American movie Beasts of the Southern Wild is a different kind of animal from the usual Hollywood release. Made on a tiny budget, although you wouldn't know from the look of it on the big screen, it doesn't cleanly fit one category.
It's part science-fiction, with hints that it's set in the near future, when sea levels have risen because of global warming. It's part fantasy, with the rise of long-extinct beasts in the title, and it's part down-to-earth drama, with the feeling of a documentary.
Six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis gives a standout performance, and the buzz is that she may be nominated for an Oscar.
This year, the film has won many awards, including at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals and from the British Film Institute.
Despite its US$1.8 million (NZ$2.2m) budget, which is tiny by Hollywood standards, the film has been widely distributed and so far in the United States has made more than US$11m at the box office.
The success of the film continues to surprise and bewilder its director, 30-year-old relative newcomer Benh Zeitlin.
After finishing the film, he didn't know anything about how to distribute it. Nor had he heard of any of the big-name companies, including Fox Searchlight, which picked up the film, he says.
"None of that stuff was even on my radar. You are so immersed in the project you are not thinking about the outside world.
"We make films in a non-traditional way, not using actors and not using the things that will get [the film a] wide release, but we do think about audiences a lot and how to tell universal stories.
"We tested our edit every week on different kinds of people.
"I really consider the moment the film exists to be interaction between the movie and the audience. I don't consider it to be this ivory-tower art form that's meant to be admired from afar. It's all about how it interacts with the audience.
"When you think about it in that sense, you want to make a story that anybody, no matter where they live on the globe, can watch and relate to."
Despite being the director, Zeitlin says "we" a lot. It's because Beasts of the Southern Wild was as much made with help from family, friends, and members of independent production company Court 13. It was largely shot in Louisiana bayou country. About half of the cast were locals, including Quvenzhane.
The idea for the film came from a one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zeitlin, but the film is as much shaped by the people and places they visited in Louisiana, Zeitlin says.
"I think we have a development process that's almost like the way you would make a documentary.
"The way we start writing is exploring – going to bars and hanging out with people.
"We'd go to a town council meeting in remote places. That's where the genesis and inspiration for the project are. It was getting to know this incredibly resilient culture that inspired the film."
Quvenzhane, who plays Hushpuppy, narrates much of the story of communities living hand to mouth in the flooded bayou country. She was cast after a nine-month search.
"The way we allow for this grass-roots approach is that we do locations and casting and art development while we are writing the script. We were pretty sure we wanted her to be a girl, but even that was up in the air. We would have cast a boy if he was right. We were really very open.
"We looked at 4000 kids. When we found her, that was when the movie really locked in. We rewrote the film to reflect her character and the way she talked."
Z laughs when I mention the Oscar buzz about Quvenzhane. "It's just too crazy, but she would deserve it," he says.
"She is every bit as incredible as she is on screen. It wasn't a trick.
"She wasn't like we were telling her jokes to make her laugh and showing her horror movies to make her scared. That's a real performance."
Zeitlin says they did look at professional actors for the main roles, but non-actors won every time. They included Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy's father, Wink. But Henry was at first reluctant to be in the film.
"He turned us down three times. He was and still is a businessman. He runs a bakery and that's still his passion and his life. He didn't want to jeopardise that by walking away from it because he literally runs the business, bakes all the doughnuts and runs the cash register, but there was no-one else to take his role.
"That was a big part of why I cast him. We could really relate to each other on that level where I understood, 'Your bakery to you is like my movie to me, where I'm going to literally sacrifice my life to make this happen'.
"It was that connection that make me think he was going to understand the character of Wink, that I drew a lot from myself."
When Henry agreed to star, they had to prepare and rehearse during "baker's hours", while Henry continued to run his bakery.
"I would be there while he was making doughnuts and teaching him the lines. He would talk about his life and I would bring it into the script."
Despite acclaim for the film and its popularity, Zeitlin is very aware that Beasts of the Southern Wild is still hard to pigeonhole.
"Before we made the film, we weren't able to pitch it in any kind of effective way. To me, I think of the film as a folk tale.
"There is no genre of film that is the folk-tale genre. Folk tales are usually realised as animated films, disaster movies or adventure movies. For us, we are trying to tell a fable from the perspective of a folk hero."
It could even be a new film genre. "It's like when Nirvana stripped down the massive, bloated hair metal big bands. It's kind of like stripping down. You can use DIY techniques to tell this DIY storyline about little people conquering unbelievable odds."
Beasts of the Southern Wild is screening now.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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