'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Director Benh Zeitlin: 'Steven Spielberg Raised Me'

Quvenzhane Wallis & Benh Zeitlin

Quvenzhane Wallis with Benh Zeitlin in October at the London Film Festival.

The past 12 months have taken Benh Zeitlin from the lowlands of New Orleans to the mountaintops at Sundance, and from indie obscurity to toast-of-the-town status as the hottest young talent in show business. But his is no accidental, sudden success; the writer/director of Beasts of the Southern Wild has been preparing for Hollywood from an early age.

"Steven Spielberg raised me. That’s my childhood right there," the 30-year-old told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday night at the National Board of Review Awards in Manhattan, where he was accepting the prize for best directorial debut. His favorite Spielberg films? Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Jurassic Park.

FULL LIST: 2013 Oscar Nominations

Now, he is nominated alongside Spielberg for both best director and best picture. And in the former category, he beat out another hero of his, Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, whose film Point Break he said "I think I watched 50-70 times."

Zeitlin, whose film also saw 9-year-old star Quvenzhane Wallis earn a best actress nomination for her role as a little girl stuck between fantasy and the harsh reality of living in an impoverished, almost subterranean Louisiana bayou, goes deep with his movie history. He cited directors such as Preston Sturges, John Cassavetes and Werner Herzog as inspirations, and said he'd like a career as eclectic as those of the latter two.

"When making movies is your life, you better write things that you want to do with your life," he said. "To me, it’s not a job, I write for the places I want to be, with the people I want to spend my life with, and doing the things I want to do. That’s always something that I admire in others and try to do myself."

Going forward, Zeitlin said that he had a whole "pile of dream movies that I’ve always wanted to make," and he's headed back to New Orleans to get writing again. "We’re planning on making the next film in the same system as we did this one," he explained. One thing he won't be doing is reading and considering screenplays sent to him by studios.

"That's not my style," he said with a wry smile.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin