Benh Zeitlin

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There's a long and proud history of careers made at Sundance, and the film that collected the loudest buzz from the 2012 festival was the alt-fairy tale-esque Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Part fantasy, part gritty realism, Beasts introduces the precocious young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) as she ekes out a pitiable but seemingly happy existence. She lives in The Bathtub, a self-sufficient community in the extreme southern reaches of Louisiana, on the other side of a huge levee from electricity, running water and any modern-day living.

She lives an idyllic existence with her Dad (Dwight Henry) as the township throws huge fireworks parties and seafood cook-ups, but everyone knows the next big storm will drown The Bathtub, and Hushpuppy's Dad is trying to prepare her – in his own cruel-to-be-kind way – for the day when he won't be around.

Writer/director Benh Zeitlin has created a world as fantastical as it is grounded and as wildly lush as it is poverty-stricken, ugly and cruel. He spoke to Moviehole.net in Los Angeles.

What made you cast non-actors?

It's actually casting people who are acting for the first time more than it is non-actors. These guys definitely aren't playing themselves. They really learned how to play these parts and they have this inborn charisma that you need to light up a screen.

But we tried to collaborate really intensely on every element of the film including the characters. There are things I wrote, there are things Dwight told me how he'd say them. We'd bring the script to the bakery where he worked and do these interviews where we go through our lives and relate them to the script and rewrite scenes based on that.

Did you cast Quvenzhané because you saw something in her that was similar to Hushpuppy?

When she first came in she was so confident and fearless in life. There's nothing you can do that scares her or freaks her out, and the one quality he's raising her with is not to be afraid. He's going to let her fall down, he's going to let her pick herself back up. He's going to teach her fearlessness because he knows that's what she's going to need to survive.

Even in her first audition when she was five years old she wasn't afraid of me. When I was telling her to do something in the audition that she didn't want to do she said 'that's not right', you're not supposed to throw things at people.'

She was really defiant in this sweet way and that was what I really connected to the character. She's really wise beyond her years.

What was it like shooting on location and creating the look and vibe of The Bathtub?

We tried to build everything as opposed to just build facades, even though it would have been easier with flyaway walls and things like that. We wanted to allow these guys to really operate in the sets as if they were real.

The house where they go through the storm was a real house my sister built, all from materials she found in the woods. She actually lived in that house while she was building it and all those animals are hers so it wasn't like we had to fake it, it actually existed. We wanted to let that find its way into the performances and the fabric of the film.

It was a very real environment, how did you decide how to portray the aurochs and how they were going to fit in with the rest of what you created?

The Bathtub doesn't have technology or computers so we wanted everything to feel alive. And so without even knowing how we were going to execute it, we decided very early on the aurochs had to be real animals. So we had to find a way to train and work with animals to get them to play these parts.

That was important to me because I don't think of them as imaginary. I think of it as Hushpuppy's film and for her everything is real, so 80 percent of the creatures are in camera. We added and removed things digitally but the heart of the effect is reading 1980s effects magazines and trying to imitate the way people used to do things before digital.

So you don't consider the film to be even a little bit of a fairy story, not really set in the real world?

For me it's very real story, I try to think back to the way I experienced the world when I was six, before you start parsing out what's imaginary and what's real. I had an imaginary friend when I six that was absolutely sitting right there and no one could tell me that they weren't. And I wanted to make a film that didn't condescend towards that and say 'oh, it's just a kid seeing things'.

I took it seriously and respected Hushpuppy's point of view because to me she's the wise woman of the film. It's her film and we wanted to let her point of view and her reality speak for itself.

You never say 'Katrina' in the film but was it your intention to reference it?

The Bathtub is definitely a synthesis of a lot of different elements of South Louisiana culture that are all geographically different. There's New Orleans, Cajun and Creole cultures in there and it's all being consolidated and concentrated in this little island.

And that was the idea, to build a heightened world out of very real parts. I wanted to tell it as a fable. It's certainly inspired by a lot of real things, but the reason behind not mentioning Katrina or anything specific is not to get caught up on an event.

I wanted to tell a story about moving into the future and living in a place that lives with the possibility of being wiped off the map and what it's like to stand strong and fight for it. The politics just seemed superficial.

When did you realise the film was going to do so well and be such a big deal?

It was very surreal going to Sundance. We finished sound mixing the movie two days before it screened for the first time, so there was no real time to think about what was going to happen or how it was going to go. Even the first time I saw it I was still mixing sound in my head and thinking 'I need more magenta in this shot'. I couldn't really experience the movie yet.

But when I read some of the earlier things that were written about it, it took me back three and a half years, being on the docks ranting to my friends about what this film could be and what it was going to say.

So there finally came a moment where I managed to step out of making the film and realised we'd said what we set out to say. I'd probably even forgotten what that was but hearing it re-articulated was really moving. It felt really good.

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