So many movies have been made, in so many ways, that you’d think the art form would be in danger of exhausting its creative possibilities. But once in a while, a film emerges with such an original vision that it both surprises and delights its viewers.
Despite a cast of unknowns, a modest budget and little advance buzz, the indie film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has become the sensation of the year, wowing critics and audiences at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. The fantastical tale of Hushpuppy — a poor but scrappy Louisiana girl brilliantly played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis — opens Friday in St. Louis.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature. In a recent interview from New Orleans, Zeitlin said he could never have predicted the film’s breakout success.
“This has been way beyond anything that I dared to even think about,” Zeitlin said. At Sundance, the film won the Grand Jury Prize for drama, as well as an award for Ben Richardson’s cinematography. At Cannes, “Beasts” took the prestigious Caméra d’Or for best first feature.
Zeitlin, 29, didn’t make it easy on himself. Where many fledgling directors establish themselves with small-scale projects — think of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973) or Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989) — “Beasts” has a much wider scope.
Shot mostly in Terrebonne Parish in southern Louisiana with a budget of about $1.5 million, the film vividly explores the world according to Hushpuppy. The feisty tyke imagines the bisonlike creatures of the title tromping through the bayou that she lives in with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and others who struggle to survive on the fringes of society.
“It’s a movie set in the point of view of a 6-year-old, trying to express a time when you don’t parse out the differences between your imagination and what’s really happening,” Zeitlin said. “But it’s not a fairy tale — it’s the way that I remember experiencing life at the age of 6, when there are monsters in the closet.”
Zeitlin said he took on such an ambitious film so early in his career out of “sheer stupidity.” But it was the film he wanted to make.
“You get a story in your head, and then you have to get it out,” he said.
Among the challenges facing Zeitlin was finding the right actor to portray Hushpuppy, a character for whom the phrase “force of nature” might have been coined. About 4,000 kids auditioned for the part, but Wallis, a native of Houma, La., was the clear standout.
“She came in and did the scene that we’d seen a thousand times, totally differently than anybody else ever had,” Zeitlin said. “With a kind of focus and emotion, and just fierceness. We were trying to get people to act that way, but she just instinctually went there with the character. I’ve never met a better actor.”
“Beasts” has earned praise not only for Wallis’ performance and Zeitlin’s direction, but also for its mesmerizing sense of place. Zeitlin said he’s been inspired by directors — such as Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog and Mike Leigh — whose films “feel organic. Like there’s a culture that surrounds the film, and that spills off the screen.”
A native of Queens, N.Y., Zeitlin moved to New Orleans in 2006 to make a short film.
“I got addicted to Louisiana, and realized that I wanted to stay,” he said.
Perhaps inevitably, Zeitlin has begun to attract Hollywood interest. But he said he plans to continue working with Court 13, the film collective behind “Beasts.”
“We’re pretty stubbornly committed to doing our own thing, in our own way,” he said.
In an age of sophisticated, computer-generated imagery, one of the most charming things about “Beasts” is the creatures, who come across as unmistakably low-tech, yet perfect for the story. As to what went into creating them, Zeitlin’s not telling.
“It’s kind of a secret,” he said.