Call of the wild


STOP EVERYTHING you’re doing. Unless you intend to shun all human interaction over the coming months, you’re going to need to know about Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here comes the cheat sheet: like many an indie breakout before, the film has taken home prizes from Sundance, Cannes and all the right places.

Critical notices, almost without exception have been ecstatic: “ . . . a blast of sheer, improbable joy”, writes AO Scott at the New York Times, while his colleague, Manohla Dargis, lists it “ . . . among the best films to play at the festival in two decades”.

The reviews are impressive, the Camera d’Or is already in the bag and here come the celebrity endorsements. Last August when, on Barack Obama’s recommendation, Oprah Winfrey interviewed the film’s director and stars in a TV special entitled Why Oprah Loves Beasts of the Southern Wild, it became clear that Beasts was something other than this year’s Blue Valentine crossover.

“It was almost unimaginable that the film would generate any of this, or any kind of commercial success,” says director Benh Zeitlin with an incredulous shake of the head. “That it would travel like it has? It was so shocking. It is so shocking. How it would play in cinemas and at festivals? That wasn’t even on our radar. All I ever worried about was making something good. You want to make something that you’re proud of and that your actors are proud of and that the people who worked on the film are proud of.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild charts the adventures of a six-year-old Bayou ragamuffin called Hushpuppy (played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) as she grapples with her father’s failing health. Meanwhile, the island community is succumbing to rising water. In the little girl’s mind these events are linked with melting icecaps and the impending arrival of the monstrous prehistoric aurochs of the title.

“The beasts were always a really important part of the film,” Zeitlin tells me. “From early on, it was a story about Hushpuppy and these horsemen of the apocalypse who were coming in sync with the onset of her father’s illness and the decay of the land. We thought a lot about how to pace them. That they’d remain in the shadows and wouldn’t enter the real world until the very end. We were very conscious that a lot of times what you don’t see is scarier than what you do.”

Zeitlin, the son of noted folklorists Amanda Dargan and Steve Zeitlin, grew up in New York and is the co-founder of Court 13, an independent collective of film-makers at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. He admits the Greek myths and folk tales he heard growing up loom large over his debut feature. The film, in turn, has invited slant comparisons with folksy fantasies Night of the Hunter, Days of Heaven and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

“My whole life when I was a kid was ‘I’m never going to be a folklorist. I’m never going to be like my parents’,” laughs Zeitlin. “It’s kind of clear to me now that the stories I’ve heard and that they and the people they hung out with are the same kind of spirits who interest me as characters. I was always really interested in different kinds of stories. And I loved Roald Dahl as a kid. I feel like the texture of this movie is similar to Matilda or The BFG. It starts in the real world but spills out into something else.”

Sure enough, Beasts has the feel of an exciting anthropological expedition led by Huckleberry Finn. It couldn’t have happened any other way, says Zeitlin: “Growing up, I loved movies. But I never even considered it as something I would do until I started watching films from people who made them in an adventurous way, like Herzog. I never saw a Hollywood film and thought ‘I’d love to go and work at the studios’. But films made in remote parts of the planet where it felt like the film-makers were on an adventure making the film? That idea really attracted me.”

In 2008, aged 26, Zeitlin relocated to New Orleans to make his first short film, Glory at Sea. He never looked back: “It was the culture,” he says. “And by culture, I don’t just mean food and music and stuff, though all those things are good. I mean more the way that people treat each other. It’s a very open-hearted place, very non-judgmental. It’s a very different feeling to New York. And it’s a great place to work and make films. You need so much help to make films. You need that kind of generosity.”

Beasts, in turn, is a “handmade affair”. Shot on Super-16mm with a small crew, the film’s It-Takes-A-Village theme extends to the ethos behind the production. The place and the post-Katrina fable, explains Zeitlin, who also co-wrote the script and contributed to the sublime score, are simply inseparable.

“The two things happened in sync. I live in New Orleans so I was interested in the culture of refusing to leave, of holding in and surviving. I was interested in stories concerning the most extreme versions of that. And I knew stories from right down the road, at the very edge of the State essentially, where the storms hit and the land is falling into the water. So I started driving down the roads that go all the way. And at the very end of one of these roads was the town where we shot the film.”

The town is Montegut, an isolated fishing community in Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish. The cast and crew are locals. Neither Quvenzhané Wallis nor Dwight Henry, the Tremé baker who play’s Hushpuppys father, Wink, had acted before Zeitlin cast them in leading roles.

“Everybody in the film is from South Louisiana,” says the director. “There are scenes with 100 extras and they’re all from the town. It was a very, very local production. Not just in what you see on screen. Lots of people from the town were working on the film, keeping us safe, teaching us how to navigate the woods and all about the way of life in the region. We would set up these virtually impossible challenges and overcome them. That was always going to be a texture in the film. It was never supposed to be a perfectly executed plan. It was a very collaborative film. Which is really what the film itself is all about.”

Nazie Wallis: A southern star is born

DUSTIN HOFFMAN. The Rolling Stones. Bill Murray. Assorted Pythons. This year’s London Film Festival had plenty of A-list cameos and reality-show hangers-on to stuff seats and strut red carpets.

The undoubted star, though, of the glitzy 11-day line-up, was nine-year-old Quvenzhané (pronounced Kwa-van-zhah-nay) Wallis, who twirled delightfully for adoring crowds outside the premiere of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

I’m thrilled when she signs a still from the film for me and embellishes it with a little heart. Must be doing something right: the same interviewee chastised Jay Leno for asking her questions better suited “for the director” when she appeared on the show last July.

Seasoned festival goers will likely have happened on Quvenzhané Fever before. At Cannes, director Benh Zeitlin needed to hold his (then) eight-year-old lead aloft as a fevered festival audience chanted her name.

Oscarologists are currently quoting odds of 13/2 for her to take home the Best Actress gong next March. The nomination, if it happens, will be unprecedented. Pre-teens have traditionally competed for the Best Supporting Actress slot, regardless of their place on the credits list.

Quvenzhané, a bright, articulate little spark, has never seen the Oscars. She’s just happy to have a couple of sneaky extra days off school for her first visit to London: “It’s just three days, because then its the weekend,” she assures me in her adorable Bayou brogue. “And they sent us a bunch of work to do,” warns Qulyndreia, her mom, from the corner of their hotel room.

Quvenzhané attempts to pout a response but fails to hold the expression through a virulent case of hiccups and giggles. Over soda pop and singultus, she recounts where it all kicked off:

“My mom’s friend, Miss Sherie Brown, called and said that they had auditions for six- to nine-year-olds, and I heard mom say on the phone ‘Oh no, I can’t bring her she’s too young’, because I was only five. And when she hung up, I was standing there: ‘Who is that?’ And I got her to bring me and we signed in and then they were asking me to come back and come back and come back and then I got the part.”

She loved the seafood on set but hated the way she had to wear her hair and working with pigs. She also loves math (“ . . . because I like working things out”) and her hometown: “You don’t just taste the food there, you can really smell the food,” she explains. “You should come visit but you’ll need to careful because our steering wheels are on a whole other side. And it wont be as cold as you are here.”

Quvenzhané, or Nazie (rhymes with Maisie) to her family and friends, has recently completed her second movie, Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, in which she’ll star alongside Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Despite the kerfuffle around her, she’s unsure if she’ll stay in acting permanently, in case it “twists” her head.

For the moment, however, movies suit the Houma schoolgirl just fine: “You get to travel to lots of places,” she tells me. “And you get to go with your friends, like the director and the other cast. You get to hang out.”

She draws close and covers her mouth so mom can’t hear: “And sometimes you get to miss school.” TARA BRADY

* Beasts of the Southern Wild is on release