On the South Louisiana set where he was co-producer, Matthew Parker wandered down to the gas-station building that functioned as an all-purpose production office. He arrived to find bad news: Director Benh Zeitlin's pickup truck had caught fire. The vehicle was totaled — no small loss on a movie whose entire budget was just $1.5 million. Then someone got a brainstorm: What if you converted the truck's bed into a boat?
Long story short: When the characters in Zeitlin's debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild motor downstream in a duct-taped vessel that looks like a junkyard science experiment, it's the director's burned-up beater they're piloting. That resourcefulness fits the movie, which stands alone among the recent subgenre of apocalypse movies in that its imperiled heroes put up a fight.
A fable of resilience about a community of bayou dwellers beset by Katrina-like disaster and intimations of global catastrophe, Beasts of the Southern Wild has been one of the year's most discussed and debated films since its triumphant premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Parker will be on hand Friday and Saturday night at The Belcourt along with the film's co-star, Dwight Henry, a native Nashvillian who makes an electrifying acting debut as the defiant father of the movie's 6-year-old protagonist (an unforgettable newcomer named Quvenzhané Wallis).
Henry was running the Buttermilk Drop Bakery across from the casting office in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood when the filmmakers started visiting his late-night baking shifts, cajoling him to come aboard. Parker signed on about six months before the shoot, and production moved to the bayou town of Montegut.
As word spread, Parker recalls, the crew swelled to some 80 people, filled out by enthused locals. He says the sense of community you see on screen is typical. Residents have to look out for each other, Parker says, because there's "not much government support for these people."
"The prevailing attitude down there is, people fight for what's theirs and take what comes," Parker says. "The people in the area really care for everyone down there. They deal with storms every year."
Before moving to New York and becoming an independent film producer, Parker grew up in Nashville and attended Franklin Road Academy. He still has family here — his stepfather is a dentist, his mother works at the West Nashville knitting shop Haus of Yarn. Next up for him is an indie feature called Ma' George with actress-playwright Danai Gurira, who'll have what should be a star-making role in the upcoming season of The Walking Dead. But he expects he'll never have another experience quite like making Beasts.
"The sets were like stepping into this other world," Parker says. "There was this moment when the storm was coming down, and [Henry's character] Wink runs out with a shotgun. Something in Dwight's performance told me we had something really special."
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