Indie Flashback: Benh Zeitlin, Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis on “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

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Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry on the set of Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Photo credit: Jess Pinkham.

The following interviews with filmmaker Benh Zeitlin and actors Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry were originally published at HollywoodChicago.com in July 2012. Their film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nod for Wallis, who was six years old when she made the film (among her fellow nominees was Emmanuelle Riva, the 85-year-old star of “Amour”). Zeitlin’s long-awaited second feature directorial effort, “Wendy,” opens in theaters on Friday, February 28th.

PART I: BENH ZEITLIN

If director Benh Zeitlin had written a list of the most outlandishly formidable challenges that a film crew could ever possibly face, he could’ve easily come up with an outline for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Loosely based on Lucy Alibar’s play, “Juicy and Delicious,” the film pays tribute to the indomitable spirit of New Orleans citizens as they continue to defy the odds.

It’s that same spirit that appears to have fueled this tremendously ambitious picture, the first feature made by the self-dubbed “Independent Filmmaking Army” known as Court 13. Set in a tight-knit southern village affectionately named the Bathtub, the tale is viewed through the eyes of a strong-willed six-year-old, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). As her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), grows weak with illness, environmental catastrophes flood the village while unleashing an assortment of fearsome prehistoric creatures. Thus, Hushpuppy embarks on a journey of survival that is a testament to her unyielding sense of hope.

Hollywood Chicago spoke with Zeitlin about his distinctive brand of collaboration, the influence of his 2008 short film, “Glory at Sea,” and the impact of the BP oil spill, which began on the first day of production.

What has this whirlwind press tour been like for you?

It’s such a privilege to have the film bounce off so many different kinds of people. You get to hear it reinterpreted really close to home and then as far away from home as I can possible imagine. It’s particularly interesting to see how people react to the things in the film that are very regional to Louisiana. It gives you a lot of inspiration and drive.

It seems like your short, “Glory at Sea,” served as a precursor to “Beasts.” How so?

I felt like there was unfinished business after “Glory.” It was so much about the moment after [Katrina]—the mourning and the aftermath of the tragedy. As I was getting to know all of the actors that were in the film, hearing their stories and getting to be friends with them, I wanted to make a film that was more about the present. “Glory” was about a moment that was disappearing. I wanted to make a film that represented the point-of-view of the holdouts and celebrated the defiant people who were sitting it out and would be the ones to rebuild while living on the precipice. Court 13 isn’t really a production company, it’s more of an idea and an approach. We talk about the “code” a lot of times. When we’re in production or even in preproduction, anyone who joins the team signs up to live by the code for a certain period of time. What that code is I can’t exactly define. It’s a very altered state that has everything to do with living the adventure, living the film in a very visceral way. You get to do the things that the characters do. You get to be on the water, be on location, you’re going to be up against nature in the sense that characters are up against nature.

We try to pull the themes of the movie into the production style. I think that was developed in our shorts, but really came into its own in “Glory” as well. That’s where the vision of Court 13 started to manifest itself, in that we came down there to make this small, arty movie with a couple friends and then it turned into this massive community art project with a huge crew. We ended up turning it into a 25-minute film. It just became this massive thing. It felt like that video game where a ball rolls and things get picked up in it. As it kept going, it accumulated more momentum and more people and more stuff. We sort of invented our own tools to built “Glory” and “Beasts” as well. I always feel like a film develops out of the previous one. There will always be a relationship between the two. Each movie takes me from where I was to where I end up at the end of it, but there’s always a thread that goes through them, even back through the shorts. From “Glory” back to “Egg,” there are connections in there. We don’t think of “Beasts” as a culmination of Court 13’s work, but the first feature that will lead to the next one.

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Director Benh Zeitlin and actress Quvenzhané Wallis on the set of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Photo credit: Jess Pinkham

How were the characters of Wink and Hushpuppy altered after Dwight and Quvenzhané were cast?

Very radically as far as the timbre. We didn’t change the story fundamentally, but we did change the behavior of the characters and the way that they respond. A good example is the storm scene. In our original version of the scene, the way those two characters responded to the storm was extremely different. Wink was completely out of his mind, and Hushpuppy was being zany, running around in a panic. But when Quvenzhané came in, she has this quiet, reserved tenacity. It didn’t make sense that she would be talking all the time. When she’d step into the character, it was all about her focus, her intensity and her internal exploration, so I pulled out all her lines. I talked through that scene with Dwight at his bakery. He was in [New Orleans] during Katrina, and he slept through the storm, much like how Wink sleeps through the storm scene. That came from him.

Dwight has a daughter who’s Hushpuppy’s age, and we were talking about what he would be doing if he didn’t evacuate and was still there with his daughter. He said, “I’d just be trying to make her think that I had a plan, whether I did or not. I’d try to make her know that I was in control, I was taking care of her and that she’d be safe.” That was a different reaction than what Wink originally had in the script. Once we rewrote it in a way that fit the actors’ sensibilities, action-wise, then we would go through the language. They would read it the way I had written it, and then I’d throw out the script and ask them to say it in their own words until we felt that we had something that told the story in their own voice. It was an endless process in which each scene became a collaboration between me and the actors.

Was the narration expanded upon as you tailored the role of Hushpuppy to Quvenzhané?

It was always a huge part of the script. The film isn’t based on the play so much as inspired by the play, but there are chunks of monologues from the play that are in the narration. That was very much how we were going to get into the mystical world of Hushpuppy. She doesn’t have any friends that she can talk to about those ideas. Her friends are the animals, so she had to be able to project into the universe inside her head. But those monologues aren’t directly pulled. The ideas that were in the original narration were written for an eleven-year-old boy, so there was a lot of adapting to do into her head and into her age. It was about simplifying a lot of the motivations that she had.

The clearest example of this took place when I interviewed her long before she ever got the narration script. We would talk about the ideas that she would be narrating about, and I would try to pull in the way that she thought about things. I would ask her how she thought the end of the world would look like, and she described people’s hands falling off and their ears coming off and not being able to see anything. Then I said, “Now imagine this was all your fault. What would you do if you had caused all this?” and she said, “I’d just try to fix it however I could.” So the idea that Hushpuppy broke something and she needs to fix it was so simple but it wasn’t clear to us until she revealed her thoughts to us.

It’s that straightforwardness of a child’s psyche that comes through in her dialogue, whereas adults would tend to complicate things.

There are several possibilities of what could be done. You could ask people to dredge the Mississippi and redistribute the land. Adults would start thinking of these scientific solutions, but for her, it’s much more emotional. I asked her, “How would you fix it?” and she said, “I’d just try to be good, try to be nice to my parents, make sure to get my homework done on time.” It was all about just being a good kid. What your notion is of what it means to “be good” is very simple but also emotionally resonant as a kid.

The score that you co-wrote with Dan Romer includes a very memorable and affirmative theme that plays in the opening celebratory scene in the Bathtub. How did you come up with that theme?

We went through a lot of different ideas of what the central thrust of the music would be and we realized that we had to score her, first and foremost. It was never about scoring what was going on in the scene—if the scene was tense or sad. It was always about her sense of what was happening right now, which was different from what was happening objectively. In the film’s opening moments, it’s just a kid running around with sparklers, but for her, it’s a moment of cultural iconography that defines the spirit of her town and the place. We knew that we needed a song that resonated back to that moment. This was an utopian place that was going to die very quickly in the film, and we needed something that constantly brought you back to her sense of what the Bathtub means. So we tried to create a folk song, an iconic song like “Auld Lang Syne” or “America the Beautiful.” It needed the sort of simple melody capable of having lyrics that every person in the Bathtub would have [memorized]. We think of it as the national anthem.

I was amazed when I learned that the film began production on the day of the BP oil spill. What impact did that have on the film as a whole?

There’s a part in the movie when the fish die after the levee is blown up. The water’s gone, but there’s something in the land itself that’s sick. It’s killing the trees and killing the fish. We shot that stuff right at this really precarious moment in the town that served as our location. There was an announcement that day stating that there wasn’t going to be any fishing allowed in the town for ten years, which is the town’s entire economy. If that had stuck, that town wouldn’t be there in five years. People would just leave. When we showed up onset, all of our boat drivers were staring into space and they told us what had happened. I wrote that conversation into the film, but later pulled it.

That same day, we shot the scene with the dead fish, and it was just really, really visceral. Sometimes you feel when you’re making a film that there is this strange thing in the ether or the karma that is protecting the movie. It felt like our movie was spilling into the world in a way that was almost scary. I think it effected the tone, not the overall shape. The oil spill just felt like another thing, in some ways. It’s just a constant barrage down there. It’s a precarious environment, and the way that it’s been abused by human beings is going to continue. It will be different things every year, but that’s what the film is about. There’s something indomitable in the spirit of the culture that is going to fight back against that, stick it out and survive.

You ended up moving to New Orleans after what you thought would be a short visit. What has made that town so irresistible to you?

It’s a different culture. Freedom, openness and fearlessness are three qualities that exist there in ways that they don’t exist in other places. People aren’t afraid, and that leads to a different type of freedom. I couldn’t have ever made this film anywhere else. If we had made “Glory” or “Beasts” someplace else, we would’ve been stopped. Someone would’ve said, “This is irresponsible, this is crazy,” which it’s not. No one has ever gotten hurt on one of the films, no one’s life has ever been at risk. We just do things a little bit more fearlessly than you normally would somewhere else. It was very much a partnership with Louisiana.

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Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry star in Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Photo credit: Mary Cybulski

PART II: DWIGHT HENRY AND QUVENZHANÉ WALLIS

Wink (Dwight Henry) and Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané “Nazie” Wallis) don’t have a typical father-daughter relationship in Benh Zeitlin’s visionary fantasy, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” With his body ailing and his hometown underwater, Wink resorts to tough-love parenting skills in order to teach his daughter self-sufficiency. That includes catching her own food while chanting phrases like, “I’m the man!”

The bond between Wink and Hushpuppy forms the heart of Zeitlin’s film, which won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including the Grand Jury Prize, and went on to snag the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Neither Henry nor Wallis had acted in a film prior to “Beasts,” and have been on a whirlwind festival tour ever since, acquiring widespread acclaim for their work. Zeitlin’s tale of an environmental crisis that unleashes prehistoric creatures known as “aurochs,” while threatening to tear Wink and Hushpuppy from their homeland, has been interpreted as a loving tribute to the resilience of New Orleanians in the face of disaster. Hollywood Chicago spoke with Wallis and Henry about making their film debuts, performing emotional scenes onset and the ways in which the film evokes the spirit of New Orleans.

What inspired you to make your film debut in this picture?

Dwight Henry (DH): It was something that I actually didn’t apply for. I own a bakery in New Orleans called the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café and I used to be located right across the street from where they were holding the auditions. They used to come over, get breakfast and put up fliers in the bakery for anyone that wanted to audition for the film. They asked me to come over and audition for them, and I was never really interested in doing it. But they kept coming over and I guess they saw some things in me that they wanted to use. So one day, I went over and auditioned for the film, never expecting to get the part. I was surprised when they called me in for another read. During that time span, I had moved my bakery from one location to another location, and they were actually looking for me, but no one could find me.

When they finally called up, they asked me about doing the film. They said that Mr. Zeitlin, the director, loved what he’d seen and they offered me the part. I actually couldn’t take it at first because when they asked me to be out of town for three months, it had only been two days since I reopened the shop. I really couldn’t do it. So they gave me more time to work things out, came back and I still wasn’t quite ready to move out of town yet. It would’ve just taken up too much time. But I worked things out with my partner at the restaurant, which enabled me to do the film, and things went great ever since. They saw some things in me that I hadn’t seen in myself. I don’t have any regrets for doing the film. I’m so glad that I was able to work things out.

Quvenzhané Wallis (QW): I just wanted to give it a try. I wanted to do [the film] as soon as I knew about it, but I didn’t think it would be anything special for me. My mom’s friend thought I would be good in the movie because she had seen me [act]. So she called up my mom and said that they were holding auditions, and looking for six to nine-year-olds. I was five when I first auditioned. I ended up having a lot of lines. After the movie was done filming, I went back in to do the narration. [pause] They should’ve just done the narration during the movie.

How did you approach the role of Hushpuppy’s father?

DW: When they first told me that they were going to bring me out to meet the girl that was going to play my daughter, they said that she didn’t approve of the first two people who were scheduled to play her father. Nazie was five then, so she had to feel comfortable with who she was working with. I had to try and think of a way to capture her imagination. I decided that since I owned a bakery, I was going to bring her two bags of toys and some goodies. So I packed up some cookies, brownies and other goodies. As soon as I saw her, I handed her the bags and saw that big ol’ smile on her face. It was easy for me to relate to Nazie because I had a daughter who was seven years old when I shot the film. The things I had to do in the movie were the same things I had to do in real life. It was an easy transition. I’m a nice, personable type of person and I know how to communicate with young girls, so it was easy to work with Nazie. She’s such a sweet, intelligent girl.

What was it about Dwight that you liked?

QW: Just the goodies. [laughs] The buttermilk drops.

Was there a favorite scene that you had in the film? I recall the moment where you light a stove with a flame-thrower…

QW: That’s not real. I couldn’t even imagine doing that myself. [pause] I liked the scene where I had to burp.

What did the aurochs look like onset?

QW: They had pigs onset and they dressed them up and trained them as the aurochs. Before all that, they just used a cardboard box and drew a little picture of them on it.

DH: They weren’t puppets.

Dwight, there’s a memorable scene in the film when you’re chanting for Hushpuppy to “beast it,” by breaking her seafood with her hands. At a time when many Americans rely on pre-made food, do you find the act of cooking empowering?

DH: Yes. That’s not only a theme in the movie, it’s a theme of the culture that I was raised in, the culture that we come from in New Orleans. We have a culture down there that is so unique. We have a rich, rich food culture. On the travels that we’ve been doing, we’ve been going to many different places. They have wonderful cultures and wonderful food, but there is nothing like the uniqueness of New Orleans. We have a strong resilience under the worst circumstances in the world that we face yearly. There’s always the possibility of losing homes and displacing families. Through the worst circumstances in the world, we always recover. We have a certain strength and resilience that is unlike other places. Once you get a taste of New Orleans and Louisiana, you just can’t get it out of your mouth. [pause] On our travels, we went to a restaurant and ordered crawfish, and ended up getting a small plate with four crawfish on it. In our culture, we throw sacks of crawfish on the table and break it with our hands. They sent us forks to eat crawfish with and that’s just not our culture. The way we did it in the movie is the way we actually do it in real life.

QW: Yeah, we all ate that whole thing. That was like a whole dinner.

DH: Those weren’t fake crabs on the table. After we shot that scene, we had a seafood party.

QW: I wasn’t gonna eat it alone!

Was it challenging to perform the film’s more emotional scenes, particularly your final scene together onscreen?

DH: The whole crew was in tears when we shot that scene. It wasn’t one of those situations where they put water in our eyes or did certain things to make us cry. That was real emotion. Mr. Zeitlin used to sit down with me for hours and hours and we’d talk about things that happened in my life, from the time I was a child to an adult. We pulled out some difficult times that I had in my life, which was really moving to me. I had lost some loved ones. Anytime I think about finding my dad lying dead on the sofa, it brings out certain emotions that are uncontrollable. We pulled out some of those stories and put them into the scene. It brought up some emotions that I couldn’t hold back. Sometimes you try to hold your emotions back, but when you touch on certain subjects, it came to be so natural.

QW: It was like a crying party. Everybody who was near the set from Court 13 was crying. No matter what they did, they were all crying, because they were either looking at the camera or they were listening.

Did it feel like a family atmosphere onset?

DH: Yes it did. I always say that if I never do another film again, the things that I’ll hold dear to my heart are the friends I met at Court 13. It’s not like they’re a big production company. These fellas grew up together, they went to school together and it’s like a family. I became friends with Mr. Zeitlin, the producers, the art department, and so many other people. They are really like a family. I could see that company ten, twenty years from now still being together. It’s amazing how people can come together and stay together like that. You get a sense of the camaraderie and the family unity that they have when you’re around them. You can’t fake that.

Nazie, has this experience made you want to act again?

QW: Uh huh.

You’re the man.

QW: [pumps fist] Yes!

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