Earlier this year in January, Beasts of the Southern Wild, (which opens in Milwaukee exclusively at the Landmark Downer Theater this Friday), a whimsical film about a resilient little girl named Hushpuppy, played by spirited newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who’s literally and figuratively trying to stay afloat alongside her ailing father (played by newcomer Dwight Henry) in Louisiana bayou country, rocked the crowd at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival. Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s lush, evocative camerawork was cited by the festival’s jury with the Cinematography Award, and writer-director Benh Zeitlin was awarded the festival’s top prize for narrative film – the coveted Grand Jury Prize.
Fox Searchlight Pictures shelved out a reported $2 million to buy the rights for Beasts of the Southern Wild (which, according to various reports, was made for $1.8 million) besting various other Hollywood studios that expressed strong interest in acquiring the film's rights.
And, if that weren’t enough good fortune, Beasts played the even more world-renowned Cannes International Film Festival in the south of France this past May to further acclaim. Though the film was not apart of the festival’s main dramatic competition for Cannes' coveted top prize, the Palme d’Or, it did play in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section, and still managed to walk away with four critics’ prizes.
The film, which is still making the rounds on the festival circuit, racking up new fans and additional honors, was adapted from a one-act play titled “Juicy and Delicious“ by actress-playwright Lucy Alibar (who co-wrote the script with director Benh Zeitlin).
Beasts of the Southern Wild was financed by Cinereach, a New York-based non-profit production company and foundation co-founded by Milwaukee native Michael Raisler. According to Cinereach’s website, the non-profit “champions vital stories, artfully told.” Raisler, who was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Wauwatosa “right by the library“, attended Pius X grade school and graduated from Pius XI high in 2003. He and fellow Beasts executive producer Philipp Englehorn started Cinereach together in 2006 while still classmates at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Raisler earned a BFA in Film and Television Production.
Since its inception, Cinereach has given close to $5 million in production grants to more than 100 films such as last year’s critically acclaimed Pariah, not to mention Circumstance and Bully. Beasts of the Southern Wild is Cinereach’s first production and, as Raisler shares, “is a great example of the kind of movies Cinereach tries to get involved in.”
Moviegoers recently spoke with Raisler, who’ll be in town for a special screening of the film on Wednesday.
How did Cinereach become involved with the making of Beasts of the Southern Wild?
I saw Benh Zeitlin's short film, Glory at Sea, at a film festival in 2008. I was floored by the film and immediately knew it was the kind of filmmaking we wanted to be involved in. It's very original and really adventurous. I cornered Benh and was like, “You have to tell me what you're working on man!" We talked about what he was trying to do with Court 13 [one of the producing partners on the film] and what we were trying to do with Cinereach and everything just started to make sense. Beasts of the Southern Wild was still a sketch of an idea at the time and Benh and Lucy were early in the writing process. We started working together before I read a script. Based on the conversation about the idea for the film and the adventurous type of production, Phil and I knew we wanted to get involved as early as possible. Benh has this really infectious energy as a filmmaker, that's probably what we responded strongest to at first, even before the film started to take shape.
You are one of three listed executive producers on the film (along with your Cinereach partner Philipp Englehorn) Who’s the third listed guy, Paul Mezey?
Paul Mezey works very closely with us and has a production company called Journeyman Pictures. He produced Maria Full of Grace and was a huge force behind Beasts of the Southern Wild. He really galvanized our team by bringing a ton of experience and energy to the project. Cinereach was originally Philipp's vision and it's been an absolute blast working with him to build the company and figure out new and challenging ways to support films.
Can you explain the role an executive producer plays on a film?
The credit can mean a lot of different things in film. Sometimes executive producers are folks that literally just write a check, sometimes they're heads of studios or companies or etc., and sometimes they play a much more active role in the production as was the case here. It really depends on the project.
Beasts was a really special film, it's a huge movie that we had a comparatively tiny budget for. We basically had to piece it together and have an "all hands on deck, all the time" mentality. I lived in Terrebonne Parish (La.) for around four months while we prepped for and shot the film. I was on set every day to support the producers and director and basically do whatever I could to help ensure we were executing our shared vision for the project. Sometimes that meant negotiating location agreements, sometimes it meant building a giant tent. On the last day of the shoot, it meant loading the camera. From my perspective, my job is to build a sandbox for the production team and try to keep as much sand in it as possible for them to work with, without freaking out when a little bit spills out of the box every now and again.
Beasts is set in Louisiana and was shot entirely on location there. Most of the cast and crew is comprised of residents from the state. Was that by design or circumstance? Do you think it lends an air of authenticity to the film that might not have been there otherwise?
Our design was to bring in some really great and experienced people to head the departments, folks like Stephani Lewis for costumes and Alex DiGerlando for production design. Then we populated the crew with all these amazing artists and filmmakers and local folks who came with all kinds of backgrounds. It was all about bringing the right people with the ready spirit together and creating this amazing community. I hope that comes through in the film.
Were you at all aware of the sort of impact the film would have on audiences before it started playing the festival circuit?
The race to finish the film in time for Sundance kept us from thinking too much about how it would play! I think we finished it just a few days before, so honesty I don't think we had any expectations going into it. The reaction at that first screening though was absolutely insane. It changed our lives, and I think it's a moment I'll remember forever. Everything since then has just gotten crazier. I think it's too soon for me to really understand it all. All I know is people seem to like the film and this has been an incredible, humbling experience.
What would you say the film’s message is? What do you hope people walk away with after seeing it?
It's a film about home, community and the emotional journey of facing seemingly insurmountable odds. People have very visceral, personal responses to it. Folks in Louisiana feel one way about it, people in France had another read. The great thing about the film is that it seems to be so [many things] to so many different people. But beyond that, I think it's really up to audiences to say what the film means to them.
And lastly, the film opens in Milwaukee this Friday exclusively at the Landmark Downer. You’ll be in Milwaukee for a special members-only screening hosted by Milwaukee Film on Wednesday at the Oriental. Dream come true? Do you have any additional plans while you're back in town?
Absolutely! Growing up, I spent a ton of time at the Oriental, so I've dreamed of having a film play in Milwaukee. I feel so fortunate to have this dream come true so soon. I can't wait to attend the screening on Wednesday, I'm going to be at the theater all weekend. I will get together with all my longtime friends, I’ll hang out with my family. And, I'm going to eat Gilles frozen custard everyday!
Milwaukee Film’s Members-Only screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild will take place on Wednesday, July 18 at 7 p.m. at the Landmark Oriental Theatre. Space is limited and tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservation closes on Monday, July 16.