After auditioning some 4,000 children for the role of Hushpuppy, he cast Quvenzhané Wallis, a 6-year-old local elementary student. He wanted a trained actor for the role of Wink, her father. But when it became clear that Quvenzhané had no chemistry with the professionals, Zeitlin persuaded 47-year-old New Orleans baker Dwight Henry, whose Henry's Bakery & Deli was frequented by Court 13 members, to play Wink. The director brought in acting coaches to work with Henry in the pre-dawn hours as he made his signature buttermilk drops and cinnamon raisin squares.
Just as the script was altered by the stories Zeitlin heard during his research and casting sessions, the "Beasts" production was guided by an improvisational spirit, with ideas popping up around warm campfires and over cold beers. "That's sort of built into the plan — to adapt to the elements as they come in," Zeitlin said. "It's a process of finding things that speak to you and writing them into the story, rather than having a preordained vision of how everything is going to be."
On one reconnaissance trip before filming started, Zeitlin and his producers stumbled upon the Cajun Country Stop in Bourg, an abandoned gas station and mini-mart. Well behind it in the weeds was a forsaken bus, which would serve as the geographical center of Wink and Hushpuppy's life. To secure another location, associate producer Casey Coleman made peace with one gun-toting landowner over a case of Milwaukee's Best. And without a special-effects budget to create the aurochs as computer-animated creatures, animal tamer Kathryn Bryant trained pigs from birth to follow simple directions; when the cameras rolled, they were outfitted with auroch costumes.
The movie was shot over the course of seven weeks in about 20 main locations, and while the production ballooned to nearly 100 people — "It was a panic of hiring when we fell behind," Zeitlin recalled — "Beasts" was largely made with a much smaller core. When Zeitlin's old Chevy pickup truck exploded into flames on a scouting trip, the filmmakers had a creative epiphany: Local boat engineer Dan Gladstone converted the truck bed into Wink's makeshift vessel. "Filmmaking is usually about getting rid of risk and uncertainty," Mezey said. "But Benh wants to embrace that — to put yourself out there and see what happens."
Zeitlin and editors Crockett Doob and Affonso Gonçalves spent 18 months — about triple the typical schedule — cutting the film, largely trying to make sure audiences wouldn't turn against Wink, whose parenting is not only unconventional but also occasionally rough. "The film wasn't really connecting until we showed it at Sundance," Zeitlin said, wearing a T-shirt, cutoff shorts and work boots as he sidestepped poison oak encroaching on the film's abandoned school bus. "But people got a lot of things we didn't think they were going to get."
Fox Searchlight, which paid no minimum guarantee to acquire the film's U.S. rights, knows that "Beasts" is a tricky sell. Based on how well it played at Sundance and Cannes, it's clear that critics will flock to the film, but will audiences?
Zeitlin hasn't made any money off the endeavor. In person, he's remarkably candid and articulate. Having just returned from Cannes, he was eager to talk about the great films he'd seen (including Michael Haneke's "Amour") while dismissing a visit to Paul Allen's larger-than-life yacht, a highlight for many festival guests, as appalling. While some reviewers have compared his directorial style to Terrence Malick, Zeitlin would be more flattered if "Beasts" was weighed against films by a few of his favorite directors—John Cassavetes, Emir Kusturica and Mike Leigh.
Zeitlin would like to tell another "epic folk tale" shot in Louisiana, but he said he's still broke and the driver's window on his car won't roll up, leaving him soaked whenever Louisiana's clouds pour down. Yet somehow the image of the flooded director fits perfectly with the themes of his film.
"As you get closer and closer to the gulf, you feel nature dying," Zeitlin said as he drove off Isle de Jean Charles, back toward New Orleans, where he shares a run-down house with his sister, Eliza, a production designer. "And the closer you are to the gulf, the closer you are to the end."
CHEAT SHEET: Los Angeles Film Festival 2012