When I meet with Benh Zeitlin, the 29-year-old director of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” he is on a quest for Thai food. He has been waking up in different hotels, in different cities every couple of days, and the food, he says, is always the same. We weave through the slow Soho crowds in the midst of a pre-storm heatwave. “I forgot about this,” he says, gazing at the mass of tourists. He seems a little dazed, homesick for New Orleans, which this humidity reminds him of. When we arrive at the address the publicist gave us for the Thai restaurant, it is inside a hotel.
Not that he would complain about any of this. The experience of being on a press tour, being ushered and handled, is simply surreal. “I didn’t know this existed,” he says, “I didn’t know this is what happened when people want to see your film.” And he doesn’t know when it will end. “Someone told me not to make any plans until February,” he says. His feature film debut, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was an unequivocal sensation during this year’s film festival season. About a young child facing her father's fading health and an impending environmental disaster in a mythical bayou called “The Bathtub,” the picture earned the Grand Jury Prize at the the Sundance Film Festival, and went on to win the Camera d'Or for the best debut film and the international critics' prize at Cannes. The evening before, after the first New York City public screening of the film, the director’s uncle presented him with a fake Oscar that had Jewish jokes inscribed around its base.
Benh Zeitlin spent his childhood in the lower-middle class enclave of Sunnyside, Queens, jumping around and playing in an alley by his house, scoring his action in his own head with the Batman theme, or sometimes Indiana Jones. He recalls having imaginary friends, and at a very young age not knowing the difference between reality and things he had imagined. His parents are folklorists, and his house was frequently filled with all sorts of people and wild stories. It was normal to come home and find an inner city church choir. The Coney Island freak show were close friends; members squeezed themselves through coat hangers at birthday parties. And it was normal to always be creating something -- stories, puppets, art (his sister, Eliza, an artist in her own right, is his “visual half,” largely responsible for the aesthetics in her brother’s films). He made his first movie at 6 years old. During his teenage years in Hastings on Hudson, every weekend involved band practice and the making of a short film with his friends.
The PR journey he’s on now -- the luxury hotels and red carpets in particular -- seems somewhat antithetical to the projects that have brought him here, to the way he (and his many collaborators, whom he refers to as a family) has made these films. They do everything the hard way, on purpose -- as the website for his filmmaking collective, Court 13, states, they “[value] ‘do it yourself’ not as a matter of financial circumstance but as a spiritual requirement; each film poses huge, painstaking challenges that defy the gods, nature, and just plain common sense.” The stories of the conception and execution of these projects are themselves movie-worthy. Both ‘Beasts’ and his prior film, the (long) short film (25min) “Glory At Sea,” (watch it here) were labors of love, magnetic happenings around which communities formed, composed of childhood and college friends who traveled to Louisiana to participate, and of locals who took interest and became deeply invested. He compares movies to planets -- creating projects so large that they develop their own gravity, and are steered by unseen forces. Zeitlin compares it to a sports team on a streak -- building momentum, buoyed by the will of fans -- cupping his hands into a planet shape and using a crevice in the tabletop to illustrate its karmic course.
“Glory At Sea” tells the story of survivors, people left behind in a post-apocalyptic, post-Katrina landscape, who throw revelry in the face of tragedy and who go searching for lost loved ones sleeping beneath the waves. They travel on a boat built from debris and treasured objects that survived the hurricane -- as the film’s young narrator says, “that thing that made it through the storm that had some luck in it, that may help find the person just by its own magic.” The production was often dangerous -- the boat, a skeletal, literal pile of junk -- broken boards, a rust-bitten car carcass, fluttering rags, a tilting, dilapidated bird cage, an ice skate, a Christmas tree stand, more -- resting upon empty blue metal chemical barrels, trailing a brokedown wooden bed and a clawfoot bathtub, looks as though it could fall apart at any moment. It’s a beautiful vessel in its own way, the triumphant collaboration of grieving people, and its precariousness is thrilling to behold, particularly as it begins to sink beneath its boozy, heartsick passengers.