Josh Penn '06 is one of the producers of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a 2013 nominee for an Oscar for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The following profile, originally published in Earlhamite magazine, traces how he used skills he honed at Earlham to help create this critically acclaimed feature film.
A collective of people — mostly young, enthusiastic and inexperienced — living and working together in southernmost Louisiana, making a film about a strange netherworld inspired by the forsaken bayous outside New Orleans. Their movie stars an assembly of non-actors who had never before appeared on film. The director is just a few years out of college and is making his first feature-length movie. The crew is hired more for companionability than credentials. And assembling, inspiring and holding together this motley collective is Josh Penn ’06 — another relative neophyte in the world of film production.
Is this any way to make a movie?
It could have been a noble effort that played a few film festivals before disappearing into a dusty corner of film history. It could have been a train wreck. But it wasn’t. Instead it was one of those rare and wonderful occurrences in the arts when everything worked the first time around.
The film we’re referring to is Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won major awards at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival in 2012. This film was purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures, and opened in cinemas nationwide in the summer of 2012.
Critic Manohla Dargis of The New York Times says the film is one of the best to play Sundance in two decades. “[The film] is hauntingly beautiful both visually and in the tenderness it shows toward the characters,” writes Dargis.
In a telephone interview from his adopted hometown of New Orleans, Penn emphasizes how fortunate he and his collaborators feel that their adventure in movie making has turned out so well.
“I’m just excited that the film went well enough that someone will let us do it again,” he says. “We are not interested in making film in the standard ways, so we hope we will be able to able to make the next film in a similar way.”
Genesis of a Major Motion Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild could become a test case for alternative approaches to independent film production. The film was created by a group known as Court 13 — Penn describes it as more of a “tribe” than a “company” — which originally formed to make Glory at Sea, a short film by director Benh Zeitlin. Glory at Sea won a shelf full of trophies at various film festivals, but just as important, a core group of crew fell in love with the process of making a film, and wanted to do it again.
“With Glory at Sea, we had 30 people living in an abandoned house while we made the movie. It was chaos 100 percent of the time, but for me it was one of those things that just clicks in life. I knew I wanted to do it all the time,” says Penn.
Building on the success of that short, director Zeitlin began working on a feature film. He teamed with a friend from his teenage years, playwright Lucy Alibar, to adapt her play Juicy and Delicious for the screen. The pair worked on the screenplay for a year and a half, developing it under the auspices of the Sundance Directors Lab in 2009. Penn says Beasts of the Southern Wild ultimately brought together the central themes of Alibar’s play (which concerns a young child dealing with the loss of his father in a post-apocalyptic world) with the milieu of southern Louisiana, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
From the beginning, Penn contributed to the development of the screenplay for Beasts of the Southern Wild. As the film went into production, Penn was called on to oversee the creative, logistical and financial aspects of the project.
An alumnus of Sundance’s program in “creative producing,” Penn says his role — and that of his fellow producers Dan Janvey and Michael Gottwald — was, “overseeing and balancing the creative, logistical, personal and financial aspects of the film.” He and his producing partners received the Sundance and Indian Paintbrush Producing Award at the festival.
Getting It Right
“There are an ungodly amount of logistics involved in making a movie,” Penn says. “We knew we wanted to create a unique world for the film, and that really came from Behn’s imagination. The setting is a conglomeration of things that actually exist in Louisiana, so it’s a pretty fantastical world that is still grounded in reality.”
Penn notes that when it came to building sets, for instance, Court 13 was apt to scrounge for scrap planks rather than run to Home Depot for new lumber. For props, they shopped at garage sales. “Everything had to be part of the texture of the film,” he says.
When it came to casting actors, Court 13 auditioned a number of professional actors from New York before deciding to cast the film with local non-professionals who would bring a particular life experience and verisimilitude to theirs roles. This was challenging enough when casting adults, but even more difficult when it came to finding the right performer for the central role of Hushpuppy — a six-year-old girl.
“We saw about 3,500 little girls,” says Penn. “We were just trying to figure out if they had it in them, if we could get a glimpse of what they could do.” Penn says that when they saw Quvenzhane Wallis at a callback audition, they knew their search was over. (Zeitlin, the director, notes in an interview with Sundance’s video channel that Wallis’ audition was so eye-opening that it altered the way he envisioned the character. It was almost as if as if he was meeting the character for the first time at the audition.)
Judging from reviews of the film, Penn and his cohorts succeeded in creating a film unlike any other. Reviewer Damon Wise, writing in the Guardian newspaper, put it this way:
“The main performances, by non-professionals, would be stunning in any movie, but here they are the icing on a strange and eccentric cake. It's a film so completely unique that it's hard to imagine how it was even made.”
Penn says that many of the skills that make him an effective producer are ones he developed at Earlham, but not necessarily from his coursework.
“What I learned in college, I learned by doing, not in class,” he says. “The great thing about Earlham was, I was allowed to jump in and try different things. In high school, I wasn’t the most motivated student, but at Earlham, I was able to discover the skills I have.”
A Business and Nonprofit Management major, Penn was Station Manager at WECI-FM (the community-supported radio station on campus) and headed the Student Activities Board, which plans events and books performers to come to campus. He also started a record label and played in several bands.
“All those things had a common thread which involved management, the arts and working with friends on projects I believed in. I learned an unbelievable amount at Earlham because I was able to run with things. I could come up with ambitious projects and follow them through, and I learned how to deal with friends in working situations. That was great preparation for what I am doing now.”
Editor's note: Several other Earlham alumni were part of the crew for Beasts of the Southern Wild including Alana Pryor Ackerman ’05, Jeremy Butman ’06, Carmen Negrelli ’08, Ryan Newmyer ’07 and Sam Robinson ’07. In addition to Beasts of the Southern Wild, Penn and Ackerman have also worked together on the documentary Roots and Webs (directed by Sara Dosa), which is currently in post-production.