Beasts of the Southern Wild is a spellbinding adventure set just past the known edges of the American Bayou, in a forgotten but defiant community known as The Bathtub. The film follows a girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) as she takes on rising waters, a sinking village, changing times, an army of prehistoric creatures and an unraveling universe that she bravely tries to stitch back together through the sheer force of spirit and resilience in order to save her ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Shot on location in the coastal parishes of Louisiana with local non-actors in the lead roles, Beasts of the Southern Wild came to the Sundance Film Festival a hand-made, fiercely imaginative underdog and left a runaway hit and winner of the coveted Grand Jury Prize.
At the press day, we sat down with Wallis, Henry and director Benh Zeitlin to talk about what inspired the heartfelt story about a fantastical bayou neverland and its tenacious characters. Wallis and Henry discussed what it was like acting in their first movie, how they prepared for their roles, and the special bond they formed on and off screen. Zeitlin told us about the collaborative writing process, how he set about creating a mystical Mississippi Delta community, and why he has always been interested in people that never abandon the places and people they care about even when it’s dangerous.
Question: Can you talk about casting non-actors in the lead roles and what that process was like?
Benh Zeitlin: It’s casting people who are acting for the first time more than it is non-actors. I mean, these guys definitely aren’t playing themselves in any way. They really learned how to play these parts and then they have this inborn charisma that you need to light up the screen. It’s a different kind of process and it really benefits us. We try to collaborate intensely on every element of the film, the characters included. What ends up on screen is very much [collaborative]. There are things that I wrote. There are things that Dwight (Henry) told me how he would do it. We would bring the script to the bakery at night and we would do these interviews where we would go through our lives and take our lives and relate them to scenes in the script, then rewrite scenes based on that. I would say “Here’s what I have Wink doing in this scene. I feel like this connects to this experience that you’ve had.” And then, he would say “Well I wasn’t really thinking that way at this time. My focus was here.” And so then, you would throw that script right into the donut oven and burn it and rewrite it and always try to get the script as close as possible to the voice of the characters and let the people who are playing the parts teach us about what it would have been to go through some of the things that happened in the film.
Dwight, before you acted in this film, was your other job at a bakery?
Dwight Henry: I own a bakery called the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café. It was actually right across the street from where they used to do the auditions. They used to come over and get breakfast in the morning and get donuts in the morning and put little flyers in the bakery if anybody wanted to audition for a part.
What’s your specialty?
Henry: Buttermilk drops, hashbrowns, stuffed bell peppers and a whole array of different types of donuts and pastries and candied yams. They used to come over for my sweet potatoes every day. They’d come over and it was just sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes. I specialize in a number of things.
Did Benh ask you to be in the movie or did you get involved when you saw all this activity going on?
Henry: Well, that’s another little story right there. I put the flyers in actually for my customers to get it, and I always wanted to go over there and audition for it, but I never had time to go over there running a restaurant. One day, me and one of the producers were sitting in the bakery. So I said “C’mon Michael (Gottwald), let’s go over there and do this audition. I got a little time right now.” So I went over there and did the audition and about two weeks later he said “Mr. Henry, Mr. Zeitlin wants you to do another read.” So I said “Another read?” I said “Okay, it’s getting serious now. I’ve got to go back again.” I went back and did the other reading, and within that time period of me doing the second reading, I moved my business from one location to another location, and they were actually looking for me to give me the part but no one knew where I was at. They were asking all my neighbors and my old landlord, “Where is Mr. Henry?” Nobody knew where Mr. Henry was at until two days after I opened up. Mr. Gottwald come in and said “Mr. Henry, you got the part.” He had a calendar in his hand and a schedule. I needed to move and I couldn’t do it right then and there. I wanted to do it. I was flattered but I had some things I had to work out first. So, it took a little while for me to work things out. They gave me a chance to work things out, and I worked things out and went and did the film, and it’s been wonderful ever since.
Zeitlin: He turned the part down probably three times.
Henry: I had to turn them down three times. I wanted to do it, but had to turn him down because I was running a bakery and building something up for my children, and I wouldn’t under no circumstances sacrifice something that I worked so hard to pass onto my kids for an acting career. That would have been selfish of myself. So, I had to work things out and I worked things out. They seen some things in me that I didn’t see in myself and believed in me, and I worked it out and I was able to move and do the film, and they made a lot of concessions for me as far as giving me a driver to bring me back and forth to the bakery. Whenever I needed to come back, I came back. We made concessions with each other and it worked out for both parties.
Can you talk about your character’s relationship with Hushpuppy? How did you handle those really tough scenes and what were the two of you like when the camera stopped rolling?
Henry: We explained to her that a lot of times it may seem like I was being tough on her, but I was actually trying to emphasize the importance for her to know these things because her dad is dying in the movie. We told her that I’m not really yelling at her. I’m just passionately trying to emphasize the importance for her to know how to do these things because her dad is not going to be here that long and she doesn’t have her mother, so she has to know how to do these things. I have a daughter her age that’s seven years old so it was easy for me to relate and know how to interact with a seven-year-old girl. It’s the same thing as I did with my daughter. I brought some of the same fatherly skills on screen. We did a lot of things in between shooting. Me and Nazie (Quvenzhané’s nickname) would go to the side and we’d play different games. There were a couple different instances when we weren’t shooting. We’d go in the kitchen, me and Nazie, and we’d bake cookies together like a father and daughter do. We’d cook together and we’d eat together, so we did some things to draw a bond between us while we were on camera and off camera.
Wink is doing what he feels is right even though it seems like he’s putting his child in danger during the story. How did you deal with that?
Henry: Well it’s a dangerous region that we live in. You’ve got to understand the region we live in. Living on the Gulf Coast, we often have to go through dangerous situations, whether you’re a child, an adult or a senior citizen. You have to endure the same thing living on the Gulf Coast, the possibility of losing your family, losing your home, losing your loved ones, being displaced and things like that. So, she has to know how to do these things because you have to understand her daddy’s not going to be there that much longer. She doesn’t have her mother so I was constantly trying to emphasize the importance and the urgency for her to know how to do these things, feed herself, take care of herself because daddy’s not going to be here that long. I was always emphasizing with an urgency that she needed to know how to learn these things very fast.
What was the experience like for you to act in a feature film for the first time?
Henry: It was a tremendous experience and the best thing that came from it was when everybody first saw the film at Sundance and stood up and clapped. They enjoyed the film and stood up and applauded, 1500 people. That was the best feeling in the world, that people enjoyed the work that we did.
While you were making the film, what was it like?
Henry: We had a lot of direction. We had some professional acting coaches from New York to work with me in the bakery in the middle of the night. I was baking donuts and we were working on different acting techniques and reading scripts. Before we started shooting, we went over every scene. Benh crafted the script just like he said. We’d go over the script and he’d throw away the script after we read it. Then he asked me how I would say this and do this in my own words versus doing it in his words. That made it seem more natural and real for me instead of doing it in his way. He wanted me to say things and do things in the way that I would do it, not in the way he would do it. That made it much easier for a first time actor to know how to do these things because I’m not trying to do something that someone else is telling me to do. I’m actually following my own directions because I basically wrote the script myself. He threw his words out and put my words in so that’s basically my movie. (laughs)
Zeitlin: All of Dwight’s scripts are glazed with sprinkles. If you look at all those pages, it’s like the donut shop is all up in those.
Henry: Thank you.
Quvenzhané, what was it like working on your first movie?
Quvenzhané Wallis: It was fun because I wasn’t expecting all this commotion and dirtiness and stuff like that. I’m not that kind of person. I’m just relaxed and don’t move and I’m clean.
Zeitlin: We had to go through dirt training for sure.
Wallis: They actually had me jumping in mud.
Do you still want to be an actress when you grow up?
It depends on how much mud you have to deal with?
Now that both of you have done one film, is this something you’d like to pursue more of in the future?
Henry: I’m going to ride the wave wherever it takes me. If it takes me in that direction, I’ll go. But one thing I know for sure, I’m not the Hollywood type. I’m not ready to pack my bags and leave the town and my business that I love and my kids that I love more than anything and pack them up and come to Hollywood. I love California. I love Hollywood. But I’m not ready to uproot what I believe in to come to Hollywood. Hollywood would have to come to me before I’d go to Hollywood.
Quvenzhené, is Hushpuppy someone you can identify with or that’s close to you personally? Did you model her after someone you know?
Wallis: She’s close to me because we just get along very well.
Zeitlin: One thing I saw in Quvenzhané when she first came in, and it was so important to the character, and it’s something in Dwight’s character too, is these guys are so confident and fearless in life. There’s nothing you can do that scares her or freaks her out. It’s the same thing with Dwight. There’s that one quality. The way that he’s raising her is not to be afraid. He’s going to let her fall down and he’s going to let her pick herself back up and he’s going to teach her fearlessness because he knows that’s what she’s going to need to survive. Even in her first audition when she was five years old and walked in, she was not afraid of me. When I was telling her something in the audition that she did not want to do, she told me “That’s not right. You’re not supposed to throw things at people.” She was really defiant, and defiant in this sweet way, and that was what I saw in her natural person that really connected to the character. Quvenzhané is not anything like Hushpuppy in the day to day of what she does, but there’s something about how she is really wise beyond her years and fearless and strong in this way. When I saw that, I knew that was the character and who she was going to be.