Behind the do-it-yourself scenes at ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’
After a year of attending film festivals, press junkets and award ceremonies in support of his internationally acclaimed film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin is finally home and ready to get back to work.
To celebrate, Court 13, his film collective based in New Orleans, is putting up a show from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday at the Contemporary Arts Center.
“Beyond ‘Beasts’: The Art of Court 13” features work from 2002 to the present. Court 13 will showcase six short films by Zeitlin and Ray Tintori, sculptural works used in the films, behind-the-scenes footage, materials and images that inspired the films, and a new art installation made from found materials by Eliza Zeitlin, Benh’s sister and one of the collective’s set builders.
People always ask Zeitlin — who directed and co-wrote “Beasts” with Lucy Alibar — where the idea for the film came from.
“The exhibit is inspired by that question and really wanting to give people the experience of all the images, all the people, all the places; the whole sort of swirl of stuff that actually is the ground that the film sprung up from,” he said.
The exhibited materials will offer insight into the collective’s grassroots production methods and collaborative creative process and allow the artists behind the scenes to shine.
“I’m excited that that element of who we are and what we do is going to be on display as opposed to it being all about ‘Beasts’ and the filmmakers,” Zeitlin said.
Court 13 is a community of builders, writers, artists, scavengers, animators and producers who make what Zeitlin calls “mythic, populist, universal” films — big stories about regular people.
The films are embedded in actual places and cultures and produced in an all-hands-on-deck, egalitarian, non-hierarchical way.
“I never imagined this as something that was a film career. It’s always been about collaborative and multidisciplinary art,” Zeitlin said of his approach to telling stories.
Growing up just outside New York City with folklorists for parents, Benh and Eliza understood that storytelling was paramount.
“Not being told that we needed to find something practical to do with our lives probably encouraged us or forced us into living as artists,” Zeitlin said.
During school breaks, the family drove around the country and met up with other storytellers, including Nick Spitzer, host of WWNO radio’s music and interview program, “American Routes.”
Benh was 13 when they arrived in New Orleans around New Year’s Eve; he found it wild and compelling. “New Orleans was definitely the trip that took over my imagination,” he said.
A couple years after graduating from Wesleyan University he made the city his home.
New Orleans welcomed Zeitlin’s immersive approach to filmmaking and allowed the values of Court 13 to solidify and flourish.
The members write stories they want to live, and then go live the adventure by moving the whole collective to a base camp.
During filming for “Beasts” in Montegut, Eliza lived in the house she built for Wink’s character with all her animals. “We don’t go home,” Zeitlin said.
The collective’s filmmaking relies on strength of community, which includes those who act in and work on its films as well as the people and places where it shoots.
The producers and writers work in the same space as the crew, and no one is exempt from rolling up his or her sleeves to paint, build or move props. Dialogue is greatly determined by the experiences and stories of the locals and actors.
When working out technical solutions, the group embraces trial-by-fire ingenuity. The completed films are layered with the ideas, skills, serendipitous finds and muscle power of all who contributed to the filmmaking process. “There’s a definite belief in fate as well,” Zeitlin said.
This model succeeds in New Orleans because people are open, want to help and are in it for the “sheer joy of making something,” Zeitlin said. The experience is “just so exactly what I imagined making films could be,” he said.
Exciting plans are in the works for Court 13: film projects, visual art, a pop album collaboration between Zeitlin and score composer Dan Romer, and the search for a permanent space in New Orleans that will act as Court 13’s film and nonprofit headquarters.
Zeitlin is looking forward to developing the company “in all the multidisciplinary ways that we want to be making art in the future” — that and getting back to “carrying around a screw gun as opposed to a suit bag.”
On opening night at the CAC, Court 13 will present a mobile art installation of large, hand-built props from its films, including “The Turk,” Wink’s legendary truck boat from “Beasts.”
There will also be a reading of new work by Lucy Alibar and a “homecoming dance” with music by the Lost Bayou Ramblers.
The exhibit runs through June 16. Visit http://www.cacno.org for details.
Katie Walenter is a contributing writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.