Once again, the newly launched Louisiana International Film Festival (LIFF) has created a “Red Carpet, Meet Bayou” community event celebrating our great state’s place in the global film industry. Their first big event was a screening of The Big Lebowski hosted by Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, the inspiration for the Jeff Bridges character in the film. It was a great, action-packed weekend and, as Dowd helped kickstart Sundance, it felt like an auspicious start of something wonderful. On Thursday, LIFF brought their concept home with a screening in Baton Rouge (again, attended by The Dude) of the highly acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild and asked me to moderate the Q&A afterward. I was honored… nervous and honored.
Shot entirely in the state of Louisiana with a group of authentic local talents, many of whom had never acted before, the film garnered both the Grand Jury prize at Sundance this year and the Caméra d’Or (best first feature film) at the Cannes Film Fest. Director Benh Zeitlin is originally from New York but his film and his previous award-winning short film Glory at Sea, are both projects unique to this region. Both pieces were produced by Court 13, an independent filmmaking collective founded by Zeitlin and some classmates in 2004. Behn and the production company moved to New Orleans in late 2006 and both projects reflect the impact of watching a region rebuild itself after The Storm.
Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of Hushpuppy, a fierce 6 year old, her ailing father and their community, “the Bathtub.” As flooding overtakes their homeland, the dying father tries to prepare his tiny charge for a world without him. The film has mystical elements, including the aurochs (the “beasts” Hushpuppy must face), as well as a heartfelt journey of a child searching for her mother. That’s the story and the story is great, but it’s not what makes this movie so beloved.
The soul of this film rests in the balled-up fist of the fierce Hushpuppy and the complicated simplicity of a man trying to prepare his baby to be “the man.” The producers met with over 4000 girls before finding the glorious Quvenzhané Wallis. She lied about her age to get the part, telling them she was already 6 when she was still just 5. Now 8, she is still the precocious and poised personality that won their hearts over and now ours.
Her father, Wink, is played by Dwight Henry, best known as the owner of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery in the Treme. Baking since he was 11, Mr. Henry’s bakery was a lifelong dream that almost ended after Katrina did its damage. He found it within himself to begin again and people have been lining up for his donuts, king cakes and buttermilk drops ever since. Zeitlin and his gang used the bakery as a meeting place throughout the casting process and finally realized Henry was their man. Dedicated to baking, Henry turned down the part 3 times before finally agreeing to take time away from his shop. The results are no less sweet. His unashamed take on Wink, the father, is equal parts tender loyalty and aggressive urgency.
Their culture may be foreign to most of us. They live (in 2 separate trailers) entirely off the land and the bounty of their waters. Wearing stained and torn clothing, they celebrate “more holidays than anywhere in the world.” (Okay, that part isn’t so foreign to most New Orleanians). That said, this movie isn’t about poverty. If anything, it’s about abundance. The citizens of the Bathtub are nearly drowning in abundance. They are rich in more than just land and food, they are overflowing with heart, spirit and a sense of community.
The rest of the cast is no less interesting a mix of characters. Gina Montana, last seen in When the Levees Broke, is the sister of Phyllis Montana LeBlanc of HBO’s Treme and both Spike Lee documentaries on Katrina. They are the cousins of Tootie Montana, “Chief of Chiefs” of the Mardi Gras Indians who died while addressing the New Orleans City Council on behalf of the Indians’ right to parade.
Levy Easterly abandoned his dreams of acting decades ago until he was cast in Glory at Sea. Lowell Landes and Henry D. Coleman also got their start in the acclaimed short film. Beasts of the Southern Wild began production on April 20, 2010. If you don’t live on the Gulf Coast, perhaps you don’t recognize that as the date BP’s rig exploded killing 11 men and beginning one of the worst oil spills in the history of the industry. As filming continued, the oil creeped toward their set and they had to negotiate with BP just to remain in the area. I’ve made enough movies to know that they all require stamina and problem solving but, in the face of that much resistance, the spirit of these filmmakers must be as indomitable as the spirit of the people of the Bathtub.
Once the film’s screening was over, it was time for me to go to work. I’m used to sitting in the cast or filmmaker chairs. This was my first time moderating the Q&A. I’d done my research and had some “talking points” ready but nothing could have prepared me for having to wipe tears and absorb all that the movie had made me feel in the 60 seconds it took me to walk to the front of the theatre. Though Zeitlin was unable to attend, he sent the well-informed associate producer, Nathan Harrison, in his stead. I’ll admit I was afraid to be on the “Q” side of the Q&A, but it was actually great to be able to ask anything I wanted of the cast who’d just affected me so deeply.
A few of my cast mates from Django Unchained attended the screening including Escalante Lundy who plays Big Fred in the film. To my delight, there was a poster for the film just outside our theatre! Rob Steinberg also attended the event. Rob will be playing a heroic character in the upcoming Brad Pitt production, Twelve Years a Slave, and plays my boyfriend in this season’s premiere episode of HBO’s Treme.
I was unable to attend the after-party but remain impressed by LIFF’s events and anticipate that their inaugural film festival (April 18-21, 2013) will be a smashing success worthy of the place Louisiana now enjoys in the film industry. Founder and event organizer, Chesley Heymsfield, is an asset to both the state’s burgeoning film industry as well as local filmmakers, actors and those aspiring to join the ranks. Best yet, she continues to find ways to reach out to the people here who love movies and want to be a part of celebrating them.