How a Drunk Driver and a Horrific Crash Led to 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In early 2010, just weeks before writer-director Benh Zeitlin was to start shooting his first feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, his pickup truck burst into flames. "It was a blue Chevy that I got for $500, and it was basically dead when I bought it, but we'd jerry-rigged it into functionality and driven from New Orleans to Montegut, La., where we set up offices in this abandoned gas station," recalls Zeitlin, 30. "My sister walked out of the truck, and then there was black smoke coming from the hood and this huge explosion."
As the production team rushed out and firemen were summoned to the scene, the filmmaker had a vision: What if he turned the burned-out hulk into a boat, the very boat that his two main characters -- a 6-year-old African-American girl and her dirt-poor, dying father -- would use to navigate the bayous where Beasts is set, before and after a hurricane ravages their community?
That metallic contraption on which the girl, Hushpuppy, and her father, Wink, float through a world that is part real and part imaginary has come to define Zeitlin's film, a $1.8 million drama centered on a fictional bare-bones fishing colony off the Louisiana coast, known as "the Bathtub," whose inhabitants, despite all the hardships they encounter, express a ferocious will to survive. The movie was an immediate sensation when it debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight beat out several other distributors, scooping up U.S. rights for nearly $1 million. Although the film has collected a modest $11.2 million domestically, it has enraptured festival audiences across the globe.
Zeitlin, a first-time feature director who previously had made only one short, didn't just turn that burned-out pickup into a symbol of his characters' resourcefulness, he also squeezed every last drop from the material at hand, often transforming it beyond recognition.
Nowhere was this more evident than with Hushpuppy, the film's feisty heroine who began life as a 10-year-old boy -- played by a 22-year-old man -- in Lucy Alibar's stage play Juicy and Delicious. The play, says Alibar, revolved around a father and son and how the father's death "changed their relationship and Hushpuppy's sense of the world."
The writer, who grew up in the Florida Panhandle, had been friends with Zeitlin (a New Yorker who moved to New Orleans after graduating from Wesleyan University in 2004) ever since the two met as teenagers at a playwriting camp. Zeitlin had read her play and seen it staged in a 2007 workshop but only began seriously thinking of turning it into a film after he had his own brush with death in 2008, when he was driving to Austin for a screening of his short Glory at Sea and a truck rear-ended his vehicle.
"It was 5 in the morning, and we were at a stoplight, and the driver was drunk and ran into us at full speed," he recalls. "I was in the back seat, and the collision collapsed it into the front seat, like an accordion. It turned my leg backward and shattered my pelvis, and I had to move back to New York for eight months. And that was when I started writing Beasts."
Shuttling between New York and Alibar's family home in Florida, Zeitlin urged his friend to change the play's boy into a girl. "Looking back, that character sounded more like a girl because a lot was drawn from my own emotional core," Alibar realized. Together, over the next year and more, the two hammered out their screenplay, refining it even further when they were accepted into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, where they worked with writers Michael Goldenberg (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and Scott Frank (Out of Sight).
At the same time, Zeitlin's producing partners -- Josh Penn and two former Wesleyan colleagues, Dan Janvey and Michael Gottwald -- set about raising the money.
Financing came with surprising ease. Cinereach, a nonprofit organization based in New York that has given $5 million in grants to socially minded movies, agreed to fund Beasts nearly in its entirety; further support came through a $100,000 grant from the San Francisco Film Society and $100,000 from Sundance and Japanese broadcaster NHK. A 30 percent-plus tax break from the state of Louisiana helped bring down costs.
By late 2009, the neophyte team was moving toward production, even though the script was unfinished, no locations had been chosen and the girl who would play Hushpuppy remained undiscovered.
To find Hushpuppy and Wink, the filmmakers posted fliers throughout New Orleans and held grass-roots meetings in community centers and schools, a strategy they had learned while working on Barack Obama's first presidential campaign. In all, about 4,000 girls auditioned for the lead.
But it wasn't until Quvenzhane Wallis, then 5, showed up for the auditions (pushed by a friend of her schoolteacher mother) that Zeitlin knew he'd struck gold. The actress remembers going to "maybe five auditions" for Beasts before she met Zeitlin. She was back home in New Orleans, sitting at her computer, when she got the call that she had been cast. "I was like 'Yes!,' and I started getting up and dancing," she says.
Wallis in many ways established the movie's tone. At one point, Zeitlin had contemplated a more comedic approach, but he felt Wallis would bring an emotional weight he previously had not envisioned.
Next, he had to find her father, an angry, hard-drinking, desperate man struggling with being a single father while battling a terminal illness. In the midst of a lengthy search, Zeitlin remembered Dwight Henry, who had served the production team delicacies from his New Orleans bakery.
But the director faced two problems. First, he couldn't find Henry, who had relocated his bakery. Then, when he did track him down about two months later, Henry -- who had never acted -- declined the role, afraid it would take him from his work. "I turned them down three times," he admits -- until Zeitlin agreed to rehearse in the middle of the night, around baking hours.
When production finally began in April 2010, it was complicated not just by the 100-degree-plus heat, which led at least one crew member to faint, but also by having to re-create the Bathtub in three different southern Louisiana locations so that the sets could be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere to reflect the various stages of the storm.
Working on a shoestring budget made everything challenging, not least finding accommodations for the crew.
"There was a lot of putting people up in fishing camps and renting bunk beds," says producer Penn. "Benh's sister stayed in Wink's house, which we called 'the shack at the back.' And someone else slept in the school boat we built." One day that boat started to sink. "It had been sitting there doing pretty well, and then it was under water," he continues. "Luckily, we had this incredible construction team who figured out a solution."
There was no immediate solution to another challenge, when Henry lost his voice after one demanding scene in which his home is hit by the hurricane.
"It was a real intense scene with the house shaking and the water flooding -- a lot of things I went through in real life," says Henry, who had remained in New Orleans when Katrina hit and found himself wandering neck-deep in water.
During the scene, "I was screaming at the top of my lungs, and after about the third take, I went to do a scream and nothing came out! They had to bring me to the hospital."
For five days, Henry couldn't speak a word, and the producers were afraid he might have damaged his voice for good. The shooting schedule was re-ordered; but fortunately, Henry had only strained his vocal cords, which eventually recovered.
Meanwhile, a far greater crisis was unfolding -- the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which began in April 2010 and continued unabated for three months.
When the spill first occurred, the crew, then located in the coastal town of Montegut, had no idea it would impact them. "We were so immersed in what we were doing, it took a minute before we realized what had happened, and it took BP a while to admit oil was gushing," says Zeitlin. "Then there was a real sense this could be the end of the town. One day, there was even an announcement that they were going to close fishing for 10 years, which would have been a death sentence."
It wasn't, but it did lead to a harrowing confrontation when the filmmakers were told they couldn't film in a key location, a marina that had been taken over by BP. "We had to talk them into letting us shoot some of our final days there," notes Penn. "Every day, the oil spill was getting worse and worse."
When principal photography wrapped July 3, he and the director were close to collapse. "I was a shell of a human being," says Zeitlin.
Over the next year and a half, he edited a wealth of material down to an hour and a half. He was convinced he had something special but unsure anyone else would think so. Finally, in January 2012, his producers almost had to yank the movie from his hands, two days after he finished the sound mix, so that it could debut at Sundance.
Nearly four years after the car accident that launched him on this strange and magical journey, he was whisked onto a plane where he fell into a profound sleep, effectively waking in a theater where he was able to see his work before an audience for the first time.
"People went crazy," he recalls. "But I thought, maybe that's the way they always behaved, because I'd never been to a premiere before."
A HIT ON THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT: Since it debuted at Sundance in January, Beasts has been racking up awards.
- Sundance Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize Cinematography Award
- Cannes Film Festival: Golden Camera FIPRESCI Prize
- Los Angeles Film Festival: Audience Award, Best Narrative Feature
- Deauville Film Festival Best Film Revelations Prize
- Seattle Film Festival: Best Director
HOW TO MAKE A SILK PURSE OUT OF A PIG'S EAR
One of the biggest challenges director Benh Zeitlin had to surmount in filming Beasts of the Southern Wild was how to create the title beasts. They appear in the finished film as primeval, mammoth-like monsters known as "aurochs" that the diminutive Hushpuppy imagines are invading her world. The term itself refers to the caveman paintings that playwright-turned-screenwriter Lucy Alibar first learned about while reading references to them in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
Zeitlin's ingenious solution was to base his creatures on the potbellied pigs he had seen at Alibar's family home, given to her criminal defense attorney father in lieu of cash.
"We ended up having all these pigs because they are an expensive animal worth $300 or something," explains Alibar. "They're weird-looking animals Benh had never seen before."
With makeup, including specially made headdresses, added horns and low-angle shots, real-life hogs were transformed into beasts -- beasts of the southern wild.