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Inside the Bathtub
'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Director, Actors Talk Terrebone, Aurochs and The Final Frontier
After sweeping Sundance and Cannes, the team behind Beasts of the Southern Wild came home to New Orleans Monday night for the premiere of the movie that’s been on the tip of everyone’s tongues. On their arrival, the team behind the film that's made even the most curmudgeonly critics see hope in the form again, opened up about a movie that darted onto local radar screens only after getting attention abroad.
The brainchild of writer Lucy Alibar and co writer-director Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild was shot in Terrebone Parish. Ben Richardson’s cinematography transforms the landscape into the surrealist locale known as “The Bathtub,” a fictional swampland that sits in isolation from the levee-enclosed world around it. Residents live off the land, celebrate every day, and refuse to leave their home for anything, even a flood that threatens to take everyone with it.
Threaded into the ominous disaster narrative is the myth of the aurochs, prehistoric creatures that have been released from their glacial preserves to kill off the human race.
Through a Child's Eyes
Don’t let the synopsis fool you, Beasts is not a science fiction movie. The aspects of the film that are fantastical are drawn from a six-year-old’s understanding of the world.
Hushpuppy, the young heroine of the film, embodies the defiance and courage of a hardened soldier along with the innocence of a child who longs for her mother, and she makes viewers remember what it means to be a child.
“The way that we think about everything is it’s Hushpuppy’s point of view. We try to turn off the adult lens and respect the way that she sees the world. It’s her movie and what she says goes, what she believes is real. It’s about being six. When I was six I had an imaginary friend and they were sitting right there, and if they insulted me, I got upset,” Zeitlin said.
Hushpuppy’s lens makes Beasts mythical in the purest sense of the word, and Zeitlin gave us a little more detail on how the threat of aurochs, the prehistoric villains of the film, fit in to Hushpuppy’s reality.
“The aurochs come from the cave paintings, and the reason for them is I see Hushpuppy as the last of her kind," Zeitlin said. "There’s this connection to me between her and these cavemen who are making this mark and leaving evidence of what was there before the ice age and who we were before we were wiped out and reinvented ourselves.”
Ultimately, Hushpuppy’s character "sees herself as on the same plane as every creature in the universe and is trying to understand her place in that equation,” Zeitlin said.
Houma native Quvenzhane Wallis, who dazzled critics in her role as Hushpuppy, said that she approached the project fearlessly. “It was something that I wanted to try, so why not try?” she said. NoDef asked Wallis how she prepared for her part, and she said that “it was a family thing we did.”
Bakery to Big Screen
Hushpuppy’s father, Wink (Dwight Henry), makes sure that his daughter knows how to take care of herself long before most children are expected to act as independents. In fact, the two characters have separate houses in the film. Although there are points when Wink’s harsh approach towards parenting is difficult to watch, his love for his Hushpuppy never goes unnoticed.
“It all comes down to him understanding that he’s not going to be around forever and he needs to teach her to survive in extremely hostile situations," Zeitlin, a New Orleans resident, said. "The final frontier for her is that she gets to the end of what Wink can teach her. She needs to find this grace and this tenderness that comes from this mother who’s not around.”
New Orleans resident Dwight Henry chanced upon the opportunity to play Wink. Henry owns “The Buttermilk Drop,” in the Treme, but he was in the process of moving his business from St. Claude when casting agents posted up across the street.
“They used to put fliers in the bakery. Me and Michael Gottwald were sitting in there and I decided to audition for the part," Henry said. "Within that time period I moved my business [from St. Claude Avenue] and they were looking for me to give me the part. They wanted to give me the role, but I wasn’t ready to take it,” Henry said. “Eventually, I was able to work things out with the bakery.”
Henry said that his role took very little preparation despite his lack of acting experience.
“Going through these things, I go through them in real life. The holdouts, refusing to leave the things that they love more than anything in the world. I’m from New Orleans and a lot of times you have to go through that. I’m one of the holdouts. It would take the Navy, the Army, the National Guard.”
There are obvious parallels to southeast Louisiana, where it was filmed. However, what makes this film resonate with audiences transcends personal connections and hits a universal chord.
Zeitlin said that Terrebone Parish residents welcomed the film crews with open arms.
“We weren’t living in hotels in a far away place. We got taken in by the community," he said. "I was down there for several months and I probably spent the first few weeks just being the guy with the laptop and typing and getting made fun of by everybody. Eventually, someone comes by and says ‘put down your laptop, get in this boat, we’re going to show you how to hunt alligator.’ You very quickly end up at the dinner table.”
Rolling Out the Red Carpet
The bright lights and red carpet lining the entrance to the Joy Theatre on Canal Street Monday night seemed a long way from the Terrebone bayou. The cast and crew all gathered to premiere the film. We still have another week to wait to see the film in New Orleans, as it comes out on July 4. But on the backs of the successful festival debut, we've already heard plenty about the film. Finally, the people who were getting so much buzz could introduce themselves to the public.
“As a matter of fact, I went down to the Bridge House, and this thing was laying there. I said, ‘dude, how much for that,’ and he said, ‘we gotta check it in.’ I coulda stole it,” Landes joked.
We caught up with Henry again, this time dressed in a suit and mugging for the camera. He said that he wanted to use his experience to empower his kids as well as young people in New Orleans as a whole.
“I hope something good can come from it outside of fame for me. Whatever successes that I have, I’m going to find a way to give a whole bunch back to New Orleans.”
Finally, we talked to the brightest star of the bunch. NoDef asked Houma resident Wallis whether or not New Orleans was her favorite red carpet. She responded, “Yeah, because it’s somewhere that I love. It’s my home.”
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