“Beasts of the Southern Wild” filmmaker Benh Zeitlin is racking up accolades.
The 29-year-old Sunnyside native not only made his first feature-length film, but saw it take top prizes at Sundance, Cannes and other festivals. The film also scored an 86 percent on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
“We never expected the response,” Zeitlin said. “It’s been an amazing thing just getting to kind of take the film to different countries and different cultures and seeing their reactions to this regional film. It’s a dream as an artist.”
The film follows a young child named Hushpuppy, who lives with her father, Wink, in “the Bathtub,” a community in the southern marshlands cut off from the rest of New Orleans. Hushpuppy’s life unravels after a violent storm destroys the community and her father becomes ill. What follows is an imaginative but grounded coming-of-age story of finding the strength to overcome the impediments that life hurls at the worst of times.
Filmed in the harsh bayous of New Orleans, Zeitlin cast first-time actors from the area and completed the film two days before it was to be screened at Sundance.
Zeitlin, who grew up on 48th Street, had like many young kids, an effusive imagination. Akin to a filmmaker creating a visual story, he recalls that he and his friends would pass the time creating imaginary worlds and people in an alleyway near his home as part of what they called “The Never-ending Game.”
“I am always blown away how small but giant place of a world it was for me,” he said about his hometown.
He got his start in film at 6 years of age, when he and his best friend made a Batman movie using his friend’s father’s camera. Making films continued as part of his life into school, where he said anytime he was given a project he would complete it as a film without hesitation.
Yet Zeitlin didn’t always intend to become a filmmaker. He was more interested in music and writing, but realized he could combine all his artistic interests in movies.
“It seemed the medium I could do everything. I could write music, tell visual stories and try to do everything in,” he said. “Film was a kind of place I could create this world and work collaboratively with my friends.”
After graduating high school, he attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he majored in film and continued to make films and immerse himself in the strong artistic community at school. After graduating in 2004, he took a job editing a documentary and working with elementary school kids in the city to help them create short films.
It was after he made a short film, “Glory at Sea,” which he funded by maxing out his credit cards, that he was approached by Cinereach, a nonprofit film funding organization.
He started off wanting to making a feature-length film about people who refuse to leave their homes in Louisiana after a disaster. He took the characters from the one-act play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar (who also cowrote the screenplay.)
Zeitlin was attracted to the “internal story of a young girl losing her father” and a “community losing its place,” and combining those two ideas to make “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is playing in select theaters in New York and locally at the Kew Gardens Cinema.