*Before talking to “Beasts of the Southern Wild” stars Quvenzhane Wallis [Nazy] and Dwight Henry, The Film Strip asked its director Benh Zeitlin to explain the concept behind the film since some question the context in which it was made. Is this entertainment, educational, or informative and what do you want audiences to walk away with? “The structure of the film is like an emotional [one],” he offered. “It’s almost like a national anthem where it moves in verses and choruses. We tried to keep the message of the film kind of universal. It had to be something that you can relate to wherever you are and it’s supposed to be entertaining.”
He went on to say that he did not think the people in the film were depicted as inadequate. “Anyone who sees the film will see the characters as the heroes of the film. They’re the wisest people in the film; they’re the bravest people in the film. They’re 3-dimentional characters, which I think is a kind of rare thing as far as when I go to see films. You rarely see minorities depicted in a way that doesn’t reduce them to their race. So I disagree with those reactions. I do not think that the Bathtub is an impoverished place. It’s a place that is off the grid. It’s totally self-sufficient. It’s totally independent and the people there love it, are thriving and feasting every night. It’s not like there’s some part of town where everyone’s got the money and this is the slum or something. This is a group of people that’ve made a choice to stand by their homes, despite the fact that the world has cut them off from the economy. There’s total racial equality. It’s a diverse place that doesn’t have the sort of judgment and stereotypes and hatred that exist on the other side of the wall. That was the intention behind this utopian idea of the Bathtub. So that’s what it’s supposed to do, and if people are reading it differently, that’s their thing.
Eight year-old Wallis plays Hushpuppy and the self-made businessman, Henry (Henry’s Bakery & Deli, Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café located at 1781 N. Dorgenois Street, New Orleans), is her father, Wink. The two were together for the interview:
It’s my understanding Quvenzhane had the final say in who played her father?
Dwight Henry: That was one of the first things they told me when I was going to meet Quvenzhané for the first time, so I brought a whole bunch of goodies to win her over.
How did this role come to you?
DH: For me personally, everyone knows I’ve never acted before, but these guys saw some natural things in me that I’ve never seen in myself. I hope to continue on doing some other projects, but I’ll never put aside the business that I built for 13 years to pass on to my kids and jeopardize that for any selfish career goals of my own.
What was the audition process like?
DH: Well, for me the casting studio was right across the street from my bakery. So the whole production studio used to come over to the bakery, get breakfast in the morning, sit down and talk, get a newspaper, and get lunch. They used to put fliers in the bakery for anyone that wanted to audition for upcoming films. One day me and Michael Gottwald, the producer, were sitting down and talking and I said `Michael, I’m gonna come over and audition for the film.’ I was in the process of moving my business from one location to another because I was expanding when the decision was made. They were looking for me to give me the part, but no one knew where I was. Two days after opening at my new location, Michael Gottwald walked into the bakery and said,`Mr. Henry, you got the part.’ I said I’m flattered, and I wanna do it, but I just can’t right now because I just opened up and I can’t just sacrifice the business that I’m building to pass on to my kids for a possible movie career. So I actually had to reluctantly turn down the part. Long story short, I turned them down three times. But they pursued me so I worked things out with my partners. They made concessions, and I was able to go do the film and it’s been wonderful ever since.
And what about you, Quvenzhane?
QW: It was fun because it was just something I wanted to try. There was a call from my mom’s friend and she said they were having auditions for six to nine year olds, but I was only five. So I went in and we actually put six on the paper. During the audition they wanted me to act like one of the producers, Michael Gottwald, was my son and it was the first day of school and I had to wake him up and he asked me to fix his breakfast. They called two days later.
What was it like to be Hushpuppy?e?
QW: She’s just a brave little girl trying to follow her father’s footsteps.
And what was it like to play Wink?
DH: I’m trying to do everything in my power to teach her how to survive in a volatile region when he dad is not going to be there because she is the most important person in the world to me while all these catastrophic things are happening. Teaching her how to be feed herself and be strong when the storm comes.
I hear you’re tough cookie, Nazy?
QW: I make the decisions.
DH: That’s right. So when they told me I was going to meet her, I packed up all kinds of sweets—brownies, buttermilk drops, cupcakes, and I brought them to her and when I saw her big white teeth when she looked in the bag, I knew I had the part right there.
What was it like for you talking to the Aurochs?
DH: That’s on you [looking at Nazy].
QW: That’s on you, because you were looking at me while you were talking to the Auroch. You got this question too.
DH: I’ll speak for her first.
QW: Thank you, Daddy!
DH: You’re welcome. The scene where she faces down the Aurochs, showing that she’s just as strong as the Aurochs, what was it you said?
QW: “You’re my friend…kind of.”
DH: When she said that, she showed the inner strength in her. When the beast realized that they were one of a kind and that she had true strength, he bowed down to her in respect to the strength she had in her.
By the time you’re 12, you’ll probably be directing?
DH: She’s writing a film right now.
What’s the movie called, Nazy?
QW: ‘Fat Kids Don’t Get Gifts on Christmas.’ The family’s name is Fat. Tummy Fats.
Once a bullied student, Spider-Man initiates change
It was an unusual start for “The Amazing Spider-Man” press conference at the Crosby Hotel because it began on a hip hop note. When Avi Arad (producer), Matt Tolmach (producer) and Marc Webb (director) entered the room, there was scratching and beatboxing as they tested the mikes that were set up for them. Webb started with, “Check one, check two, check three. Break it down Tolmach, one, two, three, the Israel MC.” After the beatbox intro, Tolmach says, “My son does that at home.’ Once settled into interview mode, I asked what were the challenges following in the footsteps of an already successful billion-dollar franchise? “I think the biggest challenge was to convince the world that comic books are real literature that is probably in many cases deeper in character and metaphors than best-selling books,” Arad said, “and once people realize that actually it’s not comic like ‘ha, ha.’ It’s like a real art form and convincing studios to make this movie has been quite a trip.”
“Once he convinced the studio,” Tolmach added, they got involved. “It’s a crazy thing historically to think that someone actually had to convince studios to make the movies that now are the only movies that studios really rely on. But it’s an interesting question because that’s how far we’ve come in that period of time. And so to answer your challenge question, the challenge that we all confronted every single day was here’s this incredibly beloved character who has been around for 50 years, how do you do it justice? And the answer is, with a great story and a great filmmaker. That’s how you build movies, that’s how you build franchises and that’s how we started this one with this guy sitting between us [referring to Webb].
When talking about filling the shoes of Tobey Maguire at a Sony sponsored media event last year, Andrew Garfield, the star of the “Amazing Spider-Man,” mentioned that he hoped his successor would be of African American or Hispanic descent. Whoever continues in the Spider-Man franchise, will have some even bigger shoes to fill after “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Director Marc Webb wanted the film to not just rely on CGI, but awesome stunts. Seeing Garfield utilizing the nitrogen air ratchet and swinging under an elevated trestle along Riverside Drive and 130th street in Harlem, the stunt on the train, not to mention the others, puts a whole new spin on Spidey’s physical prowess.
Charles Bronson, a hero in the “Death Wish” movie series, was called a vigilante and often sought after by the police. Unlike George Zimmerman, who stalked a teenage kid and killed him, Bronson made the streets safe. The Film Strip asked Garfield, who says he has had a blessed life, if he thought Spider-Man, was a vigilante although he went after murderers and criminals? “Yeah, and I think what’s cool about this movie is that he discovers the power of what he’s created. He doesn’t create this symbol with any kind of high-mindedness. He creates it while searching for his uncle’s killer and I think that he is a vigilante for a period of this particular story. He’s rebelling because of tragic events in his life and not thinking responsibly. During that part of the story he’s running away from his feelings, guilt and pain
“So, yeah, I feel like there was a period where he was acting out impulsively. Then he accidentally discovers that he’s created something bigger than him that can be used for good. It was important to me that he started with a heroic impulse, without the physical power to do anything with it, and that was always how I felt growing up. I always felt like an underdog. I was a skinny kid. It’s only now that I realize that’s something I always identified with for Peter Parker. That he always felt stronger on the inside than he did on the outside. There’s nothing better than seeing a skinny guy beat the crap out of big guys. So, yes, that was kind of an important thing.”
The stunts might be hair-raising but Garfield enjoyed every moment of it. “Any mention of Andy Armstrong, my heart swells,” Garfield gushed. “Andy kind of turned into a father figure for me on this film. It was a spiritually overwhelming experience to work with him. I will write a book about him one day. He and his team are the safest group of hands you could ever hope to be in. They are passionate, supportive, loving, and it’s a tribe that was generous enough to allow me be a part of it.”
To celebrate the high school kids that are not popular or rich and often bullied, a week of civic and cultural activities was set aside to bring attention to good deeds. In the name of the orphan Peter Parker that later became Spider-Man, a volunteer initiative was established that had Spidey and fellow New Yorkers giving back to their community by helping people in need. There were events taking place at the Museums, Zoos, and the Landmark Empire State Building. There is also the important Stan Up To Cancer drive. “Amazing” that a Marvels comic book character can stir such awareness.
Emma Stone also took part in the activities. Stone turned a town on its head in “The Help” when she told the stories of mistreated black domestic workers in her character’s book. In “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Stone plays Peter Parker’s astute strong-willed girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Like later love Mary Jane, Stacy is the pretty, popular girl. So I asked Stone if Parker was just attracted to Stacy because of her looks? “I think that elements of Gwen and her family life are something that Peter didn’t necessarily have, a sense of stability,” she explained. “I mean I know Aunt Mae and Uncle Ben are a very stable environment for him, but he has abandonment issues. He was left when he was five.
“So, he doesn’t feel like he can be totally honest with Aunt Mae and Uncle Ben. You see that when Uncle Ben comes in and is like, `Sorry we don’t talk about this.’ He doesn’t feel comfortable expressing the pain to them. He sees someone like Gwen as a confidant, person that can understand what it’s like to lose a father on a daily basis, as you see in that bedroom scene. She doesn’t know if her father is going to come home every day. She feels that sense of abandonment as well. With that and their scholastic pursuits, they really bond.”
The words iconic and much loved are often used when referring to Spider-Man. Stone expressed her take on Spidey. “Well, he’s the only teenage superhero,” she says, “which is major because a lot of the times that people start reading comic books, they are a kid or a teenager. So, he’s the most identifiable. Instantly, you can relate to him. Not to mention he’s bullied, which is huge for a girl or a boy. He’s a symbol for kids. It makes them feel so much power within themselves to speak out, to stand up for themselves, to stay unique, and to stay true to who they are as Peter does. You know, he finds those heroic elements within him with or without his powers, which in this movie I think is what instigates Gwen and Peter’s first interaction. When he’s standing up for a kid that’s being bullied and takes the fall for a kid who’s being humiliated in front of a group of people, he displays those heroic qualities—long before he becomes an actual superhero.
I think that’s why he resonates with so many and has over 50 years and will continue to. Even President Barack Obama is a fan because Spider-Man is an inspiration in pop culture.” [President Obama was on the cover of #583 issue of Marvels’ Spiderman comic books]
Syndicated columnist Marie Moore reports on film and TV from her New York City base. Contact her at [email protected]