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August 8, 2001
Mercer Island Reporter
Silver Screen - Islanders lend their talents to the moviemaking industry
Photo by Marta Storwick
(Please note: During production, the working title of Inheritance was Mrs. Baker)
Making a movie, as anyone who has ever loitered around a set knows, is less glamorous than exhausting. Gear has to be hauled. Shots have to be set up. Sound and lighting have to be checked. Food has to be provided for all those starving crew members. Makeup has to be reapplied. And heaven forbid anyone should nod off, or freeze, or keel over from heatstroke.
The crew of Mrs.Baker, a movie shot in Seattle this past June, is used to the filmmaking routine. Most of them, according to co-producer Lisa Halpern, are career professionals in the film industry. And the rest are trying to get there.
``I often think, `Who am I, to be talking to agents in L.A.?''' laughs Scott Schill, another co-producer who became involved through his friendship with the movie's writers, Brian McDonald and Kris Kristensen. ``Frankly, I think I was the only lawyer they knew.''
Billed as ``a psychological horror film,'' Mrs. Baker is the second film that McDonald and Kristensen have made together, and their first feature. Their short mockumentary White Face,' a deadpan satire about clowns facing discrimination, won the Audience Award at the Slamdance Film Festival in January; since then, screenings and buzz about White Face have helped the pair gather support for their feature-film debut. If all goes well, Mrs. Baker will hit the film-festival circuit this winter.
Toward the end of the shoot, the Mrs. Baker crew camps out for a day at Seattle's Lakeview Cemetery. The weather is gorgeous. But the lead actress, Jen Taylor, is kneeling mournfully by a gravestone, swaddled in a dark velvet jacket. A child actress, Kelsey Shapira, sits quietly in the shade, face pale and grave. Crew members in shorts and sunglasses sweat around them, moving equipment and talking into headsets.
``OK, here we go,'' barks assistant director Roy Wilson. ``And quiet please, and roll camera, and -- action!''
Taylor addresses the gravestone, distraught. ``Why are you doing this?'' she wails. ``Talk to me!''
Shapira, dressed in an antiquated party dress and carrying a rag doll, trots over and asks Taylor, ``Who are you? Are you new here?''
Taylor, startled, looks as if she's just seen a ghost. In fact, she might have. The script's central uncertainty is whether Taylor's character, Abbey, is being haunted by genuine ghosts, or simply suffering from hallucinations.
``She doesn't know if the things she sees are real or imaginary,'' explains McDonald.
The movie, he adds, doesn't tie up all its loose ends neatly. ``Some aspects resolve, some don't,'' he says. ``I have a friend who doesn't believe in ghosts. So he says, `Well, of course, she's crazy.' It all depends on where you fall on the spectrum of belief.''
As with White Face, the filmmakers are more interested in telling a good story than in coming up with lots of arty shots or special effects.
``When we tell people we're making a horror movie, they think of Halloween, or Scream with lots of blood and guts,'' sighs Kristensen, the movie's director. ``Our original producer would say things like, `Let's kill off this character,' and we'd say, `No way! That sounds like something that happens in a movie!'''
Instead, the moviemakers say, they want Mrs. Baker to look and feel ordinary, like Abbey is the nice neighbor who lives around the corner who maybe has some problems. Most of the movie was shot inside a house on Capitol Hill utterly lacking in scare factor.
``People would say, `Oh, you can't use my house, it isn't scary enough,''' laughs McDonald. ``Well, we didn't want a scary house. We wanted a normal house where scary things happen.''
The weird meeting the normal is also how Schill describes working behind the scenes. A 1986 graduate of Mercer Island High School (and the son of Stan Schill and JoEllen Schill), Schill splits his time between his regular career as an attorney and his expanding career as a film producer.
``I'm kind of burning the candle at both ends,'' he admits.
With a feature film this small (the budget came in under $400,000), almost everybody, it seems, is working as a producer on it, including McDonald and Kristensen as well as Schill and Halpern. But it's Schill who's responsible for many of the nuts and bolts: negotiations, legal documents, press releases, drumming up support from potential fund-raisers.
Moviemaking talent, some say, speaks for itself. But major corporations often like to hear talent assessments confirmed by a lawyer dressed in an understated suit. A lawyer like Schill.
``In my family, all the talent went to my brother, Stewart,'' Schill asserts. ``He's now a filmmaker in L.A. Growing up, we shared a room with a TV, and if there was ever anything on in black-and-white, he'd stop and make us watch it.''
It was through Stewart that Schill met Kristensen, and when Kristensen and McDonald wrote the Mrs. Baker script, they asked Schill to read it.
``I was pretty blown away by it,'' says Schill. ``And, as any friend would do, I said, `Sure, I'll help.'''
Everybody on the crew says that, if Mrs. Baker is a success, they hope it will encourage other filmmakers to make movies in the Seattle area.
``There are a lot of efficiencies to shooting here,'' says Schill. Attractions include the variety of landscape, the amenability of most local businesses, the built-in theatrical talent pool and the comfort of a small film community. Sure, it rains. But hey, some people think L.A. is just too darn sunny.
And there's always the quest for the new, to make the movies that are not only unusual but seem to fill a niche.
``Kris and I were talking a lot in 1998 about how there were no scary movies any more,'' recalls McDonald. ``No one was doing them.''.
So they wrote a script for a suspense film about a woman who maybe or maybe doesn't go crazy. Then The Sixth Sense came out, and suddenly horror movies were back in business.
``We probably wouldn't do Mrs. Baker if we were writing a screenplay today,'' McDonald grins. ``We'd probably do a western instead.''
Hi-ho, silver screen, here they come.