Director’s journey to Oscar stardom began in Sunnyside alley
By Bill Parry
When Sunnyside-born filmmaker Benh Zeitlin was nominated in the Best Director Category for the Academy Awards earlier this month, it turned the Hollywood movie industry upside down. After all, the 30 year old’s first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, was made on a shoestring budget with a cast of nonprofessional actors.
Following the announcement, Zeitlin told the news media: “I feel like my house just crashed on the Yellow Brick Road and everything just turned color.”
“This feels historic,” Zeitlin told reporters. The film “does not have any famous people involved, or any budget ($1.5 million), or any power,” he said, adding that “I didn’t know it was possible.”
Zeitlin’s name is in the same category as his idols Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee. “Those are idols to me,” Zeitlin said, “people whose films I’ve been watching since I could see.”
To the surprise of many, names like Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck are not among the Best Director nominees. Zeitlin’s mother, Amanda Dargan, told The Sunnysidepost, “Behn’s getting a big kick reading all the comments posted on websites right now. Everyone’s asking, who is he?”
Dargan moved to Sunnyside while pregnant with Benh in the early 80’s. She and her husband, Steve Zeitlin, lived on 46th Street in the Gardens before moving to a bigger house on 48th Street. The two folklorists, immersed in the city’s museum culture, raised Benh and his sister Eliza there.
While the kids liked Sunnyside Gardens Park, the two would race home from P.S. 11 and play all day in the alley behind the house. “He loved that alley so much,” Dargan said. “The way the neighborhood kids played there was the inspiration for one of the opening scenes of the movie.”
Rising crime in the 1990’s forced the family to move upstate to Hastings. “He never forgave us for leaving Sunnyside,” Dargan recalled, “Benh couldn’t stop crying when we left Sunnyside,” his father said. “He took a brick from the alley with him and still keeps it to this day.”
Four neighborhood families followed them to Hastings, including one of Benh’s closest friends, Crockett Doob. Doob was one of the editors on Beasts of the Southern Wild,while Benh’s sister Eliza designed many of the film’s sets.
After graduating from Wesleyan in 2006, Benh Zeitlin moved to New Orleans and lived among the shacks and shanties of the Lower 9th Ward, the area devastated when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. He would venture south to the bayous, drawn to the small communities that were out of step with the modern world.
One of these off-the-grid communities became the basis of the film. It tells the story of Hushpuppy, a seven year old girl in search of her mother after her father falls ill and her community is hit by Katrina.
Hushpuppy is played by nine year old Quvenzhane Wallis, who was six when Zeitlin discovered her during casting tryouts. Wallis, too, was nominated for an Oscar, the youngest person ever to be nominated for Best Actress.
Zeitlin was holed up with many of his cast and crew in a Los Angeles hotel when the Oscar announcements were made at 5am local time. “When they heard that Quvenzhane was nominated they made so much noise celebrating and jumping on the beds that Benh never heard his name announced for Best Director,” Dargan said.
In addition to Best Actress and Best Director, Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Famed critic Roger Ebert called the film “a remarkable creation” adding that ”sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius.”
Steve Zeitlin didn’t want to say whether Behn would win or not. “I don’t want to jinx him,” he said, “but wouldn’t it be great if he could put that brick from the alley on 48th St. next to an Academy Award on his shelf?”