Just over a year after Beasts of the Southern Wild had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, First Lady Michelle Obama invited the cast and crew to the White House to screen and discuss the movie with a group of middle school and high school students.
As the conversation drew to a close, Director Benh Zeitlin had one last thing to impress upon the students,“Stick with your friends,” he said, “Doing what you want in life is a lot of times just doing things with the people that you love.”
From his childhood partner in creativity, sister Eliza Zeitlin, to playwriting pen pal, Lucy Alibar, Benh is quick to credit the success of his first feature to the tight knit clan of friends, family and neighbors that made up the film’s crew. But like any ship headed toward unchartered waters, Beasts was a collective effort to realize the vision at its helm. Anyone on the film’s crew can tell you that Zeitlin’s fearless leadership deserves to be recognized with an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
A New York native, Benh Zeitlin was exposed to the arts at an early age. His parents, Amanda Dargan and Steven Zeitlin are folklorists who founded the organization, City Lore, which strives to preserve the rich, cultural history of New York City. In an interview with Riverstowns Daily, Mr. Zeitlin explained that family was the centerpiece of a household where when one sibling was grounded, it often meant the entire family was staying in to watch a movie. Benh’s parents stressed the importance of imagination, fostering creativity and appreciating the unique and sometimes forgotten.
Benh recalled to the blog Ideas Tap:
Art is what I’ve done for fun for most of my life: making puppet shows and writing music and telling stories. One of my friends from middle school had a video camera, so Friday was the day that we’d make a movie, and then Saturday was band practice, and then Sunday was something else. It took a long time for me to figure out that I needed to choose what I wanted to pursue. I wasn’t born with a camera in my hand, I certainly wasn’t making things that were any good most of my life, but it was always a part of my life.
Benh’s early interest in art, writing and music eventually lead him to enroll in Wesleyan’s film studies program where he would meet fellow film friends and future collaborators Michael Gottwald (Producer), Dan Janvey (Producer), and Ray Tintori (2nd Unit: Aurochs & Special Effects) among others. At Wesleyan, Benh focused his studies on animation and with the collective effort of like minded classmates, formed the filmmaking group, Court 13. In his senior year, he animated and shot his senior thesis, Egg, on the Court 13 'soundstage', an abandoned squash court where they got their name.
The short premiered at the 2005 Slamdance Festival and went on to win the Grand Jury Award for Best Animation.
Upon graduation, Benh moved to the Czech Republic to apprentice under Jan Svankmajer, "a surrealist [animator] renowned for using familiar, unremarkable objects for deeply disquieting ends." Behn recalled to Smithsonian Magazine that he spent much of that summer in 2005 under a park bench developing a story about two lovers divided by their respective homes on land and in the sea. His initial idea was to set the mythic romance somewhere off the Greek coast but out of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Benh had an epiphany. He would somehow merge his original story with inspiration fueled by the Louisiana storm.
In fact, New Orleans was a place that had long ago made an impression on Benh. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, he explained:
I remember going to New Orleans when I was 12 or 13 years old and making a pledge that I was gonna come back for good...I have little glimpses of what I remember from that trip. I remember very specifically I was too young to get into any of the bars but I was walking down the street and someone saw that I was looking in from the window, a guitar player. And he came outside and played guitar, solo, for me, outside. And I remember feeling like I'd never seen this anywhere before and it made me think this is the type of creativity I want to live and be a part of.
That year, Benh rallied his Court 13 cohorts and set off to Louisiana to shoot the short film, Glory at Sea. While working on Glory, Benh had the opportunity to explore the outer edges of the Louisiana delta and was particularly struck by a small fishing village, the Isle de Jean Charles in Montegut. He described the area as “the last chunk of land before you fall into the water, a tenacious community that refuses to be pushed inland.” This setting would serve as the catalyst for what would eventually become Beasts of the Southern Wild.
In 2006, Benh and a few friends were on a road trip headed Austin, Texas where Glory at Sea was set to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, when a drunk driver derailed those plans. He rear ended Benh's car at a stop sign and the accident left Benh bedridden for nearly 8 months. Though the long road to recovery was trying, it did allow him time to focus on what he wanted to work on next. He had just begun to conceive of a fictional place called the Bathtub set along the Louisiana bayou and decided to reach out to his old friend Lucy Alibar to help him write a script about.
For the next four years, Benh lived and breathed Beasts, writing, scouting and casting. He lived in a trailer behind his friend's house on the bayou through the duration of his creative process, living his believe in never separating "from the stories we're making and the lives we're living".
From the start, Benh never allowed obvious challenges to get in the way of his vision. Whether it was taking the risk of casting non-actors, shooting on water with animals or relying on the lead performance of a six year old child, Benh was committed to his creative choices. He told Smithsonian Magazine:
The culture of filmmaking is antagonistic toward chaos. Most movies are designed to maximize order and structure. But if you come into a production with a preordained vision of how everything is going to be, you risk squeezing out spontaneity and ending up with this sanitized thing. I see my role as guiding the ship without controlling it too tightly, discovering the film by making it.
As Beastsheaded into production in the spring of 2010 in Montegut, Lousiana, Benh's 'stick with your friends' mantra was evident in the crew he had assembled. The night before the first day of production he urged his crew to take a moment and appreciate the fact that they were all together in one place. "It's an incredibly beautiful thing to be with you guys," he said.
He explained to BlackBook magazine why the collective filmmaking experience was such a large part of his process:
I really love collaboration more than anything, and I love other people's creativity and the way that shapes and changes things. I never want to make a film that's just what I imagine and then execute it; I want a process to change what it is I imagined and become something else through the creativity of all these other people.
Benh is described by the The New York Times as possessing an “intuitive way of letting real people and places work their way into the mythical stories of his imagination.”
The critical praise and more recently, the Oscar nomination has no doubt launched Benh onto the Hollywood radar. But don't expect him to be leaving New Orleans any time soon. One of the most unexpected triumphs for Benh and the Beasts team has been opening the door for more unconventional ways of storytelling and filmmaking. He told the Wall Street Journal:
There’s a lot of filmmakers who are trying to make films in places other than Los Angeles and New York, who are trying to make films in new ways. Us, working with talent that was local instead of working with people that were famous, and sort of trying to spread film outside of the boxes it’s existed in for a long time. To know that you can do things that way and that it’s not minor league baseball, that you can actually be on stage with the biggest films is a real recognition that there’s more than one way to do this and I really hope it’s something that can help other independent filmmakers who want to do things differently in the future.
Eventually, the plan is to head back to New Orleans and start writing, to keep the "family together and work with all the same people and keep on making movies in the way that we love." But for now, whether it has been traveling the world or meeting his childhood filmmaking heroes on the awards circuit, Benh has demonstrated that he continues to be incredibly humbled and appreciative of the experiences that Beasts' success has afforded him.
We're so thrilled for Benh and his well deserved Best Director nomination, not only for his fearless leadership under pressure but for rallying and inspiring a community to transform a vision into a living, breathing, cinematic Beast. We are humbled to count him as one of our friends.