Every director has to make his first film. All actors and actresses have to play their first parts. But it's rare for a trio to make their debuts together. And even more rare for such a debut to win top prizes at the world's most prestigious film festivals.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is this summer's little movie that could. It opened in the District this weekend after making a splash -- pun intended -- on the festival circuit earlier this year. At Cannes, it won the Camera d'Or award for best first feature; at Sundance, it won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. Its director is not yet 30. Its female star is just 8 years old.
Both Benh Zeitlin and Quvenzhane Wallis visited Washington recently, accompanied by co-star Dwight Henry -- and Wallis' mom. Each of them had a special story to tell. Combined, their work makes for one magical movie.
"Beasts" was filmed in the Louisiana bayou, and its action centers on how residents of what they call "the Bathtub" deal with the aftermath of a storm rather like Hurricane Katrina. Henry plays Wink, a single father trying to prepare his 6-year-old daughter, Hushpuppy, played by Wallis, for a time when she'll have to face this nearly underwater world alone. It's coming, of course, sooner than she thinks.
Katrina is never mentioned in the film. The parallels are so obvious, it doesn't need to be.
"I wanted to make a film celebrating the people that were holding out, refusing to leave, facing the dangers in the name of their culture and their families," says the 29-year-old Zeitlin. The New Yorker moved to New Orleans in 2006. He's been "wandering around trying to find a city" to make a short film in. He started work on "Beasts" in 2008, "when it dawned on me that I was going to stay forever."
Zeitlin is an outsider, but you wouldn't know it from his film. One wonders if it was difficult for a New Yorker to write dialogue that's authentically bayou. "It's not difficult. You've just got to listen and pay attention. And be humble," he says.
He had help from his stars, whom he calls "real collaborators." Neither had acted professionally before. In fact, one had never acted at all.
Dwight Henry is the owner and baker behind Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe in New Orleans. His shop was across the street from the building where "Beasts" producers were holding auditions, and that's how he got to know them. "The whole production company would come to the bakery and get breakfast in the morning, get donuts in the morning. We'd talk, read the paper together, laugh," he says.
Producers put up fliers in the shop advertising the auditions, and Henry thought he'd try his luck. It took him a while to find the time -- running a restaurant is a time-consuming business.
He did, though, and Zeitlin was immediately impressed. But when producers decided to offer Henry the part, he was nowhere to be found. He was expanding his bakery, taking two months to move and open in a new location. "No one knew where I was at," he says with a laugh. When they did find them, he was "flattered," but said no. "I couldn't sacrifice my business," he says. "I had to turn them down three times before I made time."
He's glad he did, of course. "They believed in me so much and saw things in me I didn't see in myself." And the cafe continues to flourish.
The baker had never acted before. Wallis, just 5 when she auditioned, had only done so in school productions. She found the audition a bit taxing. Producers wanted her to throw a teddy bear in a tantrum. But she wasn't used to tossing things at strangers.
"Now, I'd just take it and throw it," she declares of her new confidence.
Truth be told, it's hard to imagine Wallis was ever reluctant to perform in any way. Asked if she felt nervous on her first set, she answers with an emphatic "No!" Explaining herself, she talks about how outgoing she's always been with strangers. Her mother is amused. "The outspokenness, that's just her. I'm going to try to ensure she doesn't change too much and stays grounded," she says.
Henry has the same plan for himself. "I'll never go pack my bags and be ready to go to Hollywood and be this big Hollywood person. I'm going to stay in Louisiana. Hollywood will have to come to me before I go to Hollywood," he avows.
Zeitlin was lucky to have found them -- and them him. He's learned, he says, that making a movie involves lots of such serendipity. In "Beasts," once the storm hits, Wink and Hushpuppy get around on a boat rigged from the bed of a pickup truck. That's the director's own truck floating on the screen.
"It blew up," he reports, almost matter-of-factly. His sister had just exited the vehicle when it happened. "We sat there watching it burn and thought, 'What would Wink do in this situation?' He wouldn't throw it out. He would repurpose it."
That prop wasn't in the script. But neither was some of the dialogue he wrote with the help of two brand-new actors. Zeitlin concludes, "You can't be so precious about what you've imagined and what other people before you have done that you can't recognize when you have something miraculous before you."