There was once a time when we looked to the Sundance Film Festival to present us with groundbreaking independent films that challenged and changed what we understood about contemporary cinema. But as the festival became increasingly infiltrated by major studios and A-list stars over the course of the ’90s, it lost its sense of revelatory edge; at its best, Sundance now gives well-known actors the opportunity to gain prestige and acclaim by doing smaller character-based films, and can usually be depended upon to introduce us to buzzy new ingenues and precocious young auteurs. But this year, a massively ambitious yet micro-budgeted film made by a principled collective in southern Louisiana hit the festival with enough impact to shake off decades of cynical atrophy. That film is Beasts of the Southern Wild, the feature-length directorial debut of 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin, and it is the full and total realization of the Sundance dream: not only does it introduce us to the staggering talents of new actors and filmmakers, but it majestically opens the gate to an entirely new and fantastical world. It is truly unlike anything you have ever seen.
Loosely adapted from Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious by Alibar and Zeitlin, Beasts takes place on a fictitious bayou island off the coast of southern Louisiana, known as the Bathtub. It is separated from the mainland by a vast levee, and is populated by a totally self-sufficient and “wild” community of people. One of the children on the island is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a tough and willful little girl who lives with her feral but devoted father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who is attempting to prepare Hushpuppy for life after his imminent death. She understands that she has a key role in a much larger picture, both in the interconnectedness of life as well as a grander mythology, and that one day scientists will study her life the way that anthropologists study cavemen. But when a physical argument between she and Wink coincides with the arrival of a menacing new storm, Hushpuppy believes she has triggered a grave and apocalyptic chain of events (including a stampede of rampaging Aurochs unleashed by the melting ice caps) that only she can fix.
We’ll be posting our interview with writer/director Benh Zeitlin a bit later, but for now, Spinning Platters sits down with the film’s two unlikely stars. The 8-year-old Wallis (whose first name is pronounced kwe-VEN-zhah-nay but answers to Nazie, which rhymes with hazy, not yahtzee) was 5 when she first auditioned for the role, stunning the filmmakers with her remarkable presence and emotional resonance. Henry is best-known in his native New Orleans as a baker and the owner of Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe in the Seventh Ward. Neither had ever acted before, and currently find themselves in the seventh month of a relentless promotional whirlwind. They’d just returned from the Cannes Film Festival when we spoke, where Beasts won the Caméra d’Or prize (it previously won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance). When I asked the gregarious Henry, whose easy-talking and comfortable manner helps offset the understandably shyer and more reserved nature of his much-younger costar, how the experience had been for him, he pointed at a painting behind my head of a small sailboat on a rocky sea. “We just ridin’ a wave,” he said with a smile. “Wherever the wave take us, that’s where we goin’.”
What do you remember about the first time you two met?
Dwight Henry: Well, I live in New Orleans and she lives in Houma. So when they told me that they were going to pick me up and take me to Houma to meet Nazie, I remember they told me that she actually turned down two Winks already! Two people auditioned for Wink, and she turned them down because it wasn’t a good feel for her and she didn’t want to work with them. So I had to use a little strategy. I had to think about how to win her over. The best way to a little child’s heart is toys or sweets, and I’m a sweets person; I own a bakery. So I packed up boxes of all different kind of sweets and put ’em in a little bag, and we went to Houma. And as soon as she saw them– [Wallis lights up] See how she’s smiling right now? As soon as I saw her and handed her them two bags, she had this big smile on her face and I knew I had it. [laughs] So that was our first meeting. The first time you meet someone, your first impression has to be your best one, because if your first one ain’t good, you lost it. So I knew I had her the first time I met her.
How were the sweets? Were they good?
Quvenzhane Wallis: Yes! They were delicious.
Henry: And I’m constantly still bringing them to her.
When people ask you what the movie is about, how do you describe it? It’s such a unique story.
Wallis: I say it’s about a little girl and her father. The little girl destroys the world by hitting her father in the heart. Everything’s falling apart and she thinks it’s all her fault, so she’s trying to put it back together again.
Henry: I say it’s about a resilient group of people from south Louisiana that refuse to leave the land and people that they love under the worst circumstances in the world.
How did you feel when you saw yourselves on the big screen for the first time?
Wallis: I thought I was a little midget! It’s a big screen, and then you look at yourself and you’re so small! Like, as soon as I saw myself, I looked at the screen and I looked at my hand, and my hand was so tiny! It just made me feel small, but it also made me feel glad after.
Henry: When I first saw myself on the screen, what I was actually worried about most was my performance. I never acted before, so I wanted to do a good job while we were shooting. I worked real hard, listened to my acting coach and stuff like that. When I was sitting in the screening watching the movie, my worry was how people were going to react to my performance. So when the movie was finally finished and all the reviews came out and all the critics and the people in the audience were telling me how good our performances were, it was a good feeling that people enjoyed not only the film, but me and Nazie’s performances at the same time. I knew Benh had made a good film and I wanted my performance to be good too, and from what people tell me, I think I did a decent job.
I think that’s safe to say. How did you feel when you first saw the special effects after they’d been added?
Wallis: I thought the Aurochs were cool! They’re like this fierce force, and they just keep going and going and getting faster and faster. After a while they get tired so they go slower…but then they go faster! I liked them. All the crashing…
Henry: The ice glaciers, all the rocks coming out of the ice glaciers and everything like that. It was different. It was real.
What did Benh tell you to react to?
Wallis: He just said, “Try! Try to relate to what she does.”
What do you think Wink means when he keeps telling Hushpuppy to “beast it”? What does he want her to learn?
Henry: He’s not gonna be here that long. He’s dying, and she doesn’t know that her dad’s dying. He’s constantly emphasizing passionately the need for her to know how to do things. As a parent, as a father, that’s what we do. We have little kids, we teach them how to do things, and we want them to be strong when we’re not here. In one of the scenes I had to teach her how to fish through the time when all of the fish are dead because the saltwater came in and killed them. You have to know how to survive, and that was one of the things that I did throughout the course of the movie — emphasizing the importance of her survival when her dad’s not gonna be here. You have to know how to fish on your own, you have to know how to feed yourself, because you mom’s not here and your dad’s dying. It was extremely important to me that she know how to make it when I’m not here, because she is the most important person in the world to me.
And how do you think Hushpuppy feels about her daddy?
Wallis: She thinks he’s just playing and trying to make her scared, but after a while he starts coughing up blood and she starts thinking about what he said. And as soon as he gets to the hospital, she realizes that he’s really dying, and she’s trying to get him back. When he finally says he’s dying, she’s still trying to understand. She gave him medicine, she did everything she can. She was kinda believing in her father.
Have you had any especially surprising reactions to the movie?
Henry: I haven’t gotten any negative responses from people at Cannes, Sundance, interviewers, friends, family; I have received not one negative comment about the film, haven’t read anything that’s negative. Everybody that’s seen it loves it and is passionate about, they want to see it multiple times! And it’s a film everyone can see. It’s a movie you can bring your whole family to.
What do you think people are responding to so strongly about it?
Henry: The strength and resolve that these people show under the worst circumstances in the world. The world is coming down on them and they refuse to leave. They show a unity and a camaraderie that’s unheard of. People don’t stick together under the worst circumstances in the world; people usually fall apart and split up. But these people hold together strong. And that’s the way that people are in south Louisiana. They’re resilient, and there’s not much that they can’t endure. It’s a strength and a resolve and a resilience that we show, and you can feel it in the film.
If there was a sequel, what do you think would be happening with Hushpuppy?
Henry: She’ll be the king of the Bathtub. She would be the king, the mayor, the governor of the island. Everyone would look up to her. And if another another storm comes and threatens to destroy the island, she would be the one that everyone would look up to to take care of any problems that occur.
Do you agree?
Wallis: Yeah! And she would live with someone else, like Miss Bathsheeba or Little Jo or Walrus. And they would live together, and still do what they always do, and still have Wink in their hearts.
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens in San Francisco tomorrow, July 6.