Now, after winning Best Picture at Sundance, Best First Film in Cannes and receiving rave reviews across the board, his feature directorial debut The Beasts of the Southern Wild is being released in select theaters today. At a special friends-and-family screening at the IFC Center last night, Mr. Zeitlin introduced the film and thanked Rooftop Films, the New York outdoor-screenings non-profit that awarded him with the 2009 Eastern Effects Equipment Grant that helped make Beast a reality.
“Rooftop has been involved with basically everything I’ve ever made,” Mr. Zeitlin told The Observer while we drank Radebergers at the Amity Hall after party. ”They played my senior film Egg a ton of times—once on a boat—and later they encouraged me to make a submission for one of their Filmmakers Fund Grants.” Mr. Zeitlin got the grant for a script that he “scrabbled together completely wasted one night,” Glory at Sea, the filming of which landed him in New Orleans. He never left the Big Easy, and the script for Beast was later inspired by the region.
“We had seen what Benh has done with no money at all so we were really excited to see what he could do with a little bit of money,” Dan Nuxoll, program director of Rooftop told us about thier decision to award Mr. Zeitlin with an equipment grant for Beast. “A ton of money was saved by having all the lighting and grip equipment donated and driven down to the bayou.”
The screening was presented by AT&T in celebration of a new $10,000 cash grant they recently contributed to the Rooftop Filmmakers Fund.
“We see what happened with this film so we hope we can make it happen again next year,” Marissa Shorenstein, president of AT&T New York told us. “We’re excited to support something independent since New York is so enriched with culture we want to do our part to sponsor artists and creators.”
In addition to a few cash grants and the Eastern Effects grant, Rooftop offers a post-production grant, women filmmakers grant and short film grants, but AT&T’s grant is the largest. “To the movies that we are supporting, $10,000 is a lot,” Mr. Nuxoll said.
After the screening of Beast, which evoked laughter, gasps and tears—”I cried the whole last ten minutes” The Observer overheard when the packed theater emptied out on 6th Avenue—most of the chatter was about the five-year-old star Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays Hushpuppy. The magical Ms. Wallis was handpicked out of three thousand little girls from various schools in New Orleans. You wouldn’t know it from watching Ms. Wallis and the other characters in the film but none of them had ever acted before. They were just members of the swampy community.
“The dad (co-star Dwight Henry) was the guy that ran the crew’s favorite bake shop,” Mr. Nuxoll told us. “He’s still a baker. He would be baking desserts in the morning and they would come down and read lines with him.”
Both Mr. Nuxoll and Mr. Zeitlin had just got back from premiering Beast in a New Orleans theater that hadn’t shown a film since Hurricane Katrina. ”Seeing that place red carpeted and swarming with celebrities—that felt great,” swooned Mr. Zeitlin. “I just hope it’s something that can lift the entire New Orleans industry, regional filmmaking and allows other people to get the kind of chances that I did to make something different.”
The film which themes around fearlessness and coping with loss, also illustrates the effects of climate change especially in regards to New Orleans. The island where they filmed has been ravaged by rising water levels; over the last 40 years the population has dwindled from 100 families to now just 20. Mr. Zeitlin has the utmost respect to the people of New Orleans that fed them, lent out their boats, let them take over their wetlands.
“I never felt like the film was done until yesterday,” Mr. Zeitlin told The Observer, referring to the local screening. “You need that closure. To finally show it to the people that helped you, to say what you promised you were going to say and to close your end of the deal.”
After the New Orleans premiere he got the confirmation he needed.
“A man came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for showing the world that we’re survivors and we’re not stupid.’ That meant a lot to me.”
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