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'Beasts of the Southern Wild' makers improvise migration pattern

Director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin and his collaborators lingered in Louisiana, letting the place help develop the movie.

June 17, 2012|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Behn Zeitlin, director and co-writer of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," is shown on a deck in Isle de Jean Charles, La., one of the main settings of the movie.
Behn Zeitlin, director and co-writer of "Beasts of the Southern Wild,"… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. — This sliver of marshland in the Louisiana bayou would inspire most people to make a U-turn, not a movie.

Members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe and local Cajuns have called this swampy spit about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans home for generations, but their numbers are shrinking as rapidly as the island itself. Erosion is swallowing the soil, saltwater intrusion is killing the cypress trees and the island's wooden houses and bridges are toppling into the brackish water. A proposed 72-mile levee system will be constructed to the island's north, eternally bequeathing Isle de Jean Charles to the Gulf of Mexico.

"I vividly remember the first time I drove down this road," 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin said on a recent muggy afternoon as he revisited the island's single street. In one front yard, a young girl dunked herself in a trash can serving as an upright swimming pool, while the operator of a small marina waited for fishing boats that never arrived. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed everywhere, and discarded shrimp nets and crawfish pots littered the lawns of the few dozen residents. "And I thought, 'This is what this story is about. This is the edge of the world. And here are these staunch holdouts — the people who refuse to leave. This is the place I wanted to spend a year.'"

CHEAT SHEET: Los Angeles Film Festival 2012

The product of that year is "Beasts of the Southern Wild,"a dizzying amalgam of narrative storytelling, magical realism and environmental allegory populated with nonprofessional actors. Screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 15 and opening in limited release June 27, "Beasts" has already become the most celebrated independent American film of 2012.

After winning the grand jury prize and a cinematography honor at January's Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight acquired U.S. rights to the movie, "Beasts" collected two more awards at last month's Cannes Film Festival — best first feature and a critics' prize. The accolades are all the more unusual because "Beasts" is Zeitlin's first feature-length film.

"Beasts" unfolds in an only lightly fictionalized world called the Bathtub. Like the Louisiana outposts that inspired it, the Bathtub is severed, both economically and geographically, from modern civilization. Its levees trap, rather than block, floodwaters — hence, the bath analogy — so sink or swim is less adage than way of life.

By choice and necessity, the inhabitants of the Bathtub are self-sufficient, and none is more independent than Hushpuppy, the young daughter of Wink, a single father dying from an unspecified illness. Wink often leaves his daughter on her own — in part to train her for life without a parent. Hushpuppy survives because she possesses a magical bond with nature, an essential gift when prehistoric aurochs, the film's titular beasts, trek from Antarctica to the bayous as part of the film's subplot about cataclysmic climate change.

"I'm always writing in a heightened reality of some kind," said Zeitlin, who penned "Beasts" with playwright Lucy Alibar, as he swung by to say hello to Barbera Dupree, a local woman who let Zeitlin sleep in her camper for four months during filming. "I like to get outside of issues of fact. I'm not that interested in specifics. I want something that comes out of the real world, but that is synthesized."

That real-world genesis of "Beasts" was Hurricane Katrina, which not only shaped the film's story but also helped bring Zeitlin, a New York native, to the region. Now ensconced in Louisiana, he and his friends run Court 13, what he calls an "independent filmmaking army" for live-action and animated shorts, music videos and feature films (the first of which is "Beasts"). Casting, screenwriting and even set design are approached in a grass-roots sort of way.

"Compared to the traditional film hierarchy," Zeitlin said as he drove past a hand-painted sign at the island's entrance that read "Don't Give Up," "it allows for a lot more individual creativity to end up on screen."

Drawn to Louisiana

The son of two folklorists (his father is the founding director of City Lore: The New York Center for Urban Culture), Zeitlin studied film and sociology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he directed a short film called "Egg," a hallucinatory adaptation of "Moby-Dick" told largely in stop-motion animation. After graduation, he bumped from job to job and country to country — "I had all sorts of jobs, and was not enjoying it," he said — and was essentially homeless in the Czech Republic in the months after Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005.

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