At the 2012 Sundance film festival the rumblings started early: a mysterious crew of young filmmakers who go by the name Court 13 had apparently made the narrative feature of the festival, a weirdly optimistic apocalypse story starring an unknown child actress set in post-Katrina New Orleans called Beasts of the Southern Wild. As the week went on the rumblings turned to exaltations. The film won Sundance’s prestigious Grand Jury Prize and last month took home the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. The film arrives in theaters this week and we sat down with writer/director Benh Zeitlin to find out the backstory on this unusual film as well as what’s up next for Court 13.
Co.Create: Tell me how your crush on New Orleans began.
Zeitlin: Marriage, more like! That’s more a reflection of the volatility of our relationship.
How did you two meet?
We met when we were children. Seriously, I went there as a kid with my parents. That was probably the crush phase. It had such an effect on me and I always had this fascination with it. I just found out that I always talked about moving there in high school. I have a terrible memory but I was hanging out with my high school girlfriend recently and talking about how different I am from how I was in high school and she told me, what are you talking about you told me you were going to move to New Orleans to make movies in tenth grade and wear a cape. She’s like you’re not wearing the cape but …
So, in 2006 you ended up returning for good?
Yeah but it wasn’t the plan to stay. I was going city to city looking for a place to make this film. It kind of took root there and then turned into something so big that I could not uproot myself.
The film is so viscerally connected to New Orleans, it’s interesting that you weren’t originally writing it with the city in mind. What was the original story?
It’s impossible to separate it from New Orleans now but that is very much something that happened when I came there. It started off as something called Glory At Sea. It had this core—it was about a shipwreck and these people that were on these shards of wood and they were looking down at people at the bottom of the water. The people on the bottom were looking up and the people on top didn’t know if they should go down and join them or stay up top. It pre-dated Katrina and all the storm stuff but when that started happening, talking to my friends there I would get this little chill that maybe this fable/myth needs to be told through something real, that it might be able to connect to what’s happening in New Orleans right now. I went there not knowing if that was going to work at all but it really exploded. The film got totally out of control. It just felt like you have a seed and you plant it in the right spot and it just grows.
Talk me through the unfurling—you’re there traveling around looking for locations. What were the serendipitous elements that synched up?
It was such a weird ghost town. No one was there but the people who were there were very kind of all in it together, either resilient, really great people or just people that didn’t manage to leave. It was so weird and surreal that you just made a lot of really close connections. We made a choice that the story was starting to exist in the world and we were just going to follow that. So we did a rewrite where they were going to wash up on shore and there was this boat that was going to get built out of the junk that was around and sail back out there. Every time someone would give you something that they wanted to have on the boat you had to redesign the boat and rewrite the story to incorporate how they got this thing to the boat. I showed up there with $7000 and I think we ended up spending something like $100,000, maxed out every credit card, borrowed from everyone. It became this thing where we were following the movie out to sea. It was an unbelievable adventure. It was really and truly wild in this way I hadn’t ever experienced before in my life.
Were you scared?
[Laughs] No. I don’t know whether I’m just dumb or what but I don’t get scared. Maybe it’s just not knowing any better. But I think the culture is that way too. There are a lot of really brave people living in south Louisiana. You wouldn’t be there if you didn’t have some courage so you’re just charging at it.
You describe your relationship with this team of filmmakers as family-like. Do you guys all live together?
No, but a lot of us do. I mean I live with Crockett Doob, who is the editor of the film, who I’ve known since I was born. We met at age zero. I live with my sister. Our accountant lives in my house. But a lot of people don’t live in New Orleans they come down for the movies. I think the normal kind of film is you write a script and then you execute all the lines on that page and that’s now how we work. We’re really trying to find the movie in the world. Let the world change what we’ve written. All the artists on the film have a lot more agency than on a normal movie.
Where did you learn to work that way?
I went to work in Prague when I was in college [at Wesleyan]. I went to work for these animators. People keep misquoting me saying I worked for [Czech filmmaker Jan] Švankmajer, which I didn’t. I worked for Švankmajer’s animators. They had this thing where they all moved into this big apartment complex in Prague and started making films in their basements and at six o’clock everybody goes across the street and drinks five beers and goes back to work. That was inspiring for me. But I think the reason I wanted to make films as opposed to anything else was this idea of being able to populate my own universe. To invent a world and choose where it is and go there. The film gives you an excuse to bring all your friends together. You get out of college and your friends kind of spread and marry people and job-up but every three years or so we get to say drop whatever you’re doing, we’re going out to sea again.
When did you found Court 13, your filmmaking collective, or ‘army,’ as you guys put it?
It started as an address. I went to Prague to learn how to make my first film, Egg, and then went back to Wesleyan and started making it in my basement. But we weren’t supposed to be there so we got kicked out. I had nowhere to live. I mean I had a room but I needed to live in the set so we moved the set to this abandoned squash court in this athletic complex. It was a Wesleyan squash court but they had built a new building and the upstairs floor of this one was sort of vacant. I think there was a dean who had a driving range in one of the squash courts. We took over Court 13. A bunch of us were there so if you wanted to find us at any time of the day or night you could go to Court 13. It was this crazy creative little world we had in that room. It had this tiny little door that felt like going through the looking glass. It just felt like you cross this threshold and this is a different set of rules that brings a different code of behavior.
That idea of drawing a distinct line between actual reality and the kind of vibrant, pulsating hyper-reality you’re building on screen seems to be important both to the film and to your philosophy in general. Why does fantasy need to be realistic for you?
Um … I don’t know. That’s really ingrained. I always think of how you’re left with a taste, with art. I always talk about the hollow feeling. Sometimes you watch something and you don’t sense any love in it and that’s like when you eat food that comes out of a machine and you are technically full but you don’t feel like there was anything real in it. We’re attempting to change the ingredients that go into the screen. Everything that ends up on screen is made by an artist and it’s loved and it’s cared for and it has an individual creativity and it has sweat and muscle in it in a way that it wouldn’t if we were synthesizing things more or cutting corners. On a normal film set if you know the shot is going to be here and we don’t have to see the back of your chair you wouldn’t paint it. But we would never do that. It has to be there—that chair is its own object that deserves respect and love. Sometimes it feels with film like we’re still in a very early stage of painting, before people started thinking about brush strokes or the texture of the paint on the canvas, all those things that get developed. We’re trying to look for a tool to actually strike the canvas and end up with something that has all these dirty chunks and messy edges. In that texture you infuse it with the kind of feeling that is the film and the feeling that is the story and hopefully that changes that taste and makes everything feel full, feel substantial.
There’s a huge difference between expressing that ideology to me and actually having the technical chops to make it happen on screen. None of you are trained filmmakers. How did you pull this off?
We study film very intensely. I didn’t start making film until I felt like I was fluent in the art form. But there’s a difference between that and knowing how to technically set up a dolly track, which I wouldn’t know how to do. It’s those things that you learn in film school and stuff that—we invent our own way of moving the camera, our own way of physically doing things. But on a formal level, as far as visual story telling, as far as where the camera needs to be and pacing and blocking and framing, it’s not like we don’t know what we’re doing. At Wesleyan we watched like five movies a day and we learned how to communicate visually. It’s amateur in terms of technical methods and the way that we build stuff and execute scenes but not in terms of the conceptual understanding of film.
But that amateurism is a crucial part of what makes the film work, right?
Nobody who had any experience was willing to work on this film, that wasn’t like a principle, we really thought this was going to be too hard for us and we tried to be safer than we were on [an earlier film] Glory and say, we really need to have someone with experience in this position. We would bring in these experienced people and they would look at our plan and say no this is not going to work, so it was a process where eventually we just realized this is our way of doing things and this is our process and we need to just trust the process that got us here—trust our people, trust our friends and whether or not they know how to do this they will rise to the occasion and learn; trial by fire. Everybody did this not because they were trying to build resumes or anything. Everyone was trying to express something and make themselves proud. And that’s a good engine.
Given that being inexperienced and obscure is part of what’s made this film magical, how do you plan to protect that sensibility now that the film is a success?
My hope is that the better the film does the more leverage we have to say this is what works. Making movies is an unbelievably decadent art form and it’s a privilege to spend the amount of money it requires to make a film and should only be able to do that if it pleases—if people like the movie you feel justified in moving forward and doing it again. You get to say, this is making people happy, this is adding something to people’s lives and hopefully that gives you enough leverage to a little force field. But it will be way different with people watching because nobody was watching last time. We were a real secret.