henry: One day, the whole crew walked through the door—all the producers, Benh, everybody walked in the door. They sat me down in the bakery and they had so much belief in me and so much confidence in me, they had seen some things in me that I didn’t see in myself. I worked some things out at the bakery and made a lot of concessions, and they made some concessions. If I needed to come back [to the bakery], they had a driver to bring me whenever i needed.
Janvey: From a producing angle, we believe that Dwight Henry was an unbelievably essential element to the film. We believed that there was not going to be Beasts of the Southern Wild without Mr. Henry, at a certain point. It was a long process. There was just a moment when we all of a sudden knew that we had to do this together.
Penn: In order for this to be the movie that Benh wanted to make, as crazy-challenging as it was going to be, as much training as he was going to need with Benh, we wanted to make that movie with Dwight Henry. And that felt really cool, jumping off the ledge like that, in a way that you totally believe in.
Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy): There was an audition at the library for six to nine year olds. I was only five, but my mom’s friend forced her to bring me to the library and I kind of snuck in. I got to audition, and we just walked out like we didn’t do nothing wrong. They called back and said they were looking for Nazie, and my mom said, “Oh, you must be looking for Quvenzhané.” They thought, “Oh, no, we must have called the wrong person,” but my mom was like, “Oh, she must have told you Nazie,’ that’s her nickname.” They said, “Yes! That’s who we’re looking for!”
Janvey: Quvenzhané is from Houma, too.
Wallis: I had never done any acting.
Henry: No, no acting.
Janvey: The whole project was made on the faith we have in each other. Believing in each other that we were going to do this. And that was across the whole crew. From top to bottom on the crew and with the cast as well. Everyone involved in the film signed up for this crazy challenge because they believed in it and never gave up…that’s a really corny line.
Zeitlin: It’s about being open to the idea that you don’t need experience, necessarily, in order to be a great actor. Dwight was inspiring to us in the way that he’s charismatic, the way we got to know him at the bakery, and the presence he has in the community. We just knew that he had this spirit that he could access. That’s pretty much what you look for in an actor. He also had all of these experiences that related to the film that he could bring to the role. We look at the whole person when we’re trying to cast someone for a part, or even hire someone to build a set. Every part of the person is just as important as their experience or their resumé.
Part 4: Building Community—On Set
Wallis: When I first went to the set, I thought it was cool because they took a place that didn’t even work anymore and nothing happened, and they took that place and they turned everything that was inside of it, or outside of it, into anything they could think of.
Henry: I was kind of familiar with the area. I understand they got a lot of culture out there, a lot of French culture, and they have a big seafood industry out there, they survive off the seafood industry. Friends of mine that do a lot of fishing go out that way and launch their boats and fish there. So I’m kind of familiar with the community, but not with the history of all the environmental issues that they have. It wasn’t until [working on] the film that I started realizing some of the problems that we’re really having along the Gulf Coast.
Zeitlin: Dwight got fishing lessons from Mike Arcenaux [the pilot for the boat in the movie].
Henry: Mike was great. Great, great, great, great guy. I don’t mention his name enough. He was fantastic with the crew. He became a friend of mine, and I don’t mention how important he was to me out there and to the movie. He’s a super-fisherman. I mean, he’s everything. The whole town knows Mike Arcenaux.
Zeitlin: Mike charters fishing boats, he hunts, he does landscaping…
Henry: He wrassles alligators.
Zeitlin: He’s in the Philippines wrestling crocodiles on TV. He’s a Cajun superhero.
Wallis: Being with Court 13 was fun because I never really meet these kind of people who will try to do anything to help you and make you feel better and try to get you hype. All the people who produced the movie, did the camera, and all of the other characters and all the extras, they were fantastic and I love them all. I had a lot of time with the others because I got breaks!
Zeitlin: The movie was very collaborative, and it really was a collaboration with a lot of people in the community. We did all our casting locally and a lot of the things in the film are, like I said, things that I learned from spending time down there. So I think everybody sort of feels ownership over the project. The culture down in the bayou has incredible hospitality and a welcoming spirit to it, it’s very open-minded and non-judgmental about people, and 99% of our experience was that. Even though Louisiana can be very territorial, when you boil it down, it’s very open-hearted and welcoming, and people really took us in and took care of us while we were making the film and participated in it as well. We definitely mean it [when we say the film is by Court 13]. It’s not about any individual, it’s a family project. And we want to put the family name up first.
Part 5: Across the Seas
Zeitlin: [The attention the film is receiving] is crazy. It’s a great thing to have your audience expand, you know? It’s such an interesting conversation to be having—to be talking about Pointe aux Chene, Louisiana with somebody from the Ukraine while you’re in France. It’s a pretty special thing to have the dialogue about this movie travel as far as it is going. The most rewarding thing is to feel like, suddenly, this conversation is going to be global. We’re going to keep making films in Louisiana and keep making them in this style, and the next time we do this, we know that we’ll have a chance to show it all around the world, which is great.
Henry: It’s been great, it’s been wonderful for me. If I never do another movie again, one thing I’ll hold dear to my heart is the family and the unity that I had with Court 13. They’re more like a family than a company. Opportunities are happening for me, but we can’t talk about it right now. Things are going well.
Wallis: It’s cool because my mom is looking for everything that she can find with me in it. I guess she’s really, really proud.
Zeitlin: You know, you make films about things you’re afraid of. Both of my parents are alive—thank god—but I learned a lot about what it’s like to take on that moment that comes to everybody. I think that trying to figure out what to do and how to be brave in that situation is something that I definitely learned about by directing the film and writing it. I know it was pretty amazing to watch some of the footage we were shooting.