How Benh Zeitlin Made Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Oscar nominee for Best Director transformed filmmaking as he assembled a new myth out of Hurricane Katrina

(Ethan Hill)
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Young Benh befriended a contortionist called the Elastic Man; Screwy Louie, the “Human Blockhead” with a talent for hammering nails up his nose; and Otis Jordan, formerly Otis the Frog Boy, whose act was to roll and light cigarettes using only his lips and tongue. “To me, unique perspectives and self-sufficient lifestyles are sacred things that should be fought for and preserved,” he says. “So-called ‘eccentrics’ were my earliest heroes, and one of my biggest influences.”

Biggest of all were his father and mother, who oversee City Lore, a non-profit cultural-heritage center in Manhattan. Longtime advocates for the dispossessed, they taught him to look for beauty in the tales and characters at the interstices of contemporary life. “My parents believe art isn’t just confined to museums and textbooks, but lives in everyday communication,” he says. “They found poetry in the jokes told around the dinner table, the pitches that street vendors make to sell T-shirts, in murder ballads from the Old West.”

As a staff folklorist for the Smithsonian, Steven had once recreated an old-time traveling medicine show for a film shoot in Bailey, North Carolina. Later, young Benh and his sister staged puppet shows and made home movies. “I was always interested in epic tales and characters,” he says. In his first film project—made with a friend at age 5—he played Superman. His entire family pitched in on the production.

Twice a year the clan made pilgrimages to Dargan’s rural South Carolina homestead for a get-together known as the Winter Games or Summer Games. “We always felt it was important to maintain a sense of ritual and touch base with the past,” she says. Scores of relatives would gather for a day of sack races, skeet shooting and storytelling picnics. The chicken chase later became the subject of Benh’s college entrance essay, while the pig roasts would anticipate the exuberant crayfish boils in Beasts.

Eventually, on the advice of a summer camp counselor, Zeitlin enrolled in the film program at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He and a bunch of like-minded classmates formed Court 13, a collective named after the abandoned squash court it commandeered. Members of the court included Beasts producers Dan Janvey and Michael Gottwald, and Ray Tintori, the film’s special effects wizard. “Court 13 is more of an idea than an organization,” says Gottwald. “We’re dedicated to making films as a community about communities on the edge of the world. Limitations are motivating forces for us. We love to bust through challenges.”

It was on the Court 13 soundstage that Zeitlin mounted the stop-motion animation for Egg, his senior thesis project for cinema studies. A hallucinatory retelling of Moby Dick—with a yellow yolk standing in for the white whale—Egg won the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Animation Short at the 2005 Slamdance Film Festival, a Utah rival to Sundance.

After graduation, Zeitlin spent time in the Czech Republic and apprenticed under animators working with Jan Svankmajer, a surrealist renowned for using familiar, unremarkable objects for deeply disquieting ends. During the summer of 2005, Zeitlin more or less lived on a park bench in Prague, trying and failing to find the right place to shoot a short film about two lovers—one above the water and one below. He hoped to shoot this soggy saga on a Greek island.

But while following the devastating path of Hurricane Katrina on his cellphone, Zeitlin had a Eureka moment: He would tie the story to the storm. So he and his Court 13 cohorts made their way to New Orleans to make Glory at Sea, a heartfelt fantasy about a group of mourners who build a raft out of debris and rescue their loved ones trapped beneath the waves.

What was supposed to be a five-minute film with a month-long shoot and a budget of $5,000 snowballed into a 25-minute epic that spanned a year and a half and cost $100,000, including $40,000 that Zeitlin amassed in credit card debt. Glory premiered at the 2008 South by Southwest Festival in Austin, but Zeitlin never got to the screening. The car in which he was a passenger was rear-ended by a drunk driver, shattering his hip and pelvis. During Zeitlin’s six-month convalescence, an insurance settlement and the proceeds from a benefit show held by fellow indie filmmakers allowed him to clear his debt.

While making Glory, Zeitlin took field trips to the marshes at the bottom of the delta. On one expedition he stumbled on Isle de Jean Charles, a fishing village he calls “the last chunk of land before you fall into the water, a tenacious community that refuses to be pushed inland.” To Zeitlin, Isle de Jean Charles seemed to have been airlifted out of Werner Herzog’s La Soufrière, a 1977 documentary about the end of the world. In that film, set on an abandoned Caribbean island, a native man chooses to stay put in the face of a looming volcanic eruption.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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