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

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

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.

Not that he would complain about any of this. The experience of being on a press tour, being ushered and handled, is simply surreal. “I didn’t know this existed,” he says, “I didn’t know this is what happened when people want to see your film.” And he doesn’t know when it will end. “Someone told me not to make any plans until February,” he says. His feature film debut, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was an unequivocal sensation during this year’s film festival season. About a young child facing her father’s fading health and an impending environmental disaster in a mythical bayou called “The Bathtub,” the picture earned the Grand Jury Prize at the the Sundance Film Festival, and went on to win the Camera d’Or for the best debut film and the international critics’ prize at Cannes. The evening before, after the first New York City public screening of the film, the director’s uncle presented him with a fake Oscar that had Jewish jokes inscribed around its base.

Benh Zeitlin spent his childhood in the lower-middle class enclave of Sunnyside, Queens, jumping around and playing in an alley by his house, scoring his action in his own head with the Batman theme, or sometimes Indiana Jones. He recalls having imaginary friends, and at a very young age not knowing the difference between reality and things he had imagined. His parents are folklorists, and his house was frequently filled with all sorts of people and wild stories. It was normal to come home and find an inner city church choir. The Coney Island freak show were close friends; members squeezed themselves through coat hangers at birthday parties. And it was normal to always be creating something — stories, puppets, art (his sister, Eliza, an artist in her own right, is his “visual half,” largely responsible for the aesthetics in her brother’s films). He made his first movie at 6 years old. During his teenage years in Hastings on Hudson, every weekend involved band practice and the making of a short film with his friends.

The PR journey he’s on now — the luxury hotels and red carpets in particular — seems somewhat antithetical to the projects that have brought him here, to the way he (and his many collaborators, whom he refers to as a family) has made these films. They do everything the hard way, on purpose — as the website for his filmmaking collective, Court 13, states, they “[value] ‘do it yourself’ not as a matter of financial circumstance but as a spiritual requirement; each film poses huge, painstaking challenges that defy the gods, nature, and just plain common sense.” The stories of the conception and execution of these projects are themselves movie-worthy. Both ‘Beasts’ and his prior film, the (long) short film (25min) “Glory At Sea,” (watch it here) were labors of love, magnetic happenings around which communities formed, composed of childhood and college friends who traveled to Louisiana to participate, and of locals who took interest and became deeply invested. He compares movies to planets — creating projects so large that they develop their own gravity, and are steered by unseen forces. Zeitlin compares it to a sports team on a streak — building momentum, buoyed by the will of fans — cupping his hands into a planet shape and using a crevice in the tabletop to illustrate its karmic course.

“Glory At Sea” tells the story of survivors, people left behind in a post-apocalyptic, post-Katrina landscape, who throw revelry in the face of tragedy and who go searching for lost loved ones sleeping beneath the waves. They travel on a boat built from debris and treasured objects that survived the hurricane — as the film’s young narrator says, “that thing that made it through the storm that had some luck in it, that may help find the person just by its own magic.” The production was often dangerous — the boat, a skeletal, literal pile of junk — broken boards, a rust-bitten car carcass, fluttering rags, a tilting, dilapidated bird cage, an ice skate, a Christmas tree stand, more — resting upon empty blue metal chemical barrels, trailing a brokedown wooden bed and a clawfoot bathtub, looks as though it could fall apart at any moment. It’s a beautiful vessel in its own way, the triumphant collaboration of grieving people, and its precariousness is thrilling to behold, particularly as it begins to sink beneath its boozy, heartsick passengers.

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.”

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.

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.’

I saw ‘Beasts’ at its first public screening in New York City, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The theater was packed. Zeitlin’s extended family took up at least a couple of rows. And it was a breathless, deeply affecting experience. People all around me cried in the dark. It was hard to stop crying when the lights came up.

This is a film that feels, at least right now, shameful to analyze, for the risk of undoing its magic. It is a primal story about losing the thing that made you, whether that be a parent or a place. “Magic” is a word you hear often in reference to ‘Beasts.’ “Heart” is another. The way ‘Beasts’ was made has infused it with heart and with a feeling of striking authenticity, much of which has to do with the total absence of professional actors in the film. Parts were cast with gut feelings. The script was altered to include characters that fit into the movie in a “spiritual” way, tailored, to some extent, to the souls within it. (Quvenzhané Wallis, the then-six-year-old playing Hushpuppy, who was chosen over almost 4,000 other girls for the role, actually sat with Zeitlin at the computer and changed all her dialogue until it was composed of words she would actually say.) And that extends through to most of the crew. As Michael Gottwald, one of the film’s producers, explains, “Benh works with people he likes, rather than people who are the most skilled at a particular thing.” He makes sure that the people working on his movies are there because they’re chasing a creative pursuit, and not because they want to fatten their resume or get ahead of others. The project at hand is a labor of love for all involved. And the result, says Zeitlin, is a group of exceedingly kind people — a necessity, in his mind, when you come into a community to make a movie.

And that begins with a lot of teasing. ‘Beasts’ came about because Benh wanted to make a film about holdouts, people who continue to inhabit a place after they’re told it’s no longer habitable. He looked at a map and found roads that seemed to run right into the gulf, and he began to drive down these roads. At the very end of one, he found Isle de Jean Charles, a vibrant delta community that inspired the setting of The Bathtub, the fictional settlement in ‘Beasts.’ In the film, The Bathtub is an off-the-grid, broken paradise sealed off from the rest of civilization by levees, which protect the world outside but cause massive flooding within. Once they discovered this place of inspiration, Zeitlin and some of his collaborators began to hang out there. At first they were made fun of a lot. But as they took the ribbing well and continued to hang around, they began to receive dinner invitations. Then people became excited about the movie that was going to be made. They were embraced. “I have my own cajun mama and daddy there,” he says, talking about the couple who eventually hosted him for much of his time on location.

Gottwald describes Zeitlin as a “perfectionist in the best possible way,” someone with a very clear vision who knows exactly what he likes and does not like, who seems not to experience ambivalence about anything. And yet, the way he makes films, at least at first glance, would seem to be a surrendering of control. At a Q&A session following a Film Society of Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films screening of ‘Beasts,’ Zeitlin explained that every chaotic element was embraced, and every possible risky choice was made. “Preproduction is like this little animal that you’re raising, and it’s like a tiger, and you raise it until it’s way bigger and stronger and faster than you, and you can’t control it at all. You just set it loose and then you have to chase it. And so for everybody that worked on this film, it was like an athletic event. A safari hunt. With this running beast that you’re trying not to be destroyed by…it’s always fun” he said, adding, “the movies are secondary. The tiger chase comes first.” One of the aspects of his personality that best facilitates filmmaking, in his mind, is an absence of fear, something he says most members of Court 13 have in common.

Indeed, one of his greatest skills as a director is not taming the chaotic elements of production, but harnessing their power. Zeitlin and his collaborators chose to cast Dwight Henry, the kind, affable co-owner and chef at the Buttermilk Drop in New Orleans, the bakery they visited several times a day while running casting out of an abandoned school across the street. They had an excellent, Juilliard-trained actor in the running, and Mr. Henry (as they often call him) turned them down several times, but the filmmakers ultimately felt that Mr. Henry was the best spiritual fit, and persisted and made concessions until he agreed to participate. They cast him as Wink, one of the film’s two leads and perhaps its biggest force of nature. It meant several weeks of working with Mr. Henry on a baker’s schedule. A professional actor was brought from New York to teach him technique in the middle of the night, as Henry rolled dough and threw donuts in the fryer. Gottwald helped him rehearse between midnight and 4 or 5 a.m. (Zeitlin jokes that all their scripts were covered in jelly). Zeitlin would arrive and converse with Mr. Henry from 4 to 6 a.m., asking him about his life, telling him about his own life. Mr. Henry enjoyed their conversations but didn’t understand how they would come into play until the movie was shooting. Benh was building trust, and finding Wink. The choice to go with Dwight Henry paid off enormously. Gottwald says, “It felt like the best version of what Benh and me and everyone else are trying to do.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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