Benh Zeitlin, director of The Beasts of the Southern Wild, did an Otis Redding.
"It was very informal, I didn't show up with a tape recorder. I was sitting on the docks where the boats get launched out with my pad and paper, or my laptop, looking completely conspicuous. Obviously not from around there."
The style fitted the subject, since Zeitlin's fantasy drama centres around a community of "hold-outs": Louisianians whose homes on the bayou were washed away by Hurricane Katrina but who refuse to leave all they know behind.
With his film winning prizes at Sundance and Cannes and its young star, Quvenzhané Wallis, being mentioned as an Oscar contender, Zeitlin clearly took the right approach. By taking things the relaxed, Big Easy way, native New Yorker Zeitlin found himself being trusted with people's stories.
"It's part of the great thing about south Louisiana that there's a real hospitality, a generosity, once people trust you," says Zeitlin, speaking before the London Film Festival premiere of his film. Still, he had to go through something of an initiation.
"The first two weeks you're getting made fun of the whole time, not with any hostility, but you're the outsider, you're the Yankee, so you end up being the butt of every joke but that's how you get initiated into being a part of something."
This is Zeitlin's first feature film, and he didn't make things easy by working with youngsters, or shooting on water. In both instances, the tests didn't kill the film but made it stronger. This was particularly the case with finding Wallis. Not for Zeitlin picking up a phone to a casting agency. He was determined to use all non-actors, so the net had to be cast as wide as possible. His team leafleted local churches, community centres, restaurants, local businesses, all to reach as many children as possible.
In total, they looked at 4000 possibilities over nine months. When Wallis turned up, it was immediately obvious the search was over. Zeitlin likens the experience to having a young Mozart turn up for an audition. "You never could have imagined a kid could focus like this, act like this, just command the scene this way. She was fearless and wise and all these things we were looking for. It was a miraculous moment."
Though it has shades of folklore and fantasy, Beasts deals with tough subjects such as poverty, isolation and illness. Playing Hushpuppy, who lives with her sick father in an abandoned caravan, the then five-year-old Wallis had scenes that would have stretched an actor four times her age.
"It always had to be fun," says Zeitlin when asked how he directed the youngster. Scenes were treated like a race, with the cast getting ready, going to the starting line, running the race, then stepping off the track back to the safety of the real world. Then there were other techniques Zeitlin and Wallis found useful.
"You're operating in a different language because you are with a kid. You're not talking about Stanislavski. We would direct with colours. She would say, 'Do you want me to be yellow angry or red angry or purple angry?'" If he said he wanted purple she might say he really wanted red. "We found a language, as you do with any actor. She's just not a normal kid. She's this super-talented person. You have to simplify your language but you are essentially working with the same tools."
As for working with so much water – pretty much a no-no in the industry since Waterworld – Zeitlin wasn't troubled by that either. "I love water because I love chaos," he laughs. "We make it seem a lot more dangerous than it is. A lot of times it looks like we're out at sea but we're actually in three feet of water, and there's somebody holding the boat from the bottom. My favourite dolly in the world is water, you can move the camera anywhere, any way you want to."
Zeitlin now feels so at home in Louisiana he has made it his home. "There's so much hardship there [in New Orleans], there's so much tragedy, but the city is the most joyous place you've ever been. There's just such a culture of celebration. Even when you go to a funeral it's like the most fun you've ever had in your life.
"They use joy and celebration as a way to combat these tragedies and as a way to conquer them. I was inspired by that. It has changed my life. I wanted to make a film that celebrated the celebrators, that celebrated the hold-outs as heroes."
The hold-outs are still there, he says, and he hopes the film, by highlighting their presence, might help them in future.
"I hope the next time that place is threatened it would be a beautiful thing if everybody that has seen this film is there to stand up for it. It does feel sometimes in south Louisiana there's nobody really there on your side to stand up when your place is about to go down the drain."
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens tomorrow.
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