In 2008, while doing research for what would become his first feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin climbed inside the pickup truck he had purchased for $500 and drove down each of the five roads leading to the bayou’s edge about 80 miles south of New Orleans. At the end of one of those roads he discovered the Isle de Jean Charles, a remote fishing village made up of a swampy enclave of about 20 shacks connected by planked walkways over brackish water. Mattresses patched sagging bridges, discarded refrigerators served as wading pools, and dead cypress trees loomed like skeletons.
“I got chills, because I had been trying to write about holdouts at the end of the world, and I sensed that this was truly the last stand,” Zeitlin said of his post-Hurricane Katrina mindset. “It was almost as if there was a different kind of air there; the atmosphere was so salty that everything rusted, and all the dead trees and shattered houses had this incredibly apocalyptic feel. [In another town], I asked someone why they didn’t try to replant the population somewhere else, and they said, ‘We were made by the marsh; we’re like this exotic plant that can’t grown anywhere else.’ ”
Zeitlin thought about the dying towns and their stalwart residents, and how they reminded him of the characters in a play by his childhood friend Lucy Alibar titled “Juicy and Delicious,” in which a child struggles to achieve a state of grace after he learns his previously robust father is dying.
“I realized I had two stories that were both circling around this one emotion: What do you do when the thing that made you starts to die in front of you? And how do you survive the loss of the things that created you — whether a community or a parent?”
The result is Zeitlin’s haunting, operatic independent film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a fable about a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who is pondering her place in the universe as her father ails and her harsh but utopian hamlet is threatened by a raging storm. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the Camera d’Or at Cannes and has four Independent Spirit Award nominations and is now enjoying Oscar buzz alongside the likes of such major studio features as “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Along the way, it’s joined the ranks of a growing number of acclaimed films (think “Life of Pi” and “The Tree of Life”) that tackle spiritual concerns onscreen.
Zeitlin, 30, called in for an interview from the stairwell of the New York Public Library, where he retreats to work on projects whenever he visits his native New York. His home these days is a rundown house on the outskirts of a construction site in the upper ninth ward of New Orleans, where, he said, his used car recently died. “I’ve pretty much lived in varying forms of shanties or shacks since I moved down there [around 2006],” he said.
The heroine of “Beasts” is left homeless when a hurricane destroys her detritus-filled hovel; only on the precipice of destruction does she come into a kind of spiritual enlightenment, Zeitlin said. “An important moment is when she regards the funeral pyre that is cremating her father and watching the sparks fly out into the air,” said Zeitlin, who directed the film and co-authored the script with Alibar. “She realizes that just because she cannot see them anymore, they have not disappeared — in fact, that nothing disappears, but things live on in different ways. It’s her understanding that while both her father and her community are going to be gone from the earth, the wisdom passed down from them is internalized in her, and she is now the vessel that will carry that forward into the future. She starts to feel like the intangible parts of the universe are taking care of her, as opposed to trying to destroy her, and that moment of enlightenment is related to visions of what God is.”
The funeral scene was influenced by Jewish thought, Zeitlin said — specifically the midrash of two ships, one leaving the harbor as another heads for shore, which suggests that one should rejoice over the returning ship, just as one should celebrate the death of a righteous man. “It’s one of my favorite pieces of wisdom,” Zeitlin said.
Zeitlin’s parents, both folklorists, celebrated all kinds of wisdom and fables; they studied carnival barkers, traveling medicine shows and, during frequent trips to Coney Island, they jotted down histories of the residents of the local freak show. Zeitlin remembers hanging out with a contortionist called the Elastic Man, who could slither his way through a coat hanger, as well as Otis the Frog Boy, who rolled up and lit cigarettes with his mouth.
“The myth in my own family is that we had basically one relative who escaped the pogroms in Russia in a hay cart,” said Zeitlin, whose father is Jewish and mother was raised Protestant in North Carolina. “My father very much studied Jewish culture and mythology, and he wrote several compilations of Jewish stories, folktales and jokes. He was always reinventing Jewish customs and making sure that the tradition was very much part of our lives. Every Shabbat we all had to bring a reading or some piece of wisdom we’d discovered during the week, along with a ritual where we would remember all the people we had lost.”
Not long after his backyard bar mitzvah, Zeitlin traveled with his family to New Orleans, which he found to be “an almost supernatural place where both death and joy are in the air.
“All Jews are obsessed with death, right,” he added, only half joking. “It’s recalling all the people before you who have died, and using their knowledge in your own life.”
Zeitlin moved to New Orleans after graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, initially to make a short film, “Glory at Sea,” and then to embark upon “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” He began writing the film several years ago while recovering from a shattered pelvis after a drunk driver rammed his car as he was on his way to a film festival. When he could walk again, he returned to Isle de Jean Charles, hanging out with his laptop at the town’s marina and interviewing locals, who initially hazed him as an outsider.
Over seven weeks in 2010, his largely improvised production came together in 100-degree heat, amid swarming flies and mosquitoes, with sets cobbled together, in part, from abandoned scrap metal. After Zeitlin’s pickup truck exploded in a fiery maelstrom, his crew transformed the charred shell into the boat in which Hushpuppy and her father traverse the swamp in the film. Zeitlin persevered even after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred on the first day of production, jeopardizing the locals as well as the movie.
The shoot, which took place in 20 locations, proved to be an exercise in independent filmmaking at its most extreme — which is why the low-key Zeitlin particularly appreciates his movie’s Oscar buzz. “It’s certainly not why I make films,” he said, “but any time a film gets recognition that was made outside of the film industry, the more leverage it gives to other filmmakers who are trying to tell stories in ways that are unconventional. So it’s just trying to forge that space in the world.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox Searchlight.