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Benh Zeitlin lives among the people he makes films about

Benh Zeitlin, director of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," still lives in Louisiana.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

NEW ORLEANS — Benh Zeitlin has just knocked on the door of the dilapidated home of the woman they call Mama Joe. Zeitlin, the director of this year’s art-house film sensation “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” waits a minute, then finds himself face-to-face with a 60-ish woman with red hair and mismatched black and purple socks.

“You’re back!” says Mama Joe, a self-described alcoholic and retired bar cook whose squat residence in a working-class section of this city might generously be described as hobo chic (notable décor flourish: a backyard urinal). As a cat slips out through her front door, Mama Joe looks lovingly at Zeitlin, who has spent the bulk of recent months on the road promoting his movie, a contender for a best picture Oscar nomination Thursday. She gives his hair a tussle and embraces him snugly. “I’ve missed you,” she says.

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“I’ve missed you too,” he replies, his throat catching as he hugs her.

Welcome to the bizarre world of Benh Zeitlin, a man who in the last year has become one of the film world’s hottest directors, yet lives a life more akin to that of a vagrant busker.

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“Beasts,” a magical realism tale about an off-the-grid community in the Louisiana bayou, premiered to raves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It was acquired by the studio Fox Searchlight, and has grossed more than $11 million since opening in theaters in June. Yet for reasons that appear to be equally economic and philosophic, Zeitlin, 30, dwells in a scruffy section of New Orleans with the likes of Mama Joe and other hardscrabble, vivid characters you might find in his films — a notable turn in an era when even unsuccessful filmmakers define “roughing it” as abiding a roommate in a West Hollywood condo.

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Zeitlin has arrived at Mama Joe’s house by borrowing a friend’s beat-up car. The director had briefly owned a  car himself but it had no windows, and a good rainstorm shorted out the electrical system and killed it. Zeitlin also currently does not have a wallet--it was lost on a film-festival publicity trip--or any seeming access to cash, a point that, surprisingly, does not seem to hinder his ability to eat.  

Many indie directors scrape and struggle until they make it--living on ratty couches and borrowed money until success finds them. But Zeitlin continues to lacks some basic comforts. Zeitlin’s home quarters these days  is a place that one acquaintance described as “a chaotic and unsanitary camp-out.” Dogs and pigs he’s acquired over the years have been known to roam through the place.

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Ray Tintori, who is part of Zeitlin’s art and filmmaking collective of Northeast transplants to this city known as Court 13, said, “It’s always been about the work and doing it the way we want do. Benh really doesn’t have any money." 

“Beasts,” which cost about $1.5 million to make, was financed by a nonprofit called Cinereach, and the bulk of the proceeds that have flowed down from Fox Searchlight have landed there.

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But even if Zeitlin doesn’t have big-time Hollywood cash, surely enough dough has come his way that he could at least rent a nice apartment? Especially since he’s a Wesleyan graduate who grew up in a middle-class New York suburb, with parents who work as folklorists in the city’s museum scene?

“I’m not against wealth,” he said. “But when you have a nice place you take a lot fewer risks. You’re worried about making the safe choice because if you don’t you might lose that house. And I never want to be in that position.”

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His currency, he says, comes in the form of the ragtag people of New Orleans, whom he is both personally close with and whom he sometimes casts in his movies. Zeitlin, who moved to New Orleans in 2006, spends his days with people like Mama Joe and her barfly husband Lowell, or a French Quarter eccentric artist named Levy Easterly (preferred canvas: pieces of slate that fall off roofs after a hailstorm), or other characters that would make Ignatius J. Reilly blush.

Benh Zeitlin’s recent New Orleans abode.

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For a long time, one of Zeitlin’s many roommates was a Vietnam veteran named Jimmy Lee (last-known occupation: smuggling immigrants into the U.S.). Lee lived in Zeitlin’s house with his wife — his seventh, by most accounts. The vet died in 2012 and was given a funeral in the streets of New Orleans, which Zeitlin and others commemorated by climbing into the back of a truck and singing karaoke.

In an interview on Easterly’s front stoop (“I’d invite you in but I have houseguests and a lot of bulldogs”), the artist explains the appeal of New Orleans. “You might have a crack addict across the street there and a heroin addict down the block, and then a doctor next to him. But everyone’s talking to each other. That’s what Benh loves about it. That’s what we all love about it.”

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So Zeitlin and these characters will go to a local pub and drink Miller High Lifes, and compare notes on where one can eat free in the city, and talk about how New Orleans has changed since the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Buffa’s, a dive bar near the French Quarter, “has a menu now,” Mama Joe laments, “and [right after the storm] it just had a piece of paper.” Gentrification is measured differently down here.

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So it goes for Zeitlin at home too. Until recently, a shed in the back of his house was occupied by his sister Eliza, a woman with a squatter’s sensibility and a deep influence on Zeitlin’s work. “You see how Hushpuppy lives in the movie?” Tintori said, referring to the 6-year-old protagonist’s decrepit lean-to. “That’s basically Eliza’s shed.”

The director is aware that it might seem like he’s wearing penury as an accouterment, a middle-class kid slumming on a poverty tour. But he said it all feeds into his art.

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“The people I really admire, like Cassavetes, live the lives of their movies, and that’s how I want to live,” Zeitlin said.

His next film, which will be made under the auspices of Fox Searchlight, will be another low-budget affair made in these streets with the Court 13 crew and many of the colorful locals. He’s also helping stage an art show at a New Orleans gallery in March dedicated to the aesthetic of grime that animates “Beasts.”

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If Zeitlin has derived a salt-of-the-earth satisfaction from surrounding himself with weird characters, he has also returned the favor, bringing them a measure of hope. “They’re saying Benh can be the next Spielberg, which made me think I can be his Harrison Ford,” said Easterly, gleefully.

Zeitlin himself plays down grand talk. “I’ve never had a strategy. It’s never been about I’m going to make this film, and then another,” he said over High Lifes with Lowell and Mama Joe. “It was about telling stories about, and living with, the people I want to spend time with.”

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A minute later they exit the bar. As Zeitlin takes Lowell and Mama Joe by the arm, slings a sack of unknown provenance that Lowell has asked him to carry over his shoulder, and helps them across a rainy street.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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