by director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin
Someone's ability to bake doughnuts or laugh loud is just as good a reason to make them a dolly grip as their ability to push a dolly. I want to fill my life and my films with wild, brave, good-hearted people. Whatever amount of chaos and disaster that leads to doesn't matter, because you're going through it with the people you love, and in the end, no matter what, the movies come out wild, brave, and good-hearted; and that's more important to me than smooth dolly moves.
This concept extended to every part of the process making Beasts of the Southern Wild. My approach to making movies is about crafting an energy, a feeling, and a way of life that the people that make movies with me can live. It's about inventing a reality and populating it with the best people I know.
Most gloriously, in our casting process—where we chose Dwight Henry, from the bakery across the street, and Quvenzhané Wallis, from Honduras Elementary School to take charge of our heroes, Wink and Hushpuppy. Neither of them had any previous experience acting, but when you look in their eyes, you see fearless warriors, and you know they can do anything. Even though you then revise the script as you learn from the actors and settings along the way and change everything about your approach, it doesn't matter, because those elements were superficial in the face of accurately capturing the fierce spirit that the film needed to articulate. That principle was applied to every decision. Are we going to create an interior water set? Or are we going to sea? Do we dress an accessible location to look like an island at the edge of the world, or do we go to the edge of the world? Do we dress an 11 year-old to look like she's six? Or do we cast a six year-old? We tested the strength of the story and family that made it against every element that would try to break it.
I got hooked on South Louisiana because this mentality is everywhere. I showed up for a two-month visit in 2006, and in 2008, the hooks firmly in me, I started looking for what it was that was keeping me on this crazy patch of sinking land. My search took me down to the end of every road going south, wanting to know what and who was there at bottom of the world. All the way down past the levees, I discovered a group of towns in South Terrebonne Parish that were thriving on the precipice of where the land is falling off into the Gulf of Mexico. It's the home of the most tenacious people in America—an endangered culture.
Me and Lucy Alibar moved into the Marina that is the last address before you hit water and began transforming her play about a father and daughter at the end of the world into a parable of survival and tenacity in a fictionalized version of South Louisiana. With the hurricanes, the oil spills, the land decaying out from under our feet, there was a sense of inevitability that one day everything around us was going to get wiped off the map. We wanted to make a movie exploring how we should respond to such a death sentence. Not critiquing the politicians who have caused it, or calling to arms for environmental responsibility, or raising awareness of suffering, or any of that. The real question to me, is how do you find the strength to stand by and watch the place that made you die, while maintaining the hope and the joy and the celebratory spirit that defined it?
I found the answers in the ferocious people I cast in the film, and the brave, resilient crew that defied impossible circumstances to bring it to the screen. We were led by Quvenzhané Wallis who brought the true spirit of Hushpuppy. She's a little beast who, in order to survive, has to find the strength of South Louisiana at the tiny age of six. I put all the wisdom and courage I've got into her. She's the person I want to be.