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Jan/Feb. 2002
Seattle Magazine
The Fabulous Mrs. Baker Boys
Seattle Filmmakers Brian McDonald and Kris Kristensen are about to deliver the next Rosemary's Baby with their supernatural thriller Mrs. Baker.
By Charles Redell
Photography Thor Radford
(Please note: During production, the working title of Inheritance was Mrs. Baker)
As the setting for hits such as Sleepless In Seattle, this city might seem like a film town, but it is rare that an independent, commercially successful movie is actually made here. It's even more rare when it is done by Seattleites. The majority of the Seattle film scene produces inaccessible art-house films that most of us won't go to, but the current buzz around Mrs. Baker, the first feature film by up and coming local film duo Brian McDonald and Kris Kristensen, says that the drought is about to end.
Though it may be more economical and easier to make a commercial film in Vancouver, B.C.-and more hip to make something visceral with no plot-McDonald and Kristensen, 36 and 38 respectively, are following in the dramatic footsteps of successful features with art house credibility such as The Godfather and Taxi Driver.
Their movie, Mrs. Baker, billed by the filmmakers as a "supernatural thriller" with a feel somewhere between The Sixth Sense and The Others, is based on a belief that good drama is about the relationships and the tensions between people. Like the struggle between Michael and Sonny Corleone or Travis Bickle and the world around him, Mrs. Baker tells the story of one woman's struggle for control of her body and identity.
Mrs. Baker is already making waves as a ghost story. Abbey, a young, successful overachiever extraordinaire, puts everyone before herself, including the 85-year-old Mrs. Baker. When Mrs. Baker dies, Abbey first thinks that her family's history of schizophrenia is showing up when she sees the dead woman at her own funeral. Soon, though, the visions of Mrs. Baker become more and more frequent until Abbey realizes that she is "...walking the fence between the living and the dead," and that she must fight the dead woman for her life. The script was a semifinalist at the Austin Heart of Film Festival in 1999 and is so striking that one local couple decided to allow their Interlake home to be used as the movie's main location, even though horror isn't their thing. They even ended up investing in the project.
Perhaps this is why McDonald and Kristensen seemed intensely laid-back in Kristensen's Capitol Hill apartment-cum-editing studio in late July. Considering that they were about to begin postproduction on Mrs. Baker and that eight days into a four-week shoot they had to fire their lead actress due to creative differences, one would think they'd be on edge. But they were very optimistic about the film's future, even as they demurred at being called the talk of the town.
But the road to a project such as Mrs. Baker hasn't been easy or short. Filmmakers since childhood, McDonald (who grew up in Seattle) and Kristensen (who was born and raised in Connecticut) have been working in the film industry for years, always with the goal of making their own movies.
Kristensenís first memory is of watching the original King Kong on television when he was 3. He made his first film when he was 10 (something he like to call "Jurassic Park in My Back Yard"). Over the years, he found work as and editor and a cameraman, and when he moved to Seattle from Los Angeles in 1994, he made a demo film called Life & How To Live It, designed to highlight his talent as a director. Like everything else these two have done, it worked (it won the Silver Award for Best Music Video at the 1998 Emerald City Awards, a recognition ceremony for local television and film productions). In 1999, Kristensen also co-founded the Focus Ring, an Algonquin Round Table-type gathering of local, aspiring, like-minded directors.
McDonald, on the other hand, has taken a less film-centric path to his current position as co-writer and co-producer of Mrs. Baker. He started out doing camera work for animation and special-effect makeup for horror films such as Return of the Living Dead II in Hollywood. But when a friend asked him for help writing jokes for his stand-up act, Brian discovered a side of himself that ran deeper than he previously thought. He eventually began working as a stand-up comic himself and even appeared on the Comedy Channel.
After years of scratching out existences in L.A., where both lived at the same time without knowing each other, Kristensen and McDonald decided, independently, that if they were going to make their own film, it would have to be without the help of Hollywood. They had both learned that no matter your script may be, no studio will touch it unless you're an established name or you have a star already interested in doing the project.
Six years ago, the pair met for the first time in a Kinko's copy shop in Seattle. At the time they had "...sensibilities that were further apart" than they are now, says McDonald. Nonetheless, a friendship formed. Over the next few years, the two decided they wanted to create a good movie that could make money-again, without the help from Tinsel Town. So, following in the venerable footsteps of The Blair Witch Project, they started writing what they hoped would be a commercially successful film that could pass muster at any independent film festival.
It was a hard path to follow, because the stigma of independent films is that they try so hard to be artistic that, often, they are unwatchable. "I have a hard time calling myself an artist," says McDonald of his work. "It's all about my craft, and I want to be proficient at my craft. Sometimes, doing that well becomes art." Following that logic, with the short film White Face, written and directed by McDonald and shot and edited by Kristensen, both filmmakers achieved art. A wonderfully deadpan film, it comments on society's racial problems by taking a look at the most oppressed race in America: clowns. White Face is now running on HBO/Cinemax, and it played at the One Reel Film Festival at the last Bumbershoot. It also won the audience award for Best Short at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2001. And it showed the world McDonald and Kristensen's remarkable talent for storytelling.
After the success of White Face, Donna James, director of the mayor's office of film and video, says that Mrs. Baker generated a lot of buzz in the local film industry. "The script was fabulous," she says. "A lot of people are making independent films around Seattle and we are looking for a breakout film, one that will do well. This one may be it."
But let's put aside art and craft for a moment. With Mrs. Baker, McDonald and Kristensen set out to make a feature film-and that takes money. Suddenly, all the lofty dreams about starting a renaissance of American cinema and making a film with integrity had to be put aside while they figured out the nuts and bolts of financing a project. Filmmakers have to be business people and salespeople too-no easy task for most people with an artistic bent. The task is doubled in Seattle because the film community suffers from fractionalization, according to Kristensen. "There's this group with one agenda," he says, "and this other group with their agenda," and they are not on the same page.
But the two wanted to make a movie with local money and to keep that money local. To do so, they had to do "...a lot of sales work that I'm not good at and Brian is not good at," says Kristensen. "We'd go in there and he'd say, 'I'm Brian and this is Kris, and this is the kind of movie we want to make.'" Ultimately, with the assistance of local first time producers Lisa Halpern, and ex-dot-commie, and Scott Schill, a lawyer who closed most of the deals, the necessary money was raised for production, and postproduction checks are now rolling in.
Even for experienced filmmakers such as McDonald and Kristensen, making a feature film was an unexpected education. It's a process that, McDonald says, "is like moving into your first apartment and you realize you have to buy pepper." Time and again, there is another little thing you have to do. Though you may have all your permits lined up, local business owners will still be unhappy that your equipment is clogging the sidewalk in front of their stores. Everything is an issue someone has to control. Suddenly, they were that someone.
It was a relief, then, when casting went smoothly. Though each had shifting pictures of the types of people that they wanted for roles, during auditions, when veteran local actress Marjorie Nelson (who appeared in the locally filmed Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Twin Peaks) walked in, "there was electricity in the room," says Kristensen. Hearing her read made him feel " I was eavesdropping on something that was happening between two people" even though she held a script in her hand. Nelson was a natural for the role of Mrs. Baker.
The biggest obstacle, however, was yet to come. Eight days into shooting, it had become painfully obvious that there was an unbridgeable gap between the two partners and their lead actress, Katheryn Cain. After a meeting with department heads, McDonald and Kristensen realized that making the movie they wanted would be impossible if they didn't bite the bullet and start over from scratch. So they took a stab at fate and called local stage actress Jen Taylor, who had impressed them during auditions. The timing was perfect: Taylor was fresh from the stage in Killer Joe at the Empty Space Theater, and a project she had signed on with had just fallen through. Mrs. Baker was back on track within 24 hours.
As they continue in postproduction, McDonald and Kristensen are still hard at work raising money and editing their film. They hope to have a finished film this month to show more investors and shop it around to distributors. Of course, they will enter it in film festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival, and perhaps in the Seattle International Film Festival in May 2002, but the end goal is to get wide distribution. Most of all, they are hoping to spark a renaissance in American cinema and to take audiences back to a time before, as they state on their Web site, "emotions were replaced by explosions."