Benh Zeitlin

Benh Zeitlin

Benh Zeitlin was born in New York City. Zeitlin's parents were urban folklorists responsible for the non-profit organization City Lore. They encouraged the creative side he displayed as a child and went out of their way to endow him with a love of alternative culture. Interested in filmmaking, writing and music, Zeitlin participated in a playwriting camp as a teen and attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut. At that institution, he found a group of like-minded fellow students and formed a collective. Named Court 13 after an abandoned squash court where they used to meet and shoot their earliest endeavors, the participants aimed to produce work that would represent their goals in life. Zeitlin honed his craft with three shorts (including "Glory at Sea," which unfolded in a post-Katrina New Orleans) and a handful of music videos. He also participated in the screenwriting and directing labs offered by the Sundance Institute, where he learned more about each crew member's function and the importance of justifying and clarifying his artistic choices as a writer.In 2006, Zeitlin moved to New Orleans, where he was creatively inspired by the area's unique traditions and appearance, in particular an isolated, perpetually flooded community called Isle de Jean Charles. However, his desire to make a feature-length film was put on the back burner for close to a year following a car accident that broke both Zeitlin's pelvis and hip. He put his recovery time to good use, initiating a screenplay inspired by "Juicy and Delicious," a play by longtime friend Lucy Alibar, who also collaborated on the finished script. With the help of grants, Zeitlin assembled a $1.8 million budget and directed his first movie, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (2012), in Montegut, LA. In addition to the challenges of working in a remote area with meager finances, filming was complicated further by the BP Oil disaster, which occurred on the first day of shooting and necessitated that the production maneuver around the massive clean-up efforts.Utilizing an entirely amateur cast and mostly non-professional crew, Zeitlin fashioned a remarkable coming-of-age movie that some described as being akin to a live action version of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films. Melding devastating poverty and magic realism in visualizing his six-year-old heroine's dreams and imaginings, Zeitlin's truly unique utopian world put everyone on the same social level and made racial equality the norm. He also effectively conveyed the courage of noble people who refuse to be forced out of their homes by either the fury of Mother Nature or the misguided efforts of the government. Zeitlin continued to revise the script during the pre-production stages of location hunting and casting as a way of allowing creative inspiration a bigger outlet than would have been the case with a locked-down screenplay. His choice of handheld Super 16 photography also lent the project an element of grainy realism that blended well with the damp, overgrown surroundings.Zeitlin - who, in addition to all his other duties, also helped compose the score - locked the final version of "Beasts" only two days before the public premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012. The screening was very well received and the picture was awarded the event's Grand Jury Prize. It also enjoyed major critical success when run at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Caméra d'Or prize. Fox Searchlight acquired the U.S. rights and its release in June was greeted with enthusiastically positive notices, with particular attention paid by critics to the remarkable visuals and persuasive performances Zeitlin was able to elicit from his novice cast - especially seven-year-old lead, Quvenzhané Wallis. Such favorable write-ups and passionate word of mouth from moviegoers also made the project a financial success, with a domestic gross of over $10 million. Come awards time in early 2013, Zeitlin's little film that could garnered Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominations, including one for Wallis for Best Actress, the youngest person to ever be nominated.By John Charles