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Writing During Production: The Development of Sundance Darling BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (Q&A Screening)

I was at a showing a couple weeks ago of Sundance darling Beasts of the Southern Wild at the Landmark here in Los Angeles.  It was followed by a Q & A with breakout newcomers: director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin, cinematographer Ben Richardson, and first time actors Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry.  Beasts won the top award at Sundance this year, the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, as well as the Cinematography Award.  It also won top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, including Un Certain Regard.

This award winning film is shot beautifully, and is very well directed and acted.  What it lacks in narrative (comparable to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but not quite as memory-induced, or many of Wong Kar Wai’s films like 2046) is made up for in visuals, atmosphere and character, displaying both Zeitlin and Richardson’s skill as filmmakers, and Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar’s skill at screenwriting.  Beasts is a tough film at times, as well as depressing — a character is dying.  However it’s a very realistic coming-of-age story that can also be viewed as uplifting, showing a slice of life and place many are unfamiliar with.

The aspect I found most fascinating is that screenwriters Zeitlin and Alibar changed the script many times throughout the development and filming process.  The screenplay was adapted from Lucy Alibar’s one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, about a boy feeling like the world is collapsing around him as his father is dying. The script then when to the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Lab, where it was developed with Creative Advisors from the film industry.

Zeitlin discussed how he visited different places near the levees in Louisiana and finally came upon one that inspired the setting of “The Bathtub” island in the film.  He also mentioned that once that happened they threw the script out and rewrote it to fit this new location.  According to Zeitlin, the script changed again, sometimes daily on set while filming, to capture the realism and experiences of the actors.  Both Wallis and Henry’s own life experiences inspired their characters and lines in the final film.

Originally Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s father Wink, turned down the film, due to his obligations as part owner in a bakery, which helped support his family. But the casting director was persistent, and finally won him over and worked around his schedule. Henry would be working with an acting coach sometimes after midnight into the early morning hours after working a full day at his bakery. The initial plan was to cast a seasoned actor against first time actor Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy), who was cast first. However, once they met Henry, they knew he was their Wink, that he would bring an authenticity to the role that maybe a seasoned actor might lack. Also, Wallis had much input into the casting, as the six year old had to feel comfortable with whomever played Wink, as they have some tough scenes together.

All of this paid off in the final film, as it’s quite an experience. And this story is a great example of how screenwriters should be open to changing their work to fit inspiring locations and the talent that actors can bring to a part, as well as filmmakers being passionate about going with their gut in terms of casting. Beasts of the Southern Wild is currently opened in limited release and is opening in more theaters today, July 13.  You can see an updated list of cities on the Beasts website.


Permanent link to this article: http://cinematicinspirations.com/2012/07/13/writing-during-production-the-development-of-sundance-darling-beasts-of-the-southern-wild-q-a-screening/

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