Sundance Diary: Finding comedy after Katrina in 'Low and Behold'
Welcome to the last installment in my Pulitzer prize-winning series, “Three Depressing Issues and the Men Who Brought Them To Sundance So I Could Get Really Sad About the State of the World.” Today I present Zack Godshall, the director and co-writer of Low and Behold, a docudrama about post-Katrina New Orleans. Zack wrote the movie with his friend Barlow Jacobs (pictured), who also stars as the shy, repressed Turner Stall; Barlow actually lost his house in Katrina and spent some time after the hurricane working as an insurance claim adjuster, and the movie is based on his experiences. They’ve also spliced in interviews with real live NOLA residents who are now either living in FEMA trailers or struggling to rebuild what they had. It’s not a party-time movie, I can tell ya that, but I did laugh out loud several times, mostly just at the communication breakdown between Turner and his insurance clients. It’s possible I was laughing to avoid looking at the mold on all the walls, or the cars overturned in the streets.
Anyway, Zack was my last interview of Sundance, and this is my last Sundance post. I’m sorry if I’m going out on a downer, but I really thought this was important to throw in here. Mr. Godshall is a handsome, unassuming Southern lad with a slight drawl and a tentative way of speaking. Check out the clips and photos on the movie’s site; some of the shots—of empty lots, abandoned warehouses, vast wastelands—will hang with me for a while.
This is your first Sundance—how’s it going?
Showing the movie to people is overwhelming. Just showing it to a crowd of 400 people. I’ve only watched it in a room with like 15 people, so I’m pretty excited about the way people are responding to it.
Are there certain moments people are jumping on?
I think the thing that excites me most is that the film balances some tragic, sad stuff with some comedic elements—the characters are pretty funny, or at least I think they are—and so I guess it makes me happy when I hear people laughing. ’Cause we’re from down around New Orleans, and me and the co-writer, Barlow, wanted to make a movie that would touch on all the different emotional responses, the different ways people are behaving in that environment, and some of the more offbeat, almost absurdist things that are going on. The tragedy is very obvious. But there are moments of comedy you don’t see other places, and that’s something we thought was interesting. Just the fact of a stranger coming into another person’s home and going through all their personal belongings—that’s a very odd situation. So things come out of that that are pretty weird.
Where exactly are y’all from?
I’m from Lafayette, which is about 120 miles west of New Orleans.And Barlow lives in New Orleans. Most of the people who worked on thefilm live in New Orleans.
So you understand that feeling of, Oh, it’s just a hurricane, big whoop.
Yeah. The year before, Hurricane Ivan was bearing down on NewOrleans and they called a mandatory evacuation and a lot of peopleleft, or moved into the Superdome, and it barely drizzled. So the nextyear, Katrina’s coming, and people are skeptical. Like, I don’t want toevacuate, because I did it last year and it was terrible. So theygambled.
When you sat down to write this, did you go do interviews withpeople in New Orleans first? Because all those documentary-styleinterviews with folks, those are real people, right?
Yes. There’s a lot of people who are not actors. They’re justtelling their stories and experiences. And we used our main character,the claims adjuster, to talk to people and listen to their stories.
Did you start knowing who you wanted to talk to, or just go down there and see what you found?
We wrote a script based on Barlow’s experiences, and together wemade up the story. Then after we shot the scripted stuff, we shot abouttwo and a half weeks of unscripted things. We just met people in thestreet. And we’ve even got some scenes that were shot off the cuff withnon-actors kind of reenacting what happened to them, so some of thepeople you see in the film are real people responding to Barlow like hewas their real claims adjuster.
When were you down there shooting?
May, June of 2006.
So all that rubble and crap is still exactly like that.
Yep. Most of the rubble is from June 2006, and I would say for themost part you could shoot all that stuff today. It’s kind of shocking.There’s minor improvements, but not much. We were just there rightbefore Sundance and went to one of our old locations where some of thehouses had been demolished, but on the lot there were boats that weretrashed, water heaters turned upside down, and this is a neighborhoodthat was, you know, a nice neighborhood. But it looks like a garbagedump.
And is anybody policing that stuff?
It’s pretty much a ghost town. Here and there there’s constructioncrews, but you never see that much construction. We didn’t have anyproblems—we got permission from all the locations that we actuallyfilmed on private property. We did film a lot of stuff from thestreets, just scenery of homes and areas that you could drive throughand see miles and miles of house after house—well, really, lot afterlot, because there weren’t any houses.
Do you get the sense there’s someone in charge there now?
I don’t think so. It feels like a pretty helpless situation in a lotof these areas, especially St. Bernard Parish, south of New Orleans. Itwas 100 percent flooded—a lot of people don’t realize that. It’s anindustrial, blue collar, working class area, and every shopping center,every store, every house was flooded with 6 to 12 feet of water. It’shard to imagine. If you go there, you can sort of begin to maybeimagine what it was like. The scope is huge.
Besides the Spike Lee documentary, this is really the first movie to be down there looking at this?
I guess so. There are a bunch of short documentaries people aremaking, a lot of New Orleans filmmakers who are trying to address it ina way, but our goal was to make a fictional film, tell a fictionalstory set within that environment, but still embrace the realenvironment that we interacted with.
But in a lot of ways, this might as well be a documentary.
I agree. It’s a testament to a time and a place that existed back inMay and June of 2006. One of my goals would be that this is a documentfor those people.
When it gets out there and gets distributed, do you have an idea of what you want people to take away from it?
I hope that people can get into the story—the story is the way toget into this world—and hopefully it can make you look at yoursurroundings in a new way. I think everyone felt pretty connected toNew Orleans when Katrina hit, watching the news. People felt it washappening to everyone. And I think that feeling kind of went away, astime went on. And that’s not really a criticism of anyone, it’s just afact. But the thing is, the people there are still really feeling it.And political slogans and money are not gonna cure this problem. What’sgoing to help is people opening up and embracing the people who arehurting. People lost everything. They lost loved ones, they lost theirhomes, they lost everything they owned, everything they identifiedwith. And unless you’ve been through that, it’s hard to relate to. Ican’t relate to that. What do you say to an 88-year-old man who’s losteverything he’s worked for all his life? Hopefully our story—I mean,maybe people just enjoy the film, have some kind of enjoyableexperience. Maybe it’ll open their mind a little bit.
So you don’t consider this a political movie?
No, what we tried to do as much as possible with this film was justtake a modest point of view, take a step back and let the people tellthe story, let the environment speak for itself. And if anyone’sindicted because of that, so be it. It’s just a totally honestdepiction of a time and a place.
That final driving shot, it just goes on and on for what seemslike 5 minutes of trashed, empty streets. It just never stops. Itcrushed me.
That shot could have kept going for an hour.