Mass MoCA: 'Beasts' enriched with live music


NORTH ADAMS -- "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the tale of Hush Puppy, a scrappy and determined 6-year-old who emerged a heroine to her family and her community, became the Cinderella film of 2012, receiving acclaim at Cannes and Sundance, along with four Oscar nominations.

This weekend it is getting the "West Side Story" treatment.

Just as the 1961 multiple-Oscar-winning musical was accorded a full screening with the Bernstein score performed at Tanglewood last month by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the score of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" will be played live during a presentation of the film, Saturday evening at 8:30, on the big Courtyard Cinema screen at Mass MoCA.

In the event of rain, the program will be moved indoors to the Hunter Center.

"This is the first time we've performed the film with a live orchestra," said Benh Zeitlin, the film's director and collaborator on the score with his composer friend Dan Romer. "It's something we talked about from my very first short film, ‘Egg,' " and with his second film, "Glory at Sea," as well, the 30-year-old Zeitlin added. "But this time it's going to happen"

For the occasion, Mass MoCA is providing what it calls the largest movie screen in New England. The ensemble is the Wordless Music Orchestra, with Ryan McAdams conducting, and Zeitlin and Romer taking part in the performance, the former on banjo, the latter, accordion.

Zeitlin said the score for "Beasts" functions differently from the average film score. "It is integrated with the film, has its character. Me and Dan aren't traditional film composers. We're song writers, and we bring songs into the film, as we orchestrate it.

"The emotions of the film are intensified by doing the score live," Zeitlin said in a telephone interview from his family home in Darlington, S.C., suggesting that the live music will impart to the audience more of the film's emotions, combining the feeling of going to see a movie with the feeling of a concert: "It becomes more than just a film on the screen."

Zeitlin said the collaborative effort between him and Romer begins while he is writing the script.

"I write little one-minute excerpts -- musical ideas," Zeitlin explained. "Long before it's finished, we sort of go through all the stuff. I throw 70 percent of (the musical ideas) out, and then we really begin writing together. Dan will do new themes that I have written -- stuff much larger than the ones I have."

In orchestrating, Romer arranges the strings and horns. "I'm a very rudimentary musician," Zeitlin said. "I come up with the sort of basic themes, melodies and chords, and then Dan will write new themes to go along with what I've written and flesh that out to a broader score."

Asked if the score contains anything resembling leitmotives -- themes representing characters and ideas -- Zeitlin replied:

"Themes in the film represent different characters or emotions -- Hush Puppy's imagination, a theme for her mother, a theme for the town itself." He also mentioned a theme assigned to the aurochs, the rather fierce ancestors of the cow, which are extinct, but through the magic of movie fantasy reemerge in the film.

The orchestra is a 25-piece chamber-size ensemble, Zeitlin noted, with 12 strings, along with brass, percussion, folk instruments -- but no woodwinds. "But we have a real special instrument," he noted, "rare, a celeste."

Zeitlin also suggested that the live orchestra will provide the first occasion in which all the instruments are played at once. "We recorded for the film one instrument at a time. Each violin, each of the instruments, had to be tracked separately," he explained.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" was adapted from "Juicy and Delicious," a one-act play by Zeitlin's teenage friend, Lucy Albar, who had grown up on the Florida panhandle.

Since it was somewhat autobiographical, the character of Hush Puppy originally was a boy to make it easier to deal with personal issues, Albar, who collaborated with Zeitlin on the screenplay, explains in discussing her original project.

Zeitlin decided to turn much of the original plot around. Some 4,000 auditions were conducted before Quvenzhané Wallis was selected to play Hush Puppy in the film.

"She was completely different from anybody else," recalled Zeitlin, "intelligent, very wise, only five when we met her."

Asked what she said in the audition to persuade him, Zeitlin responded, "It wasn''t what she said. It was the look in her eyes. She was very poised, fearless, emotional, able to express her feelings without speaking, which is very difficult for any actor, let alone one that young."

And, indeed, Quvenzhané Wallis came through like a trooper, captivating hearts wherever the film was shown, and gathering, at her young age, an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, in a film also nominated for Best Picture. Zeitlin was nominated for Best Director, and he and Albar for Best Screenplay.

Zeitlin said he is aware of the old belief that a score should be inconspicuous; that if you remember the score after leaving the theater it has not done its job.

"That's not true for me," he said. "What they're trying to say, is don't let the score take you out of the movie. It should serve the characters, if it doesn't take you out of the story. Music has the ability to express things that no other element can express."


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