The most captivating narrator in a movie right now has to be the fierce, brave 6-year-old girl at the center of director Benh Zeitlin's new film, Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Her name is Hushpuppy, and she lives with her father in the Bathtub, a ramshackle, isolated community that clings to the Louisiana coast — and is perched on the edge of extinction. The Bathtub is cut off by a levee built to protect the other side, but one day, Hushpuppy explains, a storm will blow in and breach that levee.
"The water's gonna rise up so high, ain't gonna be no Bathtub," she says, "just a whole buncha water."
The film is based on a play by Lucy Alibar, with whom Zeitlin also co-wrote the screenplay. It won top honors at the Sundance Film Festival and earned the best first film award at Cannes.
Zeitlin tells NPR's Melissa Block that despite being cut off from the world, Hushpuppy's home is an extremely vibrant place.
"They're pulling a feast out of the water every night and celebrating," he says. "It's this very joyful place that exists on ingenuity and fearlessness and tenaciousness. And it's a group of people that, under the most hostile conditions, are refusing to get pushed out of their homes and off their land."
On finding the Hushpuppy in then-6-year-old actress Quvenzhane Wallis
"We actually originally wrote that character to be 11 years old, thinking that that was the youngest we could possibly find someone that could handle this role. But as we did casting — and we were casting as we were writing — we realized sort of to our horror that the mind we were trying to explore was actually a 6-year-old mind. And so that was sort of a disastrous moment where I told my producers this, and they were like, 'Oh, my God, this is impossible.' But we just searched and searched and searched. We looked at 4,000 kids over the course of about nine months, and, you know, sometimes the world guides you to your person.
"The moment [Quvenzhane Wallis] walked in — I have it on tape. You just see this wisdom and focus and tenacity and fearlessness in her eyes that she didn't have to say anything. It was like you could put the camera on her face, and you just see this whole world that she has inside of her that's so beyond her years. And I think that was the thing that really took us the most — that she is such a little kid in so many ways, but then at the same time you can pull her aside and tell her where her motivation is and tell her where she needs to emotionally pivot in the scene, and she completely internalizes it, and is able to focus and project it. It was an absolute miracle that we found her."
On how Quvenzhane influenced the script
"We started off doing many, many interviews sort of before she ever looked at anything from the story of the script. I would say, 'Tell me about what happens at the end of the world,' and she would describe her vision of that, which was these crazy things with people's hands falling off and their clothes burning up and the light in the sky turning on and off really fast, like all these visions that she has. And I remember — this is just one example — but I remember asking her, 'If all these things were your fault, what would you do?' And she said, 'I would just try to fix it. I would do whatever I can to fix what I broke.' And then I said, 'What would you do to fix it?' And she said, 'Well, I would always brush my teeth. I would listen to my parents.'
"And it was something I never would have thought of. ... She knows she can't change the world, that she's too small to actually change anything big. But she can be good, and by being good somehow you can rectify what you've thrown off in the universe. And so that became a real principle of the character ... she fixes things by being sweet and kind and by trying to be this extremely defiant, fierce but good person. And that somehow you can restore order to the universe through your behavior. ...
"It's hard for me to remember what I wrote, what she wrote, what my co-writer, Lucy, wrote. It's very collaborative on every level, trying to let the characters breathe and let the voice[s] of these amazing people that play the parts in the film get on screen."
On Hushpuppy's relationship with her father, Wink
"The father-daughter relationship comes very much from [Lucy Alibar's] play Juicy and Delicious. That was one of the inspirations for the film. It's sort of a semi-autobiographical story about my co-writer, Lucy, and her father. We were sort of taking on this father-daughter relationship with this guy who, he doesn't really have a lot of tenderness. [Hushpuppy's father] expresses love through violence and through strength, and that's sort of how he's trying to raise his daughter. And so his concept of how she can survive is she needs to become a man. And not in a literal way — it's just sort of for him, that's what defines being strong and being brave. ...
"We were trying to create a sort of parenting that was about fearlessness. And I think a lot of the times, the way you're used to seeing parenting [is], 'You should be afraid of this,' 'Don't talk to this type of person,' 'Don't touch this,' 'Be careful' in all these ways. And Wink knows that's not the way that Hushpuppy can survive. And he needs to teach her to be not afraid, and be strong, and not be delicate and something that can be crushed by all these forces that are coming for them."
On how Quvenzhane is reacting to the film's success
"She's little. It's not like she was raised to be some star or something, or have a sense of what any of this is. We're always getting asked, 'What's next?' And she very coolly says, 'Fourth grade. Gotta stay on the honor roll.' ... All that said, she's a true-born superstar. She talks and people listen, and she smiles and people laugh, and she just has this ability to connect to anyone wherever we go that's amazing. So I think that she's both flourishing in the attention and doesn't see it as something that's that weird. It's just kind of part of her life."
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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. The most captivating narrator in a movie right now has to be a fierce, brave six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy with her frenzy of wild hair and white shrimper boots. Hushpuppy lives with her father in a ramshackle isolated community called the Bathtub that clings to the Louisiana coast.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD")
QUVENZHANE WALLIS: (as Hushpuppy) The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world.
BLOCK: But they're perched on the edge of extinction. The Bathtub is cut off by a levee built to protect the other side.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD")
WALLIS: (as Hushpuppy) One day, a storm's going to blow, the ground's going to sink and the water's going to rise up so high, there ain't going to be no Bathtub, just a whole bunch of water.
BLOCK: The movie is titled "Beasts of the Southern Wild." It won top honors at the Sundance film festival and Best First Film Award at Cannes and it's been getting lots of raves since.
The 29-year-old director, Ben Zeitlin, joins me now to talk about it. Ben, welcome to the program.
BEN ZEITLIN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Let's talk about this place where Hushpuppy lives with her father because the word, ramshackle, that I used really doesn't begin to capture it.
ZEITLIN: Sure. Yeah. I mean, the Bathtub is this place that, like you said, has been cut off from the world. And, you know, it's this kind of extremely proud, extremely vibrant sort of survivalist place where people are, you know, kind of cut off from the economy, but at the same time, they're pulling a feast out of the water every night and celebrating. And it's this very joyful place that kind of exists on ingenuity and fearlessness and tenaciousness and, you know, it's a group of people that, under sort of the most hostile conditions, are being - are refusing to get pushed out of their homes and off their land.
BLOCK: And how did you find the places where you shot "Beasts of the Southern Wild?"
ZEITLIN: I got interested, basically in, you know, I sort of wanted to see the front lines of where people were holding out, really, at sort of what is ground zero of where the storms are landing, where the land loss is happening, you know, right where the oil spill was.
You know, all these things are happening right off the coast. And so I started driving down to the very end of the road. There's about five roads that go out into the marsh and I wanted to know, you know, what are these towns at the very, very end? And what is it that makes them so strong?
And so, when I got down to the bottom of (unintelligible), Louisiana, I remember feeling like this was the first time I'd gotten to the end of the road. And there was this incredibly vibrant community right there at the edge and so I sort of knew immediately that that was the place that most expressed this kind of fierce sentiment.
BLOCK: I want to ask you about the little girl who plays Hushpuppy. This is Quvenzhane Wallis, six years old when you shot...
BLOCK: ...the movie and she is so intense, you can't keep your eyes off of her. She's got a lot to say.
BLOCK: Let's take a listen to one scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD")
WALLIS: (as Hushpuppy) The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. (Unintelligible) they find a universe (unintelligible).
BLOCK: And, Ben Zeitlin, this movie rises or falls on the strength of her character. How did you find her? She's not an actress.
ZEITLIN: No. She's a kid.
BLOCK: She is now.
ZEITLIN: Yeah. She is now. Yeah. You know, we knew, like you said, that the whole film was her film. You know, it's from her point of view. It's a film that emerges from her mind, essentially. And, you know, we just searched and searched and searched. We looked at 4,000 kids over the course of about nine months and, you know, the moment she walked in, you just - I have it on tape and you just see this wisdom and focus and tenacity and fearlessness in her eyes that - she didn't have to say anything. You know, it's like you could put the camera on her face and you just see this whole world that she has inside of her that's so beyond her years. And so, you know, it was an absolute miracle that we found her.
BLOCK: Once you did find her, how much did she dictate or determine the character? In other words, how much did you change once you found Quvenzhane to say, oh, we're going to take this in another direction?
ZEITLIN: Yeah. I mean, totally. It's - and we do that for every - really every element. You know, the way that we try to work is not from this holy script that has to be executed exactly how it was written. It's all about finding these things that speak to us and then adapting the script to those elements.
And, for her, we started off doing many, many interviews. You know, sort of, I would - before she ever looked at anything from the story or the script, I would say, tell me about what happens at the end of the world. And she would describe these - you know, her vision of that, which was these crazy things with people's hands falling off and their clothes burning up and a light in the sky turning on and off really fast, like all these visions that she has.
ZEITLIN: And I remember - this is just one example, but I remember asking her, you know, if all of these things were your fault, what would you do? And she said, I would just try to fix it. You know, I would do whatever I can to fix what I broke. And then I said, you know, how would you - what would you do to fix it? And she said, well, you know, I would always brush my teeth. I would, you know, listen to my parents. I would - something I never would have thought of, you know, that her concept is the way that you fix something is not by, you know, trying to - she knows she can't change the world, that she's too small to actually change anything big, but she can be good. And, by being good, somehow, you can rectify what you've thrown off in the universe. And so that became a real principle of the character, that somehow you can restore order to the universe through your behavior.
BLOCK: I'm thinking about a line that she has in the movie. When you're small, you got to fix what you can.
ZEITLIN: Absolutely. And I believe that she wrote that line. You know, there's a lot of - it's almost hard to parse out when you watch the film. For me, it's hard for me to remember what I wrote, what she wrote, what my co-writer, Lucy, wrote. It's very, very collaborative on every level.
BLOCK: I'm talking to Ben Zeitlin about his movie, "Beasts of the Southern Wild." There's a fascinating mixture in the movie between all of this realism, this ramshackle community on the coast and then this mythical element, these magical beasts, prehistoric beasts called Aurochs that are on a rampage. Talk about the dynamic between those two things, the realism and then the magical part.
ZEITLIN: Yeah. For me, you know, it wasn't - we spent a long time trying to, like, grasp at just what that line was. And where it really fell into place - and this came out of the interviews with Quvenzhane - is that, when you're six, there really is no reality and fantasy dichotomy. You know, those lines are totally blurred when you're that age.
You know, I remember having an invisible friend when I was that age and, you know, if my invisible friend, like, didn't show up to play with me, I would be sad. You know, that was a real emotion generated by something that adults were telling me wasn't there. And so, you know, these beasts and sort of all of the mythical elements of the film are things that Hushpuppy believes are real and the film doesn't kind of condescend towards that point of view. It sort of takes her at her word and anything that she believes is real is real in the film.
And so she's living in this extremely heightened state where she sees herself as this tiny little morsel of food on the planet that larger predators are going to come and eat, whether that's her father who's going to be taken away by disease or her home's going to be taken away by storms in the ocean.
And, as that projects itself, these, you know, ancient, extinct creatures defrost out of the ice caps as they're crumbling and wake back up and come charging to get her.
BLOCK: What does Quvenzhane think about all the attention and praise the movie's getting and her, in particular?
ZEITLIN: You know, she's - you know, she's little. It's not like she was raised to be some star or something or have a sense of what any of this stuff is. You know, we were always getting asked, you know, what's next? And she very coolly says, you know, fourth grade. Got to stay on the honor role. You know, it's just kind of part of her life.
BLOCK: Ben Zeitlin is director and co-writer of the film, "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Ben, thanks so much and congratulations.
ZEITLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.