Jul 23, 2008

Interview - Benh Zeitlin, Glory At Sea

This week, Benh Zeitlin, director of the oh so glorious SXSW winning short film Glory At Sea, was named one of Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces in Independent Film. I had the pleasure of profiling Benh for the magazine's new issue and recently I caught back up with him to talk about his film, the burgeoning new film collective Court 13 and whatever else came to mind. (He's photographed above by the terrific Richard Koek).

CEC: What provided the initial spark for Glory At Sea? How protracted or brief was the development process?

Zeitlin: The spark was an image of naked greek men catapulting out of the ocean in a symphonic hairy porpoise inspired resurrection finale that settled on an island paradise of obese naked love, which has almost nothing to with the finished film. The script was written in the middle of an absolute spree, in an hour, send to The Rooftop Filmmakers Fund and it wasn't 'till I got the grant that I realized I was actually going to make it. The project didn't truly take shape until after searching for locations in Europe I decided to come back to America, where the flurry of thoughts about redemption, reunion, and resurrection combined with the miraculous frontier town that is post-Katrina New Orleans, where I met the people who ended up acting in the film, who brought with them a force of communal tenacity and fatalistic passion that shifted the focus of the film from just wild surrealistic bombast to something that's more human about how people can respond to senseless tragedy rebelliously, with hope and love and total insanity.

The one thing that stuck from the original inspiration was the song I wrote that went along with the naked human manatee finale that ended up being the reunion theme in Glory, It has secret lyrics about how "we are going to our own afterlife" which was inspired by the story of Carlton Pearson, an American televangelist preacher who had a spiritual revelation that there is no hell, and that true hell is created here on this earth by people who fail to take care of their fellow human beings, which to me, spoke to the disgusting religious fanatical notion that tragedies of biblical proportions are brought on by their victims sinning ways. What carried through the project form beginning to end was the notion that people condemned by senseless tragedy can save themselves by virtue of their own camaraderie, bravery, and passion.

CEC: You work within a collaborative group of Filmmakers called Court 13. Tell us a bit about the origins of the group and some of its key functionaries.

Zeitlin: I'm not at liberty to describe the inner workings of the Court on my own. Suffice to say that it is ever growing - our captain is Jimmy Lee Moore - Josh Penn, Victor Jakovleski, Dan Janvey, and Michael Gottwald man the bulwarks, and we strive toward work that speaks love, honor, and friendship, and are ever vigilant to bring down the hegemony of that hollow feeling. I think I can also safely say that everyone in Court 13 rocks with Sam Cooke live at the Harlem Square Theater.

CEC: What is your background in cinema? Where you a cinephile from a young age on or did you come to appreciate and work in cinema gradually or not until adulthood?

Zeitlin: Always, I think. I played Superman in Batman: the movie when I was 6, directed by my current editor and camera operator Crockett Doob, who was also 6, and who was also involved in a very significant place called Pycior's basement, where Pycior lived, and where there was a VHS camera that me and my 12-year olds buddies, who like me, were spurned by the women of middle-school, would make these ultra-violent action epics, that had this true ferocious lunacy that I never really grew out of. Even though what gets me these days is Cassavettes, Sturges, Moodyson, and more obscure stuff, I think what's always in my head, are the movies I saw, and continue to watch in Pycior's basement- Wayne's World, Die Hard, Willow, Roger Rabbit, Aliens, Total Recall. Pycior himself now rocks with O'Death and Skeletonbreath, both close allies of Court 13. I'm also a huge football fan, which I wouldn't consider unrelated.

CEC: Your film won a shorts prize at SXSW - sadly, you we're hospitalized just prior due to an auto accident, correct? How is your recovery going?

Zeitlin: The accident happened days after finishing a year and half of breathing Glory at Sea around the clock, so it was kind of a mandatory vacation, Not one I've particularly appreciated. I just added a massive geezer-led hospital prison break to my next film, which is certainly inspired my experience in our health care system. But all in all considering the pretzel of metal they pried me out of I'm lucky to be able to wiggle my toes, and its certainly seeming like I'll make a full recovery down the line. Also, I'm happy to be living proof that watching movies, drinking whiskey, and making love can all be done without the use of ones right leg.

CEC: The production design in the film is quite, for lack of a better word, glorious. You worked with Ray Tintori, an accomplished shorts director in his own right, on that aspect of the film. Tell us about that specific collaboration.

Zeitlin: Because the film was about a group of people who attempt something impossible on purpose, with total disregard for practical physics and personal safety, we felt obligated to follow the rules of their mission in every element of the production. So the design of the boat, and the project itself, began with me, Ray, and producer Par Parekh wandering around the streets of NOLA, us seeing something on the side of the road like a gigantic burnt limousine or a discarded bathtub and say "that has to be on the boat," and that was that, nothing would stop us from putting it on. Things would also find us, we'd be talking about how we needed a piano on board, and someone would see what we were building offer us their grandmother's 18th century organ, which is just the kind of thing that happens in New Orleans. So the boat was built, and the script was written, to accommodate these objects and people that that found each other through the bizarre magnetism of the project, not the other was around.

And like everything else in the film, it was a massively communal project. Ray did a lot of the conceptual work, the actor who plays Sgt. Mgr, Jimmy Lee Moore engineered how to make the fucker float, Sophie Kosofsky (art director) welded the massive structure, and my sister Eliza dressed it and made it appropriately vicious and heartbreaking. When we finally had her floating our one-armed maniac tow-boatsman Mike Howell, who used to rescue home-made rafts refugeeing between Cuba and Florida said that in 36 years it was the least sea worthy vessel he had ever laid eyes on. Luckily for us, it was protected by miraculous forces.

CEC: What is your next project?

Zeitlin: I'm heading back to New Orleans to develop two guerilla features about the end of it all, this first is a comedy about a 10 year old girl in Georgia preparing for orphanhood in the wild as her father's cancer and a mythological southern apocalypse descend on her little world. Beasts of the southern wild, the hospital jailbreak, essential life lessons, and a lot of Italian dance music, and half-time show spectacle are going to be major.

The other is after the end, tentatively called Santa Maria, it takes place in 90 minutes of real time aboard a boat led by a maniac whose brought all the ingredients for a new civilization on board and gotten them stranded in the middle of the arctic ocean. A monstrous childbirth, divine interventions, continental mirages, and an impossible romance are involved. One of the two should be in production within the year.