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Producers Go Behind the Beast in Beasts of the Southern Wild

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February 12, 2013

Four producers of the film made up the panel. From left to right: Matt Parker, John Williams '06, Michael Gottwald, and Dan Janvey.

Gripping, touching, ferocious – and told through the eyes of a six-year-old; oscar-nominated film Beasts of the Southern Wild riveted a fully-packed Sci 101 last Friday night, followed by a panel with four of the film’s producers.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is set in a fictional community in southern Louisiana called The Bathtub. The people of The Bathtub are encroached upon by various “beasts,” and with ferocious tenacity are able to persevere in the face of the effects of global warming, “modernization,” forced evacuation, and a slew of other villains the film subtly identifies. In the words of co-producer Michael Gottwald, the people of The Bathtub “beast it.”

The film has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis), Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar).

The cast and crew worked extensively with the coastal community in southern Louisiana, hiring exclusively local actors. According to Gottwald, director Zeitlin worked collaboratively with the actors in the rehearsal process, at times changing the script.

“It shows you through critical thinking you can create awesome bonds with each other and the community”, Steven Gu ’15 said after the screening and panel.

A promotional poster for the movie. Courtesy of beastsofthesouthernwild.com

The film’s production was infused with the community in which it was set, a dynamic that was evident in a jocular anecdote featuring co-producer and Swarthmore alumnus John Williams ’06. As co-producer Dan Janvey recounted, latrines are a fact of life on film sets; but when working in a community not your own, it is obviously important to deal with them respectfully. After a storm knocked a port-o-potty into the water one night, Williams dove into the water, lassoed the latrine and dragged it back to shore. In response to one panel attendee’s question, Williams said that Swarthmore’s swim test had been good preparation. Perhaps we could even say that Williams “beasted it.”

Though set in a fictional realm, Zeitlin distilled many real cultures in the creation of the film. “Benh [Zeitlin] is interested in telling stories that resonate universally,” Gottwald said. Dispelling critics’ labels of the film as magical realism, Janvey stated that it was “always meant to be absolute realism.”

That “realness” permeates the whole film and is brought to life by main character Hushpuppy, played by Wallis. Hushpuppy, a young girl, has a lock-stare that pulls the viewer into her world – one of curiosity, pain, love, rejection, community, and a sense of justice. Perhaps one of the biggest emotional take-aways from this movie is what it means to hold back tears, a lesson expertly taught by Wallis. That any actress could communicate this is incredible– and that’s without saying anything of her age. Six years old when the movie was filmed, Wallis (now nine years old) is the youngest person to receive an Oscar nomination.

Finally, as one panel questioner asked, who is the “beast” in this movie? The literal representative figure in the film is up for interpretation, but the notion is that of empowerment. As Williams put it, “Within the narrative, [the term ‘beast’] is put on people, but they reappropriate it and use it to empower them.”

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