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Pivotal Scene

Seattle filmmakers are transforming the city from indie outpost to industry town.

In January, as the Sundance Film Festival was getting underway in Park City, Utah, a mammoth snowstorm ripped into the mountains. Movie people around the world were stranded, flights cancelled. But an enterprising posse of Seattle filmmakers was determined not to miss an early morning screening of Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, one of three standout Seattle features touring this year’s festival circuit. Nine brave souls—producers, actors, cinematographers and directors among them—piled into a rental van in Seattle and hit the road.

“It was 18 hours of white-knuckle driving,” says director Megan Griffiths.

They passed upended semi trucks and closed roads as they drove through the snowy night, fueled by party jams and a film podcast called How Did This Get Made? The sun rose and they kept driving until they reached Park City. The group burst into the theatre as the film’s closing song began. Everyone cheered.

“It was legend immediately,” Griffiths says, on the phone from Los Angeles. Notoriety greeted the Seattle filmmakers throughout their time at Sundance: You’re the van people, right?

The van people belong to a close-knit Seattle community that has been making movies together for years—among them Shelton’s Humpday, a 2009 comedy about two straight buddies who decide to make an amateur gay porn, and Griffiths’ The Off Hours, last year’s moody meditation on the life of a waitress at a 24-hour truck-stop diner. Both of these piled up festival awards and Hollywood attention, proving that Seattle has a shot as a real industry town for cinema.

This year, local filmmakers are behind some of the most anticipated films at the Seattle International Film Festival. Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, an affecting family and friendship drama staring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass, is this year’s SIFF grand opener—the first local movie ever to kick off the festival. Griffiths’ Eden is inspired by a true story about a Korean American girl who was kidnapped by a prostitution ring, which premiered to acclaim in March at SXSW. Rounding out the trio of features filmed in Seattle is Safety Not Guaranteed, a comedy about magazine journalists who interview a man searching for a time travel companion. All of these have won significant accolades at other festivals this year and are poised to cross over to the mainstream.

Nearly all of the movies borne of this community are shot in Washington—but the image they project is a far cry from the clichés of Sleepless in Seattle. Today’s Seattle films reflect an authentic Northwest ethos and nuanced perspective rather than gratuitous Space Needle shots and coffee jokes. Unlike TV shows and movies that are set here but not shot here (Grey’s Anatomy, The Killing, 50/50), they get the landscape and the light right.

Local independent film is blooming on all sides. The Seattle International Film Festival recently took over the old Uptown Theatre in Lower Queen Anne and opened its new headquarters on the Seattle Center campus. The city overflows with an abundance of robust, niche film festivals—from the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival to the National Film Festival for Talented Youth. Last month, Sundance Cinema bought the 10-screen Metro complex in the U-District, and starts showing films May 1. And, perhaps most significantly, new legislation recently reinstalled a tax incentive for filming in the state of Washington, virtually guaranteeing that the film boom will get bigger.

Had the incentive failed, “Half the people I know were gonna leave this beautiful thing that has been evolving and blossoming,” Shelton says, perched on the edge of her chair at Ballard’s Cupcake Royale, a few blocks from her office. Rain ebbs and flows on the windowpanes behind her.

This region is currently home to a strong documentary scene, top-shelf dance cinema and some of the most innovative music videos being made today. Amid this fertile territory, a concentrated nucleus of committed feature-makers are finding a way to tell stories that evolve the American indie flick and export a glimpse of local culture.

Leading the way is Shelton, the director, writer, producer, editor and actor whose four features have—wittingly or not—coalesced a community of collaborators. This group is doing work that insists film can be Seattle’s next big creative industry.

***

In 1989, New City Theater hosted a cabaret in the space where Hugo House is now. The Late Night Club was a place where creative people crossed paths and hatched schemes. Its regulars included a young actress named Lynn Shelton and a budding choreographer named Dayna Hanson, who met one night by chance.

Soon after, Shelton took off for New York. When she was waitlisted for an acting MFA at New York University, she pursued a Master’s in photography at the School of Visual Arts instead. Shelton remained in New York for most of the 1990s, making experimental films and working as an editor. Meanwhile, back in Seattle, Hanson cofounded the acclaimed modern dance company 33 Fainting Spells and its success put her on a “touring treadmill” around the world.

Around the same time, a young cinematographer named Benjamin Kasulke finished film school in Ithaca, New York, and set off for Olympia to be a part of a production company called the Olympia Film Ranch. By the time he arrived, the Ranch was defunct and the first dot-com bust was in full swing. So Kasulke wound up in Seattle with a job as a negative cutter.

At the turn of the millennium, there wasn’t a lot of funding available for independent film. Art films dominated the scene, Kasulke explains, because they most frequently won funding grants. “I ended up making my way through the dance film community,” he says, “because that’s who was making films.”

Kasulke began collaborating with two of the region’s leading modern dance companies, including Hanson’s 33 Fainting Spells. When Kasulke shot 33’s first film, Measure, Shelton had just returned from New York as an experimental filmmaker who was teaching editing at the Art Institute of Seattle by day.

“I had to convince Dayna to let me edit it,” Shelton says about Measure. “And it was the best thing I ever did.”

After Measure’s successful run on the festival circuit, Shelton says its visibility and lessons in cinematic storytelling made it possible for her to edit a feature. More significantly, she says she started developing a secret fantasy.

“I thought to myself, I have to direct a feature film.”

***

Shelton got her wish. In 2005, just before her 40th birthday, a now-defunct local nonprofit studio called The Film Company greenlighted her 80-minute feature We Go Way Back, a surreal story about a struggling 23-year-old actress who opens a letter she wrote to her imaginary future self when she was 13.

“I had been making films myself. No group collaboration,” Shelton says. But she knew Griffiths, who signed on as assistant director and put a crew together that included Kasulke.

“It was the first thing I shot on 35mm, the first film that felt like it was shot like a true American indie,” Kasulke says. “It was post-Pulp Fiction, post-Sex, Lies, and Videotape—and it felt like we were following in those footsteps.”

We Go Way Back premiered at Park City’s Slamdance Festival in 2006 and took home the Grand Jury prize. On the road with the movie that year, the Seattle filmmakers connected with peers from other cities who were also making below-low-budget films.

Next came Shelton’s My Effortless Brilliance, a quiet, slow movie set in the Washington woods starring musician-turned-actor Sean Nelson and stage heavyweight Basil Harris.

“There were six or seven people there on set,” Harris says. “It was very chill, like a retreat. We’d talk about it over breakfast and then we’d go shoot it and talk about it and shoot it again. It felt like a long-form improv workshop. She had two, sometimes three cameras going at the same time. Sometimes we did these 12-minute takes, which, as an actor, is awesome.”

The shoot resulted in heaps of digital footage from Nelson’s and Harris’ unscripted, improvised scenes, filled with mumbled dialogue that put the film in the growing, influential indie subgenre mumblecore. Shelton essentially cut the movie together in the editing studio—and both actors were credited as writers on the film, which premiered at SXSW in 2008.

Humpday, Shelton’s next film, maintained her casual, improvised style, but added a polished emphasis on story. More urban than her previous films, Humpday’s themes are as sociological as they are personal—its central characters struggling with identity and progressive expectation based on a compelling premise: Are these straight dudes really open-minded enough to make a gay porn together as an artistic statement?

“The thing that interests me starts with the concept of the self,” Shelton says. “We think we know who we are—and it often turns out that isn’t the case. I’m endlessly fascinated by all the masks we wear and by the way people want to connect.”

The characters in Your Sister’s Sister, this year’s SIFF opener, tangle with complex, layered relationships against a picturesque Northwest landscape. Started as a 70-page “scriptment”—part script, part treatment—the film was shot on an island in the San Juans.

“It had the same naturalism and dynamic quality, but we figured out enough in advance that we weren’t grasping for it and writing it in the editing room,” Shelton says.

Your Sister’s Sister possesses more Hollywood star power than any of the director’s previous movies (thanks to DeWitt and Blunt, who play sisters alongside Mark Duplass, the indie superstar who also anchors Humpday). It’s tighter than its predecessors, presenting a refined picture of Shelton’s relatable sensibility.

But polish didn’t disrupt the trademark team dynamic. “It really was 12 of us on an island for 12 days,” says Mel Eslyn, 29, a producer on the film who started working with Shelton after moving to Seattle from Milwaukee five years ago. “We had one day off—half the crew went kayaking and the other half went for a hike. There were a lot of campfire stories and one cabin dance party.” 

***

The bonds between the people who make these movies are deep and loyal. Talk to any of them and they’ll wax on about the fountain of collaborative support they receive from their generous friends and colleagues. They will also likely mention “high-kicks”—a kind of kinesthetic exclamation mark for a job well done in their world—and weekly karaoke sessions at Bogart’s in Georgetown.

“You’re working with these people, but they very quickly become your best friends for life,” says Eslyn. “I want to be with people who can get the job done, but be able to make a dick joke at the same time.”

Griffiths was in New York for an Independent Film Channel conference with producer Lacey Leavitt when she coined a term to define the always-expanding group of people she works with: crewtopia.

“It describes the perfect crew where everybody is there for the right reasons,” Griffiths says. “We don’t want to work people to death and put people through unpleasant situations.”

Given the modest resources of most local films, an ultra-supportive culture is essential to getting the work done. In April, Shelton’s next feature, Touchy Feely, was in the final throes of pre-production for a four-week Seattle shoot. Eslyn, a producer on Touchy Feely, was juggling publicity for Your Sister’s Sister, preparing for the Touchy Feely shoot, finishing post-production on another feature and squeezing in a short of her own on a weekend off. It’s an exhausting schedule to imagine, much less execute. Not surprisingly, the energetic Eslyn does a lot of high-kicks.

“If I want something, I have to step up and make sure that it happens,” she says. “It’s not like we have 50 bazillion [equipment] rental houses. We have a couple people per position.”

Relationships are the secret ingredient in this generative environment. “It makes such a difference when there’s chemistry,” Shelton says.

*** 

Beyond the sphere of Lynn Shelton, most filmmakers in town appear to share the same full-tilt work ethic and to rely on the generous spirit of their collaborators to overcome a lack of resources.

“I really relate to Lynn’s style,” says experimental filmmaker Wes Hurley. “She approaches her work like an artist.”

Hurley grew up in the Soviet Union, watching pirated copies of American movies on VHS with his mom. At 16, his mother became a mail-order bride, and she and Hurley moved to Seattle. After a few years, Hurley’s stepfather became transgender—and now Hurley, 30, is making a movie musical about it, starring Marya Sea Kaminski and Ricki Mason (one half of the iconoclastic dance sensation Cherdonna and Lou). Hurley has two previous features to his credit: The documentary Waxie Moon and the genre cornucopia Waxie Moon in Fallen Jewel. Both films center on the boylesque alter ego of dancer/actor Marc Kenison.

“I don’t like totally experimental stuff that makes no sense,” Hurley says. “But I like to mess with form and deconstruct it.”

Hurley’s guerilla films are as low-budget as they come, yet his experimental curiosity and campiness have won participation from some of the region’s top talent, including Shelton (as an actor), actor Nick Garrison, actress Sarah Rudinoff and dancer Wade Madsen.

“The artists are really into it, I think because I’m playing and exploring,” Hurley says.

A pioneering spirit saturates filmmaking in this town: Robinson Devor and Charles Mudede made the profoundly humane Zoo here. Kahlil Joseph creates artful, mind-melting music videos for Shabazz Palaces. Zia Mohajerjasbi makes hometown mini-epics for Macklemore and Blue Scholars. All of them are forging new ground, breaking down the boundaries of genre and convention.

Mohajerjasbi, 26, aims to make a feature film someday. In the meantime, he’s developing a project about the Yesler Terrace public housing community and practicing his craft. “Videos are fun, they’re a way of refining your chops, a way of exploring aesthetic and pacing,” he says, adding that he plans to build his career in Seattle “because the relationships are easier here.”

One of Mohajerjasbi’s contemporaries, a hyper-focused young filmmaker named Shaun Scott, consumes and creates movies as if they were as necessary as breathing. At age 27 and already in pre-production for his fourth feature, Scott describes watching Taxi Driver seven times in one weekend as homework for Pacific Aggression, his forthcoming road movie about a travel writer.

“The political climate and the climate-climate here make me rambunctious,” he says.

Adam Sekuler is a filmmaker who does double duty as the Northwest Film Forum’s program director. His current projects include a series of shorts made in collaboration with dance filmmaker Karn Junkinsmith. Called Interpretive Sights, each installment of the series presents a choreographer “with a landscape that has a previous history,” Sekuler says. So far they’ve worked in Kosmos, an old, washed-out lumber town near Mt. Rainier, and Hanford Reach, a section of the Columbia River that served as a buffer area for nuclear fallout.

From his vantage point at NWFF, Sekuler explains that hybrids are the trend in films around the world. “It’s called the cinema of in-between,” he says—and Seattle’s overlapping dance, theatre and film communities are fully engaged in it.

Shelton’s old friend Dayna Hanson is completing post-production on a major hybrid. Her first narrative feature, Improvement Club, is a collision of dance, film and theatre about a troupe of wayward performers doing a show about the American Revolution. Think Cassavetes meets Waiting for Guffman.

Hanson and a group of her collaborators started with a performance for the stage. “To transpose it into a film was an unwieldy, humbling experience,” she says. “Like, how much can I learn in the next two weeks? It was a very steep learning curve.”

Yet optimism would not relent. “Once I turned to [cinematographer] Sean Porter like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be possible,’” Hanson says, “And he said, ‘Never say that.’”

*** 

Setting contributes heavily to the mood and character of a film—and Northwest landscapes supply filmmakers with a wealth of material.

“We’re so far north that even on the brightest, sunniest days, it’s still angled light,” Kasulke says of shooting in the Northwest. “Low-end digital video systems love this light.”

The Off Hours earned Kasulke high praise and industry attention for his lush photography, much of which is dappled with the soft, twinkling blue of early morning. After shooting The Off Hours, Kasulke was working on a film in Louisiana, prepping for a scene set at dawn. “I was getting out my blue gels and everyone was looking at me funny,” he says. “Dawn in most places is orange. In the Northwest, it’s blue.”

Shelton contends that her films aren’t about this place, but of it. “I’m comforted by the grey,” she says. “Part of my outlook has to do with having been raised here.”

The Northwest may be photogenic, but for now it’s still impossible to be a full-time Seattle filmmaker because there isn’t enough work here. People travel six or seven months out of the year, finding work around the world through the web of relationships formed through festivals and projects. Kasulke says producers are eager to hire a DP who can do a 10-day shoot with an eight-person crew. Shelton describes a similar experience directing an episode of Mad Men in 2010.

“I’d been up in the hinterlands making movies in my own weird way,” she says. “So Mad Men was such an incredible confidence booster. Not only did my skill set make it possible, it was perfect because they work so fast.”

Seattle filmmakers can get gigs in LA and elsewhere, but everyone interviewed for this story says they’d rather stay here. They want to build an infrastructure that would make Seattle film careers possible and sustainable.

“It has to stay a community, but it needs to become an industry at some point,” Eslyn says. Which means all kinds of features need to shoot here—not just Northwest indies.

Griffiths’ Eden, for example, was shot in Eastern Washington, but takes place in New Mexico. “Eden is a movie-movie,” Kasulke says. “It doesn’t show the edges of its indie-ness.”

But in many ways TV, not features, is the key to unlocking Seattle as an industry town. A Seattle-based TV production would generate consistent work for crews, along with livable wages. Griffiths notes that it could also lead to a proper sound stage—something the city doesn’t yet have.

Washington’s new film incentive increases the appeal for TV and movie productions by offering a 30 percent rebate on every dollar spent in the state—with the intent to boost tax revenues (e.g., restaurants, hotels, rentals) and support year-round jobs for local actors, crews, designers, directors and production folks. Those jobs will make it possible for filmmakers to earn a steady living while gaining experience and exposure.

Twenty years ago, the local music scene galvanized an industry that continues to thrive as a creative and economic force. Now local film has a chance to do the same. Led mainly by women (it should be noted), local filmmakers are harnessing the strengths of the dance, theatre and film communities to create a product that can be exported and shared with the world.

“Why not stay here and build our own market?” Basil Harris asks. “Let’s give people awesome projects, amazing crews and talent that’s ready to work on day one. Quality becomes our calling card.”

Pictured above: Mark Duplass in Your Sister's Sister. Photo by Benjamin Kasulke.

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