5 Potential Obstacles That Actually Helped Oscar-Nominated 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Succeed
Beasts of the Southern Wild is one beast of a movie. Produced by a bunch of old buddies that formed the loose collective Court 13 (which also produced Death to the Tinman), and directed by Behn Zeitlin, the film demonstrates the potential of independent films, as well as revealing its influence on audiences today. In the IFP Q&A video embedded below, the producers of the film go into detail explaining just how demanding and ambitious every phase of production was, and how the team managed to come out the other side with the movie we see today. Based on that video, we’ve got a list of five potential obstacles that could have derailed the film, but actually ended up working in its favor.
Half of the nominations for the Big Eight awards at the Oscars were for independent films, and half of those nominations went to Beasts: Best Picture, Best Director for Behn Zeitlin, Best Actress for Quvenzhané Wallis, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Lucy Alibar and Behn Zeitlin. After watching the video, all I could think about was, “How on Earth did this film that used to be a short film that used to be a play, which was wrought with so many challenges and setbacks, rise up and attain such success?” Then, it became clear that it was the challenges and setbacks themselves that helped this fantasy drama about a strong little girl named Hushpuppy earn its success. So, based on the filmmakers’ accounts, here’s a list of five potential obstacles that ended up working in the film’s favor:
1. It’s an indie film.
Right out of the gate, being an independent production imposes several challenges. Not only do they not have the financial backing from a major production studio — and the access to top of the line equipment and resources that they offer — but they incur all of the risk. If the project “fails” (read: loses money or doesn’t gain publicity and/or awards), then all of that weight and responsibility falls on the filmmakers themselves. For Beasts, the not-for-profit production company Cinereach struck a deal with the filmmakers to fund the movie. Being an indie film also allowed the filmmakers much more creative freedom than your typical studio film, and thanks to Cinereach, they were allowed to make exactly the film they wanted to make.
2. It was Zeitlin’s first feature.
It’s a pretty safe assumption to think that most filmmakers hit their stride later on in their careers. Not everybody can step onto the scene with Citizen Kane like Orson Welles, but not having fans or a previous body of feature work means there are no expectations. Beasts benefitted from this scenario by pushing the limits with every facet of the story and production. While many filmmakers don’t quite make it work on their first feature, Zeitlin not only succeeded at the box office, with over $12.6 million gross (and that’s just domestic), but the film was nominated for four Oscars. You can’t spell success without the c and the two s’s from Oscars — the o, a, and r can be used to spell oar – the oar they used to row their way into history perhaps.
3. They had a budget of $1.5 million.
Now, not having a Hollywood budget doesn’t count a project out of being great or successful, but it surely makes it more difficult when you’re trying to make a film like Beasts. Having a smaller budget means forgoing a lot of the comforts bigger productions can afford. The producers for Beasts shared how they used students from the senior class of AAU (Academy of Art University) to do their visual effects for free. Maybe less than ideal, but personally, I’d be elated if students from AAU worked on any of my projects, because — did you see the aurochs in the film? He also talked about wages, but didn’t elaborate much on the details other than stating that some of the people who worked on the film did so for free. Furthermore, almost everyone who worked on Beasts lived in less than ideal conditions. Producer Josh Penn commented on this in the video when he talked about calling people to be on the crew:
It was literally every single phone call was us being like, “So, we’re making this crazy thing in the bayou. We want you to move down there for four months. You’re going to get paid very little. It’s going to be very long days, very long hours, housing’s going to be a little weird, but it’s going to be an adventure.”
This passion and dedication clearly shows through to the final film. A movie like Beasts of the Southern Wild is full of heart because it’s being made for the love of the project — something that can’t always be said for productions with plenty of money to spend.
4. They used all non-actors.
This is a difficult one, because some of the greatest, most revered films contain non-actors: Turtles Can Fly and Children of Heaven (two of my personal childhood favorites — get ready for a cryfest), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and The Bicycle Thief (for all of my fellow 1940-1970 Euro film freaks). Beasts joins the ranks of these great films, but it’s important to note how risky it is to use non-actors. Some filmmakers fear that their lack of acting experience can make the performance come off as “fake” or “forced.” We can all think of several instances where this is true, but the non-actors of Beasts, especially Quvenzhané Wallis, transported us seamlessly from our sticky theater seats right into the dreamlike land of the Bathtub. The use of non-actors contributed immensely to the authenticity of the film, and allowed the audience to worry less about their suspension of disbelief — since, of course, these are real people, and they really live in these places. There is no learning curve when your characters are the same people in real life.
5. It was shot on Super 16mm.
You know all of those scratched up educational films that smelled like vinegar that you watched in elementary school? Yeah, those were more than likely shot on 16mm film, as were many of your favorite low-budget indies from the past 30 years. Using 16mm/Super 16mm isn’t really an aesthetic disadvantage, however, because films shot on the format can still look pretty darn good. Not only that, but a lot of great recent films have been shot using Super 16mm, including the 2010 Academy Award winner for Best Picture The Hurt Locker, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Black Swan, and most recently Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Maybe some would consider 16mm an “inferior” gauge of film, but there is no question the films mentioned above hold their own — and it certainly gave Beasts an exceptional texture that made the fantastical world feel even more real.
Even though the filmmakers faced a number of challenges getting the film to the screen, they managed to turn them into assets that made the movie stand out — so much so that they were able to nab four Oscar nominations.
What do you think? What other films — like Beasts of the Southern Wild – have actually used potential obstacles to their advantage? Are some of these things still considered disadvantages now that there are so many more resources available to independent filmmakers than ever before?
- Independent Filmmaker Project — Website
- Beasts of the Southern Wild – Amazon
- Behn Zeitlin — IMDb
- Lucy Alibar — IMDb