The town of Montegut, Louisiana sits in the bayou, a 90-minute drive southwest from New Orleans. Here slivers of land snake until they run up against the Gulf of Mexico, the rising water from bordering canals lapping onto thin roads that have a habit of disappearing.
Jolene Pinder, executive director of the New Orleans Film Society, drove down Montegut Road, running parallel to Bayou Terrebonne. Fishing boats idled nearby.
“There it is!” Mark Rosenberg, artistic director of Brooklyn-based nonprofit Rooftop Films, yelled from the back seat. He clapped and pointed to an abandoned off-white building with a sign that read “Cajun Country House” and a blue, untouched display of gas prices. In this former gas station, two years ago, beasts were built.
This was the makeshift production studio for Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” which would screen that night in the bayou community for the first time. Wasps have now taken up residency among the props. Many odds and ends remain: A converted truck-boat hybrid dubbed a “Turck;” boxes of costumes for members of a survivalist bayou community; and the model heads of mythical prehistoric warthog-like creatures as they wait to be shipped into more protective storage.
For five months in 2010, Zeitlin and the members of his New Orleans-based filmmaker’s collective, Court 13, lived and worked in the bayou, making their movie with a cast and crew comprised almost entirely of Louisiana natives. The finished product, a parable about the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a five-year-old in a fictional bayou community called The Bathtub, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it was bought by Fox Searchlight.
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This week “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” co-written by Lucy Alibar based on her play “Juicy And Delicious,” will begin its rollout across the country, kicked off by a Monday gala premiere in New Orleans. But for the cast and crew, this Sunday night screening in the Montegut Recreation Center, co-sponsored by Rooftop, Court 13, producer Cinereach, distributor Fox Searchlight and the New Orleans Film Society, this may as well have been the only time this movie was going to be seen anywhere.
Thanks to a generous tax credit for filmmakers, Louisiana is used to seeing whole crews take over an area and leave within a few weeks. But that wasn’t the case here: For nearly a year, before a foot of film was shot, Zeitlin lived in the bayou and integrated himself into the community. The other members of Court 13 often joined him, knocking on doors and explaining their vision to locals with little exposure to independent film.
“It was like, ‘What kind of a movie they wanna make down here? They ain’t got nothing down here,’” said Barbara DuPree, a resident of nearby Pointe-aux-chenes who first saw the crew scouting locations while she and her family were out boiling crabs. “Some of these people are from New York. I said, “They don’t know their battles. Let’s just help them out, whatever.’”
So DuPree invited the “Beasts” team into her home to eat crab and talk bayou. Before long she was the production’s head cook and Zeitlin was sleeping in a camper in her backyard.
“You occasionally knock on someone’s door and they’ve got a shotgun,” Zeitlin said. “But even the guy that had the shotgun ended up showing up at our headquarters two days later, being like, ‘How can I help out?’”
Rooftop has a stake in the success of “Beasts.” They provided Zeitlin with a grant for lighting and grip equipment after the success of his 2008 short Glory at Sea, a sort of “Beasts” preamble, this one filmed in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (and the impetus for Queens native Zeitlin’s permanent relocation to Louisiana). But Rooftop also had a stake in the screening as an event, since one of the nonprofit’s primary goals is creating new forms of community outreach through movies.
That afternoon, a couple dozen members of the Cinereach team piled into U-HAULs and headed south to Isle de Jean Charles, the chief inspiration for the film’s script. They blasted the movie soundtrack as they drove over a thin road that has had to be lifted above the water level repeatedly, though the waves are now threatening it once more.
The isle, which is gradually sinking into the Gulf (some homes’ back steps plunge directly into the water), is inhabited only by a few dozen families, most of whom are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe, not federally recognized. Residents must mount their houses on stilts to protect themselves from flooding.
Isle de Jean Charles will not be included within the boundaries of the massive 72-mile Army Corps of Engineers levee project scheduled to be completed in 2020, yet its residents refuse to uproot – a theme of defiance echoed in Beasts, in which citizens of the fictional Bathtub bayou community stay put through apocalyptic weather.
And the crew spent a good portion of their time here, filming many of the movie’s wilder-looking scenes among the scraggly trees and oily waters. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on the first day of shooting, representatives from the oil giant soon descended on the land, pushing the “Beasts” team out. But the crew, undeterred, reworked their schedule and ultimately still claimed the footage they needed.
Back in Montegut that evening, the screening was nearly ready. The blue-painted recreation center, the only building around big enough for the film’s expected audience, seats about 600 in its gym: 400 in the metal folding chairs on the linoleum below hanging basketball hoops and banners for the region’s two middle schools, and another 200 in the bleachers above. Sunday night more than 500 were in attendance, including the film’s stars and representatives from Fox Searchlight. But the audience that mattered was everyone else: locals who, in some way or another, became closely, fundamentally tied to the production.
Pointe-aux-chenes resident Mike Arceneaux, the film’s self-proclaimed “go-to dude” who consulted, rented out boats and provided other special equipment, took the stage before the film began to pump up the crowd.
“Let me hear you!” yelled Arceneaux, a tanned, enthusiastic man with long blond hair. “This is the bayou premiere of one of the best damn movies you ever gonna see! And it was here, in the bayou!”
The audience roared. Babies screamed. The lights dimmed.
Zeitlin stood near the entrance the entire time the film played, gnawing on his nails and pulling his hair as he looked out at his 500-plus production partners, gaging reactions. When it was over, and the bayou erupted into an instant, perhaps inevitable standing ovation, he embraced his producers, a huge smile of relief on his face.
“This snuck up on me, you know?” he said afterwards. “I was totally chill when I was sitting in the Cannes screening.”
At the Lion’s Club across the parking lot, tattooed producers from New York and L.A. boogied and smoked with tattooed locals, dining on gumbo and grabbing Budweiser cans from large coolers. Arceneaux fronted the band as seven-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis ran and danced around with boundless energy.
“It’s like, everybody who threw down for the movie and did us favors and brought us into their houses, every single one of those favors, you feel it right on your shoulders when you’re watching,” Zeitlin said. “In my mind, we never imagined showing the film internationally, showing it around the country, any of that stuff.
“For me, spending two years editing was all about this room.”