10 Lessons on Filmmaking from Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Benh Zeitlin

Despite legions of advice to the contrary, there is no quick-fix scheme toward making a feature film. What it really comes down to is creating a universal story and surrounding yourself with people who believe in your vision enough to see it come to life. Benh Zeitlin proves that to make a powerful film today, you don’t need gimmicks, a convoluted strategy, or even connections in the business. All you really need is a story so strong that it’s impossible not to make.

The 30-year-old Zeitlin’s journey from short to feature is a true fairytale in the landscape of American indie cinema. Working with a collective of artists called Court 13, Zeitlin created one of those rare game-changing shorts, Glory at Seawhich attracted the attention of the not-for-profit foundation Cinereach. They came on board to finance his feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild at a budget of $1.5M. What resulted was an ethereal film rich in emotion and breadth, unlike anything anyone had ever seen, earning 49 awards to date, and no less than four Academy Award nominations.

Most directors can pinpoint the moment it all began. Zeitlin credits his directorial aspirations to watching the fantastically surreal Underground by Serbian great Emir Kusturica. Zeitlin’s journey came full circle when he found himself at the Kustendorf International Film and Musical Festival at Kusturica’s mountain utopia resort in Mokra Gora this year. Having heard rumors of the legendary festival, Zeitlin was thrilled to be a guest, and described the entire experience, from flying in by helicopter from Belgrade to clinking raki glasses with the director himself, as everything he could have dreamed of and more. We sat down with Zeitlin in the smoky underground Visconti restaurant to find out what one of cinema’s youngest and most powerful new voices has learned thus far.

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