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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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Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Zeitlin looks at the process of casting Wink as another instance of invisible forces at work. “We were planning to cast an actor, and all these things were going wrong with those actors. Something was saying, ‘listen to this, this is a sign, you’re going down the wrong path here with these actors. Use to your instincts, go back to your principles.’ Then we realized, ‘Oh it’s Dwight, who we’ve been buying donuts from every morning.’ He was there the whole time... 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...You feel like you’re protected when you’re doing it right. And when you’re doing things wrong, things go actually wrong.”

Zeitlin's concern about his next project and the anxieties of getting bigger: "I worry about trying to fight off this very fearful, insurance company culture that the rest of the world has."

Audiences and critics have been shocked by the strength of the performances of the film’s first-time actors, something Zeitlin was able to foster by putting himself, both emotionally and physically, in the places his characters needed to be. “If you’re going to ask your actor to be vulnerable, you have to lead the way and be vulnerable yourself. You always have to jump in the water first. Anywhere we’re going, if it’s at all a dangerous or hostile environment, if you’re not willing to put yourself in that position, there’s no way you should ask anyone else to do it. So I always try to go there first, and that translates itself to emotional levels as well.” When an audience member at a screening at Brooklyn’s Academy Of Music in June asked Benh how he was able to get his two first-time actors to cry in one particularly crushing scene, he explained, “It wasn’t just them crying, was the secret. I was probably six inches from Quvenzhané weeping, the boom operator was weeping, the cameraman was weeping, it was a real thing, we all knew this was the moment, we all had to go there together. She was the last one to cry on the entire set. It was really thinking about that moment of losing a parent, and we really went there...we knew that we weren’t going to use this one feeling more than one time, and we knew that was the time when we had to use it. It was real rough. It wrecked us doing that scene.”
 

When we leave the restaurant, thunder shakes the air. Quarter-sized drops of rain start smacking the pavement. “Good,” he says, somewhat defiantly. He wants to stay out in the storm. But he has more press to do, and before the downpour really starts he’s ushered back into his hotel. He looks a little disappointed, but he’s a man on a mission. As he explains on another occasion, “I’m hoping [this press tour] is an adventure that results in a lot of people seeing the movie. I want people to understand the film and engage in it and feel it. And I hope it results in us being able to protect the methods we used, that the whole thing will be elevated to the next level as opposed to it just being Hollywood picking five people. I want it to be that the whole group gets the boost, where we get leverage to make bigger stories. That sort of keeps me happy in the morning.”

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

He doesn’t think fame, if it comes, will change him, or the rest of Court 13 for that matter. “We’re all happy,” he says, “we’re not looking for anything, we don’t need anything.” His concern lies within the possibility of being more closely monitored the next time around. “So much of what we do looks scary, even if it’s safe. The way parents raise children in Louisiana is to be fearless and tough and to try things and be reckless and wild. But if we get parents coming from other places, we’re going to get this other type of parenting that’s all about fear. So that worries me, trying to fight off this very fearful, insurance company culture that the rest of the world has.” Expectations about festival performance are a concern as well -- not in terms of outside pressure exactly, but for the mere possibility of festival success being present in any of the filmmakers’ minds. “We always think about the audience of the film being the people that are in the film and the people that are helping to make the film. I want to make sure we stay true to that group and that group only. I want us to stay in that bubble, which is going to be a little more difficult with knowing that as soon as the next movie comes out it’s going to be this national, global thing. But there’s a whole series of new tools and superpowers we get to have too that I think will help us make better films.”

The next time I see Benh Zeitlin, right after a stop in Louisiana, he seems transformed. ‘Beasts’ has just premiered there, and he is lighter, happier, relaxed. One screening took place in a New Orleans theater that had been closed since Katrina. The other took place in a bayou rec center, where Rooftop Films came and set up a screen inside a basketball court. “It couldn’t have gone any better,” he said, grinning. “600 people were there, most of whom had never seen an independent film. Babies were crying, people talked on their cell phones. It was exactly the way the movie should be seen.”

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


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