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The Playlist Profile: Benh Zeitlin On Miracles, Fearless Filmmaking And ‘Beasts Of The Southern Wild’

The Playlist By Maris James | The Playlist July 11, 2012 at 2:05PM

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.
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Ben Zeitlin and Quvenzhane Wallis/ BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN

The fact that the film wrapped with no serious injuries felt lucky -- the fact that the boat even floated felt lucky -- but there were other, much larger threats that were miraculously skirted. There were the tornadoes that ripped through New Orleans east while the production was on hold (money ran out more than once), wreaking havoc on the marina where the boat was being stored, and where they left it because any strong current would have broken the vessel into pieces. “It was a funeral procession,” Zeitlin said. They knew there was no way the boat could have survived, and if the boat was gone, there was no way to continue filming. “It wasn’t something you could recreate. It was made of all these things we had found and all these things that people had given us to create this very special shrine. So we assumed it was over.” They passed the Marina’s fence, now uprooted and wrapped into a ball. They passed upturned trailers and flipped boats, then a boat sitting atop an upsidedown trailer. “We drove around that corner of the boat warehouse,” -- the owner of the marina had hidden it behind the building because it was so unsightly -- “and a cheer went up. It was sitting there untouched. Some sort of force protected us from getting destroyed there.”

Glory At Sea

And then they lost all of their footage. When they ran out of money for the second time, Court 13 threw a party at Buffa’s, their local bar/unofficial headquarters/living room, to show footage they’d shot so far, to keep spirits high before leaving town to rustle up more funds. This meant that the giant, moldy, “Katrina-ed” house they were inhabiting (they called it the Hotel Bastardo) where 25-30 people were living at any given time, was left uncharacteristically empty. The collective came home to find the place ransacked, and among the stolen items were the hard drives holding all they had shot for “Glory at Sea.” They immediately returned to the hard drive they had just used for the screening at Buffa’s, which promptly crashed upon loading.

"If it’s big enough, if you’re working hard enough, there’s some force that gets created that brings good things into your life and protects you from getting destroyed."

While Zeitlin returned to New York to try to data-recover the hard drive, members of Court 13 posted fliers around the area offering a reward for the stolen footage. They received a call from the thieves and arranged a no-questions-asked rendezvous at Buffa’s. A couple of very nervous members of the collective arrived with a wad of cash and waited, and as hours passed and no one showed up, they got drunk. And as they got drunk, they began spilling the beans. As word spread around the bar, people got upset -- many of them knew the filmmakers and knew about, or were involved in, the movie. Patrons went home and returned with concealed knives. A shotgun was hidden behind the bar. Eventually, a huge man carrying a bag ducked beneath the doorframe and entered. He stepped aside, revealing a 4’5” transvestite in a mesh shirt, who turned out to be in charge. The exchange went down without trouble, but as the thieves were leaving, Cedric, who plays the father of the narrator in the film, approached them with a shotgun. “If anyone ever goes in that house again,” he said, “they’re gonna have to answer to god.”

But then the luck seemed to end -- abruptly. In April of 2008, on his way to the SXSW Film Festival, just hours before “Glory at Sea” was scheduled to screen, Zeitlin was in a serious car accident. His pelvis was broken in eight places, his hip shattered. “My leg was turned around the wrong way,” he explained. “It felt like we’d used up all of our good karma, like the bubble of protection around the film had burst.” While ‘Glory’ screened, Zeitlin was in surgery. The film went on to win the Wholphin Award, and fellow filmmakers from the festival sent DVDs of their movies to Zeitlin’s hospital room. He was uninsured. The accident left him with $80 thousand in medical bills and an artificial hip.

But even this, in some ways, was fortuitous. After non-stop work, the months of rehabilitation that followed in New York City served as an imposed break. He began to conceptualize “Beasts of the Southern Wild” with childhood friend Lucy Alibar. His time in the hospital, unable to leave, inspired a scene in the film where characters are kept in a clinical setting against their will. His homesickness for New Orleans fueled the project. And eventually, the settlement from the accident helped him pay down the debt he incurred making ‘Glory.’

This article is related to: Benh Zeitlin, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Glory At Sea, The Playlist Profile


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