Quvenzhané Wallis in a scene from the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Quvenzhané Wallis in a scene from the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. Jess Pinkham - Contributed by Image.net

Little film's big impact

FEATURING a cast of untrained actors, a director with only three short films to his name and a meagre feature film budget of $1.8 million, Beasts of the Southern Wild is "the little film that could".

The Louisiana bayou-set drama won the Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic category at this year's Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d'Or Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

The film has gone on to gross more than $8 million at the US box office.

Never in his wildest dreams did director Benh Zeitlin imagine the film would do that well, let alone screen overseas in Australia.

"I've always wanted to come here since I was a kid," he said.

"I never thought that would be a side effect of making this crazy movie. It's awesome."

Zeitlin rushed to finish the film just two days before the Sundance Film Festival.

"We actually went back and did three weeks more work after," he said.

"It's probably stuff nobody in the world would notice except for me, like shifting around some music cues. Our post production was almost two years long (in total)."

The film follows six-year-old Hushpuppy who, faced with both her hot-tempered father's fading health and the flooding of her ramshackle bayou community, must find courage and independence beyond her years.

Young star Quvenzhane Wallis certainly has a screen presence beyond her years, auditioning for the role of Hushpuppy when she was just five.

"We had never really seen anybody that young with that kind of poise and ability to internalise direction," Zeitlin said.

"She was able to immerse herself into the character. I really wanted the character to be that young, and finding somebody that age who could do it was just miraculous."

Quvenzhane Wallis in a scene from the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Quvenzhane Wallis in a scene from the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. Mary Cybulski

The entire cast ended up being untrained and first-time actors, or "non-professionals" as Zeitlin calls them.

"That was not necessarily the intention," he said.

"Our approach to casting was a lot looser than most films. We were looking for a kind of spirit more than a resume or particular experience. For Dwight's role, he really just had that spirit."

Dwight Henry ran the local bakery where the film was shooting and his embodiment of the local community immediately interested Zeitlin.

He was particularly interested in how Henry had lived through many storms including Hurricane Betsy, when he was just two years old, through to the destructive Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

After several months of persistent badgering, Zeitlin finally convinced Henry to take on the important role of Hushpuppy's dad Wink.

Hushpuppy, Wink and their small but resilient community are forced to choose between abandoning their homes or battening down as a large storm approaches and threatens "The Bathtub".

"I got interested in sort of the end of the road in Louisiana," Zeitlin said.

"I heard from a lot of people about what was going on with the land down there and land loss, down where land is turning into water. There are five roads going into the marsh. I wanted to make a film celebrating the people who were refusing to be pushed inland."

But Beasts of the Southern Wild is not the first film Zeitlin has made about Louisiana.

After moving to New Orleans from his native Queens in New York City, the young filmmaker's short film Glory at Sea was inspired by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The rising star said it would not be the last film he made in the area.

"I carry around a list in my head of about seven movies I want to make," he said.

"I want to keep working in Louisiana. I think that's definitely going to be where the next film's going to be set."

Beasts of the Southern Wild is in cinemas now.