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Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, has so far cleaned up on the festival circuit, taking home grand jury and cinematography awards from Sundance, the Camera d’Or at Cannes, the audience award at the L.A. Fest and the Golden Space Needle prize Seattle. On the afternoon before adding two more to his tally — the Cartier Revelation and Grand Prize at Deauville — Zeitlin talks travel, international appeal and how he plans to keep his team together.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve been on the festival circuit for months now. Are you going insane?
Zeitlin: I’m in a different place every couple of days, it’s true. After the U.S. press tour with Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, which was madness, I’ve been all over the place: Odessa, Sarajevo, Guanajuato, Berlin, now here, and it continues. I’m going to Belgium (for the Flanders International Film Festival), Zurich, San Sebastian, London, back to France for the release. … I have a solid stretch of flights and countries ahead of me, and I don’t get home for real until March.
THR: Has the international response been markedly different from the reception in the U.S.?
Zeitlin: Well the further from Louisiana you go, the more the film plays either as a fantasy about a made up place, or much more broadly, as an allegory for American decline. This is interesting because within America, Louisiana is almost like a self-contained island.
THR: What’s behind this?
Zeitlin: People ask me a lot why I think the film is connecting so broadly. I feel like in the modern world, people’s connection to their own culture and history is very tenuous. It’s not just the threat of climate-based catastrophe like in Louisiana or Japan, but you also see yourgrandmother’s garden turning into a Jamba Juice. So there’s an erasure of home, with individual cultures under threat of globalization. That’s a universal issue and I think people everywhere are satisfied by seeing heroes fight for that history and culture. I feel it when I go back home to New York, too: my old bar, Yogi’s, the bear bar, is now a Pinkberry. But Louisiana has fought that very effectively. My parents are folklorists and as kids we visited lots ofcities. I remember New Orleans immediately striking me. I was like 13 years old when I first visited, and from then until I moved there to make my short in2008, New Orleans is where I wanted to be. You get there and you feel this dark magic.
THR: With the success of the movie [U.S. gross to date is just under $10 million on a budget of $1.8 million], can you hold your samecreative team together?
Zeitlin: We’re working with Fox Searchlight right now, but wherever we land, we’re putting together a very cool contract right now to allow that. When we talk about the film, we always stress: the family that made the movie, is the movie. It’s not a process that can be duplicated with other people, so we’re trying to make sure that whatever deal we get, we have the ability to control our producers, our key creatives and our cast. We also need to make sure we don’t get so greedy and take so much money that we become subject to too much outside control. We certainly want bigger budgets than we had for Beasts. We’d love to be working with something closer to $8 million, so we can put meat on the sandwich instead of just eating a piece of bread with hot sauce on it. But I’ve always thought it’s important to recognize how much a movie should cost. If you take more than you should, based on the market for your film, you end up getting pressured into making a film you don’t want to make.
THR: It’s a particular thing to direct child actors effectively. Is this something you’ll continue to do?
Zeitlin: I’ve always loved children. I’m interested in how children think in a big way. I used to teach a moviemaking class to first to fourth graders and it was always the first and second graders who aren’t quite socialized yet and haven’t learned to be self-conscious or embarrassed, who don’t know hard truths about death, that are the most incredible actors and interesting thinkers. It’s definitely something I love doing and I imagine it’ll continue. Our next project is still in the bag still but it will follow the same tradition as Beasts: another homemade, epic fable with the same group. I’ll write this one on my own but we’re keeping our producers, our key art team, our cast and casting people, our designers, right down to our cooks and AD…. It’s a system that we made up due to not knowing what were doing, but our people are trained to do it now, so we’re going to try to stick with that. I understand why people say never to work with children or animals, but our process is designed to absorb chaos in a way that might break a normal filmmaking process. We have a moving pieces method. If you have a film that’s designed to be structured and ordered, that adage holds true but if you’re looking for chaos, ours is a great way to create.
THR: What’s the first thing you’ll do when you finally go home?
Zeitlin: Watch football and drink a lot of beer.
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