It's no wonder they call it Hollywood South. The state of Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, now rival New York City and even Los Angeles as a regional center for the production of feature films. But the phrase "Hollywood South" is revealing in an unintended way. Despite the hearty presence of locally based crews on the sets of blockbuster films, there's usually nothing that says "Louisiana" once the finished product hits the screen. Shouldn't a place that prides itself on its vibrant and distinctive regional culture make movies in a style all its own?
New Orleans filmmaker Benh Zeitlin has some ideas about infusing movies with regional character. He has established a groundbreaking local film collective and production company called Court 13. And he's about to present a global audience with a movie called Beasts of the Southern Wild that is easily the best of the year so far. It opens in New Orleans July 4 and will be screened at Canal Place, Prytania Theatre and AMC Palace 20 in Elmwood.
A mythical tale about the strength and spirit of the people of south Louisiana, Beasts gets to the heart of what makes the area so special. But it also represents a new approach to making movies inspired by the one-of-a-kind street culture found in New Orleans. If Zeitlin and company have their way, Beasts will mark the beginning of a new era of grassroots filmmaking in Louisiana and far beyond.
It's already been a great year for Court 13 and Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film won the grand jury prize at Sundance — the top award at the largest independent film festival in the U.S. — and last month earned the Camera d'Or at the France's Cannes Film Festival. The award recognizes the best film at Cannes made by a first-time director. Chatter about possible Oscar nominations for Beasts is already rampant. All that early success is unprecedented for a locally crafted film. But there haven't been that many high-profile independent movies coming out of south Louisiana.
"The thing is, all films come from Hollywood or New York," Zeitlin says. "Even when people come here, they're using a model invented somewhere else, which is a ridiculous thing. What other art form comes only from two cultures? There needs to be a movement to bring film outside of those places, and to make them with a different culture."
No one would mistake Beasts of the Southern Wild for a typical Hollywood movie. The film is set in a mythical place called the Bathtub, situated beyond the last levee protecting Louisiana's coastal wetlands. It centers on a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, her ailing father Wink, an absent mother and a coming storm. Hushpuppy's world is full of wild animals, close-knit neighbors and fantastic creatures who may signal the end of all things. Mostly it's about standing your ground and laughing in the face of annihilation, even when you think you may have accidentally caused it all yourself. The film is visionary and poetic, obviously handcrafted and achingly beautiful to look at.
And it all comes from a different culture — specifically that of Terrebonne Parish, deep in South Louisiana where Court 13 set up shop to shoot the film in 2010. Zeitlin and a 100 of his friends went down the bayou and came back with an inspired work of art that could not have come from any other place on earth.
Zeitlin, 29, was born in Queens, New York, and grew up in suburban Hastings-on-Hudson, about 25 miles north of the city. His parents are folklorists who run the non-profit City Lore cultural center in Manhattan's East Village. His initial connection to New Orleans came early and ran deep. "My parents took me here when I was a kid, and I fell in love with it," he says. "It was always a magical place that I wanted to move to, that had incredible meaning for me."
Zeitlin eventually wound up in the theater program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where his senior thesis project was an insanely imaginative short film called Egg. It was there he met a core group of friends and collaborators who eventually would provide the foundation for Court 13, including Beasts producers Michael Gottwald and Dan Janvey, and Ray Tintori, who handled Beasts' special effects. "Court 13 was the squash court at Wesleyan where Benh mounted the stop-motion animation for Egg," Gottwald says.
Zeitlin returned to New Orleans for a visit in 2004 and made a lot of friends. He had been traveling Europe in hopes of finding the right place to make a short film called Glory at Sea, about "two people in love, one on top of the water and one below," Zeitlin says. After visiting New Orleans he realized he wanted to come back to the States. Then Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods happened. "I had friends who were coming down to help out," Zetilin says. "And I started to think about Glory at Sea in the context of the storm. It became something else."
Glory at Sea eventually became a gorgeous, heartfelt 25-minute film about grief that was all New Orleans. It also was "a collaboration between our crew and all the local people who ended up acting in the film, to expand the story and relate it to what happened to them," Zeitlin says. (Glory at Sea, Egg and other short films by Zeitlin are available for viewing at court13.com.) The film also had another effect. "I think the time Benh was making Glory at Sea, he knew he was going to be in New Orleans forever," Gottwald says. "He got addicted to the place."
Sometime after Glory at Sea, Zeitlin attended a workshop for a play called Juicy and Delicious written by his friend, Lucy Alibar. The two had met when they were 14 years old and both won a playwriting contest. "We had an immediate artistic camaraderie," Alibar recalls.
Zeitlin approached Alibar about collaborating on a film inspired by the play that would be set in Louisiana instead of south Georgia. "To me this story has always been about a little girl and her dad," Alibar says. "Everyone has a version of that in their life, I think. It was very important to us that it be a universal story." They began work on the screenplay and were later accepted to a series of 10-day workshops held by the Sundance Institute, where they continued to develop Beasts.
Zeitlin's experiences making Glory at Sea had left a deep impression. It was then that he discovered "a sort of template for making films — and for living," Zeitlin says. "It's about bringing the film out of a place as opposed to the normal way, which is writing and executing a script."
Court 13 developed uniquely spontaneous and collaborative ways of working. Every person on the crew is able to contribute ideas and content to the film. "It's like making a documentary — you have to pay attention to what you're shooting and find the story in the real world," Zeitlin says. "We let the story change and adapt to whatever's going on. And we test the story against the actual people and places that are in it. If the story's not true, it's going to break under the weight of those circumstances."
Zeitlin laughs when asked about the quantity of work required by the Court 13's methods. "We talk about it like an athletic event," he says. "We set up unbelievable challenges on purpose, as opposed to finding the easiest way to do everything. It's like you design your own obstacle course and try to get through it."
Josh Penn, another of the film's producers, puts it another way. "We wanted to live the adventure of the film," he says. "We believe the excitement of making films should be felt on screen." Of course, all of this requires the talent and the will to think on your feet and roll with changes to a "finished" script while putting resources provided by investors perpetually at risk. "There are a lot of ways it could have all gone very wrong," Penn deadpans.
This way of working also had to extend to the casting choices that would give Beasts its true nature. At the center of it all is Quvenzhané Wallis, a now 8-year-old Houma native chosen from 3,500 kids auditioned at the Colton School on St. Claude Avenue and later in the community centers and libraries of the coastal parishes. Wallis, who goes by the name of "Nazie," was 5 at the time and lied about her age because the minimum age to audition was 6. She had never acted before. Now, her huge spirit carries the film. "We would have crashed and burned had we not found her," Zeitlin says.
Across from Colton on St. Claude was Henry's Bakery and Deli and its affable and well-known proprietor, Dwight Henry (see sidebar, p. TK). Gottwald, who oversaw the casting process, posted flyers for the auditions at the Bakery. One day, Henry decided to audition, though he too had never acted before. "Dwight had this raw emotion that we were drawn to," Gottwald says. "The way Benh thinks about telling a story, the characters and the actors get fused into one. I think he became more interested in approaching the character through Dwight than hiring someone to pretend to be Wink." According to Zeitlin, "It was a difficult choice — and a very dangerous choice."
Zeitlin credits Court 13's partner on Beasts, the non-profit company Cinereach, for supporting the decision to cast Henry. "Any normal financing company would say you absolutely have to cast a professional actor in that part. The dynamics of the role are so hard. We knew it would take a massive amount of work to get him ready. But we felt like we had to take the chance." Henry's performance in Beasts has been singled out by early audiences for deservedly extravagant praise.
Zeitlin, and later Alibar, spent much of 2009 at the end of the road at Pointe-aux-Chenes in Terrebonne Parish. "There was a long process of going down there, living there, getting to know everyone and making friends," Gottwald says. At first, "that was not so much an element of the film's production as just sort of what we were doing at the time," he says with a laugh.
Zeitlin smiles at the memory of the early days down the bayou. "We call it research and development, but it was actually more like a giant party," he say. "It's a neat trick — my work is just finding the most interesting people I can, and then coming up with an excuse to get drunk on boats with them. It's great fun."
Court 13 took over an abandoned gas station and former 18-wheeler garage with fishing camps in the back in Point-aux-Chenes called Harry's Marina. It became their home base. "That's where everyone would gather at night and have crawfish boils," Gottwald says. Many of Beasts' key scenes would be shot behind Harry's.
Amazingly — especially given the film's subject matter — the first day of principal photography for Beasts was April 20, 2010, the same day BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. BP commandeered the marina for its own headquarters toward the end of the shoot, and Court 13 had to negotiate with the company to get out past the boom for some of the movie's planned shots.
Zeitlin and company assembled a crew of about 100 people to make Beasts, around 40 of whom were hired as part of the film's art department — a ratio unheard of in movie productions of just about any size or type. Part of the idea for Beasts was not to just dress partial sets for the camera, but to create finished worlds that would come across that way on film. "Our sets were not optical illusions — they actually existed," Penn says. "We built a school boat, and made another boat out of a truck bed. We wanted everything to be from the world of the parish, to have that fabric and to feel homemade."
By the end of the shoot, the production had acquired a number of interns in fairly spontaneous fashion, according to Penn. "People would reach out and say they wanted to come down to the bayou and help build. It kind of kept growing, because people would hear about it from their friends and decide to join in."
While Zeitlin is on board with the idea that he and Court 13 have found a Louisiana-inspired way of making movies, he believes that many of the lessons learned could be largely applied anywhere. "You don't have to follow an instruction manual to get a film made," he says. As for the future in New Orleans and the rest of the region, Zeitlin hopes for a time when kids will grow up thinking of moviemaking as just another way to express themselves creatively.
"I think if there was a wave of young New Orleans filmmakers, it would just shatter the universe," Zeitlin says. "It would be so crazy. I'm not even from here — imagine people who are from here making these kinds of movies. It would be the wildest thing ever."