TORONTO - Six years ago, filmmaker/composer/animator Benh Zeitlin was living in a shoebox of an apartment in New York City, struggling to make enough money to support his art.
Feeling creatively stifled, he took a trip to New Orleans with a bunch of friends to find a location for his short film, "Glory at Sea."
What was supposed to be a three-month stay turned into a permanent one for Zeitlin, who was so inspired by the community's warmth and resilience he made it the theme of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," his acclaimed debut feature that opens Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
"It wasn't this sort of competitive thing going on where everyone was trying to claw for the same space. There was a real kind of openness and this creativity that is very open-hearted and very public, and definitely there's this sort of sense that everyone is kind of in it together," he said.
"It's a place that could get wiped out any year and everybody who's there knows that it's precarious like that, and I think out of that comes a certain kind of bravery and fearlessness and unity, and you sort of let go of a lot of the things that you would worry about otherwise."
Much of the fearlessness in the fantastical "Beasts of the Southern Wild" comes from Quvenzhane Wallis, who makes her big-screen debut as the film's heroine, Hushpuppy.
A plucky six-year-old, Hushpuppy lives in a festive and fictional ramshackle bayou community with her booze-loving father, Wink (Dwight Henry). As a massive storm descends on the isolated area known as the Bathtub, they and many others there hunker down in their rickety homes and ride it out.
When the tenacious ragtag bunch emerge, they face severe floods and federal orders to leave, yet they remain determined to stay in their beloved area that's cut off from the commerce-driven "dry side" by a levee.
With its echoes of Hurricane Katrina, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" debuted to much buzz in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award. It also won four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.
Zeitlin directed the film and co-wrote it with his longtime friend Lucy Alibar, taking inspiration from her apocalypse-themed play "Juicy and Delicious."
Their goal was to show a community standing up for its joyous, united culture "and refusing to let it die," said Zeitlin.
"I think that the Bathtub is this utopian place," said the 29-year-old, noting he based the community on many different aspects of Louisiana.
"It's a place with ultimate freedom, ultimate unity, abundance of food and abundance of culture."
To realistically depict that culture, the filmmakers held open auditions in Louisiana and cast many locals who'd never acted before. Among them are Wallis, a Louisiana native who was just five at the time of filming, and Henry, a baker who's lived in New Orleans most of his life.
Zeitlin cast the part of Hushpuppy first, a process that took about nine months and drew in some 4,000 hopefuls.
Wallis then helped choose the man who would play her father. Henry got the part because he helped her feel safe enough to "go to dangerous places" in the story, said Zeitlin.
The filmmakers let the stars shape their own characters and also hired many locals as crew members.
"We actually were planning on blending professionals and non-professionals, but because of what we're looking for, it was hard to bring in anybody from outside the region to tell the story," said Zeitlin, who even chopped off the back of his old pickup truck and used it as Wink's makeshift boat in the film.
"When we met someone like Dwight, whose role was supposed to be played by a professional actor, he just had these stories and this kind of experience both tangibly that helped us rewrite the film and rewrite the script and make it better.
"But also there's something in his eyes and his face where you can feel the strength that's there from having gone through a lot of similar things to what the characters go through in the film that was unmatchable."
Principal photography began in Louisiana on April 20th, 2010, the same day the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill began just 150 kilometres southeast of the film site.
To depict the Bathtub during and after the flood, the filmmakers shot in towns that had actually gone through those catastrophes.
"It's interesting, as you drive down to the bottom of Louisiana you see this environmental apocalypse actually happening," said Zeitlin.
"As you get closer to the Gulf, you see the trees dying, you see the marsh being pulled apart, you see places that used to be there and are now flooded."
Through his independent film house Court 13, Zeitlin said he wants to make more projects in the same grassroots manner as he did with "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
He said he's already writing other films, and he'd definitely like to work again with Dwight and Henry, who's now opening a new bakery named Wink's in honour of his character.
"They really learned how to act through doing the film and I think that they both loved it and are passionate about it and will continue to do their lives and acting at the same time."