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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After his visit, Zeitlin resolved to spin a yarn about holdouts. “I wanted to celebrate people living on the precipice of destruction, hanging onto and fighting for their homes,” he says. He also wanted to examine how it felt to lose a way of life, a culture or, for that matter, a parent, and “how you respond emotionally to survive that.’’

The huge emotional response to Beasts has not gone unnoticed by movie studios, whose overtures to Zeitlin and his collective have so far been held at bay. “They want us,” he says, “but they’re not getting through.” Though Zeitlin is reluctant to discuss his next project, he will say that the story unfolds in “a place where aging operates like a variable, where people can age rapidly or very slowly.”

An immodestly budgeted blockbuster this won’t be. Zeitlin fears that by going Hollywood, he would almost surely have to sacrifice his treasured authenticity. “At Court 13, we’re attempting to create art within our own system by our own special code,” he says. “We want to keep the family intact, generate original material and tell our own stories.”

He quotes the fashion photographer Bill Cunningham: “If you don’t take their money, they can’t tell you what to do.”

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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