Ex-Outsiders, Now Basking in the Moment
PARK CITY, Utah — It was almost exactly one year ago that Quvenzhané Wallis, the star of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” made her bad little self known to the world. After the premiere of the movie here at the Sundance Film Festival, Ms. Wallis, then 8, took to the stage with her cast mates and film crew. She received a standing ovation. Handed a mike, she introduced herself and announced, “I like to have a party!” Cue the hearts melting of 1,300 audience members.
Since then she’s had ample opportunity to celebrate, as “Beasts” has gone from Sundance darling to Oscar contender. It has marquee nominations for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best actress; Ms. Wallis, now 9 (and she made the film three years ago), is the youngest best actress nominee ever.
It has not gone to her head. “Hi,” she’ll say, waving at a familiar adult face at a froufrou event in her honor, then retreating to something more kid friendly, like a digital game. Ms. Wallis is in the fourth grade in Houma, La., where she lives with her parents, older brothers and sister, reading and going to their basketball games when she’s not playing the part of a movie star. It’s a part that comes with good accessories, like sparkly new shoes and a puppy-shaped purse that she carries onstage with her when she accepts awards, still reading in the halting voice of a grade schooler, not a professional child actor.
The unexpected trajectory of “Beasts” has not changed the rest of the crew much either; they remain steadfastly indie. And the bootstraps story behind the film is as integral to its charm as its magical-realist setting.
A debut feature made by Hollywood outsiders, with a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors, it was shepherded through the creative rigors of the Sundance Institute’s labs, where the filmmakers honed the story of a little girl, Hushpuppy, and her dying father, Wink, in a tight-knit bayou community. With a budget of $1.8 million cobbled together from various nonprofits, chiefly Cinereach, a foundation that offers financing for films from “underrepresented perspectives,” and other prizes and film festival grants, it was shot in Louisiana over two months in 2010 and finished just three days before its Sundance premiere.
“It was an extremely emotional week,” recalled Dan Janvey, a producer of the film. By that point cast and crew members had been working on the movie for three and a half years, living cheaply in New Orleans to do so; 130 of them turned up for the premiere. “I remember tears of exhaustion during the first few minutes of the film,” Benh Zeitlin, the director and co-writer, said. “After that I remember going straight back into mental notes on sound mixing and color.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” would not remotely be what it is without Sundance, Mr. Janvey said in an interview here on Tuesday. He is a product of the Sundance producers lab, where he met a trustee who became an adviser and eventually another producer on the movie. Mr. Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, who adapted it from her one-act play, also attended the writers and directors labs. “Once they take on a film, they will nurture it through its completion,” Mr. Janvey said of the lab programs. “And that’s an unbelievable level of commitment.”
It won the grand jury prize for dramatic film at the festival, and the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in May, where Ms. Wallis gleefully went for a few spins on a teacup ride. (During the premiere at Sundance, Mr. Janvey had to shush her because she was giggling so much.) At the loop of awards luncheons and ceremonies she now attends in New York and Los Angeles she is often found dancing in a corner, or playing silly games with Mr. Zeitlin. Her mother, Qulyndreia, a teacher, is her steward on the scene, but Mr. Zeitlin acts as pal and gatekeeper too. The family has no plans to move to Los Angeles, though Ms. Wallis has already wrapped another film, with the director Steve McQueen, with Dwight Henry, who plays her father in “Beasts.”
Mr. Henry has not been as present on the awards circuit, in part because he is busy with his day job: running the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe in New Orleans. After meeting him there, Mr. Zeitlin, Mr. Janvey and other producers persuaded him to take the part of Wink, a hard-drinking toughie who teaches his daughter survival skills as a major storm approaches. That resonated with Mr. Henry, who stayed around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
“I can relate to him as far as he loves his community, he loves the people, the land that he lives on,” he said, as he greeted every customer in his bakery. “He’s an original holdout.” (Though he also has no plans to go to Los Angeles — if Hollywood wants him, he said, it can come to him — his success with the film has helped him expand his business. He is working with the restaurateur Richie Notar to open a bakery, to be called Mr. Henry’s, in Harlem this spring, and will serve desserts in the adjacent jazz club that Mr. Notar, an owner of Nobu, plans for the former Lenox Lounge space.)
Mr. Henry, a career baker, said he was inspired to do the movie by the ethos of the filmmakers. “I thought back to the time when I first opened up my business, when nobody believed in me,” he said. “I got turned down by every finance company, every friend, every family member, everybody you can think of turned me down. Nobody believed in me. And for these guys to come from New York, a first-time feature filmmaker, to put their whole budget, their whole film into me and a young 6-year-old girl’s hands, who’s never acted before, to believe in us, that meant a lot to me.”
The “Beasts” crew operated a lot on faith in their own ethos, too, equal parts handicrafting and hard work.
“What happened with this film is so surreal,” said Mr. Janvey, who has known Mr. Zeitlin since they were undergrads at Wesleyan University, where he produced Mr. Zeitlin’s senior-thesisshort film. “When you really look at this movie, it’s an off-kilter film. But it has an emotional clarity that I think people are reacting to.”
Aside from Ms. Wallis it is Mr. Zeitlin’s life that had the potential to be shaken up the most in the last year. But he is still planning karaoke outings with friends in lieu of celebrity-filled galas and operating without the help of high-profile agents or managers. He still lives in New Orleans and is working on another movie with Mr. Janvey that he will also write himself. Mr. Janvey said he expects another nonprofessional cast.
There are moments, though, when a glimmer of the change peeks through. After Mr. Zeitlin’s surprise Oscar nomination as best director, Steven Spielberg sent over a bottle of Champagne. At a luncheon hosted by the American Film Institute in Los Angeles this month Mr. Zeitlin and other Beasties stood in a circle around Mr. Spielberg as he described to them, in detail, what parts of their movie made him emotional.
“I am a pretty composed person,” Mr. Zeitlin said afterward. “But I am freaking out inside.”
Because “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was made on its own terms far from the entertainment industry, the notion of being recognized for it by the cinema establishment never even occurred to its makers.
“I’m at a level of dream come true, where John Cassavetes returning from the grave and asking me to have a Scotch with him doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility,” Mr. Zeitlin said.