Called by the New York Times “Among the best film to play at Cannes in the last two decades” the remarkable magical realism film, set in the Katrina Hurricane ravaged Louisiana bayou community, Beasts of the Southern Wild is truly unlike no other film you’ve ever seen. The film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Best Cinematography prize when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and just last May the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film festival.
Co-written and directed by Benh Zeitlin and recently released theatrically by Fox Searchlight, the film resolves around the challenges by the environment and authorities faced by the precious 6-year-old girl called Hush Puppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) with a vivid imagination and fierce survival instinct, and her ailing father Wink played by Dwight Henry—and involving prehistoric creatures known as the Aurochs.
What more amazing is that every actor in the film was a non-professional making their first appearance in a film. Wallis, in fact, got the part of Hush Puppy over 4,000 other girls who the filmmakers auditioned and saw for the role. Henry is actually self made businessman and the owner of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery Café in New Orleans, who, on a lark auditioned and got the role.
We had the opportunity to talk to both Wallis and Henry about their experience making this truly unique film.
EBONY: The both of you have been very busy since January traveling with the film, first at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize and then in May at the Cannes Film Festival. And now you’re currently on a 13-city tour to promote the film. You’re not “interviewed out” are you?
HENRY: No indeed not! Interviewed out as far as burned out? Indeed not! I don’t get burned out. Let’s roll! Let’s talk!
EBONY: Of course I have to ask what was it like being at the Cannes Film Festival where the film won the Camera d’Or for Best First Film?
WALLIS: it was fun because you get to see all the blue beaches because in Houma (i.e.in Louisiana where Wallis lives) the beaches are not so blue like that. So when you go to Cannes it’s supposed to be hot, but it’s really cool at that time there pretty much. So the beaches are very blue and they’re very pretty over there.
HENRY: But the thing that amazed me the most about the experiences at Cannes or Sundance was that we knew that we had made a good film, but we didn’t know that it was going to go through the roof. We’re sitting at Sundance and my biggest fear was that people wouldn’t accept that film because it’s not your traditional type of movie that you would more normally see. And the response that we got at Sundance, where you have 1500 people standing up and chapping, that was fine. It was wonderful. It blew my expectations through the roof!
But then we were found out that we were going to Cannes, they told us how tough the French audience is. Very tough. It’s not like the American audience. So we were there watching the film, but worrying was they were going to walk out on the movie. And it was finished and everyone in the audience stood up and clapped for ten minutes, They wouldn’t sit down, screaming and hollering. That was an truly amazing feeling by itself right there!
EBONY: This being that first time you’ve appeared in a movie, or even acted, what would you say was the biggest misconception you had about movie making?
HENRY: Well a lot of things that were going on were new to me. It was new to Quvenzhane. But one thing that I knew, because I watch movies and TV all the time, was that this was going to be a different type of movie. Just like you watch TV and no matter what you’re watching you can say “O.K. I saw something like that somewhere before”, except ours. The only thing I wanted was to make a good film and for it to be accepted by people.
EBONY: So what made you decided to audition for the film in the first place?
WALLIS: It was my mom. I actually forced my mom to take me to the audition, but she didn’t want to take me at first because I was too young, It was for 6 to 9 years old and I was only 5 at the time. But I wanted to make a try for it.
HENRY: I wasn’t even trying to get the part actually. I own that bakery that was right across the street from where they were doing the auditions at an old school that was destroyed after Katrina, but was renovated as studios for artists. So they used to put flyers in my bakery asking for people to come in and try to audition for a part. So one day me and one of casting directors were sitting and he asked me to audition. So I came in and auditioned never really thinking about really getting it because being an entrepreneur and a restaurateur it’s hard and very time consuming. It’s hard to find time to do a lot of different things.
So to make a long story short, I got the part. But I couldn’t do the part when I was offered it at first because I had moved my bakery from one location to another location and it was after I had moved to the new location the casting director called me and said “Mr. Henry you got the part”. But they had a schedule where I basically had to move out of town for two and half months and I couldn’t commit to that because I had just opened up this new bakery. Ultimately, they gave me time to work things out.
EBONY: But what do you think they saw in you that make them say you’re the one who right for the role?
HENRY They must have seen some things in me that I didn’t see in myself. Just like when you coach a football team and your team is out in the field you’ll see things in your players that they don’t see in themselves. And the same thing happened with me. Over the course of a year coming into my bakery buying doughnuts, having breakfast, us talking, they saw some qualities in me that they needed in the same character in the movie. He had to be a leader, and in my small community in New Orleans people look at me in a certain way being a minority, running a mainstream business. People look up to me. And all of my staff who works for me and everybody who comes in my store calls me “Boss” “Boss” “Boss” So they saw some of leadership qualities in me they have to have in the character.
And that was one of things that helped encourage me to do the film, because after I told them at first that I couldn’t do the film, I remembered starting up my bakery 13 years ago and no one believed in me. Every bank, finance company, family, friends, everybody turned me down. No one believed in me. So these people who wanted me for the film believed in me, so I gave them to opportunity to have me in the film.
EBONY: Do did you feel that you were acting in the movie or just being, in a way, yourself?
WALLIS: I was kind of doing both because in the film sometimes I was dirty, but I’m clean and I don’t do most of those things.
EBONY: You mean like that scene in the film when you set the house on fire?
WALLIS: Yeah, I don’t do those things or cry. Or sometimes I take out a book and start reading unlike in the film when I’m just standing there watching. I’ll take out my textbook and write things down and answer the questions that the teacher asks us.
EBONY: But you two are the stars of the film. The burden of the film is on you. If you’re not believable in the roles the film doesn’t work.
HENRY: For me personally, I’ve never done anything like this before so it wasn’t a lot of pressure that was actually on me. I guess the pressure was more on the director and the producers being in the film business. I think they had more pressure on themselves than there was on me. Things felt so natural. They used to bring acting coaches to work with me in the middle of night at the bakery, since a lot of things were new to me. Professional actors from New York would come down and work on a lot of different techniques and work on the script and that was a big help to make me feel comfortable. And that was helpful because I’m not particularly that character in the movie. A lot of things that Wink goes through in the movie I went through in real life, but a lot of things I dont do like him— like he drinks and I don’t drink at all. I dress well, I speak well and there were a lot of things in the movie that was purely acting. We weren’t being our natural selves.
EBONY: That’s brings up the point, did you make changes in the dialouge where you felt the original lines weren’t true to the character?
HENRY: Yes! Benh gave us a lot of latitude. We would read the words in the script and he wanted us to say it not in the words in the way he would say it, he would want it to be said the way we would say it. Just like me and you right now. We’re talking everything is coming out so natural because I’m talking to you in my words or Quvenzhane’s words. But with me reading off a script lines that somebody else would want me to say, you would see that in the film. So he would delete certain things in the script and asked us: “How would you say this or how would you do this?” And then he would go and rewrite that scene so that we felt comfortable in the way we would do it naturally.
EBONY: Did you make up lines in the film?
WALLIS: I was able to highlight and correct some misspells. Mr. Zeitlin types really fast so sometimes he misspells he puts a triple “E” or an extra “C” so I would just cross out all that and change it.
HENRY: We did a lot, a lot of improvising, The way Benh likes to direct, he wants it to be as real and natural as possible.
EBONY: You think you want to continue acting? But you can’t give up your businesses and the bakery all that you worked so hard to build.
HENRY: I think I can do them both, being a restaurateur and acting. There are so many films being shot in Louisiana right now, but my businesses, that’s my foundation for my children. That’s something I’m building that I’m going to pass on to my kids, because they are the most important people in the world to me. I can’t pass on an acting career to my kids. But I’m going to try to juggle both. But I’m not going to Hollywood. I’m not the Hollywood type of person. No matter what’s offered to me, I would never in a million years be the big headed Hollywood type. It would have to come to me before I come to it.