In the Mind of the Maker
A Louisiana Documentary in the making
Quick Background: Charles Richard, a Louisiana native, is currently spearheading the production of a film called In the Mind of the Maker. The film follows an 84 year old Cajun man named Edward Couvillier as he meticulously builds wooden boats by hand. Couvillier’s skills and ability to visualize his subject have drawn attention from many, as his skills are greatly coveted by those in fields ranging from engineering to psychology.
One of the unique things about this story is that it encompasses many aspects of Louisiana culture. Louisiana culture is not well understood by outsiders, but stories like Couvillier’s make people think. Below you’ll find an interview with Charles, in regards to the filming of this movie as well as some thoughts on Louisiana culture.
1. Motivation for the story: I started out with the desire to tell a simple story about efforts to preserve Louisiana’s boat building traditions and the unique way of life they point to. It was supposed to be just a modest movie about an 84-year-old Cajun craftsman, living in the Atchafalaya Basin swamp, teaching his three sons how to build boats the ways their ancestors did. But things changed when we began to appreciate the significance of exactly how he builds these boats: he doesn’t use any blueprints or plans or pre-recorded measurements. Instead, our old boat builder creates an incredibly sophisticated, 3-D visualization of the boat in his imagination, and then just builds what he sees in his mind’s eye. That’s an unusual ability these days. So in the course of researching that “simple story,” we found ourselves facing much bigger, intriguing questions. Questions about the value of traditional knowledge and skills; about how memory and imagination work; about how the brain functions to create complex images in the minds of creative people like artists and engineers. And, ultimately, questions about the nature of creativity itself. What we learned is that you can find the answers to all those questions in one of the most unlikely places on earth: the swamps of French Louisiana.
2. Things misunderstood about Louisiana. I was at the Cannes Film Festival in France this year, and people were surprisingly curious about Louisiana. There were people from all over the US and much of the rest of the world there at Cannes, and they all seemed to have their own ideas about what Louisiana is like. That’s based on what they’ve seen in movies, tv, books, and so forth. Few places in America have been represented in the media as much as Louisiana, and yet it remains one of the most poorly understood. It’s true that French Louisiana is unlike anywhere else in this country; in many ways, it’s very exotic, and there is a well-deserved mystique about the place. But there are also some towering misconceptions, and particularly about the Cajuns and Creole peoples. I think there’s a common perception that Cajuns and Creoles (and I’m one of them) are ignorant, uneducated, semi-savage; that we are drunken hedonists who live in squalor, and like it that way. We Acadians (a term we much prefer to the American slang word “Cajun”) have been in North America since before the Pilgrims, before Plymouth Rock. That’s about 400 years. So who’s more “American” than that? At the same time, we maintain a cultural continuity that can be traced all the way back to medieval France. That’s what unifies us. But we’re also a very diverse people. Some are educated, some are not. Some are rich, some are poor. Some do indeed hunt alligators and live the life of “swamp people.” Others are renown scholars and artists. If we accomplish nothing else with our film ‘In the Mind of the Maker,’we want to show that a defining characteristic of the Acadian people is creativity. And I think that this is something that might really challenge the perceptions of a lot of people who only know us from popular media.
3. Something that people would be interested to know about Louisiana. I think that what may be most interesting about this place to our audiences is that the people of French Louisiana are struggling desperately to retain a unique identity that has developed over the course of several centuries, but is now in danger of disappearing. As I said, we are deeply-rooted Americans but, at the same time, somewhat “foreign” to the rest of the United States. Our culture in Acadiana is a mix of language and tradition that includes French, Spanish, American Indian, and African– all sort of orchestrated together under the predominant influence of the Acadians. That mixture–which is so visible in our music, our food, our language, our customs–makes us a “tribe” unlike any other. But, unless we work to keep it, we will lose that. (Ask the Celtic Irish, the American Indians, West African tribes, and other traditional cultures how that can happen.) And that would be a loss for everyone.
4. Filming in Louisiana. You know, as I think about it now, in nearly 20 years as a filmmaker, I don’t think I’ve ever made a movie outside of Louisiana. I feel we have sort of an embarrassment of riches here in terms of the wide variety of locations and environments; it just an extraordinarily beautiful and diverse place to uncap a lens. And, from a storytelling perspective, Louisiana is a place that has been attracting writers (and, later, filmmakers) since colonial times because there’s just such an abundance of distinctive characters and settings and circumstances, that this place just overflows with stories–both fiction and nonfiction. So, going all the way back to writers like George Washington Cable and Mark Twain, through Tennessee Williams and Faulkner, all the way to the storytellers of today, like Benh Zeitlin (‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’), Louisiana has been an irresistible draw. And that’s not to mention the incredible array of native storytellers and filmmakers that call Louisiana home.
5. Some facts and statistics. We have a lot of reason to be optimistic about the success of ‘In the Mind of the Maker.’ We saw strong interest among distributors at the Cannes Film Festival in bringing this story to both domestic and international audiences. It’s a film about the science of creativity, but the fact that the story is so completely rooted in Louisiana soil makes it especially marketable at this time. Louisiana-based media is really hot right now; audiences are interested in stories coming out of this place. Over the last few years, the number of “reality TV” shows set in Louisiana has tended to hover close to a dozen. In 2014, Louisiana is projected to get some 27 million visitors; according to studies by Marketing Dynamics Research Group, 48% of the tourists they surveyed reported that TV shows and movies about Louisiana were either a primary or secondary source of information influencing their decision to visit. So those are good numbers for us when we look at our potential audiences and their interests. And since there’s also a heavy emphasis on boat building in our film, we’re pretty conscious of the number of people who take an active interest in wooden boats. Our research there surprised us: according to Dunc Hawkins, president of the Antique and Classic Boat Society, wooden boat enthusiasts worldwide can be estimated “in the millions.” (Type “boat building” into the search field for YouTube videos, and you’ll see what we mean.) Then there’s the part of our film that focus on the cognitive science of creativity. Psychology Today estimates a total annual readership of 3 million around the world. We like those numbers.
6. Final thoughts. At times, I’ve found ‘In the Mind of the Maker’ to be a difficult film to describe. That’s because it tells several stories at once, in both English and the native French. Yes, it’s a film about a distinctive culture, an usual people living in a unusual place. It’s a film about some of the most fundamental and mysterious human phenomena, like memory, imagination, and creative expression. It’s about how the brain functions, and about how computer technology now allows us to mimic some of the brain’s ability to create complex 3-D visualizations. And, sure, it’s about boat building. But I think that what will stick with audiences the most are the characters. Ultimately, ‘In the Mind of the Maker’ is the story of a remarkable old man who wants to preserve an irreplaceable part of the past; he wants to pass on to his sons what was handed down to him through generations of tradition. And it’s all embodied in the craft of boat building: a unique capacity to make something beautiful out of nothing more than just cypress and imagination.
Check out this clip of In The Mind of The Maker:
If you wish to learn more information about the filming of In The Mind of The Maker, Charles’s past projects, or get to know the filming crew, visit their website here. Those who wish to follow in the journey can follow via Facebook or Twitter (@mindofthemaker).
Have you been to Louisiana before? Do you find this Louisiana documentary interesting?