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March 1, 2001
Keeping Seattle filmmakers down
(Please note: During production, the working title of Inheritance was Mrs. Baker)
Digital Video is in some ways the movable type of cinema. All of a sudden, anyone can make a movie - and, so it seems, they have. There's a glut of low and no-budget independent films being produced right now, but as the term "independent filmmaker" becomes less and less a title of distinction, distributors and financiers search for new talent is as half-assed as ever.
The great thing about this mass of cinematic momentum is - regardless of the low-grade, low-quality productions that make it increasingly difficult for aspiring filmmakers to be taken seriously - the parallel awareness of both film and filmmaking. In theory, the experience, the trial and error hands-on learning DV allows and the attention it draws toward film, can lead to a kind of renaissance, a worldwide New Wave, granting young artists accessibility to the medium that would have turned them away less than a decade ago. We're already starting to see signs of talented directors relishing in the freedom DV allows. Gone are the safety nets of financial excuses for the shakier aspiring-filmmakers. With DV, there's no real reason independent directors can't begin their careers with the kinds of films they most want to make. Still, Seattle is rife with obstacles that greatly limit its potential to expand its filming clout.
No financial backing
Producing an amateur film, feature-length or otherwise, is an accomplishment in itself. But making the jump from filmmaking as a hobby, to directing a commercially distributed feature is rare and difficult. Seattle filmmakers Brian McDonald and Kris Kristensen produced a short film called White Face, which they entered in the 2001 Slamdance festival (an offshoot of Sundance). The film won the audience award out of two dozen selected for show from the thousands of entries.
The brilliant and inspired satire of White Face, "a serious comedy about racism," has earned them a blip on the national radar. Still, their next project, a feature-length horror film called Mrs. Baker that will begin filming in May, hasn't garnered the budget the duo had hoped prior recognition would bring. Which means they'll have to stay their wish to shoot on 35-mm film, a $1.1 million luxury rarely realized in Seattle. "We'd rather be filming than fundraising," they said, already having spent a year gathering money.
After a frustrating trip to LA in an attempt to raise money, they're happy to get started on the actual filmmaking - even if they don't have the budget they had hoped for. (Mrs. Baker in its entirety will cost about as much it did to show Kevin Costner drinking his own urine in Waterworld). "You know all that stuff you hear about Hollywood always looking for new talent? That's a lie," they said, laughing. "Hollywood wants to stick with the names it's familiar with."
Only one or two recent productions have eclipsed the $1 to $300,000 budget most high-profile local films work with, including Mrs. Baker. One of those, Lover's Lane, a teen-slasher pic more interested in good marketing than a respectable plot, is unique in that it actually made money. But most members of the Seattle film community hesitate to speak of it with pride because it is such a shameless business venture as compared to an actual movie.
Tim Coulter, whose current film, Dirt will be shown as part of the "Distinguishing Features" series at Seattle Art Museum, has opted to film his first feature on DV, neglecting financial matters almost entirely. For him, the creative and financial freedom afforded for the project, are preferable to the obligations that come with a financially dependent film. And Dirt may in fact experience some legal difficulties that could restrict its distribution. The film combines documentary and fiction and, at times, uses unauthorized footage to tell the story. Still, there is nothing stopping Coulter from going ahead with production.
Getting lucky
For filmmakers like Coulter, or William Azaroff - whose The Engagement Party is also on DV and part of the SAM series - DV give the chance to experience helming feature films before shopping themselves around to companies in the bigger film cities, which can be a disillusioning prospect.
No one knows that more than John Jacobsen. After spending two decades directing commercials, Broadway productions and teaching film studies at UCLA, one would think he would be almost guaranteed a film of his own. Yet he landed his first feature, Around the Fire, by pure chance. The film began as a script a former student sent him for feedback. The student later decided to make the film with someone with whom he was familiar and sought out Jacobsen, who jumped at the chance after being frustrated with trying to find work in Hollywood studios. (As Jacobsen discovered, the most important qualification for directing a feature in Hollywood is already having directed a feature in Hollywood.)
The film's subject matter, which focuses on a hippie-follower of a tie-died jam band, guaranteed it a spot in a niche market. And the writers/producers were able to get Jacobsen enough money to shoot on 35 mm and use the then-rising young stars Devon Sawa and Tara Reid in the lead roles.
The always self-critical Jacobsen is the first to admit his reservations about certain aspects of the film, especially in the script, which was a first-time effort by the producers. But the film did make a little money, thanks in large part to Jacobsen's savvy casting. And he now has his foot in the door, already capitalizing on the experience by selling one screenplay of his own and developing another.
Seattle ignores its own
As difficult as it is for these directors to get into Hollywood (and more importantly, into Hollywood budgets), the kinds of difficulties they have in Seattle are comparably maddening. McDonald and Kristensen prefer to remain here to film while a majority of other directors have some kind of plan, no matter how vague, to leave for a more palatable film climate, such as LA or Austin, in the near future.
In some ways, Seattle is a great town for movies. We consume more films per capita than any other big city in America and give a lot of support to the more interesting independent and foreign offerings. However, there is little support for its own filmmakers, and this is partly due to a loose film community.
Organizations like Wiggly World and 911 Media, the city's only substantial resources for film and video production, rarely even acknowledge each other's existence. The local films that are shown and do get attention in Seattle are often qualified as "local productions," and not legitimate on their own. In a town full of thousands of software millionaires, one would expect more financial interest in the local industry, which really gets little or nothing from anyone except the isolated private financier. Add to this the fact that a lot of potential business and talent are drawn away to Vancouver, B.C. with its encouraging tax breaks and good exchange rate, and the problems facing Seattle's film community quickly escalate.
While outlets like Seattle International Film Festival, the student film festival here at the UW and Warren Etheredge's "Distinguishing Features" series are wonderful opportunities for filmmakers to show their work, they carry the stigma of "Seattle-based" films. The day of local shorts at SIFF is nothing to be taken seriously, occurring before the festival truly begins and easily ignored by the public and the media.
The Student Film Showcase, despite past collaborations with and possible future associations with Bumbershoot, is handicapped by the University's film production void. The UW hardly acknowledges the existence of film and cinema at all. For those aspiring filmmakers who have had limited success, the UW has been little more than the coincidental backdrop for it. One of the biggest problems in the film community has been Seattle's inability to breed local talent who feel compelled to be "Seattle filmmakers," in the way, say, Gus Van Sant is a "Portland filmmaker." There are several high-profile directors, writers and producers in or from northern Washington, but they had to leave the area to get started in the business, and Seattle gives them no real reason to return. Certainly, anyone wanting to specialize in film has to find another school, since the UW's main campus does not currently offer a film production major - or even a single class.
Information about White Face and Mrs. Baker can be found at, and videos will be available soon. The Student Film Showcase will be in late May and the deadline for submission is May 9. Information on Distinguishing Features and other local film happenings can be found at Both Around The Fire and Lover's Lane can be found at most video stores.