On the film's very first day of shooting in the fictional "Bathtub" location outside of New Orleans, the BP oil rig explosion and the start of the massive spill occurred. For most of the shoot in nearby waters, Benh Zeitlin and his crew had to maneuver in and around the clean-up operations.
Dwight Henry, who plays Wink, owned and operated the bakery across the street from the space from which the crew was working and casting. Director Benh Zeitlin posted a casting flyer with tearaway numbers in Dwight's bakery and, after several weeks, invited Dwight over for a read. Two days later, Dwight moved his shop to a larger space, and when the crew went looking for him to ask for a call back, no one could figure out where he went. Two months later, they located him, but he turned down the offer, as he was investing all his time in the new bakery. Finally, every single person involved with the film at that point showed up at his bakery at the same time and told him he had to do the movie. Dwight agreed, as long as they rehearsed with him during his midnight baker's hours.
The mystical or mythical beasts which Hushpuppy "sees" throughout the film are called AUROCHS, and occasionally URUS. Aurochs are an extinct ancestor of the bovine (cows, oxen) family of mammals, with the last Auroch dying in 1627, and which inhabited forests of North Africa, Europe, and parts of Southwest Asia. It was oxen like in appearance, with longer forward facing curved horns, and is thought to be one of the ancestors of modern cattle.
Benh Zeitlin gives considerable credit to Qulyndreia Wallis, mother of the movie's six-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis who was always on the set and helped Zeitlin explain concepts and draw emotions from her daughter to maximize the quality of her Oscar-nominated performance.
With the announcement of the 2012 Academy Award (Oscar) nominations on January 10, 2013, Quvenzhané Wallis became the youngest person ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (at age 9). She broke the record of the previous youngest-ever Best Actress nominee, Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was nominated for Whale Rider at age 13. The same day that Wallis became the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee, Emmanuelle Riva (age 85) became the oldest-ever Best Actress nominee for her role in Amour (2012).
Quvenzhané Wallis and her mom admit that they fibbed about Quvenzhané's age, claiming she was at least six years old, as required to audition, when she was only five. According to director Benh Zeitlin, Nazie, as she is called, beat out almost 4,000 other area kids considered for the lead role.
The film is based on a one-act play called "Juicy and Delicious" by playwright and actress Lucy Alibar, who also makes a cameo appearance in the movie, which she co-wrote with friend and director Benh Zeitlin.
Shares many thematic connections to Court 13's earlier short film Glory at Sea (2008). Both deal with a ravaged community beset by storms. Both reference Greek myths, including "Elysian Fields", and contain fantastic elements in an otherwise very "real" narrative, otherwise known as magic realism. Also, the character of Sergeant Major, played by Jimmy Lee Moore, appears in both films in a significant role.
As part of a 'Celebrate Brooklyn' event, the movie was screened in the New York City borough's Prospect Park band shell with a local orchestra playing the soundtrack, along with the score's composing duo Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer in August 2013.
"Beasts" was truly a collaboration of director Benh Zeitlin 's circle of family and friends. He was assisted on set by his sister, artist Eliza Zeitlin, and the movie was co-produced by fellow Wesleyan grads Michael Gottwald and Dan Janvey. Zeitlin's hometown neighbor from Westchester county, NY, Crockett Doob--son of filmmaker Nick Doob--contributed as the movie's editor and longtime New York City-area friend Dan Romer co-wrote the music with Zeitlin.
Originally, in its Sundance workshop phase , there was no formal script for "Beasts," and co-writers Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar shared "a moment of panic" when they quickly had to combine two separate ideas for the film into one that would work. In the process, they abandoned the idea that the story would be some type of "fable comedy."
The 65-member film crew included two residents of south Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, where most of the filming took place: Mike Arcenauax, who helped with special equipment (especially boats), and Barbara Dupre in catering.
The production did not hire a cinematographer until less than a month before production. Director Benh Zeitlin had originally intended to act as cinematographer himself but later decided to employ one. Ben Richardson was hired as as the cinematographer for the miniature portions and had lobbied to shoot the entire film, but despite his friendship with Zeitlin the producers were hesitant to hire Richardson because he had never shot a feature. After veteran cinematographers were screened and an appropriate one could not be found Richardson shot a test reel on his own and presented it to the producers, and was subsequently hired.
The film won the Mejor Largometraje Ópera Prima Internaciónal (Best International Debut Feature) award at the Guanajuato International Film Festival, which was held in July 2012, along with the New Horizon/Special Jury Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October.
The film was a 2009 June Screenwriters and Directors Lab participant, a 2010 Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award winner, and was officially selected for the US and World Cinema Dramatic and Documentary Competitions of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Toward the end of the movie, Hushpuppy arranges with a small-boat captain to transport her to a floating bar that also appears to be a brothel. A sign identifies the name of the brothel as "Elysian Fields." In Greek Mythology, "Elysium" or "Elysian Fields" was the name for the afterlife of the gods and blessed mortals. Greek mythology also contained a boatman (named Charon) who ferried souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead for a small fee. Aside from the references to ancient myth, the name "Elysian Fields" also is a reference to the movie's southern Louisiana setting. Elysian Fields is the name of a major avenue and thoroughfare in New Orleans, and is a part of one of Blanche DuBois's first lines in Tennessee Williams's New Orleans-set play, "A Streetcar Named Desire": "They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at--Elysian Fields!"