Scene Stealers’ Critic and Contributor Trey Hock had the chance to sit down and chat with two crewmembers from the recently released Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Trey has known Matt Harfield and Wyatt Garfield since his years in film school. The three of them discuss the finer aspects of filmmaking including gators, swamp itch, and just what a Gaffer and Best Boy Grip do.
They also get around to talking about what it’s like to work with a committed crew that is responsible for one of the best films so far in 2012.
M – Sure, I was Best Boy Grip on Beasts of the Southern Wild. I was part of shaping the light and making everything look good with Wyatt and the rest of the G & E team. So a lot of lugging sand bags and stands around in the heat.
W – I was the gaffer. The Gaffer is the head of the electrical department, and we are responsible for making the film look good.
The film looks like it wasn’t lit at all. It looks likes it was just naturally lit by the sun and practical light in scenes, but it was actually painstakingly crafted to look that way with lots of light and a lot of subtle manipulation.
T – You mean you didn’t just show up and roll camera?
W – Yeah I just showed up took light meter readings and said go.
T – Can you talk a little bit about the difficulty of filming on location? What was it like to shoot in the summer time on the water of the Louisiana gulf?
W – Sure. A lot of the film was shot on the water. Even the days where it seemed like we weren’t out on the water, like the schoolhouse, it’s actually still sitting on the water.
There were constant discussions about how we’re going to get equipment out over the water or into the water. We came up with a lot of different solutions for that, like driving stands into the mud of the Mississippi River or lashing frames to boats. There was just a lot of strapping things to structures and just hoping they held up. There was a lot of mud involved in just about everyone of those approaches.
M – One of the most challenging things was definitely the humidity and the heat, which was very intense.
There were a lot of horseflies around and you’d be carrying stands or something heavy while horseflies were biting your face. You can’t really do anything about it at that point, because you have such a long way to walk and you got this real heavy thing in your arms. You just want to go, but they’re just constantly attacking you. Yeah that’s something that I remember as being particularly . . . brutal.
W – There were a couple of days where we went to this area where Cyprus trees are just growing out of the water. So it looks like it’s been flooded. We’d be wading around in the water and these sulphuric bubbles would be rising up around you as you unsettled the muck.
Every now and then you’d look over and there be some exotic monstrous bug just sitting there on the water in front of you. One time, I don’t even know what it was, but something just started biting the director. Hard. It was just some vicious beetle or spider or something. We were constantly in it.
T – Gators?
M – Yeah we had safety lessons, and we saw a few gators, but nothing awful, right?
W – We definitely saw some gators. There is a gator in the film, but there was an actual gator-wrangler for that guy.
T – Nutria?
W – Nutria aren’t really a threat except that there is some bacteria in their feces, and if you go into the water starting in June or July, you can get this vicious rash called swamp itch. I think a couple of crew members got it a little, but no one got a bad case of swamp itch.
M – Before we went out, this man came out and described all the horrors of the bayou and all of the terrible things that you could catch or get bitten by, ways you could die. It was a good way to start out our whole production.
W – If we hadn’t been terrified, something probably would have happened.
Let me just say that the producers of this film hand-picked people who were going to be down with getting in the mud and just grinding through it. Everyone involved was not afraid to get their feet wet.
T – So were there crew members who opted out or didn’t make the cut, because of the conditions?
W – Absolutely. They had a hard time locking down a cinematographer for a while, because the DPs would just look at the money [the production] had and then look at the location and say, “This is impossible.” It was definitely daunting to some people.
Even some friends of ours in Los Angeles, who we wanted to come out, it didn’t quite fit into their, their life plan.
T – Beasts and all small independent films are usually labors of love. What kept you going day to day, because I’m assuming it probably wasn’t the paycheck?
M – A lot of it has to do with Wyatt. He asked me if I wanted to go down [to Louisiana], because he had met the Court 13 guys before. He had worked on their short, Glory at Sea, and he said, “Hey do wanna come down to the bayou for a few months and work on this crazy feature?” and I said, “Sure.”
Having Wyatt, and Erin [Staub] there helps, but it was also just crazy enough to be exciting. It was definitely something that I wanted to be a part of. The enthusiasm of everybody and the way the crew all came together as a family including the producers and Benh Zeitlin, the director, it all helps you get through the heat and bugs and everything.
You could tell it was something special from just being there.
T – Wyatt, you know the Court 13 people even a little better than Matt. At what point did you think that Beasts of the Southern Wild could be something really special?
W – Both Erin and I went to New Orleans the week after we graduated, to spend time with her family, and after a week or so we were bored. So we checked Craigslist to see if there was any film stuff going on. This is probably the first and only Craigslist response that lead to anything.
[Court 13] needed some help loading props out of a warehouse, and shooting pickups for Glory at Sea, which is this epic short film that had been in and out of production as they’d run out of money then fire up the troops again.
Erin and I showed up towards the end, when they were totally exhausted. They were like you do cinematography? Great. Shoot these pickups.
We knew right then and there that these folks were making films in a way that was unusual and spirited.
Their whole approach is to involve locals, to involve people who aren’t necessarily filmmakers, but who are enthusiastic and have talents that a lot of filmmakers who have been doing it for 25 years don’t necessarily have.
M – Fire and grit!
W – Yeah, absolutely.
T – It’s interesting that you brought up Court 13’s involvement to community. Beasts really feels like it comes from a place that is steeped in the community where it comes from. Any other way might feel exploitive.
W – There’s always the risk of that when you set out to make an art film in a community of people who have never seen an art film. From the early days of [Court 13] scouting, they involve people in a way that’s really genuine, and not exploitive at all.
They certainly make real friends with the people that they’re working with, and when they’re done shooting the movie, they don’t just hang up the phone and leave them there forever. A lot of the crewmembers ended up moving to New Orleans after the shoot, because they just loved Louisiana so much.
One thing they insisted on when the film sold to Fox was that they could do a premiere in the actual town that we shot in.
Matt and I went out to that a few weeks ago and they filled this huge rec center with the town. There were crying babies in the audience. It was a very vocal small town crowd and they were totally into it. We all partied with them afterwords.
[Court 13] is a collective that becomes irreversibly attached to the region they are working in.
T – It sounds wonderful, rare, and also emotionally draining. I do think that comes through in the film. There is a sense of strength, joy and melancholy, but also, and I hesitate to say it because I often use the term derisively, a real sincerity. This film pulls off sincerity in a way that feels vibrant and subtle instead of pat and cliché.
M – Also you’re including all the extras, who are just people from the town. [Dwight] Henry, the guy that plays Wink, is from New Orleans, and Nazie [Quvenzhané Wallis] is from Houma. So it’s all local and homegrown, right there, and the sincerity of Benh Zietlin who wanted to include the community in anyway he could.
T – How was the food?
M – Awesome.
W – Great. Connie and Barbara handled most of the food. Barbara handled most of the campout, big pot, stew type meals. Some great local cuisine. We also had quite a few local catch seafood boils, which were incredible. We would have cases and cases of Miller High Life and we would gorge ourselves on spiced Gulf shrimp and crawfish and crab.
M – The day before we started shooting we had a huge seafood boil. The crew came together on the water to meet each other and food kind of kicked it all off.
And Miller High Life.
T – So you were all part of a more joyful Apocalypse Now production, which didn’t go quite as long, but it seems like you were living within the culture of the film.
M – Exactly. It was just like that.
W – Miller High Life was definitely the glue that held people together.
T – It is “the champagne of beers.”
M – We’d all get together at the end of the week and screen dailies. So regardless of whether the week had been tough, or you were tired and strung out, you had that daily screening to unwind and hangout.
Though normally, Wyatt and I would have to tent out some location and work real hard the next day.
W – Yeah, on our days off, we generally had to still work. We would pre-light for locations.
M – We were tenting out crazy structures that were in trees. You had to work around tree limbs and make sure that no light gets in because Nazie couldn’t shoot at night. So we had to shoot all of those nighttime interiors during the day. They were quite a task.
T – So you were covering huge structures with black fabric so that it would look like nighttime for the shoot during the day?
W – Exactly. When we tented out the tree, there is the tree house, which is a good twelve feet in the air, and then there is the tree around it. One day we had tent out the entire tree and create a thunderstorm inside of it for the rain sequence.
There was water pouring down through the set, and we couldn’t afford real lightning strikes so we had set up Home Depot shop lights that actually strike very quickly. We also needed that extra space. It was just kind of a nightmare.
T – That’s amazing.
M – Wyatt, at the LA premiere, one of the producers told one of his friends that you and I were directly responsible for making that scene look so awesome.
T – Well it looks great. At the time it may have been a troubling and really difficult, but it looks great. Had you two not told me you had to tent it out, I would have never known. It’s very convincing.
W – A lot of effort went into making it look like we didn’t do anything.
T – That happens a lot. If you’re doing your job on set really well, people won’t even know to applaud you.
M – But it looks great.
W – Yeah, I think it looks beautiful in a way that I hope most people won’t even pick up on.
T – Would either of you jump onto another Court 13 project?
M – Best Boy Grip forever.
W – I’m focused almost exclusive on cinematography, but I would still throw down for them. It’s fun to be a part of something that’s basically an 80-person hippie commune. I would feel really bad missing out on that if they did it again.
M – I love all those guys so much. I’d love to be a part of whatever they had going on.
Check out Trey’s full review of Beasts of the Southern Wild here.