Quvenzhane Wallis as “Hushpuppy” on the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Photo Credit: Jess Pinkham
When it opened on June 27th in limited release, Beasts of the Southern Wild scored the weekend’s highest per-theater average, taking in $169,702 from four theaters. This past weekend, the film notched another strong showing as it expanded into Boston, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. Beasts of the Southern Wild is the brainchild of director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar, upon whose play “Juicy and Delicious” the screenplay was based. The vision of the film was initially implemented by the production company Court 13, who made the film as their first feature. In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently enjoyed a conversation with Court 13 producers Dan Janvey, Michael Gottwald, and Josh Penn. Here’s what the filmmaking team had to share with me about their unique approach to producing movies, filmmaking in Louisiana, and crafting Beasts of the Southern Wild. [Note: Check out Jackson’s interview with the film’s cinematographer here and my review here.]
Jackson Truax: What was the formation of Court 13? What was the initial journey that led to making Beasts of the Southern Wild?
Dan Janvey: Court 13…has its roots in stop-motion animation. Benh Zeitlin, Ray Tintori, and our cinematographer Ben Richardson, all started doing stop-motion work together in Prague. They took that spirit of filmmaking and that type of artistry, and carried that to Wesleyan University, where Benh made his thesis film called Egg. With Egg, you started to see the essential Court 13 elements. That this was about taking very, very rusty and small pieces of junk, and trying to tell very, very big stories with small resources. The way we were going to do that was rally around these communities to make these films. Then it very importantly transplanted itself into Louisiana, which is the home base of Court 13, and made a film there called Glory at Sea, which is a retelling of the Orpheum myth, set in an abstract…folkloric post-Katrina New Orleans. From that, we made Beasts of the Southern Wild. I think Court 13 is as much about a spirit of filmmaking…you’re going to actually go on an adventure. And you’re going to do it with a family or a community. And you’re going to embrace risk to tell these really big stories.
Jackson: What is it about Louisiana that makes it an ideal home base for Court 13, as well as a recurring subject for this style of filmmaking?
Michael Gottwald: Court 13 embraces challenges, and not an abundance of resources… I think in Louisiana, South Louisiana specifically, they embrace challenges. Just by being in South Louisiana, they are already on the precipice of imminent destruction, as far as storms go, and as far as sinking land… But they’re not sad about it. Instead, they celebrate it. And they take it on. And they make it a part of who they are. That’s a parallel with Court 13. Elements of that show up in the stories that we try to tell, embracing challenges and celebrating them.
Josh Penn: We all came to Louisiana from other places. But we all came and found something that was really, really appealing in the spirit there, that you don’t necessarily find in other places across the country. I didn’t know that I wanted it so much until I was there. But it really feels right to live there and make movies there.
Michael: The bravery, in reveling in the face of possible destruction is something you will find in a lot of Benh’s work, and a lot of what Court 13 does, and a lot of what you’ll find in South Louisiana.
Jackson: How did you guys come to partner with the production company Cinereach on Beasts of the Southern Wild?
Dan: This was really a partnering of three production entities coming together to make the film… It was Cinereach, Court 13, and Journeyman Pictures as well. It’s three different companies that share a lot of the same values, in terms of what types of films to make and how to make them… All three organizations believe that the way you make a film is as important as what that film is. If you’re making a film that’s about community, you have to make it with a community. If you’re making a film about a place, you have to spend time in that place and love that place. So it was a real partnering of like-minded organizations… Something we shared with Cinereach was an embracing of risk in telling the story. So the motivation of Cinereach wasn’t a financial one. It’s the only non-profit film production company making films on this scale… They, from day one said, “In order to do this, you have to embrace the risks inherent in the material…” They not only allowed us to cast Dwight Henry who’s a baker, they were actively encouraging that. Think about how rare that is in a production partner, to say, “Let’s do the riskiest choice possible that could have the highest creative rewards.” Cinereach is about embracing the process one hundred percent.
Josh: They were actually relieved when we cast the baker, honestly.
Dan: Because to them, that’s what this was about… I think we’d be lying to say that we knew going in that we were going to cast entirely non-professionals. I think that’s something that evolved over the course of developing the film. Where we realized more and more, that this needs to be made with people that live in Louisiana, that are from Louisiana, that have this in their blood.
Michael: I would say that every aspect of the process is very much alive, and constantly evolving and changing and growing. It’s not so much that we set out with a very strict plan… We take everything we come in contact with and try and incorporate it into the movie via our actors life stories and the places we discover along the way. Even, day to day of the shoot, new things will be coming into the movie.
Jackson: You mentioned Journeyman, which is the production banner of producer Paul Mezey (Maria Full of Grace, Half Nelson, Another Earth). How did you connect with him? What did he bring that was unique?
Michael: Experience. But we always call him “The Jedi Master.” He was an incredible mentor to us as producers. In general, he’s an incredible problem solver, and visionary producer. He’s done a lot of films that are pretty audacious. And also, the end result is extraordinary. He’s an incredible storyteller himself. At every step of the way, he was helping us take these big ideas we had…he helped round them and make them real.
Dan: I think Paul brings to the equation a rigor that producing decisions have to come from what’s right for the story. He’s amazing at figuring out what you have to do on a logistical level for what the story calls for in that moment. He’s also a profoundly good guy. It was so incredible having him on the film.
Michael: I think we’ve all been really inspired by what he’s done during his producing career… It’s amazing. The heart that you can see in that repertoire. And the ambitiousness. Just never compromising what he believes in throughout them all.
Josh: There’s a through-line in everything that he’s made.
Dan: He’s one of those producers, where if you look at his body of work, Paul has figured out how to tell a story about America and the world… That’s inspiring. Another thing about Paul, he’s great at prioritizing the process. The process by which you make the film is absolutely essential. Be that the research he and Joshua Marston did in Albania for The Forgiveness of Blood, the community casting he did on –
Dan: There’s a lot of overlap in what he’s done with his career and what we aspire to do with Court 13.
Jackson: How did you connect with him on Beasts of the Southern Wild?
Dan: We did the producing labs at the Sundance Institute. Paul was our advisor there. So a lot of the overlap that we’re talking about became very clear in that environment. He also had started working with Cinereach. It was an amazing opportunity for three like-minded organizations to come together to make a film, with Paul having the most experience, really shepherding through the project.
Jackson: It sounds like a big part of Court 13’s mission statement is to make the unfilmable filmable. What would you say was the most unfilmable element to Beasts of the Southern Wild, and how did you film it?
Michael: Definitely the Aurochs… Everything we did in the film we wanted to fit into the fabric of the world… It wouldn’t be right if the Aurochs were computer-generated, and everything else had this natural feel. So we knew we needed to make them natural. So we set out to train live animals, and actually put them in the film. We brought down one of our good friends who had never trained animals before, to become our animal trainer. She just read a book and taught herself. It was this incredible problem-solving scene. I’m really proud of the way that turned out.
Dan: Our pig whisperer.
Jackson: Why is it important audiences seek out Beasts of the Southern Wild? What do you think they’ll get from it that’s unique?
Michael: This movie is ostensibly about some things that are very tough and on face value, very hard to get into. What I think is a credit to Benh and the way that we did this, is we found a way to tell this in a way that feels joyful and reverent and emotionally engaging. I think that is something that many, many audiences look for. It’s a way for an audience to be transported to a world that has the weight of some things that are relevant in the real world. But at the same time, be taken on a fantastical journey that is emotionally engaging and riveting and uplifting.
Dan: If I were to really pick one thing it’s Hushpuppy… I love that character. I think that the country can see things in Hushpuppy that reveal the best of who we can be as people. The resilience and strength and courage of this little tiny hero, I love that character. I would like people to experience that.
Josh: I also think the movie, both the story and how we made it, says that anything’s possible. It’s hopeful in that way. You have this little, six-year-old girl who you would never expect to be the hero, facing these insurmountable odds and impossible things… We tried to make a movie that was a little bit bigger than our means, and that a lot of people told us in development wasn’t possible in the way we envisioned it… I’m really proud of the way in which we pushed those walls.
Dan: It speaks to the fact that you have to fight for what you believe in. And your home and your community matter. And no one can take that away from you.
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