You probably wouldn’t expect the producer of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a critically acclaimed film that won the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d’Or Prize at Cannes, to look like Dan Janvey. That’s because the movie, which was shown at the 29th Jerusalem Film Festival this week (and which opens throughout Israel soon), is about an African-American father and daughter who live in an isolated southern Louisiana community that is constantly threatened by rising floodwaters, and its style is a kind of over-the-top magic realism that includes encounters with giant prehistoric pigs.
But Janvey is white, neatly dressed and soft-spoken, and he gushes over the fact that his Israeli grandfather, whom Janvey calls “my saba,” is present at the screening.
This is the first full-length feature Janvey has produced, and it has been a huge triumph for him, his producing partners, and director Benh Zeitlin. Zeitlin adapted the screenplay from a play by Lucy Alibar, but the story went through quite a few changes in its journey to the screen.
“Beasts seeks to tell a story of folklore steeped in myth,” explains Janvey, over breakfast at the Mount Zion Hotel.
Although many have confused the story of the fictional community called the Bathtub that is portrayed in the film with the reality of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans, Janvey is quick to point out that “it’s not a realistic film. There are some communities in the region where we filmed it, in Southern Louisiana, that suffer from coastal erosion. And there are these holdout communities that refuse to leave. And there is a reality to this culture of celebration and living joyously and teaching children to be self-sufficient.”
That said, Janvey explains, “It’s fiction.” There are many details of life in the Bathtub, such as a race where babies crawl across a blanket to reach the finish line, that are invented.
The element of the film that has received the most attention – apart from the aurochs, the prehistoric creatures that the six-year-old heroine, Hushpuppy, imagines lumbering down from the melting polar icecaps as the floodwaters rise – are the intense and utterly captivating performances by the two lead actors.
“The entire cast was non-professionals,” says Janvey.
But Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy, gives a nuanced, riveting performance that trained actors might envy, as does Dwight Henry as Wink, her disease-ravaged father. Henry is actually a baker, and the filmmakers had a difficult time convincing him to take the part.
“When you work with a baker, you have to have all your meetings at night, between midnight and 6 a.m., while he makes the donuts,” recalls Janvey. But although he and Wallis have received international acclaim for their work, neither is planning a future in acting.
“Henry is planning to open a donut shop in New Orleans called Wink’s, after his character in the film. And if you ask Quvenzhane what she’s got coming up, she’ll say, ‘Fourth grade.’” Janvey met Zeitlin and his producing partners, Michael Gottwald and Josh Penn, when the four were undergraduates at Wesleyan University in the US just a few years ago. They collaborated on several short films, then decided they wanted to pursue this extraordinarily noncommercial project. After working on the film at the Sundance Institute, they were able to get the financing they needed from Cinereach Foundation and the collective Court 13. The irony of it all is that it has garnered so many awards and so much acclaim that the film will likely make money for its investors.
“It was really a community-based project,” says Janvey, who compares the publicity junkets the cast and crew made for the film to “family trips. They’re all such special people and it’s been wonderful getting to know them.”
He is currently working on a documentary about kids in New Orleans, and says he will also be producing Zeitlin’s next film, although he can’t give any details about it. But for now, he’s got one more precious day to spend in Israel with his grandfather and other relatives.
“It was a real high to have the movie screened at this palace of cinema, the Jerusalem Cinematheque,” says Janvey, after he promises to come back with his next movie.