“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is unusual for a number of reasons. First, it stars 8-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as a girl named Hush Puppy, who lives with her father in a part of Lousianna called The Bathtub.
Second, it has dominated almost every film festival since it screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and that winning streak is expected to carry it to some Oscar attention.
We spoke with the director, Benh Zeitlin, about his experiences making the film on a shoe-string budget with non-professional actors and the more-than-warm response it has received from critics.
What has the overwhelming festival response been like for you?
It’s surreal. You never really think about it when you’re making the film. We imagined ourselves right now doing screenings at community centers and trying to organize groups ourselves on jerry-rigged screens and show the film in the spirit in which it was made. To have it broadcasting across the world is such a privilege. It feels like when you’re looking at the globe as a little kid and spinning it around and imagining all these vast places. It’s a moment like that where you get to imagine that your film’s going to be seen by people on the other side of the planet. It’s pretty special.
What are you most excited about when it comes to a wide audience finally seeing the film.
We always had this idea that—we may have not necessarily believed this when we were making this—the film was a populist movie. It’s kind of hard to convince anyone of that because it’s non-professional actors; it’s a low-budget film; it’s not particularly like anything anyone’s seen before. We always believed that the film trades in very basic emotions. It has a core that can be understood by anyone. It’s exciting and uplifting. It’s been great to see how well that works, that that happened on the festival circuit. It was made to be appreciated by people who don’t watch independent film as a hobby. I really think it will.
Was there ever any concern that the world of The Bathtub would translate to a general audience?
Definitely. The movie is very much about a regional thing and very specific group in culture. You’re making the film with that group, and you feel like you’re in this little bubble. You’re at the same time believing that you’re doing something that anyone can understand, but you have to wait for the world to tell you whether you’re right about that or not. Part of the reason we told the film as a folk tale and not as a social issue film or a polemical or a political film. It wasn’t a call to action in anyway. We wanted to take the themes that were inspired by south Louisiana and figure out a way to talk about them in a way that anyone could understand them anywhere. We had this film that was about a community that’s trying to hold onto their land and hold on to their place, but trying to tell it through the story of a child losing her father, which is something that, as the film says, everybody goes through that. We wanted to find a way to talk about the emotion in a way that had running legs.
Was the emotion that’s such an important part of the film apparent on set?
It’s hard to say, in the bubble. When you’re making a film, you’re living an experience of non-stop panic and terror that the whole things not going to work. There’s never a moment when you’re sitting there on set going, “Yeah, I got this. I nailed it.” There are certain moments in the film, the actor and I went through some emotional experiences, getting those performances that were so real. It was after certain scenes that I would feel that we had gone through it. You feel the emotion that the scene is about on set. There’s a scene where both of the characters cry in the film, where literally every single person on set was weeping. I was crying, six inches away from Quvenzhané. The boom operator, the camera operator, the producer is at the monitor sopping wet.
What was your experience like working with Quvenzhané?
I had absolute faith in her the whole time. She’s a totally otherworldly type of person. From the first moment I met her, she has this wisdom and this poise and strength that is way beyond her years, much like the character. It was never like a series of tricks. We didn’t have to treat her like a baby or trick her into giving performances. She was really able to internalize emotions and understand motivation and really get what the character is feeling at any given moment. It was, of course, always scary, and you’re subject to the moods of six year-old and when a six year-old gets sleepy. You have to tailor the entire shoot around taking care of her and making sure that the set feels like a place where a kid can be. The reward for that was she always came out and was able to take us to places where we never even believed that character could go.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” opens in select cities today.