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How Benh Zeitlin tamed ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Benh Zeitlin with Quvenzhané Wallis, during a Boston visit to promote “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Benh Zeitlin with Quvenzhané Wallis, during a Boston visit to promote “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

‘A film is such a gigantic thing to bring into the world,” Benh Zeitlin says, “that it creates its own fate in a lot of ways.” The fate of Zeitlin’s debut feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which he directed and co-wrote, would seem never to have been in doubt. It won the Grand Jury Prize for drama at Sundance this year and then earned raves at the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard competition for works by younger, innovative filmmakers. It opens in Boston Friday.

“I feel like we were meant to find her,” director Benh Zeitlin says of Quvenzhané Wallis (right), who was cast as Hushpuppy after 4,000 girls had auditioned.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

“I feel like we were meant to find her,” director Benh Zeitlin says of Quvenzhané Wallis (right), who was cast as Hushpuppy after 4,000 girls had auditioned.

Zeitlin, 29, was here recently to promote the film, along with its two stars, Quvenzhané “Nazie” Wallis and Dwight Henry. Yet the actors’ having ended up in the film is a reminder of just how uncertain the fate of “Beasts” once was.

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Wallis plays the film’s 6-year-old heroine, Hushpuppy. Henry plays her father, Wink. They live in a small community on the Gulf of Mexico that endures a hurricane and its aftermath. Of course describing “Beasts” that way is a bit like saying “King Lear” is the story of a failed retirement plan. It’s accurate so far as it goes, but leaves out a whole lot. Suffice it to say that, like Cordelia and Lear, the characters Wallis and Henry play are crucial to the story’s workings.

Wallis’s and Henry’s performances are just as crucial to the film’s success. Neither had ever acted before. Wallis was cast only after 4,000 other children had auditioned for the part. Henry was (and is) co-owner of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Cafe, which was across the street from the film’s casting office, in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood. He turned down the part three times before finally agreeing.

(A buttermilk drop? “It’s a cross between a poundcake and a cake doughnut,” says Henry. “It’s a round ball with a creamy, rich glaze over and around the whole ball.” “They’re good,” adds Wallis.)

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“I feel like we were meant to find her; same with Dwight,” Zeitlin says. “Both things feel equally sort of preordained. It’s almost like a planet. You’re creating a planet and it has this gravitational force if it’s big enough, if it’s true enough. Things like Nazie and Dwight are things that got wrapped into that gravity and came to us for a reason.”

That Zeitlin, 29, would become a filmmaker might seem preordained, too. Growing up in New York, he made his first film at 6. He made it with a friend, Crockett Doob, who’s one of the editors of “Beasts.” Then in middle school he started going on Saturdays to the house of a friend with a VHS camera, and they’d make a film “pretty much every week,” Zeitlin recalls.

‘The film operates more like a piece of music. It’s something that builds emotionally, with verse and choruses, and moves toward an overwhelming finale.’

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After majoring in film studies at Wesleyan, Zeitlin moved to New Orleans and made several shorts. He lives in the Bywater district. “People always talk about getting hooked on the city,” he says, “Something gets inside you, and you can’t leave. For me, it has to do with a different type of freedom that exists there. It’s something that comes very much from what a dangerous place it is: how close to the edge it is, how close to destruction it is, this sort of cloud that hangs over the city. The whole film was really inspired by me trying to figure out what this magnetism is. It’s not that you’re drawn to danger but to a type of fearlessness that is willing to live near danger.”

The film originated as a play, “Juicy and Delicious,” by Zeitlin’s co-writer, Lucy Alibar. That was four years ago. “It probably started more as a comedy and more fantastical in the original vision,” Zeitlin says. “I don’t actually think of the film as a fantasy anymore. It’s a film about what it’s like to be 6. When you’re that age you’re not separating out reality and fantasy the way you start to as you get older. . . . It’s [Hushpuppy’s] movie and she makes the rules.”

Those rules are based on feeling rather than logic or sequential order. “It’s not a film that’s structured on events,” Zeitlin explains. “It’s not plot-structured, even though there are many events and adventures. It’s an emotional structure. The film operates more like a piece of music. It’s something that builds emotionally, with verse and choruses, and moves toward an overwhelming finale.”

Zeitlin says he has a new project in the works, but he’s not at liberty to talk about it. Wallis goes back to school. A straight-A student, she’ll be starting fourth grade. Henry is putting together an online operation for his bakery, which he hopes to have up by the end of the year. Oh, and he’s developing a new pastry to add to the bakery’s menu. He’s going to name it “Hushpuppy.” “It won’t be like what people think of as hushpuppies,” he says, “you know, made out of cornmeal. This will taste real, real good.”

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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