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September 25, 2001
Making a movie in Seattle: Mrs. Baker
(Please note: During production, the working title of Inheritance was Mrs. Baker)
Just a few years ago, Brian McDonald and Kris Kristensen were struggling, separately and unknown to each other, to break into an unreceptive Los Angeles film community.
After years of small gigs and little progress, they both moved back up to the Northwest, at about the same time, with each having no knowledge of the other.
After a chance meeting in a Capitol Hill copy shop, the two discovered their shared ambitions and similar tastes, and began to work on a project. Mrs. Baker was written over a period of a few months of close collaboration in late 1999. The story follows a young woman who may or may not be haunted by the ghost of a recently deceased elderly lady. Fundraising started the following April. As Kristensen remembers, "It was unfortunate timing, because we started looking for money about two months into the dot-com crash."
As Kristensen agrees, Seattle is a "movie-loving town," but not an especially easy place to film. But wishing to avoid the sorts of pitfalls and peripheral industry distractions (such as movie stars, generating buzz and studio producers) that drove them from Hollywood in the first place, both filmmakers felt it was important to stay in the Northwest. Valuing the familiarity of the local filmmaking community and relying on assistance from the city and its residents, they ignored the pleas of several investors to move the production to the cheaper, kickback-heavy movie boomtown of Vancouver, B.C., and made it an all-Seattle affair.
But fundraising was a frustrating process, leaving the duo consistently discouraged and chomping at the bit to get to the actual moviemaking. During the downtime, McDonald wrote, directed and financed (from his own pocket) a short film called White Face, with Kristensen serving as cinematographer.
White Face, a "serious comedy about racism," is a mockumentary featuring testimonies from clowns whose lives have been scarred by a society prejudiced against "their kind." They started making the festival circuit, and now had a physical product to show investors that would prove their capability.
The film went on to achieve national success, winning the audience award at the most important of Park City's other festivals, Slamdance, and garnering a special award at this year's Seattle International Film Festival. Even before Slamdance, fundraising began to go much smoother thanks to White Face's charming, bittersweet comedy and unconventional take on important themes.
In the end, they had compiled a relatively modest budget of about $300,000, a far cry from their goal of $1.2 million but quite impressive for a local production. Unwilling to wait any longer for cash, they filmed the movie early this summer, with Kristensen directing and McDonald producing. Post-production will begin in the near future.
Having heard (and having seen no reason to disbelieve) horror stories from other local filmmakers who had repeatedly hit brick walls trying to get a feature shot in Seattle, they don't know whether or not Mrs. Baker was an exception. 911 Media Arts was very accommodating when it had the opportunity, allowing the duo to hold screenings and meetings in their downtown location, but for the most part they didn't go through the usual channels. They used a professional-quality digital camera, and relied on their own equipment for most everything else. They used mostly local cast and crew, and shot in the grand old house of an incredibly generous Seattle family. The city's film office went out of its way to be of assistance. The only real resistance came in the form of bizarre legal action from one business in the shoot's proximity, claiming that the presence of cameras was actually driving away their clientele.
All this was possible, Kristensen claims, because of the story. "We had the script to show crew and investors, and they could see that we had a good story and knew how we wanted to tell it." Filmmaking should have much more of a focus on storytelling, he believes, "and a lot of local productions by very talented people aren't very successful because they haven't worked the story out as much as they should."
The filmmakers would like to think that the hard part is over with, but distribution is another matter entirely. "I donĂ­t want to think about it right now. We've got to concentrate on just putting the film together." They plan on making the festival circuit, but have realistic expectations for selling the film based on their experiences raising money.
But so far, Kristensen, still relieved to have finished shooting on time and on budget, says the whole thing has been a "really terrific experience." He and McDonald are nearly finished with a film that is one of a very small group of Seattle-based mid-sized film productions. And few others have stayed so loyal to their city, so they're hoping the city will continue to repay the favor.