WHILE SIFF RAGES in local theaters, a hush suddenly falls in Capitol Hill's Victrola coffee shop. The cheerful chatter of grips, gaffers, and camera operators gives way to silence when someone yells, "Quiet!" A movie's being made here: Mrs. Baker, described as "a psychological horror film." Pacing around the set, Kris Kristensen has that harried, distracted, wearied look of a man directing his first feature. "Today's been the worst day," he says. "We had a guy hurt himself on the grip truck this morning. You're always getting blindsided by something that you weren't expecting." The production's also behind schedule on its third day of shooting (four weeks are planned), while construction noise outside is interfering with the sound recording. Here's the other side of filmmaking, not on view at festivals—hard work, low pay, and endless fund-raising, and it's taking place in the unlikeliest of locales.
Ask anyone dogged but unfortunate enough to have pursued a film career in the Northwest and they'll tell a sad tale of how, after Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, work has basically disappeared from the region. A few Hollywood crews briefly decamp here to shoot exteriors (as with the Angelina Jolie-Edward Burns picture Life or Something Like It, which recently filmed scenes on First Avenue). Car commercials pay well, but only for a few days at a time. Otherwise, Vancouver, B.C.'s government subsidies, nonunion workforce, and cheap Canadian dollars have made that town Hollywood North.
The wonder of it is that a few resolutely independent directors, like Capitol Hill's Gregg Lachow, whose Silence! premiered at SIFF '00, continue to make movies in this town. Now Kristensen is joining the ranks, along with his cowriter/producer Brian McDonald (whose short satire White Face just played at SIFF) and Bainbridge Island's Garrett Bennett, whose Farewell to Harry had its May 27 premiere at SIFF on video—but which will show the first time on film June 15. (Meanwhile, the irrepressible Karl Krogstad is working on his latest, Great Uncle Jimmy, shooting around Ballard and environs.)
WHY HERE? "I don't owe anything to L.A.," says the 36-year-old Seattle native McDonald of the place where both he and Kristensen separately kicked around showbiz for several years. "L.A. seems to respect people who do something without them. They don't support you when you're there." It's a catch-22, he explains, where you're not considered a filmmaker until you've made a movie. He continues, "We just got fed up. We really decided, 'Why are we waiting for someone else to give us the opportunity? Why don't we make the opportunity?' We'd make a movie no matter where we were."
Kristensen, 36, recalls how he and McDonald simply decided to "stop waiting for someone to christen us filmmakers." He adds, "Anybody can do it. It's just a matter of getting off their asses and doing it. Not to sound negative about Seattle either, but I do think there's a lot of 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we did this?' and then nobody does it."
Also showing an entrepreneurial, self-financing spirit is Garrett Bennett, 35, a founder of the Annex Theater. Having similarly sojourned to Hollywood (where he attended the prestigious American Film Institute, the spawning ground of David Lynch), he now says, "I don't think we could've have done this in L.A." Like his Mrs. Baker counterparts, he raised his own money mainly from local investors, with a budget approaching $1 million (as opposed to Baker's projected sub-$500,000 cost).
Unlike the non-place-specific Mrs. Baker, Bennett explains, Harry depended on "creating this magical little world [that] was a big part of the story." It's a film about place and memory, shot last fall in Pioneer Square and Port Townsend, and on Bainbridge Island. "This is gonna be a risk," he admits, a project he couldn't have financed in Hollywood without guns, sex, or stars.
No less aware of the risk—and of the example for other aspiring Seattle filmmakers—is Kristensen. "I think it'll all rise or fall on the success of the film itself when it's done," he concludes. "If it's a hit, then it'll be sort of like, 'Look, it can be done.' If nobody ever hears of it, no one will know the difference."