Saturday, January 19, 2013

'Beasts' racks up awards

'Beasts of the Southern Wild' star and director reflect on their long, crazy trip to the Oscars

Mike Scott, | The Times-Picayune By Mike Scott, | The Times-Picayune 
They have a colorful turn of phrase, these "Beasts of the Southern Wild" folks -- an efficient, two-word reminder not just to enjoy life, but also to attack it, and to relish it while doing so. Those words, delivered more often than not in an eruption of unbridled joy: "Beast it!"
And so on Thursday morning (Jan. 10), after the nominations for the 85th annual Academy Awards were announced -- bringing their scrappy little Louisiana indie four nominations, for best picture, best director, best actress and best screenplay -- there was, as you would expect, much beasting going on.
Coming as it did on the heels of a solid year of film festivals, award banquets and acceptance speeches, Thursday's news kicked off a particularly sweet -- if slightly surreal -- chapter in what has been a long, rewarding journey for them.
For 9-year-old Houma native Quvenzhane Wallis, the spritely sentimental favorite who Thursday became the youngest best actress nominee in the history of the category, the celebrating took a little encouraging. After all, she was in Los Angeles at the time -- there for Thursday night's Critics' Choice Awards, where she would be named best young actor. With the Oscars announcement coming at 5 a.m. West Coast time, she was -- like most children, beasts or not -- still comfortably snoozing.
"I was asleep in bed, " she said Thursday, calling from Los Angeles just a few hours after hearing the good news. "Then my mom tapped me and told me that they had nominated me, and she was tapping me and I wasn't stirring at all, and I got up just in time to see 'Quvenzhane Wallis' going down the screen."
Stars at Joy for Beast of the Southen Wild
EnlargeELIOT KAMENITZ / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE The movie stars and celebs at the Joy Theater at 1200 Canal St. on Monday, June 25, 2012, for the New Orleans Premiere of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild which is the winner of the Camera d'Or at Cannes as well as the Sundance 2012 Grand Jury Prize and Cinematography awards. Quvenzhane Wallis gives a hug to fellow actor Lowell Landas on the red carpet.Beasts of the Southern Wild New Orleans Premiere gallery (7 photos)
Enter "Beasts" helmer Benh Zeitlin, who, like any good director, demonstrated for his leading lady exactly what a proper reaction to being a first-time Oscar nominee should be. He showed her, in other words, exactly how to beast it.
Unlike Wallis, Zeitlin had arisen early and was watching the early-morning nomination announcement in his own hotel room with his film's producers -- Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey and Josh Penn -- as well as Dan Romer, who co-wrote the film's score with Zeitlin.
"Well, we were in two separate rooms," Zeitlin said. "The Wallises hadn't woken up and come to our room yet. We were just getting crazier and crazier as each award was being announced. By the time the last one hit, we just ran out of our hotel room, busted down their door -- Quvenzhane was up at that point, jumping around -- (we were) carrying (her) around. I just can't describe it. The only comparable moment was probably when the Saints won the Super Bowl. I think that was the same feeling."
It wasn't long before things escalated to the only logical conclusion for any hotel-room celebration. "We were jumping all around and jumping on the bed," Wallis said.
In fact, they were jumping back and forth -- all of them -- between both beds in the room, with the 30-year-old Zeitlin taking the blame after the fact as the chief instigator. "I was the first person onto the bed," he said. "So I was actually behaving much more immaturely. We were all on the beds. ... It just seemed like the thing to do."
A few hours later, after a day full of interviews and pinching himself, Zeitlin had calmed down enough to reflect on the significance of the day's events.
"It felt historic," he said of his Oscar-nomination morning. "A movie that was born the way this one was, I don't know if anything's ever sort of cracked the ceiling that didn't have any famous people associated with it. These award season things are so dominated by huge corporations and these huge stars and this whole system -- and just hearing us crack those ballots, it just felt like a huge thing for independent film and for Louisiana. It really felt like I was in an alternate reality."
It was also a historic moment for the Louisiana film industry, which can boast of having earned dozens of Oscar nominations over the years but few from a film so intensely local. There have been even fewer for movies that, like "Beasts," stars local actors, tells a local story and was directed by a guy who -- though originally from back East -- has been living in New Orleans for six years and considers it home. 
That's not to say the local film industry doesn't still have work to do -- but it's not unrealistic to predict that it's just a matter of time before it does.
"I think it's still got a ways to go, but I believe in it so strongly, and to me, it just comes down to just being such a great place to live and such an inspiring place to live," he said. "Beyond that, I think our actors -- who are locals, who had never tried this before - are a testament to what a vibrant culture we have and how much talent there is out there in Louisiana that hasn't really had a chance to breathe and speak.
"A lot of what's existed so far has been these huge companies coming in who already have all the creatives in place, are bringing in performers from outside, making films in Louisiana," he continued. "But I hope this film can show that there is tremendous talent organic to the place and organic to the city. The more these films get a chance to get made, the more we'll see just great art coming out of Louisiana."
So what's next for Zeitlin? What piece of great art will he work on next? He's still playing coy, but he will say that it won't take him far from his adopted hometown of New Orleans and the creative cradle of "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
"I know I want to shoot it in Louisiana," he said. "A lot of the work for me develops as I'm scouting and meeting people. You can't really do it from afar, so it's just going to be a matter of coming home and starting to explore.
"I haven't even started writing it, because I've really been on the road since (the film's New Orleans premiere in July). I have not had more than a couple of days in any city or any time at all, so what I can say is: The day after I get released from this, from the Oscars, I'll be back home and traveling around the state. And that will be the beginning."
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