Beasts of the Southern Wild

‘It all goes quiet behind my eyes.
I see everything that made me
Flying around in invisible pieces
I see that I’m a little piece, of a big, big universe.
In a million years when kids go to school, they’re going to know, that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub’ Hushpuppy Beasts of the Southern Wild

A native of New Orleans, Quvenzhané Wallis was picked from auditions of over 4000 children to play the central role in Beasts of the Southern Wild – she was just 5 years old, although she said, she was six in the auditions. The director, 29-year old Benh Zietlin, auditioned Wallis for his first feature film and picked her to play Hushpuppy, a little girl who lives with her hard drinking father, ‘Wink’, in a fictional bayou, called the Bathtub.

Bathtub is an eerily beautiful wetland, named because of the constant risk to flooding. It exists below the levee wall, a community living off the grid and outside of the law. The fabric of their universe and the world around them is unravelling, the polar caps are melting, releasing strange gargantuan beasts called the aurochs into this drowned world. Within this nether world, fantastic and otherworldly, little Hushpuppy is trying to stay strong, even her mother had swam away in the floods, and is mentioned as being so lovely, that when she passed by the gas stove, it would light itself. It’s hard to imagine how the film would work without Wallis at its center and now at only 9 years old, she is the youngest ever nominee in the best actress category for an Academy Award. The 85th Academy Awards ceremony takes place in LA on 24th February 2013.

Dwight Henry, who plays her ailing father, Wink, had never acted before. His profession is as a baker and a chef and he had turned down the part three times, as at the time, he was expanding his business, the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café. Henry said, “I knew the filmmakers because there’s a casting agency across the street from the bakery, and they used to come over in the mornings to get breakfast and doughnuts and things, and they put fliers in the bakery asking people to audition for an upcoming movie.” The producers eventually had to persuade him to try out for the part. Using local people for actors, who had lived through and had been affected by Hurricane Katrina, adds to the rawness and authenticity of the film, and in turn deepens the emotional resonance.

Born and raised on Long Island, Benh Zeitlin’s parents are both folklorists; before starting the film, he lived for some time in the southern states of America and became fascinated with its people and textures. The screenplay for the film is based on a stage play by Lucy Alibar, called Juicy and Delicious, a bluegrass musical about sex and Southern food, set at the ends of time. Alibar and Zietlin co-wrote the screenplay for Beasts, with the help of script workshops in Sundance and they pulled the script together, perfecting the cadences of the Louisiana tones and customs, which they immersed themselves, whilst living in the South.

Beasts of the Southern Wild had its world première at the Sundance Film Festival. It was made with only a budget of $1.8m. The sets were designed and decorated from found materials, which included a makeshift boat, constructed of an old car and used tires, with a landscape of floating huts and primitive houses raised on stilts, constructed with the randomness of folk art and the beauty of an Edward Kienholz installation.