ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. — This sliver of marshland in the Louisiana bayou would inspire most people to make a U-turn, not a movie.
Members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe and local Cajuns have called this swampy spit about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans home for generations, but their numbers are shrinking as rapidly as the island itself. Erosion is swallowing the soil, saltwater intrusion is killing the cypress trees and the island's wooden houses and bridges are toppling into the brackish water. A proposed 72-mile levee system will be constructed to the island's north, eternally bequeathing Isle de Jean Charles to the Gulf of Mexico.
"I vividly remember the first time I drove down this road," 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin said on a recent muggy afternoon as he revisited the island's single street. In one front yard, a young girl dunked herself in a trash can serving as an upright swimming pool, while the operator of a small marina waited for fishing boats that never arrived. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed everywhere, and discarded shrimp nets and crawfish pots littered the lawns of the few dozen residents. "And I thought, 'This is what this story is about. This is the edge of the world. And here are these staunch holdouts — the people who refuse to leave. This is the place I wanted to spend a year.'"
The product of that year is "Beasts of the Southern Wild,"a dizzying amalgam of narrative storytelling, magical realism and environmental allegory populated with nonprofessional actors. Screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 15 and opening in limited release June 27, "Beasts" has already become the most celebrated independent American film of 2012.
After winning the grand jury prize and a cinematography honor at January's Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight acquired U.S. rights to the movie, "Beasts" collected two more awards at last month's Cannes Film Festival — best first feature and a critics' prize. The accolades are all the more unusual because "Beasts" is Zeitlin's first feature-length film.
"Beasts" unfolds in an only lightly fictionalized world called the Bathtub. Like the Louisiana outposts that inspired it, the Bathtub is severed, both economically and geographically, from modern civilization. Its levees trap, rather than block, floodwaters — hence, the bath analogy — so sink or swim is less adage than way of life.
By choice and necessity, the inhabitants of the Bathtub are self-sufficient, and none is more independent than Hushpuppy, the young daughter of Wink, a single father dying from an unspecified illness. Wink often leaves his daughter on her own — in part to train her for life without a parent. Hushpuppy survives because she possesses a magical bond with nature, an essential gift when prehistoric aurochs, the film's titular beasts, trek from Antarctica to the bayous as part of the film's subplot about cataclysmic climate change.
"I'm always writing in a heightened reality of some kind," said Zeitlin, who penned "Beasts" with playwright Lucy Alibar, as he swung by to say hello to Barbera Dupree, a local woman who let Zeitlin sleep in her camper for four months during filming. "I like to get outside of issues of fact. I'm not that interested in specifics. I want something that comes out of the real world, but that is synthesized."
That real-world genesis of "Beasts" was Hurricane Katrina, which not only shaped the film's story but also helped bring Zeitlin, a New York native, to the region. Now ensconced in Louisiana, he and his friends run Court 13, what he calls an "independent filmmaking army" for live-action and animated shorts, music videos and feature films (the first of which is "Beasts"). Casting, screenwriting and even set design are approached in a grass-roots sort of way.
"Compared to the traditional film hierarchy," Zeitlin said as he drove past a hand-painted sign at the island's entrance that read "Don't Give Up," "it allows for a lot more individual creativity to end up on screen."
Drawn to Louisiana
The son of two folklorists (his father is the founding director of City Lore: The New York Center for Urban Culture), Zeitlin studied film and sociology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he directed a short film called "Egg," a hallucinatory adaptation of "Moby-Dick" told largely in stop-motion animation. After graduation, he bumped from job to job and country to country — "I had all sorts of jobs, and was not enjoying it," he said — and was essentially homeless in the Czech Republic in the months after Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005.
"I was generally living on a park bench in Prague," Zeitlin said. He had been trying and failing to make another short called "Glory at Sea" (at one point, he hoped to shoot on a Greek island). "I loved New Orleans as a kid and was checking in on the storm from the park bench. There was this eerie moment when I connected the story of 'Glory at Sea' to the storm."
Zeitlin went to Louisiana in 2006 to make the 25-minute film, a look at a group of hurricane survivors who jerry-build a vessel from storm debris to find loved ones miraculously alive under the floodwaters. "Glory at Sea" cemented Zeitlin's visual style and musical influences (as with "Beasts," he wrote the film's score with Dan Romer) and his ties to the region. But the director found the narrative heart of "Beasts" in Alibar's play "Juicy and Delicious," about a young boy's belief that his father's looming death will bring about the apocalypse.
The "Beasts" script went through countless iterations — "massive, massive changes," Zeitlin said — and the project was guided by accidents, both happy and nearly tragic. Zeitlin was rear-ended by a drunk driver in 2008, and while he nursed a shattered pelvis for six months, an insurance settlement allowed him to pay off $30,000 in debts and have enough left over to revise his "Beasts" script. He and Alibar spent about six months meeting with bayou locals, with Zeitlin perched on the docks of the Pointe Aux Chenes Marina with his laptop for weeks, equal parts screenwriter and anthropologist.
"I wanted to get the feeling right of what it feels like to be down here — what the struggle is like. It was not a tale of rich versus poor, or black versus white — it was more about destiny and will," said Zeitlin, who is white and directed a cast whose main characters are African American. "I wanted to make a film about a community united, not a community divided. It's about surviving losing the thing that made you. How does your spirit survive the onslaught?" In a fitting, if not tragic, twist of timing, production on the film started the very day the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 and spilling nearly 5 million gallons of crude oil into the gulf.
Well-to-do visitors to the area (and viewers of the movie) would be struck by the area's apparent lack of resources, but Zeitlin viewed it precisely the opposite way. "There's no money. There's no technology. Everything is built by hand. But they see themselves as rich — in friendship, community, food," Zeitlin said. "Every night, you are eating what would be the equivalent of a $400 meal in a New York restaurant, for free."
Although Zeitlin and his Court 13 collaborators (the collective is named after a squash court where "Egg" was filmed) took a grass-roots approach to their production, they needed funding from beyond the bayou. They found a backer in Cinereach, a 6-year-old New York nonprofit that has disbursed more than $5 million in grants to more than 100 filmmakers, but had never fully financed an entire movie. Soon after principals Michael Raisler and Philipp Engelhorn visited Zeitlin and producers Josh Penn and Dan Janvey in New Orleans, Cinereach put up $1.2 million.
"It was clear that there was this passion there," Engelhorn said. "They really needed to make the film a certain way. It wasn't about advancing their careers. It wasn't about getting paid." Yet given the ambition of the film's script, the budget — partly offset by grants and equipment from the Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society and Rooftop Filmmakers' Fund — seemed as paltry as a low levee facing a Category 5 hurricane.
"The script was hard to describe — it was all over the place — and incredibly ambitious," said Paul Mezey, who joined "Beasts" as an executive producer. "You looked at it and said, 'This is impossible.'" Like others who have worked with Zeitlin, though, Mezey was won over by the filmmaker's dauntlessness, and his promise of a memorable collaboration. "His message is, 'Come on this unforgettable journey, and you won't believe it until you experience it,'" Engelhorn said.
Open to experience
Not everyone was willing to sign up for the "Beasts" ride. While Zeitlin was determined to cast some non-actors in lead roles, he intended to hire people with established credits as department heads. He met with several cinematographers, who considered the resources (few), the schedule (fast) and the bugs (countless). "There was this slow dawning of what they were in for," Zeitlin said. The potential cinematographers hurried back to Hollywood, and the film ultimately was shot by Ben Richardson, one of three cinematographers on "Glory at Sea" (a production that was repeatedly shut down for lack of cash).
"We wanted to bring in people who would fit into our family — people that you would want to hang out with — and that you could imagine being friends with for the rest of your life," Zeitlin said.
After auditioning some 4,000 children for the role of Hushpuppy, he cast Quvenzhané Wallis, a 6-year-old local elementary student. He wanted a trained actor for the role of Wink, her father. But when it became clear that Quvenzhané had no chemistry with the professionals, Zeitlin persuaded 47-year-old New Orleans baker Dwight Henry, whose Henry's Bakery & Deli was frequented by Court 13 members, to play Wink. The director brought in acting coaches to work with Henry in the pre-dawn hours as he made his signature buttermilk drops and cinnamon raisin squares.
Just as the script was altered by the stories Zeitlin heard during his research and casting sessions, the "Beasts" production was guided by an improvisational spirit, with ideas popping up around warm campfires and over cold beers. "That's sort of built into the plan — to adapt to the elements as they come in," Zeitlin said. "It's a process of finding things that speak to you and writing them into the story, rather than having a preordained vision of how everything is going to be."
On one reconnaissance trip before filming started, Zeitlin and his producers stumbled upon the Cajun Country Stop in Bourg, an abandoned gas station and mini-mart. Well behind it in the weeds was a forsaken bus, which would serve as the geographical center of Wink and Hushpuppy's life. To secure another location, associate producer Casey Coleman made peace with one gun-toting landowner over a case of Milwaukee's Best. And without a special-effects budget to create the aurochs as computer-animated creatures, animal tamer Kathryn Bryant trained pigs from birth to follow simple directions; when the cameras rolled, they were outfitted with auroch costumes.
The movie was shot over the course of seven weeks in about 20 main locations, and while the production ballooned to nearly 100 people — "It was a panic of hiring when we fell behind," Zeitlin recalled — "Beasts" was largely made with a much smaller core. When Zeitlin's old Chevy pickup truck exploded into flames on a scouting trip, the filmmakers had a creative epiphany: Local boat engineer Dan Gladstone converted the truck bed into Wink's makeshift vessel. "Filmmaking is usually about getting rid of risk and uncertainty," Mezey said. "But Benh wants to embrace that — to put yourself out there and see what happens."
Zeitlin and editors Crockett Doob and Affonso Gonçalves spent 18 months — about triple the typical schedule — cutting the film, largely trying to make sure audiences wouldn't turn against Wink, whose parenting is not only unconventional but also occasionally rough. "The film wasn't really connecting until we showed it at Sundance," Zeitlin said, wearing a T-shirt, cutoff shorts and work boots as he sidestepped poison oak encroaching on the film's abandoned school bus. "But people got a lot of things we didn't think they were going to get."
Fox Searchlight, which paid no minimum guarantee to acquire the film's U.S. rights, knows that "Beasts" is a tricky sell. Based on how well it played at Sundance and Cannes, it's clear that critics will flock to the film, but will audiences?
Zeitlin hasn't made any money off the endeavor. In person, he's remarkably candid and articulate. Having just returned from Cannes, he was eager to talk about the great films he'd seen (including Michael Haneke's "Amour") while dismissing a visit to Paul Allen's larger-than-life yacht, a highlight for many festival guests, as appalling. While some reviewers have compared his directorial style to Terrence Malick, Zeitlin would be more flattered if "Beasts" was weighed against films by a few of his favorite directors—John Cassavetes, Emir Kusturica and Mike Leigh.
Zeitlin would like to tell another "epic folk tale" shot in Louisiana, but he said he's still broke and the driver's window on his car won't roll up, leaving him soaked whenever Louisiana's clouds pour down. Yet somehow the image of the flooded director fits perfectly with the themes of his film.
"As you get closer and closer to the gulf, you feel nature dying," Zeitlin said as he drove off Isle de Jean Charles, back toward New Orleans, where he shares a run-down house with his sister, Eliza, a production designer. "And the closer you are to the gulf, the closer you are to the end."