Coming off a massively successful year, director Benh Zeitlin ’04 and producer Dan Janvey ’06, returned to campus this Monday to follow up last Friday’s screening of their transcendent film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” We sat down for a brief but enthralling conversation about their recent success, how they work as filmmakers, and what the future holds for these extraordinarily talented artists. Special thanks to Jeanine Basinger for setting up this interview for The Argus.
The Argus: You guys hit the big three: Sundance, Cannes, and… Oprah. What was the ride like?
Dan Janvey: Like finishing the movie?
A: Finishing the movie. Doing all the post-production and then finally releasing the film. What did you think the reception would be, and how has everything changed since it blew up?
DJ: Now that the question has been asked, I want to cut the cute and have you answer.
Benh Zeitlin: No, it’s all you.
DJ: [Laughs.] Well, I genuinely don’t know. I hate actually being on record because I never want to tell the truth—at this point, I genuinely don’t know what our expectations were before we finished this thing and part of the reason it was hard to have expectations was because we finished at the last minute and the work we did in the two-minute warning or less was crucial to the success of the film.
BZ: I remember some specific conversations, though, where you were like, “Benh, this movie is not going to play in theaters.” I remember us having that conversation, like you just sort of preparing me for that…
DJ: No, no!
BZ: …And me being like “No, it will definitely play. They’ll be able to play it at the film forum for at least a couple of days.”
DJ: It’s a tough thing because we didn’t talk about this at all.
DJ: Because it would have driven you crazy.
DJ: It’s not something you talk that much about when you’re that in the trench of doing it. But also, that was a very early phase. I started to get a lot more confident as we approached the finish line, but I think one of the worst days we ever had on the film was like two days before finishing it.
BZ: There wasn’t a period of satisfaction. We’re extremely un-strategic as far as our careers go, and so we never think how is this going to alter our path toward some goal. It’s really very focused on the work, you know? And I would say that because of that, it doesn’t feel like our lives—my life is very weird now because I’m doing press all the time—but it doesn’t feel like anything has changed other than the fact that I’m very confident that we will be able to make the next film, which I wasn’t when we finished this one.
DJ: We had to go into Sundance with a plan. We just knew not to talk to [Benh] about it.
BZ: [Laughs.] Yeah, I just didn’t know.
DJ: What are some highlights? It’s been remarkably fun and meaningful to see the movie get out there. But Sundance, for me, was too emotional. It wasn’t as pure fun and joyful. And also there was considerable stress on us for Sundance as well.
BZ: I think I just have a cumulative highlight of seeing the film translate really, really broadly: having it go across America after Sundance and seeing it play in every corner of the country and having it understood in different ways, but always affecting people in a real way with different kinds of audiences. And then to sort of go from there to the European world is a whole other thing, when you’re suddenly a foreign language film and going into Brazil, playing in Sarajevo, playing in places where there is no film culture and seeing it translate there too.
DJ: Be careful. All of those places have film cultures.
BZ: I guess I’m saying there was a transition between France, which is a cinema nation, and then showing it in Ukraine or something like that and still finding out that there’s an audience, and it plays and people are affected. It’s really interesting for me when I go into thinking about the next film. It changes your concept of who your film is for. It’s like you’re actually making a film for the entire world, which is pretty exciting.
DJ: That doesn’t necessarily make you feel more pressure.
DJ: Because you always calibrated the pressures of your own standard and the standard of the crew. And you’ve always said that pressure is greater than a public scrutiny.
BZ: I guess it’s less like a pressure from the audience. I think that we very naively and adamantly believed that we were making a universal movie without having any proof, and if you look at the building blocks of the film—it’s incredibly esoteric, non-actors, low budget, all these things—but we always believed this was a universal film and I think feeling like that’s true is empowering and touching.
DJ: We always talk about “oh, we didn’t expect this to happen,” all that, but it does logically flow from what you just said about this being a universal film. It will have the impact. I just don’t think we made that leap. I don’t think that’s what motivated us in any way.
BZ: I think we believed conceptually that the types of films we wanted to make were going to be universal movies. I don’t think that we thought we’d be able to test that thesis with this film, because we didn’t think anybody was going to see it. The surprising thing is that so many people have seen it, but I don’t think we’re surprised that so many people like it. It’s just invigorating.
A: What was the final budget?
DJ: 1.8 million dollars.
A: Where did most of the financing come from?
DJ: Well, the film was fully financed by a non-profit company in New York called CineReach and we received some additional funding from the San Francisco Film Society. And we won the NHK Prize, but CineReach fully financed the film with the support of those two organizations. And Louisiana has very healthy tax incentives.
A: Can you talk a little about Court 13? What did it mean to you guys working with such a dedicated and close group of artists? How did it play into “Beasts,” and how do you hope Court 13 evolves as you both move forward with your careers?
DJ: One of the most defining characteristics of it—it’s what defined how Court 13 grew from the short film form into features—is that you have to figure out a way to be inclusive to new people joining. It wasn’t that we were one group of friends. It’s a model that’s based on a concentric circle of different communities that forms one new community.
BZ: On every film.
DJ: On every film and on every project. Everyone’s always asking, “Who’s in Court 13? Who owns Court 13? What is Court 13?” I always say that it changes from project to project. It’s an ethos that is based on; who you are as a person matters as much to us as what your experience in the film industry is. One of the remarkable things is that we had a lot of people from Wesleyan and a lot of people from Providence. The way it works is you join the crew, and suddenly Benh’s boat lights on fire and you know a guy in Providence who makes makeshift boats. It’s like, “oh, he should come down and join us!”
BZ: And eventually your siblings would end up in the movie too. Everyone at some point invited their siblings down. Things like that.
A: That sounds fantastic.
DJ: So it’s a very inclusive model and it’s not really this story where we are a group of friends who work together. We become this community around these projects, and I think in the process of doing that you become very close friends with people. But I think the relationships are different than normal friendships.
BZ: I think the other thing about it is that the people are independent. A couple of us make films, but a lot of the people working on the films are not filmmakers. They’re painters and boat builders and artists, and they treat their task like it’s their art within the film. And as far as the vision going forward, we really want to expand. It’s really not just a film-based enterprise. I just came from New Orleans, and we put on a massive, massive parade that was a funeral for one of the actors in our film. It was this humongous art project.
DJ: I heard it was awesome.
BZ: Yeah. You screwed up. [Laughs.] He wasn’t there. But we are hoping to do a lot of different things. For me, film really brings together almost every different type of artist. They have some role to play on a film. And I think that down the line we really want to continue making films in this way that’s collaborative art, and also see those different elements that make up the film operate independently as well as be multidisciplinary within this ethos of how we work.
A: You mentioned in the presentation that you wanted to follow the same mold as “Beasts” for your next project. Can you elaborate on this a bit? I read in another interview you mentioning “charging into the abyss…”
DJ: Jonas [Carpignano] calls it “chasing the elephant.” Or “chasing the tiger.”
BZ: Yeah, that’s another version of it.
DJ: Did he come up with that?
BZ: No, I made that up.
DJ: That’s all he talks about!
BZ: [Laughs.] Sorry!
DJ: It’s like, are we making a movie or going on a safari?
BZ: [Laughs.] I think that it’s the production model. It’s not going to be the same kind of story or the same look. It’s about replicating this process that is pretty unique and continuing to develop this different approach to making a film.
DJ: I think it recognizes that there are different types of people that can be involved in filmmaking both in front of the camera and behind the camera. At every step. I think we’ll work with a ton of non-professional performers again, a lot of children, location shooting, very similar writing process that’s open to a ton of research. Coming to a theater near you in 2015… or ’16.
BZ: [Laughs.] Yeah…they take a while.