Dan Janvey, a 28-year-old New Yorker and producer of the film sensation of the summer, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” was part of a team that spent three and a half years making the movie in southern Louisiana for less than $1.5 million, astoundingly low in today’s world of movie making. What’s more, it stars two people with no professional acting experience – a captivating five-year-old girl and, playing her father, a local Louisiana baker who had to be persuaded to take the role.
Not exactly a formula for financial and critical success. But then Janvey notes that “none of us were doing this for the money.” It was the sense of building community and sharing ownership that was so appealing to him and his co-worker friends.
“Beasts” has had a fairytale journey that matches the magical feel of the film itself, opening at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter just two days after its editing was completed and winning top honors with the Grand Jury Prize. Only a few days later it was sold to a major distributor, Fox Searchlight, and since opening in June has received the kind of kudos from leading critics that would make veteran filmmakers wildly envious.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called the movie “hauntingly beautiful” and “among the best films to play at Sundance in two decades,” and Roger Ebert gushed, “sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius.”
How is Janvey, the son of attorney Richard Janvey and leadership advisor (and Jewish Week board member) Rae Janvey, handling all this praise?
With self-effacing calm, preferring to talk about the talent of his friend, Ben Zeitlin, the film’s director.
The two were friends at Wesleyan University, and when Zeitlin became enthralled with southern Louisiana, on a visit in 2006, he convinced Janvey and several other college friends to come down and plan a movie that could capture the spirit of the region.
Although Hushpuppy, the little girl at the center of the fictional story, and her father, Wink, are black and live in primitive, isolated surroundings, Janvey says the film is not really about race or poverty, but rather offers up a utopian version of a culture based on self-reliance, celebration and independence -- living off the land.
“We were trying to show that the Bathtub [the film’s name for the fictional setting] was not an impoverished place but a wealthy community” in the eyes of the eccentric but close-knit group of people living there.
Janvey hopes to make more conventional films, but came to love the collective experience of working on “Beasts,” as well as the people he came to know in the region. He says that while winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival were thrilling, the high point for him was staging the world premiere of “Beasts” at a local gym in the Bayou area where the film was made, attended by more than 600 people.
“The response was incredibly warm,” Janvey said. “They felt that we had captured something essential about the place, and that was so gratifying.”