Roaring into limited release this weekend is Benh Zeitlin‘s bayou fantasy Beasts of the Southern Wild. To call it a unique exploration of familiar themes in extraordinary situations is just a scratch of the surface; Beasts also stands as one of the few current films sure to inspire formal discussion and wide-ranging opinions. Earlier this month I had the chance to sit down with the film’s two stars and director for a roundtable discussion and, below, you can find our chat with the film’s stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry — the talk discusses camerawork, improv, and why Henry brought so much passion to his first film appearance.
How are you taking to all of these interviews? Were you at Sundance? Were you at Cannes?
Quvenzhané Wallis: Yeah, and taking these interviews… not so good as you supposed to think it was. But it’s good! Fun, too. Meet different people, like all of you five.
You prefer working from a script, or doing this sort of thing?
Wallis: Doing this kind of stuff, because it’s coming out naturally.
Did [Dwight Henry] give you any of his pastries?
Wallis: Oh, yes.
Dwight Henry: Lots of pastries I used to bring for her. That’s one of the things, when I first met her, because she has to feel comfortable with the guy that played her father. The first two guys that they had in mind to play her father, she didn’t feel comfortable with them. So they didn’t work. So when they told me that I was coming down to the home to meet her for the first time, I had to capture her heart, so I put a whole bunch of pastries together. Some cookies and buttermilk drops, and all kinds of stuff like that, and I handed it to her and she gave a big old smile; I knew I had it. She had to feel comfortable. She was six years old.
Was there a lot of bonding on the set?
Wallis: It was just about two days. One day, just like he was talking about. And one day we went in the kitchen and started cooking.
Henry: Yeah, we did some things on set to kind of bring us together. I have a daughter her age, so it was kind of easy for me to relate to her. She was six and my daughter was seven. So I was able to communicate with her and the same things I do with my daughter I would do with her.
What was the most difficult part of filming, for both of you?
Wallis: Being in the fire. I was actually pretty scared because I wasn’t expecting that pop. It was actually hot. Fire heats up everything, so you have to have your door open or a window, and we didn’t have nothing open. And I actually went into a box, so that made it worse! They had a hole, but that didn’t even help that much. Then mosquitoes kept coming in. All the lights were attracting the mosquitoes, and they’d come in and bite you. They’d do anything just to bite you.
Henry: We had to deal with a lot of difficult elements. Mr. Zeitlin didn’t want to simulate situations, so we were in the Mississippi River, in some of the bayous, we were in the woods with real mosquitoes. Not little flying things that looked like mosquitoes. But it brought a realness and authenticity to the movie.
So, did you catch that catfish?
Henry: Yeah, I caught that catfish.
Henry: That’s the way we do it in the bayou. We got to learn how to survive when we don’t have no fishing poles.
Some of these scenes are very emotional. Did you find those moments difficult?
Henry: For me, personally, some of the scenes dealing with the storm — and the flooding, because I’m from New Orleans — so a lot of these things we go through in the movie. The possibility of losing your home, losing your family, losing your loved ones. Getting flooded out. Getting caught in dire situations and don’t want to leave under all the worst circumstances in the world. I was two years old when my mom had to take us out of the house in the lower 9th Ward and put us on the roof when the levees broke for Hurrican Betsy way back in the ’60s — and, after that, Camille came and we had to evacuate again.
So it’s an ongoing thing that we go through, living along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans. I have actually gone through these things in real life. It brought a certain realness and authenticity. I brought a passion to this that an outsider, that never been through this, that see a storm from the TV, he wouldn’t have brought a passion of a person actually going through this.
Did you understand the part about people who refused to leave?
Henry: Yeah, because, for Hurricane Katrina, I refused to leave. When they’re on the news, telling everybody it’s a mandatory evacuation, that there’s a storm coming; that there might be 22 feet of water.
They might shut down the city and we might never be able to come back, 80% of that town still stayed behind. Under the worst circumstances in the world, we not just going to leave the land that we love. Our
family is buried in this dirt. I worked so hard to build my bakery up, you think I’m just going to walk away just because you telling me to walk away and I might not never be able to come back? They’d have to
drag me out of there. It just shows the resiliency of the people that live on the Gulf Coast.
Just like during the course of us shooting this movie. We had to go through the BP Oil Spill. We had to stop shooting, move all our sets from this dock because the government coming in and telling us we gotta move. That’s the same thing with these people on that island. We’re facing dire situations and about to lose everything, but they still staying behind and having a party. Celebrating the fact that they’re not leaving. That they’re making a stand for what they love and what they believe in. So something is patriotic for standing up for what you believe in.
Did the director put the cameras front and center in front of y’all or did he try and work the camera around the [set], so you weren’t staring into the camera [the whole time]? Were you able to get space?
Wallis: Yes, a lot of space. Probably too much, actually.
Henry: The camerawork was great. We won first place for best cinematography [at the Sundance Film Festival]. So it was great, the way he worked the camera. I don’t know much about the camerawork, but most of it was shown at her level. So they shot a lot of things to look at from her point-of-view.
Wallis: They actually had to buy something, and it had to strap around his waist, and it goes over his head with the camera.
Henry: Yes. Special things they had to get to look at things from her point-of-view.
Was there a lot of improv?
Henry: Well, yeah, because Mr. Zeitlin gave us a lot of latitude as far as the script is concerned. We’ll sit there for hours and hours, even before we started shooting; we went over every part of the script. He’d give me the script and we’d read it and read it. He’d give me an understanding about what the scene means. Then he’d take the script and throw it away. He’d say, ‘Mr. Henry, tell me how you would say this in your own words,’ versus trying to say things in his words. And so we’d get another script with our words the next time. It would say the same thing and mean the same thing, but it would be in our words. He would do the same thing with her. She can tell y’all about that.
Wallis: After everybody leaves, we would sit down and we would type down on his computer all the things I didn’t say, I wouldn’t say, or misspelled or if that line wasn’t good enough. So he made it shorter. We would redo the scenes again, if I had to, while everyone else was gone.
Henry: She had a tutor with her; everything was controlled. She had lots of breaks and lots of pizza parties.
Wallis: Because I wouldn’t do anything.
Henry: Sometimes she don’t feel like working. Sometimes a six-year-old girl need a break and we wouldn’t understand. Sometimes she’ll get on set and she’ll fold these hands up, she’ll cross them legs, and do that mouth, like that, ‘I’m not ready to work right now.’ So, he’d give her a break and promise her a pizza party when everything was over, and she’d say, ‘Alright, let’s get back to work.’ She blackmailed us.
Are you going to make more films?
Henry: Yeah, we have opportunities that we have to be shush-shush about. Opportunities are coming. You’ll hear about them.
Did you ever expect this in your life?
Henry: I’ve been a restauranteur. I own a bakery called Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Cafe, and this is something I never expected. No matter what the situation is, the bakery is my foundation. It’s something I built and something I can pass on to my kids. And that’s when I first started being in business — my whole thing was doing this, and when I’m not here, this is going to be for my kids and grandkids. I can’t pass an acting career onto my children. Just like in the movie — it’s so important to me that she survive — in real life, this is for my kids. This is so important for me, that when I’m in heaven I can look down and everybody running a bakery. And everything’s OK.
Nothing in the world would make me jeopardize the foundation that I’m setting for my kids. No Hollywood. A possible movie career. That’ll be selfish to my kids, to be so concerned about me instead of my kids. That’s not what a father’s supposed to do. That’s not what my father did. Because when my father passed away, he left me and my brothers and sisters something to fall back on. I’m going to pass the same thing on to my kids, and I want my kids to do the same thing for their kids; I want to set a legacy for my kids that’s bigger than a selfish thing for myself. I sacrificed a lot of things that I can have, I don’t want. I make sure my kids have the best education in the world. I have five kids in private schools; I be without a lot of things so they can have [that].
That’s one of the things that attracted Mr. Zeitlin to me, because they used to come into the bakery. Their studio was actually right across the street from the bakery where they used to do casting at. They used to come over to the bakery every day. They seen how much respect people in the community had for me and what I do. My customers, everybody shakes my hand. They [saw] that quality in me. The same quality they saw in me in real life, they need in that character because everybody looked up to Wink in the movie when a problem occurred. People look up to me in that same aspect in the community where I’m from. So it brought another sort of realness to the film and a quality they needed in that character.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is now playing in limited release.