LOS ANGELES: Nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is one of the most unlikely contenders ever for Hollywood’s top honors.
Produced for $1.5 million (a quaint sum by Oscar standards) by a collective of first-time filmmakers who bunked in a fishing shack during the shooting, it is considered a long shot to win the top Oscar. Yet it has also set a new standard for thrifty filmmaking in an industry that routinely spends 100 times more for a major picture.
“It’s the perfect combination of art and commerce,” said Fox studio chairman Jim Gianopulos, whose Fox Searchlight Pictures unit distributes the film in the U.S., “but the commerce was made a lot better because of that price.”
Set in a neglected archipelago of islands off the coast of Louisiana, “Beasts” portrays the fierce pride and intimate culture of an outsider community on the furthest margins of society.
The story is told from the perspective of a little girl named Hushpuppy – whose portrayal by Quvenzhane Wallis (now 9 years of age), has made her the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee.
The film was created by Benh Zeitlin, a 30-year-old first-time director who set up his studio in the abandoned Connecticut racquetball court that he had used for his senior thesis film at Wesleyan University.
“I’m not sure they knew what we were doing in there when we set up to make the film,” said Zeitlin. “I think they thought we were just making short films.”
The crew he assembled became Core 13 Pictures, named for the court, whose website describes it as a collective of “madcap artists and animators” who work on one another’s projects.
Zeitlin ranged far outside the usual list of Hollywood names in casting the film, using first-time actors, including Wallis and Dwight Henry, who plays her hard-drinking father, Wink.
Crew members were all paid the same salary as the director, said producer Paul Mezey, and will share in whatever profits the film makes. So far, he said, it has generated $12 million in domestic ticket sales but – after Fox deducts its marketing and other costs – it’s not yet profitable.
The crew traveled Louisiana to shoot the film, where they stayed in what they called the “Crash Pad,” a fishing cabin behind a gas station with 12 bunk beds.
Zeitlin said the group “became scavengers” to make the film. They used lumber from houses that were being torn down, and changed the script where needed to make props out of things they found on the streets.
Cinereach, the lead financier of the effort, is a nonprofit organization that mostly backs documentaries.
“They usually give out $30,000 to $50,000 grants for an artist’s exploration and discovery of his gifts,” said Mezey. “When they read the script, they paid for nearly all of it.”
Cinereach had become interested after seeing Zeitlin’s thesis film, an eight-minute short called “Egg,” Mezey recalled, and was “blown away by Benh’s vision, his touch, the almost poetic way he crafted the film.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” won the Grand Jury Prize at The Sundance Film Festival, which lured Fox Searchlight to distribute the film in the U.S. The production retained the foreign rights, and has sold many of them.
“It was surreal Zeitlin said of the Oscar nominations, “like something from ‘Alice in Wonderland’.” If he wins, he would be the youngest director every to lug the statute home. – with The Daily Star