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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

"I was generally living on a park bench in Prague," Zeitlin said. He had been trying and failing to make another short called "Glory at Sea" (at one point, he hoped to shoot on a Greek island). "I loved New Orleans as a kid and was checking in on the storm from the park bench. There was this eerie moment when I connected the story of 'Glory at Sea' to the storm."

Zeitlin went to Louisiana in 2006 to make the 25-minute film, a look at a group of hurricane survivors who jerry-build a vessel from storm debris to find loved ones miraculously alive under the floodwaters. "Glory at Sea" cemented Zeitlin's visual style and musical influences (as with "Beasts," he wrote the film's score with Dan Romer) and his ties to the region. But the director found the narrative heart of "Beasts" in Alibar's play "Juicy and Delicious," about a young boy's belief that his father's looming death will bring about the apocalypse.

The "Beasts" script went through countless iterations — "massive, massive changes," Zeitlin said — and the project was guided by accidents, both happy and nearly tragic. Zeitlin was rear-ended by a drunk driver in 2008, and while he nursed a shattered pelvis for six months, an insurance settlement allowed him to pay off $30,000 in debts and have enough left over to revise his "Beasts" script. He and Alibar spent about six months meeting with bayou locals, with Zeitlin perched on the docks of the Pointe Aux Chenes Marina with his laptop for weeks, equal parts screenwriter and anthropologist.

"I wanted to get the feeling right of what it feels like to be down here — what the struggle is like. It was not a tale of rich versus poor, or black versus white — it was more about destiny and will," said Zeitlin, who is white and directed a cast whose main characters are African American. "I wanted to make a film about a community united, not a community divided. It's about surviving losing the thing that made you. How does your spirit survive the onslaught?" In a fitting, if not tragic, twist of timing, production on the film started the very day the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 and spilling nearly 5 million gallons of crude oil into the gulf.

Well-to-do visitors to the area (and viewers of the movie) would be struck by the area's apparent lack of resources, but Zeitlin viewed it precisely the opposite way. "There's no money. There's no technology. Everything is built by hand. But they see themselves as rich — in friendship, community, food," Zeitlin said. "Every night, you are eating what would be the equivalent of a $400 meal in a New York restaurant, for free."

Although Zeitlin and his Court 13 collaborators (the collective is named after a squash court where "Egg" was filmed) took a grass-roots approach to their production, they needed funding from beyond the bayou. They found a backer in Cinereach, a 6-year-old New York nonprofit that has disbursed more than $5 million in grants to more than 100 filmmakers, but had never fully financed an entire movie. Soon after principals Michael Raisler and Philipp Engelhorn visited Zeitlin and producers Josh Penn and Dan Janvey in New Orleans, Cinereach put up $1.2 million.

"It was clear that there was this passion there," Engelhorn said. "They really needed to make the film a certain way. It wasn't about advancing their careers. It wasn't about getting paid." Yet given the ambition of the film's script, the budget — partly offset by grants and equipment from the Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society and Rooftop Filmmakers' Fund — seemed as paltry as a low levee facing a Category 5 hurricane.

"The script was hard to describe — it was all over the place — and incredibly ambitious," said Paul Mezey, who joined "Beasts" as an executive producer. "You looked at it and said, 'This is impossible.'" Like others who have worked with Zeitlin, though, Mezey was won over by the filmmaker's dauntlessness, and his promise of a memorable collaboration. "His message is, 'Come on this unforgettable journey, and you won't believe it until you experience it,'" Engelhorn said.

Open to experience

Not everyone was willing to sign up for the "Beasts" ride. While Zeitlin was determined to cast some non-actors in lead roles, he intended to hire people with established credits as department heads. He met with several cinematographers, who considered the resources (few), the schedule (fast) and the bugs (countless). "There was this slow dawning of what they were in for," Zeitlin said. The potential cinematographers hurried back to Hollywood, and the film ultimately was shot by Ben Richardson, one of three cinematographers on "Glory at Sea" (a production that was repeatedly shut down for lack of cash).

"We wanted to bring in people who would fit into our family — people that you would want to hang out with — and that you could imagine being friends with for the rest of your life," Zeitlin said.

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