I saw ‘Beasts’ at its first public screening in New York City, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The theater was packed. Zeitlin’s extended family took up at least a couple of rows. And it was a breathless, deeply affecting experience. People all around me cried in the dark. It was hard to stop crying when the lights came up.
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.
And that begins with a lot of teasing. ‘Beasts’ came about because Benh wanted to make a film about holdouts, people who continue to inhabit a place after they’re told it’s no longer habitable. He looked at a map and found roads that seemed to run right into the gulf, and he began to drive down these roads. At the very end of one, he found Isle de Jean Charles, a vibrant delta community that inspired the setting of The Bathtub, the fictional settlement in ‘Beasts.’ In the film, The Bathtub is an off-the-grid, broken paradise sealed off from the rest of civilization by levees, which protect the world outside but cause massive flooding within. Once they discovered this place of inspiration, Zeitlin and some of his collaborators began to hang out there. At first they were made fun of a lot. But as they took the ribbing well and continued to hang around, they began to receive dinner invitations. Then people became excited about the movie that was going to be made. They were embraced. “I have my own cajun mama and daddy there,” he says, talking about the couple who eventually hosted him for much of his time on location.
Gottwald describes Zeitlin as a “perfectionist in the best possible way,” someone with a very clear vision who knows exactly what he likes and does not like, who seems not to experience ambivalence about anything. And yet, the way he makes films, at least at first glance, would seem to be a surrendering of control. At a Q&A session following a Film Society of Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films screening of ‘Beasts,’ Zeitlin explained that every chaotic element was embraced, and every possible risky choice was made. “Preproduction is like this little animal that you're raising, and it's like a tiger, and you raise it until it's way bigger and stronger and faster than you, and you can't control it at all. You just set it loose and then you have to chase it. And so for everybody that worked on this film, it was like an athletic event. A safari hunt. With this running beast that you're trying not to be destroyed by...it's always fun” he said, adding, “the movies are secondary. The tiger chase comes first.” One of the aspects of his personality that best facilitates filmmaking, in his mind, is an absence of fear, something he says most members of Court 13 have in common.
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.”