With his Oscar-nominated debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin brought to the screen a vision of Louisiana that combined the unique flavors and textures of his adopted home state with the magical twists and turns of a fairy tale. As a kid growing up in New York City, his first formative encounters with the American South were in the work of Les Blank, a fiercely independent documentary filmmaker who traveled around the United States to capture its diverse traditions and folkways. While Zeitlin was in town for the release of his new film Wendy, a sumptuously photographed reimagining of Peter Pan shot in Antigua, he talked with us about the loving, humanistic view of America he discovered in Blank’s films and the profound impact it has had on his life and art.
This article about the opening sequence of Dry Wood, a richly detailed portrait of Southwest Louisiana’s black Creole community that Blank made in 1973, is edited together from our conversation with Zeitlin.
My relationship with Les Blank’s films dates back to long before I moved to Louisiana as an adult. My parents are folklorists who run a nonprofit in New York called City Lore, and they used to put on a film festival. I had my first experiences watching these documentaries at around the age of eight or nine, when I would tag along with my family to various cultural events—a freakshow on Coney Island, a Chinese opera, a gospel concert—probably because they couldn’t find a babysitter. I remember thinking his films were so different from anything I’d seen before; they were the first real movies I’d encountered that weren’t videos made for kids. What struck me about Dry Wood at the time was the chicken chase at the beginning. My mom is from South Carolina, and we have family games at Christmas that involve chasing chickens and pigs. Watching Dry Wood, I realized there were other people who shared these traditions I’d grown up with.
I lost track of his movies until I was older and became a filmmaker, and then I went back and rewatched everything. You can tell from his style just how much time he’s taken to enter a place that’s not his own before starting to film the people there, the time that went into building those relationships. His aesthetic feels so in sync with the customs he’s depicting, which are not regimented at all. When you see a parade in this movie, it’s not made up of marching soldiers; it’s chaotic, with everyone going in different directions. There’s a frenetic energy that he’s trying to replicate through cinema, in the editing and the sound and the camerawork. Nothing is clean or perfect; the edges are showing. You see characters looking directly at the camera, and sometimes they’re even laughing at him. There’s no sense that he’s trying to impose his own vision on things.
Within Blank’s Louisiana films—I think of Dry Wood as being of a piece with Spend It All, Always for Pleasure, and Hot Pepper—the opening sequence in Dry Wood sticks out to me, because it contains a number of the things I love about his work in general. In this scene, you start to notice how he captures sensations that are not commonly transmitted through film. Certain feelings are easier to get across in movies: pain, for instance. So much of cinema is people getting shot in the face, people being miserable. It’s harder to evoke smell and taste and, strangely, joy. I’m inspired by how vividly Blank captures a celebration, and it’s something that I’ve tried to achieve in my own work. The way most narrative films are shot, there are so many layers—the structure, the pressure, the money—that work against the spirit of spontaneity or anything being out of control. People underestimate just how hard it is to capture what it’s like to have a good time. Blank shows all the things that happen at a celebration: not just the revelry but also the folks watching from the sidelines, rolling cigarettes, telling jokes. There’s nothing constructed about it.
In this scene you feel a particularly Louisianan idea of celebration being a form of liberation. There have been other movies about the state that show it as a kind of wonderland, or as a place that’s spooky and strange, like in an Anne Rice novel. When I was a kid I’m sure some of that superficial stuff was what captured my imagination. But what actually made me want to stay was the vitality and warmth of the people.
I’ve studied Blank’s camerawork very closely with my cinematographers. For both of my feature films, I wanted to bring myth into reality, and to figure out how to get closer to documentary, even though the stories I was telling were fiction. Blank was a big reason I gravitated toward a handheld style that stays inside the action; the camera becomes a kind of performer, and the cameraman’s role is to be a dude shooting a documentary. The camera never knows what’s coming; it’s always a few seconds late. For Wendy, we knew we’d be compositing in a volcano in one scene and that it was going to erupt. But even though that was a special effect, we knew the camera couldn’t be there beforehand, anticipating the event. We also worked hard to make our sets 360 degrees, or if we were shooting out in nature, we took a lot of time to figure out how to hide the crew. This gave the actors, especially the children, the freedom to be wild, to not worry about hitting marks. It didn’t matter if the camera got shaky or fell out of focus for a minute.
You find that same approach in the opening of Dry Wood. Information unfolds in a way that’s dynamic and lived-in. You start out in a chicken coop, where you see a guy grab a chicken that you assume he’s going to slaughter. Then the scene moves to an open field and you see some guys in crazy costumes, and you have no idea why they’re wearing them. After the guy throws the chicken to them, it bolts and suddenly the camera is chasing after it. Everything’s out of control, and the scene is being dictated by the movements of the chicken! You’re in that world, and it’s alive. There’s an incredible humanism to this method of shooting. It’s character-based, and it shows us an entire culture through the journey of this one man. You feel the energy of the chase—and you come to understand why people do this, without Blank ever having to explain it to you from an outsider’s point of view.
I love that this scene just drops you right into the action. The first five to ten minutes of any movie teach you how to watch it, and typically when filmmakers open without giving you much information, it feels like they’re challenging you. At the beginning of Dry Wood, you get subtitling at random, lots of dialogue you might not understand, characters who aren’t introduced. The music drops out on hard cuts, and at one point it gets slowed down and turned into a surreal soundscape. There are so many strange, sweet things in here, but it’s all so welcoming because each shot has been chosen for its fun and joy. Les Blank is one of the only filmmakers who shot America like this, and I’ve learned so much from how he portrayed our country.