Ten years ago, Benh Zeitlin ’04 was going through GRS and declaring his major in Film Studies. This year, he stepped forward at the Sundance Film Festival to accept the Grand Jury Prize for his dreamy, southern-drenched feature film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which subsequently signed with Fox Searchlight Pictures for $2 million.
When Zeitlin graduated from Wesleyan in 2004, he knew he wanted to move to New Orleans and continue making movies. So that’s precisely what he did. (His thesis film, “Egg,” has been described as “a surrealistic interpretation of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick.’) “Beasts,” his first full-length feature film since kicking off his filmmaking career with a short called “Glory at Sea,” tells the story of a girl named Hushpuppy living with her father in the flooded post-Katrina Louisiana delta. As the acclaimed filmmaker puts it, “I’ve managed to recreate my favorite parts of being [at Wesleyan], which was always being around a bunch of artistic, excited, creative people and charging into the abyss like we’re invincible.”
Last Saturday, I talked over the phone with Zeitlin about making “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” accepting the Sundance award, and living in the squash courts while working on movies during his Wesleyan heyday (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the building in question, 41 Wyllys, has since been converted).
The Argus: Hey, this is Zach from the Wesleyan Argus.
Benh Zeitlin: I remember it well!
A: That’s great. Can you tell me briefly about your film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”?
BZ: It’s a story about a little girl who lives in this town called Bathtub that’s been cut off from the world by this gigantic water protection system. It’s a story of this series of mythological catastrophes that happen to her and the town that she’s caused. It’s about her learning to survive and try to save her town.
A: Where did the idea for the film originate?
BZ: From a couple of things. I came down here right after I graduated, pretty much, and made this film called “Glory at Sea.” After I finished that, I made all these really close friends, and I sort of got addicted to Louisiana. Instead of going back home, I decided to stay here. I wanted to tell a story about why, to try to understand the magnetism of Louisiana, despite the fact that it is such a dangerous place to live. It has this hold on me and on so many people who kind of stuck it out because of all the hardship they went through trying to keep their homes. I really wanted to tell a story about hold-outs and figure out that experience for myself and explain it to the world. That idea kind of fused itself with this play a friend of mine, Lucy Alibar, wrote about a little boy whose father got sick, and it seems like the end of the world. The connection of the story and the experience of a kid losing her father…I found that emotional similar to a community losing its home. When those two things sort of combined, that was where the story found its footing.
A: So what brought you to New Orleans after college?
BZ: Well, I had been here a couple of times with my parents—they took me to roam about town when I was a kid, and I went back right after I graduated. A bunch of my friends did this road race called “Wheels of Fire,” where we took four cars down to Louisiana on a scavenger hunt. I met all these people down here and it was in my head that I wanted to come back here, move here, and make a film. It was after the storm, when I was sort of searching for a place to make “Glory at Sea” and it sort of struck me that the nature of that story would really come alive in New Orleans. I called up a couple [of] people I knew, and they had couches and sides of their houses that were available. I basically came down and lived at a friend’s house and started working on this film by myself. It snowballed and snowballed, and now the bulk of my friends and collaborators live down here.
A: What was your reaction when you heard you won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance?
BZ: It was crazy. It was like walking into the Bible—something where things get really epic really fast. It’s weird. You believe that what you’re making can communicate with people and they’ll understand what you’re saying when you’re making a film. But everybody thinks that, and you don’t really know how certain things will develop when you make the film in such a bubble, in such a surreal and specific place. When you bring it to the public, you don’t know if it’s going to make any sense. So I think that moment of winning the Grand Jury Prize was kind of the culmination of that. The real joy was when we started to see that people were understanding the movie the same way that we did and that the things that we were trying to say were actually communicating—that was really thrilling. The prize was sort of the cherry on top.
A: How do you think your experiences at Wesleyan helped inspire this film, if at all?
BZ: We make films in this really collaborative, kind of grassroots, DIY way, which I invented when I was making my senior thesis film, “Egg,” at Wesleyan. I think it had a lot do with my time there. There were a lot of really creative kids who were constantly mixing in things outside of their education. It wasn’t like everyone was doing art for their homework. We took our art classes, we took our theater classes, and after we finished that we would just keep plowing away. I put up two musicals at Wesleyan, wrote the music for those, collaborated and helped put up tons of theater stuff. There was a real collaborative energy there, and also a really healthy competition in which we were trying to outdo each other, in a good way.
I’m sure that kind of push was really good. There was such a great crop of artists that came out of that era while I was at school. We took over the squash courts that got torn down right after I graduated. That squash court was this weird haven for us—I moved out of my house on Vine Street and moved into the courts to keep working on my film 24 hours a day. Something about that experience made me and all the people who were there helping out with that want [to] to continue working with our friends. A lot of those formative moments happened at Wesleyan. Also, Jonathan Cutler in the Sociology department taught me how to think, so I have to credit him.
A: What are some of your favorite memories from the film department at Wesleyan?
BZ: There was this dude teaching at Wesleyan my first year—he was gone after that. I didn’t know I was going to make films when I got to Wesleyan. I mean, I was interested in it, but I was interested in a lot of things. But I remember that Film 101 class with him, his name was Bob Smith, and the fact that Film 101 included “Starship Troopers” and “Showgirls,” and the quality of the Film Series was [what made it] so amazing. The ability to watch great movies five nights a week on film—I remember that was the first time I saw Herzog and Sturges and Lubitsch…I remember a lot of really extraordinary moments watching films, and with Jeanine [Basinger] and [Richard] Slotkin, who was there, and Scott [Higgins], who all taught me.
I always appreciated that at Wesleyan, that film wasn’t this elitist high art film education. It has a real respect for crowd-pleasing movies and populist cinema. They teach film language in a way that allows you to understand how to manipulate an audience with form, which is something that is really important and is ignored in a lot of more elite film programs that are completely focused on what is considered to be higher art. I have a lot of great memories as a projectionist there, handling film and projecting the movies and all that stuff, that even though Wesleyan isn’t a Film School with a capital F, with the resources that are there, it allows you to fall in love with the magic of film. Appreciating it as an art form, not just a high art form.
A: What were you involved with at Wesleyan outside of film?
BZ: A million things. I did a lot of theater—I wrote two musicals while I was there—but my career as an athlete fell apart pretty quickly. I wanted to play hockey, but I didn’t make any of the teams. I set off a lot of fireworks, snuck into the tunnels a lot [laughs]. I was always working on movies—I was really a hermit, animating things and putting these films together. My life was pretty dominated by making movies and working on theater.
A: What do you miss most about Wesleyan today?
BZ: [laughs] I dunno. I was never a “school lover;” I don’t think I’ve had too many sad days where I really wanted to go back to college or anything. But every time I make a film, it feels like I don’t miss it because I’ve managed to recreate my favorite parts of being at school, which was always being around a bunch of artistic, excited, creative people and charging into the abyss like we’re invincible. That was my experience at Wesleyan, and every time we make a film we follow that model and mission. We also end up with, like, 70 Wesleyan students on our films every time. It’s cool—I graduated in 2004, but I have close friends who graduated last year, who are still going to school, who through the different generations have gotten involved in the film. It seems like a great breeding ground for really fearless, energetic, smart people. So I don’t know if I miss it, but I definitely appreciate that I had that experience back then, and I’ve tried to continue it.
A: Do you have any final messages to the Wesleyan community today?
BZ: Yeah, I guess—I think it was so important to have a life outside of classes there. The art that we were making outside of the academic programs that was really important and pushed us all to continue doing it after we got out of school. I think you can get trapped in the idea that the opportunity of being at college is like, you’re in this surreal zone packed with young, creative people at a point in their lives where they can do anything. It’s the greatest moment to take advantage of that kind of collaboration and fearlessness.
Oh, and I miss taking Sociology classes. You get out of school and you’re making films and your lens kind of shrinks a little bit. I always wished that even after I graduated from Wesleyan, I could still be permanently in Jonathan Cutler’s senior Sociology class. That’s one of the great things of my time there. [laughs]