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Dec. 15, 2002
Seattle Weekly
Local filmmakers are training their lenses on local people, places
Seattle Times movie critic
All's well on the set of Bainbridge Island filmmaker Garrett Bennett's family drama "A Relative Thing" - except for a neighbor's renegade puppy.
Bennett and his crew have set up a tricky shot - filming an interior scene from outside, through a window - when the puppy, a scrappy yellow Lab, scurries amongst them and has to be carried off. Everyone takes the disruption in stride, and the puppy, a regular on the set, gets plenty of friendly scratches behind the ears.
You wouldn't find a stray puppy on a sealed-off L.A. soundstage, but neither would you find local filmmakers such as Bennett, Kris Kristensen and Brian McDonald ("Inheritance"), Randy Nargi ("G-Sale") and many others. All live here in the Northwest, all made their most recent feature films right here in town, with mostly locals in their cast and crew, and all are in the process of seeking a wider audience for the stories that their films tell.
Shootless in Seattle
While Hollywood film crews used to be a more frequent sight in the streets of Seattle ("Sleepless in Seattle," "Singles," and "The Fabulous Baker Boys" were among the many films made here in the '80s and early '90s), now a stricter economy dictates that even a big-budget film set in Seattle will be mostly filmed someplace else - perhaps in nearby Vancouver, B.C., or in the primary industry town, Los Angeles.
When filmmaker Nargi moved here in 1990, he recalled that "Seattle was really cutting edge" in terms of the film industry. "But slowly, the business started draining out and moving down to L.A. or up to Vancouver." Concurrently, skilled film workers began to disperse. "Very tough for the crews, production community to exist here," said Nargi. "And yet, we have so many talented people and great actors. My hope is that filmmaking, and especially independent filmmaking, can help get things moving again."
Donna James, director of the Mayor's Film and Video Office in Seattle, concurs. "It used to be we had two or three movies a year that came in from the outside," said James, "but now we get pieces of things that come in from the outside." "The Ring," the Naomi Watts horror film set in Seattle, was only partially shot here last year, as was the Angelina Jolie comedy "Life or Something Like It" and the Jennifer Lopez thriller "Enough" (shot partly in Gig Harbor and Port Townsend).
James notes that of the handful of full-length feature films applying for permits with her office over the past year, all were by local filmmakers, with budgets ranging from less than $50,000 to more than $1 million. So when you see a film shoot on a Seattle street, it's likely to be directed and staffed by your neighbors.
Wearing many hats
Bennett, a Bainbridge Island native, is already known locally for his stylish, nostalgic drama "Farewell to Harry," which won a Special Jury Award from the Seattle International Film Festival in 2001. He's hoping to reach an even wider audience with "A Relative Thing," a story about a family of siblings reuniting after 16 years apart. And he dreams of creating his own film repertory company here, from his Hat Factory Studios on Bainbridge.
"Part of me believes that it's possible," says Bennett, a tall man in his 30s who looks like the actor he once was. "I could just after this film do another one, and try to rotate this cast, maybe bring in some name elements, and continue to do that until maybe it would open up enough to become something where they could gather their own name status, just like Second City did, or Steppenwolf. I wouldn't be surprised if Seattle had its time soon - there's really some great talent here."
Like many local filmmakers, Bennett spent some time in Los Angeles. After growing up on Bainbridge (and co-founding Seattle's Annex Theater), he studied for two years at the American Film Institute in the mid-'90s, then stayed in L.A. for a few years, working on a number of screenplays. Bennett returned to Seattle "sort of on a whim, working on a rewrite but also the 'Harry' script. I ended up going over to Bainbridge one day, just to get away, and I loved being back there." On Bainbridge, Bennett found the time - and an artistic community - in which he could create his stories.
"Farewell to Harry" recently landed a cable distribution deal with Porchlight Entertainment, and Bennett is talking to another distributor about a theatrical release. But he's now busy with "A Relative Thing," which so far seems to be under a lucky star. Screenwriter/producer Steve Edmiston, a former lawyer who now works at the toy-and-game company he co-founded, pitched the project to a local investor last spring, who agreed to (anonymously) finance the film's $200,000 budget. Production on that lovely Bainbridge estate and other Seattle locations wrapped in late October; and now the film's in editing, with hopes to have a rough cut finished by early 2003.
Then comes the film-festival circuit - submitting the film, waiting to hear if it's been accepted, then wondering if the right people will see it. "I think it has the ability to get lucky, get a break, and have a really nice theatrical release," said Bennett.
Ghosts and coffee
Kristensen and McDonald, director/co-screenwriter/producer and co-screenwriter/producer of the contemporary ghost story "Inheritance" (formerly titled "Mrs. Baker"), also came to Seattle by way of L.A. Both were frustrated by lack of creative opportunity there; both found themselves fetching coffee and tidying up after their studio bosses, rather than making headway.
For McDonald, who grew up on Beacon Hill, coming back to Seattle was coming home; for Kristensen, a Connecticut native, it was a chance to try something new. The two, chatting over caffeine at Victrola Coffee (a Capitol Hill location that figures prominently in the film) emphasize that they could never have made "Inheritance" in L.A. "Nobody would have cared!" said Kristensen. "Up here, it's great, people were excited about it."
"The people in charge in L.A.," said McDonald, "never think that you could be Steven Spielberg. It never occurs to them, 'Maybe this is (the next) Steven Spielberg I'm talking to.' They just think, 'This is some boob who just got off the bus.' That's how they're always going to be."
Kristensen and McDonald, who first collaborated on the funny, biting short film "White Face" (which won best short film at the Slamdance Film Festival last year), faced an uphill battle in securing funding for "Inheritance." After developing the screenplay in 1999, they met with potential investors, arranged fund-raising events - and watched the bottom drop out of the economy. Eventually they were able to raise money through a number of individual investors, and assembled a cast and crew enthusiastic about the project and willing to work for very little.
"I was really happy with our crew," said Kristensen. "They were all really young and inexperienced, but that's fine - it was my first feature film, too. Because we weren't paying so well, some days we had more crew than others, but all the positions were always filled - anywhere from 30 to 40 people."
Like any ghost story, "Inheritance" had a few scares along the way: The owners of the house originally planned for the film's key scenes changed their minds at the last minute (fortunately, a beautiful house in North Capitol Hill became available); and after the first week of filmmaking, it became clear that their lead actress wasn't suitable.
Letting go of the original Abbey, and bringing on local stage actor Jen Taylor (who had never acted in a film before) was a huge artistic risk, but an essential one. "We weren't making the movie we needed to make," said McDonald, "and we owed our investors the best movie we knew how to make."
With their film completed, Kristensen and McDonald are playing the film-festival game. "There's a strategy about which festivals to get into. All the fests, especially the bigger ones, want your film to be a premiere. But if you premiere at a middle-tier festival, the big festivals don't want your film anymore." They're talking about their next project - a screenplay to sell, they say, rather than to film themselves.
And while they're hoping for a theatrical release for "Inheritance," the pair will consider any options. "Cable, video, Web, travelling around in a VW bus - whatever it takes," said Kristensen.
Comedy in the 'burbs
Nargi, a Seattle transplant and former commercials director who arrived from New York in 1990, found inspiration for his film on the streets of his Bellevue neighborhood. "G-Sale" is a comedy, inspired by the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest ("Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show"), about the foibles of a handful of suburbanites obsessed by garage sales. The film has just been accepted into the 2003 Sarasota Film Festival.
Nargi sees his film as one that could appeal to a wide audience outside of film-fest aficionados. "We never set out to make a deeply personal or a very experimental film," he said. "We wanted to make something that was entertaining." He points to the runaway success of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" this year as encouragement.
"G-Sale," shot relatively inexpensively on digital video in Seattle and Bellevue and featuring such well-known locals as Ted D'Arms and Tracey Conway, was largely self-funded by Nargi and his wife, Jessi Badami (who produced and co-stars in the film).
Nargi notes that the one downside to filming in Seattle is the lack of "names" to help launch a film.
"You hear the stories about Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson (who came on board as producers of 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding,' now the top-grossing independent film of all time, after falling in love with the Nia Vardalos play the movie is based on). To have someone like Christopher Guest discover ('G-Sale') and help bring it out - that's the challenge, how do we have access to people like that here in Seattle?"
Help wanted
Tom, Rita and Christopher may not hang out in Seattle often, but there's other help available for local filmmakers. For example, WigglyWorld Studios, the state's largest filmmakers collective, offers an annual Start-to-Finish grant to help a chosen local filmmaker bring his/her vision to the screen.
"It's our tiny MacArthur genius grant," said Michael Seiwerath, executive director of the Northwest Film Forum and executive producer of this year's Start-to-Finish film, Seattle director Paul Willis' modern adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's classic play "Hedda Gabler."
Willis received a third of his film's $200,000 budget through the grant and was able to raise the rest of the money privately. "Hedda Gabler," shot last summer in Wenatchee, is now in post-production.
And small production companies exist to help shepherd independent films through the funding and film-fest mazes. Clear Pictures, founded in the late '90s by Seattleite Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi and former Seattleite Scilla Andreen-Hernandez, is handling, among others, Alec Carlin's "Outpatient" and Kelly and Tyler Requa's "The Flats," both locally made films shown in last year's Seattle International Film Festival. ("Outpatient," in fact, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Festival of Festivals in Palm Springs last month.)
Longtime film-community locals Jamie Hook and Deb Girdwood, who co-founded the Northwest Film Forum back in 1995, recently formed the production company Pinwheel Pictures. Their inaugural feature, "The Naked Proof," a story about a philosophy graduate student and a very pregnant woman who may not necessarily exist, is currently in post-production. Directed by Hook and co-written by Hook and Girdwood, it will premiere in Seattle next spring. The company plans to produce at least one film per year, favoring Seattle-based locations, casts and crew.
"I hope that Pinwheel becomes a specific place for people to pioneer a certain style of filmmaking," said Hook.
Community filmmaking
Filmmaking is a communal art, and while the difficulties of making and promoting an independent feature here at home are many, the rewards and pleasures are happily shared.
Back on the smoothly run Bainbridge set, Bennett oversees a scene in the living room, with 11 crew members crammed into various corners. A camera glides along a primitive dolly (made with PVC pipes) over the elegant oriental rug; a boom mike, attached with what looks like a ponytail holder, is held high.
Three actors patiently - and passionately - perform several takes of a brief argumentative scene, stepping expertly over the pipes on the floor. Crew members murmur into their headsets. A furnace rumbles and somebody announces "holding for furnace" as filming pauses. Finally, Bennett is pleased with the final take, and the crew efficiently disperses. "A Relative Thing" is far from Hollywood, but it might someday come to a theater near you.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or [email protected].