An Interview with Benh Zeitlin, Dwight Henry, and Quvenzhané Wallis by Jake Mulligan



As seen in the image above, every day seems like Independence Day in Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which opens this Friday. Until, that is, nature takes a disastrous course. And since the film is one of the most lauded independent movies of the year, it seems appropriate to celebrate the 4th with these interviews by our contributor Jake Mulligan with Zeitlin and cast members Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis.

--Peter Keough

To describe "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a daunting task, maybe an impossible one. Is it a subtextual study of the damage of Hurricane Katrina? Or is it simply a study of a closed-off, poverty-stricken community, sticking together through adversity? Is it a magical-realist look at Louisiana? Or is this a folk tale with universal implications, setting be damned? I knew I loved it - the visual poetry, the sheer exuberance and audacity behind such singular visuals - but I couldn't quite put my finger on why.

So when offered the chance to pick director Benh Zeitlin and actor Dwight Henry's minds on the subject, I couldn't resist. 9-year-old lead actress Quvenzahnè Wallis, who plays the lead character Hushpuppy, was also in the room, but her disdain for press tours was made quite clear in the opening minutes of our conversation. Instead she played in the corner while I grilled the grown-ups about their film, Dwight's entry into the film world (this is his first performance; he was very excited to note off-the-record that he had already been cast by "Shame" director Steve McQueen ) what's coming next for their filmmaking troupe.

Jake Mulligan: "Beasts" is credited as "A Film by Court 13". I was hoping you could tell us a bit about the group.

Benh Zeitlin: Court 13... it's more of an idea than a club or collective. It's all I've ever done. I think I got attracted to making movies because it has this property where you basically create your universe, and then you populate it. Everyone who has ever mattered to me contributed to this film in one way or another. It just is a very different kind of feeling, it's how you want to spend your life, it's like a reunion of everything you've ever cared about. It's not a formal set of constraints, it's a code of ethics, it's a mantra.

JM: So it's more of a behavior than a set group or code.

BZ: We try to always think like the characters while we're building the film, and try to let spontaneous things happen. You feel like you're following a code, that something is meant to happen, that things happen for a reason. You find your actor across the street in a bakery. Your car explodes and it becomes your boat.

JM: Speaking of that, Dwight, you told an amazing story at the screening last night about how you became attached to the film. I was hoping you could briefly recount it again.

Dwight Henry: I'm going through some life-changing moments right now, man. My bakery was right across the street from where they were doing the auditions at - they used to put signs advertising for it in my bakery. You know, pull a number, come on by. And I always wanted to go over there and audition, but I could just never find the time. You know you never think in a million years that you could get something like that.

So the casting director and one of the producers were sitting in the bakery one day, and they'd come over every day to talk and have breakfast and such. They'd see me, say hi, talk to me, you know. So one day I went over there, they hand me the script, hand the actress a script, do the thing. They come back to my bakery about two weeks later saying "Mr. Henry, Mr. Zeitlin loved what he seen. We want you to do another read."

So I went over there for another reading, went through the dialogue, you know. At this time, I ended up moving my business from one location to another location. Within that time period, they were looking for me to give me the part! But no one could find me. They asked all the neighbors, my old landlord, "Where's Mr. Henry?"

I worked 365 days a year for 8 years in a row. So I had that little break in between, I took that time to drop off the face of the earth. Two days after I open my new location, the casting director walks in the door.  "Mr. Henry, we've been looking all over for you! You've got the part."

JM: The community depicted in the film feels more like an exaggerated subsection than anything realistic, but there's certainly some truth in the behaviors and the attitudes, isn't there? I've spent a lot of time in the south myself, and the independence and aversion to help depicted here definitely rang very true to me.

DH: You know, throughout the course of our life on the Gulf Coast we have to go through possibilities of losing our home, losing our families, being evacuated - people coming in and telling you that you have to leave the home that you built with your hands, you have to leave the land where your grandparents are buried. It'd take the National Guard, the Marines, and the Army to tear me away from a business I built, for my children, that would get vandalized and looted and destroyed. I built that with my bare hands.

There is a place down in the Bayou where people do live, that's cut off from the rest of the world, that the government doesn't protect. In a few years that island won't exist anymore.

JM: So speaking about these communities, how exactly did the tone and the feel of this film - which I still can't exactly put my finger on - come about?

BZ: My parents are folklorists; the folk tale is something that really interests me. To me it's something that connects both art-house cinema and blockbuster cinema, which I love equally. I like building things by hand, but I want to tell big stories. Trying to tell big stories out of small parts.

JM: Last night an audience member [in a Q+A with Zeitlin] questioned your use of the prehistoric beasts of the title, saying he saw no real connection. I think the connection is so married to the fabric of the film that I can't imagine the story without them.

BZ: They are like the end of this civilization, and she's the last of her own. In a way.

JM: Right, part of that definitely seems to be connected to the destruction of New Orleans. I feel like you're talking about Katrina here, but not in political terms.

BZ: Yeah, it's not a political response - it's an emotional response. I don't think it's a movie with a message; it's about big questions. How do you survive losing the things that made you, and maintain your spirit through that? How do you watch as something that's the most important to you, that you want to hold on to more than anything else but is inevitably slipping away - how do you stay there and watch it go through your fingers, and maintain your celebratory spirit and your joy and your optimism? I think that's the question of the film. I think that's what Hushpuppy is up against.

JM: What was it like seeing the finished film for the first time?

DH: Sundance was my first time seeing it. And when they stood up, applauded, shouted, wouldn't sit down - I had to find my composure. My first time seeing it, I was so filled with joy that people were enjoying the movie. That's the best part. Not going to Utah - none of that matters if no one enjoys the film. But that was satisfying.

JM: And did it come out like you expected?

DH: We knew we must've made a good film, but we never expected it to blow up the way it has, they [the filmmakers] never expected that. Especially worldwide.

 [at this point, Quvenzahnè jumps up to the table, prompted for questions.]

JM: Quvenzahnè, I won't bother you with questions - I know I wouldn't want to be carted around to talk to people like me all day at your age - but I just wanted to say I really admired your performance.

Quvenzahnè Wallis: Thank you.

JM: I will just ask one small thing: when did you hate Benh the most?

QW: ALL the time.

JM: And are you having fun on the press tour?

QW: No.

J: More than fair enough. So Benh, in focusing on emotions more than anything, were there any films that helped you find the tone, or that were influential? I'd be lying if I didn't admit I felt a lot of "Days of Heaven" in "Beasts".

BZ: Oh, well that's such a great film. Yeah, I'm a total cinephile. I'm influenced by everything, but I think on this one it was more documentaries than anything else. Definitely Kusturica...also John Cassavetes, and Milos Forman's "Fireman's Ball"


were influential. I'm interested in movies where the lives of the characters extend past what you're seeing on screen. I saw "Underground,"  by Kusturica,


that was a watershed moment for me. I felt that community. I felt like if you were there on that set when they called "cut!" it would be just as much fun as watching the film itself.

We had a 3-hour assembly cut at one point. We ended up doing 6 completely separate edits of the film. And somehow, each one came out somewhere between 87 and 95 minutes. So for some reason, that was just the natural runtime for the finished film. We had Wink's entire world, really - each of those characters in the Bathtub, we shot their own lives and backstories. But whenever you got away from Hushpuppy's point-of-view, you lost the feel of the story.

JM: What was the Cannes festival like? That must've been a singular experience.

DH: Everywhere we go we've been getting standing ovations, awards, people enjoying the movie, it makes everything worth it.

BZ: People had to explain to me what Cannes was, you know? I mean, I knew it was a film festival, and I knew it was a big deal. But I had to be told to where a tux.


JM: So we don't need to worry about you being the next standout Searchlight filmmaker to do a superhero movie as his second film?

BZ: Don't think so.

JM: More folk tales, all kept close to the ground?

BZ: Oh yeah.

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