Zeitlin, whose directorial debut is screening at the BFI London Film Festival, told Digital Spy that seeing his film and star Quvenzhané Wallis tipped for Oscars has been "totally surreal".
"I remember when we had to teach [Quvenzhané] what Oscar meant, that wasn't Oscar the Grouch!" he said.
"It's a totally surreal thing for us. Just making a film with no stars, I've never made a film before, the producers had never made a film before. There was no reason to think that any more than 20 people would watch it. For Oscars to even be talked about is really thrilling.
Beasts of the Southern Wild centres on a father and daughter fighting to survive as a flood hits their bayou community. Wallis was selected for the role of Hushpuppy after Zeitlin and the producers had auditioned more than 4,000 children.
"There were people that did it well, but they sort of did it cute," the director explained. "When she came in and did it, she took this scene and it wasn't silly, it wasn't cute. It was fierce and real.
"We gave her a task [to do] in the scene, and she was unbreakable from that task. That spoke to a lot of who Hushpuppy was, she's this little girl who can't be pushed around and can't be broken."
Beasts of the Southern Wild opens in UK cinemas today (October 19).