"Beasts of the Southern Wild" director: Giant movie on tiny shoulders

Quvenzhane Wallis
Still of Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Fox Searchlight Pictures

(CBS News) So how did a young girl from Louisiana, who's never acted before, land the lead part in a critically-acclaimed upcoming film?

Benh Zeitlin, co-writer, director and composer of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," said he cast Quvenzhane Wallis from among thousands of girls in the South to play the role of Hushpuppy.

"We knew we were going to take this giant movie and put it on the shoulders of someone real tiny," Zeitlin said Thursday on "CBS This Morning." "So we started casting as soon as we starting writing. We did it for nine months and looked at about 4,000 girls all over South Louisiana, trying to find the one. And she miraculously strolled into a library in Houma, Louisiana."

The film won prizes at the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals. It tells the story of a New Orleans bayou community through the eyes of young Hushpuppy.

Zeitlin said he was struck by Wallis' "poise and wisdom that are so beyond her years" and her "fierceness and defiance."

"We thought someone that young would be hard to direct," he continued. "You can talk to her like a real actress and she understands things. You would say you're like going around the cast saying, 'Here's your motivation, here's your motivation.' You go to her and say, 'Here's your motivation.' She will turn to you and say, 'Benh, I'm 6 years old, do you think I know what the word motivation means? Use a kid word.'"

"She just understands that she's a kid," Zeitlin said, "and she also understands the world in way that I have never seen in someone that young."

Zeitlin said Quvenzhane's character became the moral compass of the film. "I remember from her first audition, I was trying to get her to throw a stuffed animal at the other guy who was acting and she refused to do it at 5 years old. ... I cut the scene and said, 'Why won't you do that?' She said, 'It's not right to throw something at someone you don't know.' ... (She's) defiance on the basis of sweetness."

For more with Zeitlin on his film and the lengths he had to go to get it filmed during the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, watch the video in the player above.