‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ director Benh Zeitlin talks about getting an Oscar nomination and his pint-sized star Quvenzhane Wallis

This morning, alongside such cinematic heavyweights as Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, and Michael Haneke, Benh Zeitlin garnered a best director nomination this morning for his breakout indie hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” beating out the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Ben Affleck, and, most shockingly, Kathryn Bigelow. Pretty heady stuff for a 30-year-old first-time filmmaker. “Beasts” also got nominations for best picture, best original screenplay, and best actress. At the age of 9 years old — she was 6 when she made the movie — Quvenzhane Wallis (her first name is pronounced a bit like “revenge” but with a “qua” at the beginning and an “nay” at the end) is the youngest person ever to get an Academy Award nomination.

When I talked with Zeitlin six months ago about his movie, he seemed genuinely stunned that the movie had done as well as it had. When I talked with him this morning, he seemed even more so. We talked a bit about the movie, his pint-size star, and what’s next for him, now that he’s one of Hollywood’s hottest directors.

Jonathan Crow: Congratulations! What does all this feel like?

Benh Zeitlin: It just gets more and more surreal, like ‘Alice and Wonderland’ or something like that. I don’t know how this movie does this. It’s just gone through doors that a film like this is not supposed to go through. There’s something about Quvenzhane. That’s the only explanation I have for it.

JC: How to pronounce Quvenzhane’s name?

BZ: Yeah, we’re going to have a worldwide call-and-response game with it. I’ll say “Quvenzhane” and you say it back to me. I don’t think there’s a way in print to make it clear. It’s best when you can say it back and forth. Hopefully, people are going to be saying her name enough that they get used to it.

JC: Have you talked with Quvenzhane this morning?

BZ: Yes. She’s taking it in stride, like everything else in this world. But she’s thrilled. I mean, it’s a one-in-a-million chance that a kid from Louisiana would get to act in a movie, much less get catapulted onto this stage in her first role when she’s 6 years old. She gets what an amazing journey this has been.

JC: Have you heard anything from people you worked with in Louisiana?

BZ: Oh, definitely. The guy who owned this … we called it the “Crash Pad.” It was a fishing cabin behind a gas station with about 12 bunk beds. We stayed there when we were shooting the film. He was one of the first people to call. He said, “If I had told anyone that the people staying in that bunkhouse would get nominated for the Academy Award, they would have committed me on the spot.”

JC: So what’s next for you and Quvenzhane?

BZ: She’s going to go right back to fourth grade in a couple of days. For me, I’ll be promoting this movie for a couple months, and then I look forward to going home to New Orleans and writing the next film. And, hopefully, in a couple of years we can come back out and do this again.

JC: Do you plan to work with Quvenzhane again?

BZ: I would love to. She’s my best buddy. It’s always a good thing to work with your favorite people. I hope the next movie has the perfect part for her.

Follow me on Twitter (@jonccrow)

See the trailer for ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’:

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Trailer Premiere

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January 2013

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