By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - On the first day newcomer director Benh Zeitlin began shooting his mythical, apocalyptic low-budget film, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," he had a real life disaster to deal with - the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The sense of impending danger only served to heighten the rugged, mystical tension Zeitlin was aiming for in his acclaimed indie film that stars non-actors as a father and daughter facing environmental threats on the impoverished watery fringes of southern Louisiana.
"The oil spill happening created this sort of strange, life imitates art on set that was going on as we were shooting," Zeitlin told Reuters in an interview for the film that opens in the United States on Wednesday. "The whole time you would wake up in the morning and check the oil and it would get closer and closer ... it was really eerie."
But the struggles to make Zeitlin's debut feature film have clearly paid off.
"Beasts" has had a dream run this year, coming from nowhere to win best film at the Sundance Film Festival to the Cannes festival where it won best debut. And just last week, it won the audience award for best narrative feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Influential American critic Todd McCarthy initially called it "one of the most striking films ever to debut" at Sundance, adding that "Zeitlin's directorial debut could serve as a poster child for everything American independent cinema aspires to be but so seldom is."
Zeitlin, 29, who co-wrote and directed the feature after his 2008 25-minute short film "Glory at Sea" was made in reaction to Hurricane Katrina, likened all the praise to "just like falling off a cliff."
"It was a great feeling when we sort of started to realize that the film was speaking; people were understanding what it was trying to do," he said. "The farther away from Louisiana you go, the more it plays as a fantasy movie."
HUSHPUPPY A FEARLESS HERO
"Beasts," filmed in a poetic, cinematic style that has been compared to Terrence Malick, follows a 6-year-old heroine called Hushpuppy, played by a charismatic unknown, Quvenzhane Wallis. With her father, Wink - depicted by fellow newcomer Dwight Henry - they struggle to survive in a town of poor, hard-drinking outcasts called The Bathtub.
The film, made with a budget of around $1.5 million, includes striking images of the Ice Age melting and extinct giant aurochs coming to life. Zeitlin dispelled reports they were computer generated, saying he relied on 1980s' style special effects using miniatures because, "we wanted everything to be organic and we used a minimum of technology."
Adding to the film's hardships was that "it was always an impossible film to explain or pitch," said Zeitlin.
He made the film with the help of an art collective he helped form and after basing himself in New Orleans following a stint in Europe.
"It's about a little girl and her father living cut off from the world by a giant levee, living in this off-the-grid town called 'The Bathtub'," he said. "It is about a series of mythological and environmental catastrophes that she has to learn how to survive and he has to teach her."
The film has been called both an exploration of contemporary Americana and an environmental statement, but Zeitlin said it is not "an issue-based call to action." Rather he wanted to make a universal movie for people who can relate to "the idea of their home being taken off the map and their culture being gone from the planet."
And in the face of traditional heroes that Zeitlin sees "getting bastardized" in Hollywood films - including that fictional British detective Sherlock Holmes - the young filmmaker wanted to create an authentic modern hero in the character of Hushpuppy.
"She is about standing by her culture, standing by her family, both being totally defiant but absolutely sweet and caring," he said. "She is a hero that represents fearlessness and I think so much of America is controlled by fear."
Apart from the film's visual and sensory style, it is Wallis' turn as Hushpuppy, cast at the age of 5 from nearly 4,000 auditions, that has also caught the eyes of critics.
"From the first moment we saw her - we have the footage of that first audition - you can see this look in her eyes that is so intense and so focused with so much wisdom behind it and poise," said Zeitlin.
Both Wallis and Henry, who initially turned down his role to run his bakery shop, have now attracted the attention of big Hollywood producers. But Zeitlin says, "they are both extremely grounded people and neither are trying to run away to Hollywood."
As for Zeitlin, who was born in Queens, New York, and raised by folklorist parents, he hopes to start shooting an unannounced feature film later this year.
"It will be in the same cannon as this film. Not a sequel, but we are trying to preserve the method. We want to shoot it in Louisiana. It's going to be another folk tale."
(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Andre Grenon)