On Friday evening I went to see "War Horse" at the Ahmanson Theatre with publicist Caroline Graham and veteran Wall Street Journal film reviewer Joe Morgenstern. I complimented him on his rave review that day for the new film, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (Fox Searchlight), and he simply replied, "I think it is the best film I have seen this year." Oh my, a recommendation from the master. It happens that it was scheduled to play on Sunday afternoon at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences theater, and since I am a long-time member, I gathered a friend, Lorna Berle (yes, Milton's lovely widow) and went. As we entered the lobby, I spotted Randy Haberkamp, a programmer for the Academy, and told him that I would be reviewing their screening next week of the legendary Stanley Kramer film comedy epic, IT'S A MAD, MAD,MAD MAD WORLD... since I had been the Cinerama publicist for the film and the geodesic-dome theater in which it played. (So much good gossip to come about that one.) But today I was even more thrilled when programmer Elizabeth Harington told me that after this afternoon's screening, the Academy's Cari Beauchamp would be conducting a little question-and-answer session with the film's co-writers and director... and the young star! Perfect.
Quvenzhane Wallis, the star of this movie, who was six when it was filmed.
Which explains why I found myself on a summery Sunday afternoon in posh Beverly Hills, suddenly thrust into the watery bayou swamps of southern Louisiana... and engrossed in a story, and a world, which has not left my thoughts since for even a moment. Even as I write this I find myself flashing back to scenes in the film which we saw... images which, I suspect, will remain fixed in my brain forever. It's impossible here to summarize the story, so all I will do is explain that it depicts a father and his six-year old daughter fighting to survive a flood that destroys their hometown (if you can call the collection of water-infused shacks that proper a term). I was already aware that this film had been the sensation of the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the former and the Camera D'Or at the latter, and had opened the previous day to favorable business and ecstatic reviews.
Benh Zeitlin, director and co-writer, Lucy Aliber, co-writer..and our Hushpuppy.
The film opens on a shot of an intense young black girl, Hushpuppy, holding tightly to her cheek a small bird, and I feared for a moment she would crush it. But no, she was too astute for that -- releasing it as we pulled back to see the ramshackle home-on-stilts in which she lived. And then we find that her father lives across from her in a run-down bus. Reference is made to an upcoming storm and, indeed, clouds are already forming and neighbors are skittish. I was mesmerized by this watery world south of New Orleans just prior to Hurricane Katrina.
My brief Google quest revealed it was a low-budget almost first-time-director's film with no stars and, obviously, a most unconventional look to it. That's an understatement. Later I noted to my companion that I was surprised that Fox had released it in the heart of summer instead of waiting for an optimum Fall date, closer to award time, but Lorna said they had to go with the momentum of the festival victories while they were still fresh in the public's mind.
The after-screening question and answer session on the Academy stage
After the screening, when most of the audience had left, Lorna and I settled into the first row as Cari called forth the co-writer, Lucy Alibar, a very attractive and animated blonde woman, and 29-year-old co-writer and director Benh Zeitlin. But all of us took in a deep breath and applauded as she then called to the stage the tiny young woman who had magnetized us for the past 90+ minutes, Quvenzhane Wallis. When I later questioned her about how she got the part, she matter-of-factly related that she had only been five-years-old when the notice for auditions was posted "for six to 10-year-old children. But I went anyway with a friend... and then they called me back for a follow-up." Yes. She is that self-possessed, but in a charming and even funny way. "They later called my house and said they were looking for a girl with a name we didn't recognize, but it was cleared up and my mom realized it was me they were looking for." Benh explained that they had seen almost 4,000 girls over the course of seven months... and the moment this sprite had walked into the room there was an understanding among the producers that they had a very real 'character' here who could possibly handle any situation thrown at her as protagonist and narrator... even though she was all of six-years-old during the filming.
Co-writer and playwright Lucy Alibar said that they had cast the key role of the father even more haphazardly. "We looked at dozens of professional actors, but none seemed to be right.. and then the guy who was baking breads and rolls across the street from our Court 13 production office came by one morning and we all looked at each and said, 'let's test Dwight Henry for the role of the father, Wink,' and it was magical." The cast of neighbors is also almost all non-professional, but you would never know it. This director knows how to handle people. I asked him if he had realized how hard it is to shoot scenes on water, knowing all of the professional disaster/horror stories we've heard, and he laughingly said, "Yes, but we had no choice. The fictional BATHTUB area where we shot is all water and swamp."
Lucy related that she had written a play, Juicy and Delicious, touching upon this subject, and when Benh -- a close friend from middle school days -- read it, he suggested they combine it into a separate story he was already writing. The director is a white, Queens-born Wesleyan graduate, son of folklorists, who has resided for the past few years in New Orleans. It took me a few moments to absorb the more mythical elements of the film, embodied in the crashing of icebergs into sea and the unleashing of the legendary aurochs, prehistoric boars reminiscent of giant wart hogs. But when Wink, the chronically sick, often drunk father, explains to the wise-beyond-her-years Hushpuppy that her mother 'just swam away,' to explain her absence, that suffices for her and the audience. The ferocious pee-wee girl, sloshing around in her white plastic rain boots, soiled T-shirt and orange underwear, has unexpected talents....such as wielding a blow-torch (wearing goggles, yet.) When she pounds the table and exclaims: "I am de man," I shook my head in agreement. When the hurricane arrives (Katrina?), the water washes away the neighborhood... her father gets sicker... but before he is too far gone he and a friend blow up a city-levee to lower the waters engulfing their area. I hastily made a note of one narrative she whispers: "I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes things right." Yes, my dear Hushpuppy, it does.
I suspect it won't be the last time I will be seeing these three film people (and probably director of photography Ben Richardson) up on an Academy stage. Not if I have anything to say and do about it. Lorna and I then went to The Ivy restaurant for a bowl of gumbo in honor of the stunning movie we had just seen.
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