NEW YORK - 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 said 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."