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Organizers of the Filmic Wild: Living the Story to Make the Story

Producer Michael Gottwald wanted to "live the story" when he made "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Here's how he got the whole crew on board.

The commonly held notion of a community organizer is associated with the goal of active, explicit change. That change is political in the most basic sense -- be it moving a traffic sign in your neighborhood or electing a candidate to national office. Rooted in the work of Saul Alinsky and Marshall Ganz, the community organizer uses leadership to transform the passions and frustrations of a group of people into collective power, and then leverages that power into action. It is based on the idea that though we are all individuals with our own stories, in the intersection of those stories we can find and move towards a common goal. Step 1 in an organizer’s toolbox: have your community members share their story.

Why then, can’t one use community organizing for the sake of art? Isn’t one goal of art, in its reception, to illuminate a truth that feels resonant with a wide-reaching group of humans, no matter where specifically each comes from? So then why not find that common bond in the process of that art’s creation?

A film production, for example, is always a collaborative effort of artists. One could argue that the producer is the organizer in that he or she has to keep them working towards the common goal. But with the rest of the crew, tradition typically favors a gun-for-hire mentality. A specialized laborer comes into wherever the film is being shot, does his craft, gets his check, and leaves.

With the crew of Beasts of the Southern Wild, however, the currency of passion about the project was just as important if not more important than the currency of fiscal compensation. We wanted to live the challenges of the story, and that meant living in a very isolated area, in a harsh climate, only amongst ourselves. Either you were up for what it took to make the movie, or you weren’t. If you were in, we could promise that you would help us collectively accomplish the unimaginable. If you weren’t, it was understandable.

The “community” in community filmmaking doesn’t merely refer to the insular circle of the crew; it also refer to the actual area you’re making your temporary home, so frequently forgotten in the chaos of a film production. In our first trips to the bayou, we were less location scouters snapping photos and leaving, and more casual visitors, slowly and organically getting to know the people through celebration, conversation, and more than a few beers. Needless to say the film is inspired by their spirit, but once they came to understand our vision, they were trading in our currency of passion as well. Many in Terrebonne Parish gave their time, energy, boats, and animals because the film was special to them.

In casting the film with entirely people local to Southern Louisiana, the first thing we would ask an auditioner is that he or she tell us a little about themselves -- who they are, where they come from, what they do. In other words, share your story. Step 1. This was ten times more important to us than if they could read lines off a script.

Stories connect us, get us to empathize, and experience our common humanity. That’s very powerful, and power can create change. But it’s also the stuff of art.

A founding member of New Orleans' Court 13, Michael Gottwald has been a producer, field organizer, new media director, occasional freelance writer, and everlasting film dork. His past work includes "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (Benh Zeitlin) and "Tchoupitoulas" (the Ross Brothers), also a music video for Big Freedia, and he is currently producing "Ping Pong Summer" (Michael Tully), and "Western" (the Ross Brothers). He is currently a fellow at NYU's Cinema Research Institute, where he is studying how grassroots political campaign tactics can be used in the self-distribution of film.

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