The Making of a Modern Fable: Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild isn't like other movies you've seen lately. It's a really wild and beautiful movie that manages to combine magical realism with an apocalyptic sense of doom, all seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl. But how did something this strikingly beautiful and different emerge? How did a group of performers who'd never been in a movie before create such indelible performances? Where did this strange story come from?

We talked to writer/director Benh Zeitlin and stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, and learned the secrets of Beasts. Minor spoilers ahead...

Where it came from:
Beasts of the Southern Wild was loosely based on Juicy and Delicious, a play by Lucy Alibar, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Zeitlin. (Read an interview with Alibar here.) The play was set in South Georgia, and didn't include the elements of deadly storms, or a community barely holding on, in a Louisiana flood zone.

The play Juicy and Delicious was "about a little boy whose father got sick and as he got sicker the end of the world started to come," explains Zeitlin. This was inspired by some things from Alibar's own life. Meanwhile, Zeitlin had been working on a story about "hold-outs who were losing their land, and their community was coming apart." Zeitlin says he realized that both of these stories were about the same thing: "these people that were losing the thing that created them, and what they had to do to survive."

The movie's scary monsters
One of the most visually striking elements in the film are the Aurochs, the prehistoric monsters that stalk Hushpuppy.

The Making of a Modern Fable: Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Aurochs were actually "pigs that they raised and trained themselves," says Henry. "The production company actually bought pigs, trained them, watched them grow, dressed them up with the horns and the fur. And that was the Aurochs. That wasn't animated or puppets. That was animals that the production company trained, from little pot-bellied pigs, they grew them up, raised them and dressed them up."

But when Wallis had scenes opposite the Aurochs, she was looking at a poster and imagining these huge monsters in front of her. And it was actually really scary, says Wallis: "Like, you're small. And then you tilt your head up," and she mimes tilting her head upwards, and then being told to tilt up higher. "And then you just see the whole thing, and it's just like you're freezing, you can't say a thing. And then you're just like, 'It's right in front of me, it's bigger than me. It's very, very bigger than me.' And you're just like so scared. You're like, 'Oh my god. This thing is in front of me, sniffing me. So it was scary trying to have those beasts and taming them. I didn't even know I tamed them, after that scene."

The Making of a Modern Fable: Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Aurochs come from Alibar's original play, Zeitlin explains: "They were always these sort of horsemen of the apocalypse. As death got closer to her father, these animals got closer to her town. These things that she saw as predators that are coming to eat her." Hushpuppy's teacher originally tells her about the Aurochs as part of a lesson about the cave paintings of Lascaux, which are the last mark of a vanished civilization — just as Hushpuppy's community is faced with extinction.

Says Zeitlin:

Hushpuppy sees herself as this little hero in like the large trajectory of humankind, and she has this purpose. She's part of this culture that, you know, is on the brink of being wiped away. And she's thinking about, 'What am I going to take forward, when everything that I know is gone?' So there's a parallel between her and the cave men she sees. But also between her and the Aurochs, which are also these these extinct animals that are gone from the planet. She both fears them and knows they're coming for her, and also has this empathy and understanding, that they're both these creatures that are on the verge of being wiped out.

How Wallis and Henry got cast in the film
Wallis, who's now eight years old, says that she had to audition at the library to be in this film — along with about a thousand other kids.

The Making of a Modern Fable: Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild

Meanwhile, Henry owns a bakery named Henry's Bakery, which is across the street from the studio where some of the auditions were happening. And the film-makers used to get breakfast at his bakery and put up fliers about the auditions. He became friends with the producers — so one day when Henry wasn't too busy, he decided to go over and audition. And Zeitlin liked what he saw, and called him back for a second reading.

But that didn't mean that Henry had the role. He still had to win over the five-year-old Wallis — who had "ultimate approval" on who was going to play her father in the movie, and had already turned down two other actors. "They narrowed it down to a few people, and two of them she didn't want to work with," says Henry, smiling at Wallis. So when it was Henry's turn to travel down to the Bayou and try out performing with Wallis, he put together a few boxes of pastries. "I won her heart over," says Wallis.

Why didn't Wallis like the other two dads? It sounds as though they were trying too hard to get the part — plus one of them, in particular, scared her a bit by trying to boss her around. In the movie, Hushpuppy's father is an overwhelming, scary presence, who tries to strengthen his daughter with some often-disturbing tough love — and Wallis felt like one of the prospective dads was taking the intensity a little too far.

The Making of a Modern Fable: Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild

"There's a lot of intensity that I show to Hushpuppy in the film," says Henry. "I'm dying in the movie. So I need her to understand emphatically that she needs to know how to learn how to survive, because her father's not going to be here. So I'm not [just] yelling at her in the movie, I'm trying to emphasize the importance of her learning how to do these things. Because she's the most important person in the world to me."

And Zeitlin wanted the audience to "feel a certain passion in the movie," says Henry, "He wanted me to be intense."

There were just two scenes in the movie where Wallis actually cried for real: When she realizes her father's dying, and when she meets the woman she believes is her mother, and they make food and dance together. Most of the time, making this movie "was actually pretty fun," says Wallis. "Being in the Bathtub was crazy."

The movie respects Hushpuppy's point of view.
Zeitlin felt really strongly that this movie should be closely tied to how Hushpuppy perceives the world:

The Making of a Modern Fable: Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild

It's not like a journey into the imagination or something, where you're looking down into a child and saying, 'Oh, that's cute that she thinks this or that.' It really respects her point of view, and anything that she feels is real is real. Her world is coming to an end. Everything that she knows is falling apart. The nature that she grew up in, that she relies on, is coming apart. Animals are dying. The trees are dying. Her father is dying. Her community is evacuating. So for her, it is this apocalypse. And so the feeling comes from her sensing that everything that's ever taken care of her, everything that created her, is disappearing.

The Making of a Modern Fable: Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild

For Zeitlin, this film is "about the experience of being six." When you look at six-year-old kids, "it's like they're living in a magical realist state." Zeitlin vividly remembers being six, and having an imaginary friend that was as real as anybody else. Part of seeing the world through Hushpuppy's eyes is acknowledging that kids her age "may be right about things that we don't understand any more."

When it comes to Hushpuppy's point of view, "the film takes seriously that reality — as opposed to saying, 'That's a primitive reality or an undeveloped reality.' It's not about Hushpuppy growing out of her mindset of being six, it's about the truth that you understand when you're six that adults lose. It's not magic, it's things that are real to her. And we get to experience the world through her eyes," says Zeitlin.

Zeitlin adds that the Spike Jonze-directed Where the Wild Things Are came out when Beasts was already in production — so it wasn't an influence, per se — but both films do have a similar thing of respecting the main character's reality.

This film took over three years to make.
"The film was made in this extremely chaotic way," adds Zeitlin. "We sort of set out these challenges that are impossible. We said, 'We're going to create our monsters out of real animals. We're going to make a film with all nonprofessional actors on the water, with children.'... You end up with this kind of scrappy film with all these holes in it, and then it's sort of another process to sort of sculpt that mass of energy and material into the story you originally set out to tell."

The Making of a Modern Fable: Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild

To make matters worse, when they right were in the middle of filming, the BP oil spill happened, said Henry. "A lot of the shooting was done in the water, in the Bayous, right on the outskirts of the Gulf of Mexico. And each day that goes by, the oil was getting closer and closer. The government was actually shutting down areas of the Bayou where we were shooting." The government took over the piers where they were filming, as a base to mastermind to clean-up.

This meant a long, painful editing process. And meanwhile, the sound was a huge challenge, and the effects were a massive element as well. The score was also a massive undertaking. "And when you do these things with no money, you can't do them all simultaneously," says Zeitlin.

Going to Sundance
Henry says he didn't see the movie until he was at Sundance, when he saw it with an audience, and he didn't know how people would react. "As I was sitting there, when it ended, I was so nervous about how it was going to be perceived," says Henry. "And it was over, and everybody stood up and clapped and whistled and yelled... it was a wonderful experience." And when he went to Cannes, he heard that French audiences are very tough on American films. Henry kept saying, "I hope we don't get egged over here." But instead, they got a standing ovation in Cannes. "It was a wonderful, wonderful heartfelt feeling, to see people enjoy the film."

A very personal apocalypse
Instead of dealing with the end of the world on a grand scale, as many other movies do, this film is apocalyptic on a much smaller scale. The destruction of the Bathtub, the small community where Hushpuppy lives, is a very real thing that she experiences on a mythological level. It's a place where you don't have to go to the grocery store, you can just put a net in the water, and pull out the best meal you've ever had. But since this community is on the wrong side of the levees, it's been "sold down the road for extinction," says Zeitlin.

The Making of a Modern Fable: Inside Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy doesn't understand the science of salt water intrusion, she just sees trees dying — as they are in real-life communities like the Bathtub. You visit someplace like Isle de Jean Charles, a real island in the Gulf, and you can see live oaks being turned to skeletons. "It feels like this culture is perched very precariously, where the land meets the water. It's in the balance right now, and it feels like the water could easily win."

Wallis says that after the movie ends, she sees Hushpuppy carrying on, living with one of the women who used to be Queen, or her teacher Miss Bathsheba, but still remembering her father, and keeping him in her heart.

Will she still stay in the Bathtub? I ask.

"She's going to be the King of the Bathub," says Henry.

"Always," says Wallis.