Benh Zeitlin on directing 'Beasts,' the Oscars and his whirlwind year

Benh Zeitlin has had a whirlwind year, traveling Benh Zeitlin has had a whirlwind year, traveling the world promoting "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and winning major prizes along the way. The 30-year-old, a former Hastings resident, also co-wrote the film's screenplay. He is pictured here at the Andaz Hotel in Manhattan. (Jan. 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

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Less than eight months ago, Benh Zeitlin was eagerly unveiling his first full-length feature, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," to limited audiences in New York and Los Angeles. Today, the 30-year-old director from Hastings is readying himself for the 85th annual Academy Awards, for which he and his film are nominated a staggering four times.

Zeitlin hardly could have imagined the critical praise awaiting him during the months spent working on the film in Louisiana with newcomers Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest best actress nominee ever at 9 years old. But after the film's premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where "Beasts" won the coveted Grand Jury Prize, plus subsequent honors and accolades at Los Angeles, Seattle and Cannes film festivals, "Beasts" became one of the most talked-about films of the year. Now he has the president and first lady gushing about the fantastic drama, and best of all, he's up for best director, best original screenplay and best picture at Sunday night's Oscars.

"It's definitely been the craziest year of my life," Zeitlin told Newsday Westchester at the Andaz Hotel in Manhattan last month.

ON FILMING 'BEASTS'

Unlike other films nominated for best picture, "Beasts" wasn't made as Oscar bait, destined from the get-go to reap major awards and accolades. Rather, it was made outside the film industry with a budget of $1.3 million by a small, close-knit crew that believed in the story Zeitlin wanted to tell, a celebration of people's resilience despite the extraordinary odds against them.

"Beasts" vividly tells the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father in a bayou community that bands together in the wake of a fierce storm that threatens its survival. Zeitlin, who filmed "Beasts" in New Orleans and other locations throughout Louisiana with the filmmaking collective Court 13, noted that the film's story echoes the ethos of how the film was made.

"The collaboration that [made] the film is very much part of what inspire[d] the story of the film," he said. "The way I relate personally to the film ... is that this group of survivors is taking on impossible odds [and] building everything by hand, which is very much a parallel for how we make movies."

Zeitlin said he was inspired to make "Beasts" after moving to New Orleans in 2007.

"I learned so much living there, and from the people there," he said. "Surviving with your joy intact was a really important idea, and I'd never seen anything like that until I went to New Orleans."

GROWING UP IN HASTINGS

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Although Zeitlin lives in New Orleans, he also has strong ties to Westchester County. He and his family moved from Queens to Hastings in the early 1990s, when he was about 10 years old.

As a student at Hastings High School, Zeitlin credited teachers Michael Mahony and Bob Tucker with opening his eyes to the craft of filmmaking. "It was the first introduction to film that I had, sort of learning the basics, [and] a sense of how to watch it as an art form," he said.

In moving to the Westchester County village, he also met a close-knit group of friends with whom he explored his interest in film.

"We didn't know how to drink beer or meet girls, so it was like, on the weekends, 'What are we going to do?' My friend had a video camera, and we had a band. For some reason ... what we did for fun was make movies and make music."

One of those friends was Crockett Doob, whose family also relocated from Queens to Hastings. The two collaborated on a "Batman" movie when they were kids, and as adults they worked together on "Beasts," with Doob, Zeitlin's current roommate, serving as co-editor.

"A lot of the [film's] crew go back like that," Zeitlin said, referring to Court 13, the filmmaking collective he founded while studying at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "It's really kind of a family."

The family connection is also literal: Zeitlin's younger sister, Eliza, worked as a production designer on "Beasts," and his parents, professional folklorists Amanda Dargan and Steve Zeitlin, are his biggest cheerleaders.

"My parents are like single-handedly keeping the print industry alive by mailing everything that is written about it to all their friends," he said with a laugh. "When I go back to Hastings, everyone is really excited about it. Just people I've known my whole life are cheering for [me]."

OSCAR CHANCES AND LIFE AFTER 'BEASTS'

Zeitlin's cheering section has now expanded far beyond Westchester County. He has screened the film worldwide to raves from critics and film festival audiences. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and first lady Michelle Obama also have praised the film, with the latter calling it "beautiful, joyful and devastatingly honest" when she hosted Zeitlin and the film's actors at a question-and-answer panel at the White House last week.

Zeitlin expressed gratitude for all the praise the film has received, especially the acclaim for the Oscar-nominated Wallis.

Before the nominations were announced, Zeitlin said that if Wallis is honored, the nod would be the most meaningful to him, because "she really deserves it." When Newsday Westchester spoke with him on the day of the Oscars announcement, he was similarly exuberant.

"I'm just so proud of her. She's just such a spectacular human being [and] a brilliant actress," he said, noting that he looked at 4,000 people for the lead role and that Wallis, just 5 years old at the time of her casting, stood out. "I just think it's incredible that we managed to find her, and then she created this character. It's sort of this wild underdog story."

Zeitlin also was excited to get the nod for best director, a surprise nomination given that both Ben Affleck of "Argo" and Kathryn Bigelow of "Zero Dark Thirty" were left off the list.

"I was really not prepared for that. Looking at who I was competing with in that category, I just didn't think there was any chance I could be nominated," he said.

When he attends the awards show Sunday, he said he plans to bring one of his favorite collaborators.

"I want to bring my sister," he said. "We've been making art since we were babies. And everything I've ever made I've done with her, and I really want her to be there with me."

Once the awards season comes to an end, Zeitlin said he still won't be finished with "Beasts." The Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans will be hosting an exhibit called "Beyond 'Beasts': The Art of Court 13," from March 8 to June 16, and Zeitlin described the kickoff event -- which will feature dancing, live music and a reading by "Beasts" co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar -- as "kind of our homecoming."

And after a year of firsts, what's next for Zeitlin is his second feature film.

"As soon as I get back home, I'll start the next movie," he said. "There'll be some traveling in Louisiana, sort of trying to find what the next location is. That'll be the next step for me."

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