NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Unlike a lot of movies shot in Louisiana, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" couldn't have been made anywhere else.
Louisiana natives and the state's bayous and marshes tell the fictional tale of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy and her struggle for survival in the southern Delta with her ailing father as a storm approaches.
The film is gripping audiences around the globe for its portrayal of the spirit and resiliency of the people of south Louisiana through the fictional tale of a motherless young girl trying to hold on to her place in the world — that place being a small, tightly-knit shantytown on the bayou just beyond the government's levee protection system. Her world is filled with wild animals, both real and imaginary.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" was shot in southern Terrebonne Parish and Isle de Jean Charles, a real bayou community that is gradually eroding away because it has no levees to protect it. But the film's makers say it isn't a social issue movie.
"It's really about what it's like to lose the thing that made you," said director Benh Zeitlin, a native New Yorker and one of only a handful of people affiliated with "Beasts of the Southern Wild" not from Louisiana. "The film is inspired by culture and events in Louisiana but we wanted to elevate it to make it universal. It's about where you come from. Your land is your parent, and there are all these emotional connections that stem from where you come from."
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" won the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition at the Sundance Independent Film Festival as well as its cinematography award. At France's Cannes Film Festival in May, where many U.S. films were shut out, Louisiana's indie darling won the Camera d'Or for best first film.
Zeitlin said the geography of the film didn't even exist until he found the community of Pointe-aux-Chenes and just beyond it Isle de Jean Charles — the last inhabited speck of land at the end of a winding highway south of Houma, La.
"I started driving to the end of all these south Louisiana roads, and when I drove to the end of this one, I knew I had found the place that would be the setting of this film," Zeitlin said.
Finding the right actors to play the leads took more searching. Producers went on a months-long casting quest for the child who would play Hushpuppy. It included auditions of nearly 4,000 girls in countless schools and churches across south Louisiana.
They found 5-year-old Quvenzhane (Kuh-VAHN-zuh-nay) Wallis of Houma, La., who was 6 at the time the movie was filmed in 2010. Nazie (NAY-zee), as she likes to be called, had a quality producers couldn't resist: "It's her eyes. There's something in her eyes that gives her poise, maturity, depth and wisdom beyond her years," Zeitlin said.
Now 8, Nazie walked the red carpet Monday evening at the New Orleans premiere of "Beasts" in a bright blue dress, silver slippers and a big smile as she talked to reporters and posed for pictures.
Her hair straightened and bangs pulled in a tight braid above her forehead, Nazie bore little resemblance to the pants-wearing bushy-haired wild child she portrays in "Beasts."
Also walking the carpet was New Orleans native Dwight Henry, who was hand-picked for the role of Hushpuppy's father, Wink, after producers discovered him in the Buttermilk Drop Bakery he runs in New Orleans.
"We went there every morning for grits and doughnuts, and we got to know him," Zeitlin said. "He talked about his life, things he had been through, and parts of his life got written into the film. At some point, we realized he was the one we wanted for this film."
Henry turned them down three times.
"I'm glad I did it, but at the time, I was reluctant to do it, to sacrifice my business that I had worked so hard to open for a chance at a possible movie career," said Henry.
Now Henry and Nazie say they are both looking forward to more film work. Henry has partners helping out at the bakery while he works on his film career, including a part in "Twelve Years a Slave," about a New Yorker who was captured in 1841 and enslaved in Louisiana. The film, directed by Steve McQueen, will also star actors Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender.
Zeitlin said his affinity for New Orleans grew out of events surrounding Hurricane Katrina and through a short film he had been working on at the time the hurricane struck called "Glory at Sea," which all led to the making of "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
The Fox Searchlight film opens in select theaters, starting with showings in Los Angeles and New York on Wednesday and then New Orleans-area theaters July 4.