Composers Zeitlin And Romer On Scoring Beasts

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.

Convincingly relating a child’s sense of wonder in a movie for grownups is never easy. But Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer managed it handily in the music for Beasts of the Southern Wild, which Zeitlin also directed and cowrote.

Set in the wetlands of the deep South immediately before a major storm (presumably Hurricane Katrina), the film combines expected musical choices—country fiddle, accordion—with some unconventional ones—celesta and pop-music beats—to create a satisfying gumbo rich in character, mood, and atmosphere.

“I think the world looks down on these places,” Zeitlin says of his film’s setting. “I wanted to make this film about why people stay, about how beautiful and how much freedom there is in this culture. I want audiences to understand that places like this have found freedom and joy, and the music takes you there.”

To convey that sense Zeitlin and Romer used music of indigenous Cajun bands, especially the celebrated Balfa Brothers, but they also didn’t shy from incorporating other elements from their eclectic playbook. “Me and Dan have diverse taste,” Zeitlin explains. “We listen to a lot of Rachmaninoff and Michael Nyman. We both write pop music. Kate Bush was a big influence on us, also Beyoncé and Rihanna.”

Their big challenge was creating a sound that simultaneously incorporated a sense of place with a child’s sense of self. “Our star (Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy) is 6 years old, and modern pop music is what she loves,” Zeitlin says. “We wanted the score to have an indigenous texture, but also have kick-you-in-the-face energy that modern pop music is so good at, and we wanted to find a bridge to all those things.”

They found it toward the beginning of the film, as a parade makes its way through the area affectionately known as the Bathtub in the movie. The scene culminates in a fireworks celebration that also serves as the film’s title sequence. “That was pretty much the first idea we had when we sat down,” Romer recalls. “Benh wrote me that there would be a Cajun band early on. He asked what musicians should be there at the shoot. We talked about two violins and a guitar. We wanted a Cajun band playing in the scene, but then something else is playing in Hushpuppy’s head. We wanted Hushpuppy to augment the live music in her brain. To the rest of the world, it’s just a Cajun band, but in her head it’s reharmonized and orchestrated.”

The pair got the Lost Bayou Ramblers to play Balfa Brothers songs, including “Balfa Waltz” (or “Valse de Balfa”). “When I listened to that song, I realized we can do so much with it because it’s basically only one chord,” Romer says. “We can completely reharmonize this. We can add cellos or whatever. It just worked out perfectly. That was our first big idea together. The fireworks sequence is the big takeoff, blending the traditional music with the Bathtub anthem. The full anthem doesn’t come back until the credits, though it does come back in smaller bits in between.”

For Zeitlin, that cue was the movie in nutshell. “The purpose was to make you fall in love with this town and culture in a very short period of time,” he said. “We had to sell audiences on this place that they might normally be afraid of. And music was a key to making that happen. This world may look reckless or dangerous, but for Hushpuppy it’s what she loves more than anything else in the world.”

Wallis Of Beasts Reflects On Her First Acting Role

Looking back at her audition for the lead role of Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis is able to put it all in perspective. “If you are a 5-year-old, you just go ahead and try something,” she observes. “You don’t think about it. You are just a little kid.”

Of course, she’s older and wiser now. She’s 9.

Today, Wallis, pretty in pink sequins and skinny jeans, is offering this thoughtful career overview in the elegant lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Her mom, Qulyndreia Wallis, is seated on a nearby sofa, but young Wallis fields questions about her first acting role all by herself.

In a way, however, both of Quvenzhané’s parents are with her every time someone speaks her unusual first name (pronounced Kwe-VAWN-zhan-ay). The first part combines elements of her teacher mother’s first name, Qulyndreia, and her truck driver father’s first name, Venjie. Her mother says that Zhané is the Swahili word for “fairy,” although no direct translation can be found on an Internet search. Qulyndreia Wallis says her own name means “to you with love.” The rest of the kids include Venjie Jr., 15; brother Vejon, 13; and sister Qunyquekya, 19.

Close friends, family, and her Beasts colleagues call her “Nazie,” but her mother doesn’t like to see it in the press because “I feel that if it’s out there so much, they drop Quvenzhané because it’s easy to go to Nazie.”

Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a strong-willed child who lives with her father in the bayou, in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

On the Oscar campaign trail to promote Beasts, Wallis, who loves math and hates writing, often finds herself far away from her life as a fourth-grader in Houma, LA, about 50 miles outside of New Orleans. The Big Easy is the home of Court 13 Productions and independent filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, director of Beasts, his first feature. Beasts—inspired by Zeitlin’s short film Glory of the Sea and based on Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious —premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize.

Oscar is buzzing—and already Wallis, who plays a brave little girl trying to save her ailing father, her close-knit bayou community, and herself during a violent hurricane, has picked up the Hollywood Awards’ New Hollywood Award.

After one movie, the Quvenzhané Wallis Acting Method remains pretty simple (in fact, some pros would do well to take notes): Director Zeitlin, she says, would tell her: “This is what you really need to be focused (on); you need to listen to this, you don’t have to listen to that. There was important stuff and not-important stuff. And then try it twice. And then do the real one about five times.”

Zeitlin says the key to coaxing Wallis into playing the film’s harrowing storm scenes was to make the whole thing feel like a game. “We tried to shelter her from the panic of a film set. We always tried to maintain energy on the set that a 5-year-old would want to be part of,” Zeitlin explains.

Getting the part was a game to her, too. “My mom’s friend called and said they were having auditions for 6- to 9-year-olds,” Wallis recounts. “My mom said, ‘She’s too young,’ and then she just hung up the phone and said, ‘Do you want to go to auditions?’ So we just tried it, and it worked. Because when you are a little kid you are bored all the time, and it’s like, OK, let’s go! It’s kind of good to do things while you’re young,’’ she adds, very seriously.

And what’s it like to watch the movie now? ‘’It’s kind of weird, because you see a bigger you,’’ she muses. ‘’And then you look at yourself, and you think, ‘Why am I so much smaller than the real one up there?’ And then you look at yourself and go, ‘Wait, I’m the real one!’ ’’

Wallis is equally enthusiastic about her fellow castmates, except one: The pig. She’s not talking about the cute, 20- to 30-pound potbellied pigs that were made up to look like the herd of giant prehistoric Aurochs that plague Hushpuppy’s dreams. No, this was a very large Vietnamese potbellied pig owned by Zeitlin, part of the menagerie of critters on Hushpuppy’s property. The pig plays himself in the movie.

The hardest thing was “when I had to touch the pig. I wouldn’t do that because he was Big. Black. Hairy. And. Different,” she says, pausing dramatically between each word. “It was so big, and I was so small, and I knew what it could do to me.” During filming, however, she came to love the pig, and would actually ride him around the set (she explains that now she’s too grown up for that). “We got to be best friends,” she says.

The only thing Wallis doesn’t have much to say about is her future acting career. “Um, I don’t know, really,” she offers shyly. That’s when Mom jumps in. “We just stumbled upon the industry with the blessing that’s been given us,” Qulyndreia Wallis says. “She had no clue what an Oscar was. I take her, and I show her and say, ‘This is what they’re talking about.’ ” She waves a hand at the posh surroundings of the Four Seasons. “All this is nice, but we have to stay focused on reality.”

Behind The Scenes On Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

It’s not that independent filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, 30, and his team at Court 13 Productions had nothing to lose when they set out to produce Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zeitlin’s first feature film. But with a miniscule budget somewhere between $1.5 million and $1.8 million, they could afford to take a few more risks than a Hollywood producer hoping to turn a profit on a $200 million action film.

On the risky side: Casting two Louisiana locals with zero acting experience in the lead roles—one a 6-year-old—and dressing up a crew of little pot-bellied pigs to represent a herd of giant prehistoric Aurochs. These boar-like beasts bedevil the imagination of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an independent little girl in white rubber boots who defies nature to try to save her ailing father (portrayed by Dwight Henry, a baker and restaurateur in real life) and her bayou home during a raging Katrina-like storm. (“They are about the cutest thing in the world when you see them live,” Zeitlin says of the little porkers).

And as Oscar season approaches, the odds makers are already betting that the modestly-budgeted film—which has earned just over $11 million since its theatrical release in June—could gain voters’ attention. However, the decision to cast nonunion actors has proved problematic for one stop on the awards trail: It has been ruled ineligible for the Screen Actors Guild Awards because is does not adhere to the terms of SAG-AFTRA’s Low Budget Feature Agreement, which requires the use of professional actors. Nevertheless, the buzz still seems to be with Beasts.

Inspired by Zeitlin’s short Glory of the Sea and based on Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, the film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. At Sundance, Fox Searchlight Pictures snapped up the film for distribution. One of the film’s executive producers, Michael Raisler, would not name names when asked who competed for the distribution rights (Harvey Weinstein, anyone?). But he confirmed that “pretty much everybody at some point” tried to make a deal at Sundance to distribute Beasts.

Beasts also made a well-received international debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it took the Camera d’Or award, and has won stellar reviews nationwide. All this is heady stuff for Zeitlin, who has a hard time thinking about his career from a commercial perspective. “Making films has always been like a burst of energy. It’s never been something that is kind of calculated,” he says. “I never sat down to think, ‘Well, (here’s what I should do) to make it in the directing game.’ It’s just a story that takes hold of you at a certain time, and you follow that impulse.”

In this case, the impulse came from his longtime friend Alibar, whose Juicy and Delicious tells the story of a 10-year-old Southern boy with a dying father, who believes his father’s death will coincide with the end of the world. The boy in the play is also pursued by the Aurochs. Alibar, who attended playwright’s camp with Zeitlin at age 13, based the play on her own experience during her own father’s illness, but chose a boy character in order to be able to distance herself from the story while writing it.

Alibar, who cowrote the script with Zeitlin (her first screenwriting effort), was a struggling young adult, not a kid, when her father developed heart problems, but her reaction was not unlike that of an angry child. “I was in New York, working two bartending jobs and a waitressing job,” says Florida-panhandle native Alibar, adding that her father has since recovered. “I’m from the Southern Baptist tradition, and you’re not supposed to feel anger when you lose somebody. When somebody dies, you are supposed to rejoice that they are going to God. I wasn’t feeling any of that. I was feeling these really angry, ugly feelings. So I wrote Hushpuppy as a boy so I could really write about what I was feeling without it being so confessional.”

During the audition process, Zeitlin and Alibar were looking to cast a girl, but remained open to the possibility that the right Hushpuppy might be of any race, either sex, and older or younger than the Hushpuppy of the play. “I guess it’s like having a baby, you don’t get to choose,” Alibar jokes. But it was Wallis, age 5 at the time of the audition, who won their hearts, despite their reservations about relying on someone so young to carry the movie.

Alibar’s story was thrown into the blender with Zeitlin’s concept for Glory of the Sea, shot in Louisiana from 2006-08. A trailer for the short film describes it as “eleven strangers who set sail to find their loved ones at the bottom of the sea” in an atmosphere very much like the Bathtub, the name for the fictional bayou area depicted in Beasts. “The idea was to make a film in which holdouts and survivors were the heroes,” Zeitlin says. “To make a film that celebrates the kind of resilient characters that were refusing to be pushed off their land.” Along with writing and directing, Zeitlin also cowrote the music with Dan Romer.

Producing the short film led Zeitlin to move to New Orleans permanently and make the city the home of Court 13. “It was never my intention that I was going to stay, but at that moment in 2008 that it was dawning on me that I was going to stay, the early idea for Beasts began to coalesce,” Zeitlin explains. Like Alibar, an unfortunate life experience further refined his focus.
“In the year that this was getting written, I had been in a car accident, and I had gone back to New York to recover (wondering whether) I was going to walk again and stuff,” he says. “And I remember I was home when (hurricanes) Gustav and Ike hit.

“I was watching the coverage and seeing this whole way in which people were being portrayed for staying, for riding out those storms,” Zeitlin continues. “This came out of wanting to tell a story from the perspective of the people that were staying, rather than how they were perceived. It wasn’t about Katrina as much as it was about the area, imagining what it’s going to be like to live under this constant threat of storms every couple of years.”

Zeitlin recovered from the accident and set about working to create Beasts. Gathering the financing required going to a lot of different sources, resulting in an extremely long list of producers. The film is a Cinereach and Court 13 Production in association with Journey Pictures. Cinereach, a young nonprofit foundation that provides filmmaking grants as well as producing and financing films, provided the bulk of the funding, supported by grants from Sundance and the San Francisco Film Institute, as well as various in-kind donations.

Zeitlin hopes Academy recognition for Beasts of the Southern Wild will lead to more films with low budgets and high aspirations. “There’s really no place for this type of film in the world right now,” he says. “Hopefully, it will have a ripple effect where it will allow regional films to get made, and also give us the leverage we need to continue doing this kind of work.”

Concludes Zeitlin, “If you make a film for $150 million, it can’t fail, so it has to be safe. E.T. was made for $10 million. When you look back at even Hollywood movies that were really risky, the films that are true classics and stand the test of time, almost all of them are made for a fraction of these behemoth blockbusters, and they are more daring in their storytelling.”