SpoutBlog – Mediadiet: Benh Zeitlin

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Benh Zeitlin of GLORY AT SEA: The Media Diet
By Brandon Harris

2008 has proven to be a year of many ironies for filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, some sweet, others sour. His film, the visionary SXSW shorts winner Glory at Sea, is a sprawling post-Katrina, post-Apocalyptic New Orleans epic about a roving band of vagabonds and their child companions, all searching for their things or people they’ve lost within the watery gulf. The film bowed just days after Zeitlin was nearly killed in a horrible car accident while on his way to Austin for its premiere. While recovering, a small cult has built around the film and Zeitlin’s profile has only continued to gain steam, culminating last month when he was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces in Independent Film. He’s a true blue cinephile, with taste that ranges from the esoteric to the height of 80’s Hollywood trash (we’ll forgive him for not digging Antonioni’s masterful The Passenger).

We caught up with Benh to discuss the inability of contemporary movies to depict dynamic female characters, his obsession with filmmaking on boats and why Van Morrison is his dream collaborator.

What films or television shows have you seen recently?

After seeing Wanted I got incredibly depressed and vowed not to return to the theater until Pineapple Express comes out, so my list is all old stuff: Except Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World.

Other than that, Preston Sturges’ Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Palm Beach Story, and Christmas in July, Lukas Moodysson’s Together, Capra’s Meet John Doe, Cassavetes’ Love Streams, Kon-Tiki the doc made aboard a homemade raft crossing the pacific in 1947, Hawks’ Ball of Fire and this French Medieval Huguenot massacre flick Queen Margot that is totally bonkers. OH! and the fucking The Gravy Train AKA The Dion Brothers was one of the best buddy comedies I’ve ever seen, it was double featured with Tango & Cash in David Gordon Green’s BAM series.

I feel like I’m forgetting some stuff because those movies are all totally fantastic and life hasn’t been that good lately.., oh yeah, I turned off Explicit Ills by Mark Webber, and I hated Antonioni’s The Passenger, that guy’s vibe just rubs me the wrong way, I think he’s totally full of shit.

Which ones stick with you and why?
Together by Lukas Moodyson. He’s my favorite director who is still working and not over the hill. It takes a set of characters surrounding a Swedish hippie commune with a deeply ridiculous outlook on life, and instead of humiliating the characters for laughs, takes their fears their insecurities, and tries to understand them, tries to forgive them their limitations, and succeeds in embracing people that you would otherwise dismiss as bunch of fools. It’s just a beautiful humanist attitude to try to see people in all their complexities, and diversities, and absurdities and embrace them on screen. There’s so much condescension and irony, and emotional distance in what passes for indie movies these days, this movie has none of that. And its funny. And it has a big middle aged woman who is a bombshell.

A bunch of the movies in that list have ladies that stick with me, the ladies in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Ball of Fire, Meet John Doe, Palm Beach Story, and Love Streams are so far and above anything going on today. Female characters in general have to be the most gaping disparity between life and cinema. Women are amazing, how come not in movies? I’m mean, look around you, women are friends with each other, I can count the number of believable female friendships I’ve seen on screen on one hand, and I’m not talking about that hackneyed faux-feminist Thelma and Louise shit. Minnie and Moskowitz has a great friendship, Days of Heaven has one, Rosie and Madonna in A League of their Own totally make it happen, Fucking Amal by Moodyson has one, and then I draw a blank.

I think the easiest way to make a good film is just to write three dimensional women, you’ll already be way ahead of 98% of movies these days. And it’s not just talking about art films, 10 or 15 years ago, in big movies you had great women, Die Hard, great, Point Break, Aliens, and its not like these ladies are such brilliantly rounded figures, but they at least have some spunk, some personality, a sense of humor, and a degree of humanity to them, unlike the cardboard cut outs they’re serving up today. Even in the better blockbusters, Spiderman, Pirates of the Caribbean, these women are total nonsense, even if you’re just going to write a damsel in distress to motivate your dude hero, you got to give him something to fight for with a little personality.

Does your interest in them have anything to do with your own work as a filmmaker?
Yea, my first two films were animated, and after spending 3 years alone in room with puppets I really wanted to get outside and make something with my friends, with people. I get less and less interested in the bizarre and fantastical and more and more into characters. No movie is good unless you care about the characters, I can’t understand people that make films about people they clearly don’t like or respect. I want to watch directors who love people and who go after emotions, Casavettes and Moodyson are my guys right now. Sturges too, his women are dynamite.

How often do you read fiction? Do you wish you read more?
These days, and whenever I’m between films doing research, I read a lot of non-fiction, these days most especially the Ocean Almanac by Robert Hendrickson which is the world’s absolute finesest collection of sea-lore and sea-knowlege, and a general compendium of the best facts and stories on earth. I would very happily make only movies set on ships, I would have no problem being typecast that way. All I really want to do is live on a boat, filmmaking is just a mean to that end.

What would be your ideal literary adaptation and why?
Moby Dick, without question. But just to go into something a little less public, In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, it’s written as a story but taken from the actual diaries of one of the sailors on the Essex, which is the maritime disaster that Moby Dick was based on, where a whale rammed a ship repeatedly, sank it, and propelled its passengers into a voyage in row boats back toward South America that ends, as most survival stories tend to, in cannibalism. I’d want to fuse it with some of the lore from the Raft of the Medusa whose story is beyond insane, there are a couple good books about it. Basically, these cowardly fuckers stranded over a 100 people on this tiny raft with barely any food and tons of wine and absolute mayhem ensued. They were there 3 days and only something like 15 people survived, mostly because they all massacred each other in a drunken suicidal rage. I don’t know what gets me about these stories, I guess I feel that a good story is about someone who is really, truly in trouble. When we face the most extreme facets of ourselves at the pivotal moments of our lives. And that they’re on the water.

How, if at all, has reading informed your filmmaking?
Authors are really great to steal from, because they’re really smart and no one reads anymore so you’ll never get caught. I’m sure it does but not sure how, I admire writers and strive and fail to tell stories
with the same kind of power as they do. My favorite writers off the top of my head are Hemingway, Miller, Carver, Melville, Calvino and Faulkner. A bunch of drunken dudes, not sure what that says about me. Oh, and let me recommend What is Not to Love? by Jonathan Ames.

What are you listening to recently?
Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Theater, Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Meat Puppets, The Dubliners, The Melvins, ODB and the first Wu Tang Clan album. OH! and Gigi D’Agostino, the genius of Italian dance pop. My next film will feature a ton of his music. Kate Ferencz, Ann Peebles, John Prine’s 1st album, O’Death, Mozart’s Requiem, Rachmaninov piano concerto #3, Skeletonbreath, the Woes, Metallica’s Kill ‘em All. I had this mix when I’d go on 3 day editing sprees that randomized Andrew WK, Creedence, Queen and Meatloaf, that was an incredibly powerful sauce.

If you could collaborate with one musician on a film, who would it be and why?
Van Morrison, I have this dream film where I get Van Morrison to play himself traveling through war-torn NATO strike era Yugoslavia after being shot down in a airplane trying to get to Belgrade where he’s set up his farewell show after seeing a TV spot about a Van Morrison cover band that’s playing “bombing-parties” where all the high school kids go out during air raids, set up speakers somewhere that’s already been hit, get drunk and play “Gloria” and make out. Van, if you’re out there, it’s gonna be a hit.