From the PI:
Three Seattle films getting a close-up at Sundance Festival
By SEAN AXMAKER
SPECIAL TO THE P-I
It may not put Seattle on the cultural map the way Grunge did in the ’90s, but 2009 is shaping up to be Seattle’s biggest year for homegrown cinema on the national stage.
Two Seattle productions are in competition at the Sundance Film Festival, the premiere showcase for America independent cinema that begins today. Lynn Shelton — whose debut feature, “We Go Way Back,” won the Jury Prize at Sundance alternative Slamdance in 2006 — is going to Utah with her third film, “Humpday,” one of only 16 films accepted into the festival’s Dramatic Competition. Two days before, Shelton was announced as one of three nominees for the Someone to Watch Award from the Independent Spirit Awards.
David Russo’s “The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle,” the latest production nurtured by the Northwest Film Forum’s “Start-to-Finish” program, is in the Spectrum Competition. Premiering out of competition is “World’s Greatest Dad,” a dark comedy with Robin Williams that was shot in Seattle and drew from the local talent pool and production resources.
This isn’t Seattle’s first invitation to the Sundance, which runs this year through Jan. 25. In 2005, “Police Beat,” inspired by Charles Mudede’s column in The Stranger and directed by Robinson Devor, premiered in the Dramatic Competition, and “Iraq in Fragments” won three awards in the 2006 Documentary Competition before it was nominated for an Oscar.
But this year Seattle comes to Park City in force, and this arrival brings a message along with it: The local filmmaking community is both growing artistically and developing a base of resources, from technicians to post-production facilities. At least for this very specific kind of filmmaking model.
Officially, “Humpday,” which makes its premiere Friday, was made for “under $1 million.” Unofficially, it is surely the lowest-budget production in the Dramatic Competition and one of the very few without the draw of Hollywood actors. Mark Duplass (of “The Puffy Chair” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs”) and Joshua Leonard (co-star of the blockbuster “The Blair Witch Project”) have some indie cachet, to be sure, but are hardly name draws in an industry that banks on star power and prestige for selling films. Apart from Duplass and Leonard, the cast and crew are drawn from Seattle.
“Humpday” is the story of best friends — one now married, the other a rootless drifter — who reunite after 10 years and make an unusual commitment to an extreme art project that threatens the marriage.
Like Shelton’s previous film, “My Effortless Brilliance,” “Humpday” is shot from a detailed outline, but the lines are improvised by the actors, and the momentum, the blocking and the timing worked out on set between Shelton and the cast.
“It works the way that a normal script does, where you have this blueprint,” she explains. “I have everything laid out ahead of time except for the actual words they are going to be saying.”
In a festival filled with multimillion-dollar movies, this is genuine independent filmmaking. As is “The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle,” the debut feature from short filmmaker Russo that premieres Monday. Russo’s short “Pan With Us” won an honorable mention at Sundance in 2003. In the words of the official Web site, the film is “a character-driven comedy about unintended consequences,” in which surreptitious experiments on a group of night janitors impregnate the men with “small, beautiful, immaculately conceived blue fish.”
As in his short films, Russo mixes live action and animation, but unlike the largely solo endeavor of handmade short filmmaking, he had to transition to working collaboratively with a cast and crew, not to mention a deadline. “When I make short art films, I can bang my head against an obstacle for years on end until I get it right or another breakthrough emerges. With a live-action feature film, it’s all a blur, and then you’re married to all the errors — forever.”
“World’s Greatest Dad,” directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, wasn’t born in Seattle, but it was in part shepherded by Seattle-based executive producer Jennifer Roth, whose credits include current Oscar hopeful “The Wrestler” and “Police Beat.”
It’s also filmmaking on a much larger scale, with a bigger budget and greater demands on local resources, and different benefits to the city, not the least of which is employment for Seattle actors and technicians. “People need to be able to make a living,” Roth observes.
If it sounds like stating the obvious, then she has made her point that Seattle needs to develop an industry to attract out-of-town filmmakers and give local actors and technicians a reason to stay in the city.
There is no doubt that small-scale filmmaking is facing hard times in Hollywood. Specialty distributors are closing shop or being folded into mainstream companies, and promotion costs are at an all-time high, which makes it hard for real independent filmmaking to compete with big-budget, studio-backed productions.
But even in this climate, this current blossoming may boost Seattle’s profile as both an alternative for independent filmmakers and a welcoming community for out-of-town productions (which, more often than not, head north to Vancouver). Seattle’s Alpha Cine is one of the best labs in the country, points out Roth, and NWFF co-founder Michael Seiwerath notes that the post-production houses have been very supportive of local filmmaking.
What seems clear is that the two can only nurture each other.
TIMELINE: LOCAL INDIE FILM SCENE
Alan Rudolph and Cameron Crowe fell in love with Seattle when they came to make films here (“Trouble in Mind” and “Say Anything,” respectively). They have since made homes here but (for the most part) their films elsewhere. Here are the specifically homegrown productions that helped put Seattle filmmakers on the map in the past decade:
# “Silence!” (2001): Cinema meets theater in this silent film with dialogue performed with a live cast.
# “Police Beat” (2005): Robinson Devor moved from Los Angeles to Seattle and made this film, the first Seattle-produced feature to compete in the showcase Dramatic Competition at Sundance.
# “The Heart of the Game,” left, (2005): Nurtured at 911 Media Arts, Ward Serrill’s documentary about the Roosevelt Roughriders girls basketball team got a national release by Miramax.
# “Iraq in Fragments” (2006): James Longley’s locally produced film won three awards in the 2006 Sundance Documentary Competition and was nominated for a 2007 Academy Award for best documentary.
# “Brand Upon the Brain!” (2006): Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin accepted an invitation to make a film in Seattle with an all-Seattle cast and crew. He called it “my first foreign film.”
# “We Go Way Back” (2006): Lynn Shelton’s debut feature won the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival
# “Expiration Date” / “Outsourced” (2006): Seattle filmmakers Rick Stevenson and John Jeffcoat self-distributed their locally produced features and got them into theaters in 2007.
# “Zoo” (2007): Robinson Devor’s controversial documentary about the Enumclaw bestiality ring.