This is a film that feels, at least right now, shameful to analyze, for the risk of undoing its magic. It is a primal story about losing the thing that made you, whether that be a parent or a place. “Magic” is a word you hear often in reference to ‘Beasts.’ “Heart” is another. The way ‘Beasts’ was made has infused it with heart and with a feeling of striking authenticity, much of which has to do with the total absence of professional actors in the film. Parts were cast with gut feelings. The script was altered to include characters that fit into the movie in a “spiritual” way, tailored, to some extent, to the souls within it. (Quvenzhané Wallis, the then-six-year-old playing Hushpuppy, who was chosen over almost 4,000 other girls for the role, actually sat with Zeitlin at the computer and changed all her dialogue until it was composed of words she would actually say.) And that extends through to most of the crew. As Michael Gottwald, one of the film’s producers, explains, “Benh works with people he likes, rather than people who are the most skilled at a particular thing.” He makes sure that the people working on his movies are there because they’re chasing a creative pursuit, and not because they want to fatten their resume or get ahead of others. The project at hand is a labor of love for all involved. And the result, says Zeitlin, is a group of exceedingly kind people -- a necessity, in his mind, when you come into a community to make a movie.
Indeed, one of his greatest skills as a director is not taming the chaotic elements of production, but harnessing their power. Zeitlin and his collaborators chose to cast Dwight Henry, the kind, affable co-owner and chef at the Buttermilk Drop in New Orleans, the bakery they visited several times a day while running casting out of an abandoned school across the street. They had an excellent, Juilliard-trained actor in the running, and Mr. Henry (as they often call him) turned them down several times, but the filmmakers ultimately felt that Mr. Henry was the best spiritual fit, and persisted and made concessions until he agreed to participate. They cast him as Wink, one of the film’s two leads and perhaps its biggest force of nature. It meant several weeks of working with Mr. Henry on a baker’s schedule. A professional actor was brought from New York to teach him technique in the middle of the night, as Henry rolled dough and threw donuts in the fryer. Gottwald helped him rehearse between midnight and 4 or 5 a.m. (Zeitlin jokes that all their scripts were covered in jelly). Zeitlin would arrive and converse with Mr. Henry from 4 to 6 a.m., asking him about his life, telling him about his own life. Mr. Henry enjoyed their conversations but didn’t understand how they would come into play until the movie was shooting. Benh was building trust, and finding Wink. The choice to go with Dwight Henry paid off enormously. Gottwald says, “It felt like the best version of what Benh and me and everyone else are trying to do.”