Benh Zeitlin Biography

Screenwriter, Director (1982–)
Benh Zeitlin is an American filmmaker best known for his critically-acclaimed 2012 film, Beasts of the Southern Wild.


Director and screenwriter Benh Zeitlin was born in Queens, New York, on October 14, 1982. Raised by folklorists, Zeitlin studied film and writing from an early age. He made his first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, with a restricted budget, using local New Orleans residents for his leads. The film took top honors at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and garnered accolades for Zeitlin.

Early Career

Benh Zeitlin was born on October 14, 1982, in Queens, New York. His parents, Amanda Dargan and Steve Zeitlin, are folklorists at City Lore in New York City. Steeped in social and cultural history, as well as the arts, Zeitlin grew up with a profound appreciation for folk beliefs and performers. His parents brought their children along when conducting fieldwork in locations like Coney Island, introducing them to colorful local characters. When not working, the family collaborated on puppet shows and art projects.

After graduating from high school, Zeitlin attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He was interested in film as a student, making films with friends at Wesleyan. In 2004, he co-founded an association of independent filmmakers called Court 13, named after a Wesleyan squash court that he had used as a filming site during college. In 2008, Zeitlin moved to New Orleans while making his first short film, Glory at Sea.

'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

In 2010, Zeitlin began working on his first feature film: Beasts of the Southern Wild. With the help of several funding institutions, Zeitlin made the movie on a $1.8 million budget in southern Louisiana. His unorthodox production involved hand-held 16-millimeter cameras and untrained actors in the leading roles. Among Zeitlin's discoveries was Quvenzhane Wallis, the local child who played the lead role of "Hushpuppy." He also cast Dwight Henry, a baker who supplied pastries to the crew, in one of the leading roles.

Positioned between realism and folklore, Beasts focuses on the inhabitants of a bayou settlement located beyond the delta levées. Zeitlin helped to adapt the story from the one-act play Juicy and Delicious, written by friend Lucy Alibar. Zeitlin and Alibar met as teenagers when they won a playwriting contest, and kept in touch through their high school and college years. The pair polished their screenplay at the Sundance Writers Lab, where they received feedback from established Hollywood screenwriters.

Beasts proved to be a critical sensation after its unveiling at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. The film won the Caméra d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Deauville American Film Festival. Zeitlin also received several awards, including the Seattle International Film Festival's Golden Space Needle Award for best director, the International Press Academy's Humanitarian Award (given at the annual Satellite Awards) and several honors at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. His cast, particularly the young newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis, also earned accolades. Despite these various honors, Beasts and Zeitlin were noticeably absent from the Golden Globe nominations announced in December 2012. The opposite was true for Academy Award nominations, announced in January 2013: Beasts earned several Oscar nods, including for best picture, best director (Zeitlin), best adapted screenplay (Zeitlin and Alibar) and best actress in a lead role (Wallis).

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!