Innovators: Court 13 Rides High on the Backs of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Celebrating the success of a collective that isn't just interested in making films that grow out of the culture around them, but in changing the culture of making films...
Quvenzhané Wallis in a scene from Court 13 and Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild

This week on The Moveable Fest, we’re celebrating a collection of filmmakers who are finding a new way into the film industry on their own terms.

There’s a happy ending to “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but don’t worry if I say so since it doesn’t involve the film’s central character Hushpuppy, the fiercely determined child who comes into her own in the Louisiana bayou during the course of the film. Instead, it’s the triumphant title card that reads “A Film by Court 13” just as the screen snaps to black and the rousing score by Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin reaches its crescendo.

The high note is just one of many this year for the Court 13 collective (or “filmmaking army,” to go by their official site), a group led by writer/director Zeitlin, his sister Eliza and producers Dan Janvey, Michael Gottwald and Josh Penn, who saw their much-buzzed-about “Beasts” take home the coveted Narrative Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and would subsequently have their equally well-regarded “Tchoupitoulas,” Bill and Turner Ross’s extraordinary chronicle of one evening in the French Quarter through the eyes of a trio of young boys, picked up by Oscilloscope to be released later this year.

While both films share a Louisiana setting and would be better described as immersive experiences that pull you in than as mere movies you watch, what’s even more notable is that that they are the products of a larger community. Not only are the residents of the place they’re set actively involved in a film’s creation, but Court 13 is comprised of artists who realize the strength in numbers and come together to build something greater than their individual skillsets would allow for on a project that goes well beyond just one production.

Like Borderline Films, the Brooklyn-based outfit of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” filmmakers Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, Court 13 is part of growing movement towards creating self-sustaining cinematic endeavors, transcending the realm of independent film to become not dependent. One would assume there’s no distinction between the two as the term “indie” derives from a separation from the studio system, but by approaching film as an ongoing concern, creative partnerships such as Court 13 aren’t piecing together films from what’s available to them at any given time, but instead allowing projects to grow organically with a stronger investment in the long term than the short.

“Probably too many films mechanize their labor,” says Zeitlin, the director of “Beasts.” “We want our people working to feel ownership over the film and to take pride in any little piece of wood they’re painting, so you want that love to all end up on the screen. To me, the author of the film is this family.”

Zeitlin’s referring to the entire Court 13 operation, which now encompasses people at every level of production, but it all began when Zeitlin started work on his senior thesis film “egg.” at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Although fellow students Gottwald and Janvey couldn’t have fully anticipated what they were getting themselves into — and Penn would come aboard later — Zetilin’s ambition and love of fantastical aquatic-based productions was already on full display with the stop-motion animated short film that was a loose takeoff on “Moby Dick.” Quite literally, Janvey found himself facing the prospect of putting out fires as a producer when Zeitlin had built the entire set for the film in his basement.

“The fire marshal at Wesleyan came into that basement and said literally it was the worst fire hazard he had ever seen, so it forced Benh to transport the whole operation to the squash court,” Janvey said, noting the inspiration for the group’s moniker. “When we were making [Benh’s next short] ‘Glory at Sea,’ the Coast Guard told us that the boat we were building was the least seaworthy vessel they had ever seen in their lives. I think ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ represents when the authorities did not tell us that we were the least responsible human beings in the state of Louisiana.”

Ironically, since Zeitlin spearheaded a move to the South after a brief apprenticeship to animator Jan Svankmajer in Europe, Court 13 has been all about shouldering responsibility. While the collective had to set aside their burgeoning afterschool filmmaking program for seven to 12-year-olds in New Orleans to make “Beasts” (in which some of the kids can be seen in small roles), Court 13 has remained committed to their college collaborators – the credits include composer Romer and Ray Tintori, who after helming videos for fellow Cardinals MGMT would appear primed for a feature debut of his own – and to their adopted home of Louisiana, which they captured the vibrancy, the tradition and the joy of so well in Zeitlin’s second short “Glory at Sea.”

“We wanted to preserve that adventurous spirit and that openness to chaos or entropy or mayhem, but really build an infrastructure around it that could sustain that,” Janvey said of the epic 25-minute confection.

Two years later, the production of “Beasts” consisted of extensive work with the actors, primarily with Louisiana roots, to have the “film dragged towards reality” in Zeitlin’s words with mandatory breaks instituted to attend Friday night seafood dinners with the locals on the Isle of Jean Charles since as Gottwald says, “Being enveloped into a community and being able to creatively function there is the same deal.” The end result is that as the depth of Court 13’s bench grows, so does the depth of their work.

“I think the reason the film feels so full is because it has so many different creative people putting a stamp on it and getting themselves on screen,” says Zeitlin of “Beasts.” “A film is made up of so many people and I always feel like I want you to sense how good our cooks were when you’re watching the movie.”

As for what Court 13 will do to top the year they’ve had, the future remains unclear, though separately Gottwald is currently at work on Michael Tully’s ‘80s set Susan Sarandon-starrer “Ping Pong Summer” and Penn is doing the same for Sara Dosa’s mushroom hunting doc “Roots and Webs.”

“We go on these adventures and then take stock,” said Janvey. “We don’t know what [the next one] is yet, but we know the family will be there and we’ll form a new family too on top of that.”

Adds Zeitlin, “We try to party our way to something creative.”

Don’t expect this party to end any time soon.

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