The Collective Creative Genius of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This dreaded question, asked all the time of writers and artists, has no satisfactory answer, or at least no satisfactory short one. So I resisted the urge to ask it of Benh Zeitlin, director of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” when I interviewed him for a magazine around the time of the movie’s release. That “Beasts” went on to win international acclaim and multiple Oscar nominations didn’t surprise me. The film captivated me with its’ dense, dreamlike weaving of myth and reality.

In “Beasts”, six-year-old Hushpuppy lives with her hard-drinking – and dying – father in a scrappy bayou hamlet called the Bathtub, situated on the wrong side of the levee, the watery side where the wild things are found.

Hushpuppy’s capacious imagination drives the story; with it, she conjures what she needs to survive: a mother’s love, a concept of the universe and a cohesive sense of herself. But what about the imagination that created and populated the world of the Bathtub? What were the sources of this complex fable? Where did the ideas come from? And how did Court 13, Zeitlin’s filmmaking collective, make them into cinematic reality?

Zeitlin says he could not have made the movie without his Court 13 collaborators, and in an exhibition this month at the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans, those collaborators provide a memorable trip into the shared sensibility of the group. Beyond Beasts: The Art of Court 13 sets out to highlight “all the people, places and creatures that have inspired our stories.” According to the exhibit introduction, the work of Court 13 “never emerges from thin air; rather from a whirlpool of muses and ingredients.”

At the Contemporary Art Center, this whirlpool is represented in part by a gallery papered with hundreds of 8 x 10 color copies of images that spoke to the filmmakers. It’s hard to focus on individual images given their sheer number, but certain themes emerge: an affinity for hand-painted signs, solemn children, disheveled animals; a general preference for the gaudy, the rickety and the strange.

In the same space, short films by Court 13 members play on a wall-sized projection screen. Meanwhile video installations, presented on four HD screens, relate more literally to the making of “Beasts,” and include auditions, out-takes and behind-the-scenes footage with actors and crew, as well as with Zeitlin and playwright Lucy Alibar, the co-writer on the script.

It’s easy to believe that the filmmakers auditioned 4,000 children before settling on the brilliant Quvenzhane Wallis, who was five when she was cast in the leading role of Hushpuppy. But watching her audition tape adds depth to the story. When the playacting Benh Zeitlin demands she give him her money and threatens to hurt her friend, Wallis comes back at him with same fierceness she draws on for “Beasts.” And there is a poignant behind-the-scenes moment from the shoot: Wallis notices that one of the crew is filming her, and says, “Just don’t put it on the Internet.” “No, never,” he promises.

A separate corner gallery belongs to Benh’s sister Eliza, a set designer on “Beasts.” In the behind-the-scenes videos you only catch glimpses of her – here with a hammer, there with a welder’s mask and acetylene torch. But her genius is fully on display in “The Lion: For Slightly,” an enormous sculpture dedicated to those who have been killed by cars. Built of chunks of mangled autos, metal pipes and wooden beams and planks, it is twenty feet tall and you can climb in it.

“Beyond Beasts” made a start in answering the question I’d refrained from putting to Benh Zeitlin. But I had another thought as I watched a video of Zeitlin giving a pep talk to his collaborators and actors on the night before filming began. His message is, when things screw up, as they inevitably will, remember this moment and how good it feels to be here about to start on this incredible journey together. None of the people listening could have foreseen the glory in store for their ragtag, seat-of-the-pants project; nevertheless they were ready to jump into the deep end.

Beyond Beasts: The Art of Court 13 was meant to suggest the inspirations behind the movie and it does. But it shows something else as well: in embarking on any artistic endeavor there is something more essential even than ideas: courage.