Amateur actors bring interesting perspective to the film

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Pretty much nothing about Dwight Henry, movie star and owner of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Cafe in New Orleans, is typical.

He and the makers of festival darling "Beasts of the Southern Wild" bonded over breakfast doughnuts, pastries and patter. He created the goodies, they ate them and distributed fliers inviting anyone who wanted to audition to contact their office across the street.

"I always wanted to go and, one day, me and the producers were sitting out in the bakery, I said, 'Come on, Mike, I'm gonna come over and do an audition,' " he recalled in a recent phone call.

Producer Michael Gottwald put the audition on camera, director Benh Zeitlin asked for a second look and wanted to hire the baker for the adult lead in his film -- if only he could find him. Turned out Mr. Henry's business had outgrown its space and he disappeared for two months while he relocated.

"They were actually looking for me to give me the part, but no one knew where I was and they were asking all of the neighbors, 'Where's Mr. Henry at?' No one knew where I was."

When Mr. Gottwald finally found the baker, he walked in and announced, "Mr. Henry, you got the part." But the timing wasn't right. "Reluctantly, I turned it down three times because my first obligation was to my business, which I'm building to pass on to my kids."

But the filmmakers had so much faith in him, they were willing to make compromises or arrange conveniences, such as the acting coaches who came to the bakery at midnight while Mr. Henry was baking. "I was able to get away and do the film, and it's been wonderful ever since. ... I'm riding the wave, baby, wherever it takes me."

"Beasts" is set in a forgotten bayou community in Louisiana called "the Bathtub" where a little girl named Hushpuppy takes on rising waters and sinking homes, changing times, prehistoric creatures, an unraveling of the universe and her father's failing health.

Apocalyptic storms are nothing new to Mr. Henry.

"I'm from New Orleans. I live in a region that, throughout the course of my life, we faced all types of catastrophic situations. I can go back to when I was 2 years old, when my mom and dad had to take me out of the house and put me on the roof of the house because the Lower Ninth Ward was flooded out by Hurricane Betsy."

The family evacuated for Hurricane Camille, but Mr. Henry would not be rousted by Katrina. "Just like this group of resilient people [in the movie] that refuse to leave the land they live on and the people they love, I refuse to leave the business I worked so hard to build for my kids and let vandals tear it up, burn it up."

Mr. Henry, a real-life father of five children ranging from 2 to 16, plays Wink, the dad, and Quvenzhane Wallis is his daughter. She was just 6 when she, an amateur just like Mr. Henry and everyone else in the cast, made the movie.

Quvenzhane, who got on the phone before Mr. Henry and the director, said, "My mom's friend, she thought I would be able to do it." She mastered her lines by reading them repeatedly and had no trouble conveying whatever emotional turmoil the director required.

"I would just, like, get angry or do whatever he tells me to do," she said, as if she had been acting all her life. Tears? Not a problem. "It was easy because they would just pull up to the side and come out; you never can stop yourself from crying."

Mr. Zeitlin estimates he and others considered 4,000 girls before finding the right one.

He wasn't present for Quvenzhane's first audition, when she came across as shy and quiet but was on her return, when she demonstrated remarkable poise and a fierce stare. "You could stick the camera an inch away from her face and just the amount going on in her head and the focus she had was something we'd never seen before in a kid."

The filmmaker acknowledges that risk in casting all non-actors but reasons, "Risk is the bread and butter of this type of film. ... We knew we were going to shoot with kids, we knew we were going to shoot on the water, with animals that were increasingly hostile. Taking chances was the paintbrush we used to make the film."

The movie is based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar about a 10-year-old Southern boy who believes his father's impending death will coincide with the end of the world. Ms. Alibar had based the play on her life, and she switched the gender in the screenplay she and Mr. Zeitlin, a friend since their earliest teens, crafted.

"It's really Hushpuppy's movie, and she's the hero of the film, and her obstacle is her father in some ways," the director said. "Creating a gender gap between them, I think, created an even further barrier for them to have to overcome and to come to an understanding and come to their bond at the end of the film."

As if the innate drama of the story weren't enough, shooting coincided with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

"The rig exploded on Day One of our shoot, actually, and so it was a daily thing to see where the oil was, as it spread and got closer and closer to the town where we were shooting," Mr. Zeitlin said. BP commandeered one of the film's major locations about halfway through the shoot.

"It was their base of operations for cleanup and we had to negotiate with them just to get our boats into the water. Our more remote locations were all on the other side of the boom, so we actually had to get them to open up the booms that were blocking the oil to let us through so we could get out to shoot our locations."

It was hugely complicated, but "their mandate there was to look like Mister Rogers," so efforts to appear nice and cooperative worked in the production's favor.

Mr. Zeitlin, a native of Queens who grew up in nearby Hastings-on-Hudson and now makes his home in New Orleans, is most comfortable working with non-professionals.

"I learn a tremendous amount from the [nontraditional] actors, they bring experiences and they bring a more interesting language to the film than something you could just write alone in your room. For me, that collaboration is always something that actually expands the horizons of the film as opposed to something I consider a compromise."

"Beasts of the Southern Wild," a winner at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals and already generating early Oscar buzz, defies easy summary.

"It was always intended to be an adventure movie about a little girl thinking she had caused the end of the world. That was a big thing we talked about and just that it's about this community that's been cut off from the world by a giant levee and the civilized world has written this place off and taken it off the map and they're standing strong and trying to hold onto their land and defy losing their place."

Academy Awards talk only helps propel the movie, the filmmaker said.

"Whether it happens or not, the film has already gone so much further than any of us ever could have imagined when we were making it. It's really exciting; every new person that sees the movie is like another success for us," proof that a movie made in an unconventional way could connect with people throughout the world.

He's no movie snob, instead embracing mainstream and arthouse films alike.

"I get the same kind of pleasure out of all kinds of different movies, and I don't see this as a minor-leagues movie. I hope that it can play and give people the same kind of thrills and experience and satisfaction as they get when they're seeing something that was made for 300 times the budget."


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:


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