Benh Zeitlin on Oscar chances for 'Beasts,' Quvenzhane Wallis

Benh Zeitlin, the director of "Beasts of the Benh Zeitlin, the director of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," grew up in Hastings. He's pictured here at the Andaz Hotel in Manhattan. (Jan. 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

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"Beasts of the Southern Wild," directed by former Hastings resident Benh Zeitlin, is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2012. Shot on location in New Orleans with a crew that included Zeitlin's friends and his sister, "Beasts" vividly combines fantasy and reality in telling the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father in a fantastical bayou community.

Zeitlin has had a whirlwind year, traveling the world promoting the movie and winning major prizes at the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals along the way. The 30-year-old, who also co-wrote the film's screenplay, is awaiting Thursday morning's announcements of Oscar nominations.

"Beasts" is a front-runner in the Best Picture category and Zeitlin is up for nods in three categories: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. In addition, his film's two stars -- Dwight Henry and 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis -- are also eligible to receive nominations in acting categories. Wallis, who like Henry had no acting experience, is receiving a lot of buzz for her performance and is expected to receive a nomination. If she does, she'd be the youngest Best Actress nominee in Academy Awards history.

On Tuesday, Zeitlin spoke with Newsday Westchester about the possibility of Oscar recognition and the making of the film.

Oscar nominations come out in two days. What would getting an Oscar nod for this film mean to you?

I'm excited. It's been so fun just getting to be a part of [awards season] as much as we already have. Getting to meet filmmakers you've admired your entire life, and then have the people who essentially taught [you] how to make movies watching your film for the Oscars is an amazing thing. ... For the industry to recognize us, that's felt great, and if we get nominations that's going to be even crazier.

Which Oscar nomination would be most meaningful to you?

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[Quvenzhané] deserves it. In a way, she's so young, if they don't give it to her this time, there'll be a next time and the rest of her career.

It's so rare that a kid from south Louisiana gets a chance to act, period. ... I don't know if she'll want to be an actress [long-term] -- she'll grow up and do what she wants to do. ... It's like a really beautiful underdog story, so I'm hoping for her the most, I think.

There has been debate about whether Quvenzhané deserves accolades for her performance due to her age, saying that she's too young to truly be acting. How do you respond to the criticism?

I heard people say she can't be acting. But I don't think [they] understand what acting is. Acting is playing make-believe, essentially. I think what people are referring to is when you're an adult, to be an actor, you have to conquer all this pretense you build up over years. There's this whole separation between yourself and your feelings, yourself and your heart. And great actors find a way to get past all that and conquer it.

She doesn't have to do that because she's so real, and she's so herself, and she doesn't have any pretense and she's so close to her feelings. ... I looked at 4,000 people for that role and I'd never seen a kid who could act like that. It's a miraculous thing and it's talent. It's not like she just wandered in front of a camera and that happened.

Can you talk about New Orleans' influence on the film?

I moved to New Orleans making [2008's "Sea of Glory,"] the short film I made before "Beasts." ... I really think of the place as one of the authors of the film. I learned so much living there, and from the people there. And kind of the heart of the movie is about this survival, and what it takes to be joyous. Surviving with your joy intact was a really important idea, and I'd never seen anything like that until I went to New Orleans.

What did you learn from making "Beasts" that you will take with you on future projects?

Coming out of my short, we did a lot of second-guessing of our process. We're working with our friends, hiring people based on who they were as [opposed] to what their experience was. And I think we were afraid of that. ... [But] we would never have made it through [the making of "Beasts"] without people who cared about each other more deeply than a professional sense. And we knew that having family together and knew that sticking with our people really brought something beautiful to the movie.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" was released in June. It's available for viewing on Video on Demand, DVD and Blu-ray.

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