Benh Zeitlin didn't go to film school, but then no film school could have taught him to make a movie like "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
"We sort of invented this method," Zeitlin said of his hand-crafted, slightly magical film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and opens Friday, July 20, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City.
The movie is set in a fictional, somewhat fantastical Louisiana Delta community called The Bathtub. It centers on a little girl, Hushpuppy, trying to make sense of the universe and her part in it and how that universe changes with the erratic behavior of her father, Wink.
Zeitlin, a New Yorker who moved to Louisiana after making a short film there in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, called the movie's do-it-yourself style cobbling together sets from what was at hand and hiring nonactors from the area sort of "a community art project."
"It's a totally different way to make a film, but so in synch of what I wanted to do with my life," Zeitlin said in a recent phone interview.
"A lot of it is we'd find a place that was amazing, and we'd build on top of it," Zeitlin said. "There would be oil drums in the field, and we'd see a broken-down trailer. We'd put one on top of the other. … There is no place that exists that is The Bathtub, [but] every part of the culture is something that I've seen somewhere."
Among the highlights of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the little girl who plays Hushpuppy. Quvenzhané Wallis was discovered in an open audition and has become the toast of whatever film festival has screened the movie, from Sundance to Cannes.
"She's completely unflappable," Zeitlin said. "You cannot overwhelm her, you cannot shock her. She's just so poised in this surreal way. She takes it all in stride. … When somebody asks her what's next, she always says, 'Fourth grade.' "