Seattle International Film Festival
More titles. More venues. Just plain more. Seattle's annual movie overload is about to begin. An introduction.
SIFF Ticket Info
Thursday, May 25, through Sunday, June 18.
In the SIFF Spotlight
17 must-see titles, surveyed by our critics.
SW Picks for SIFF
Our 36 sight-blind choices for the festival, not otherwise covered in this guide. In addition to a few repertory titles, inclusion here means (a) the film has great buzz, (b) a trusted colleague has seen it, or (c) it has incredible locations or someone incredibly sexy in it.
How a neophyte Seattle director stumbled into making a surefire, lump-in-your-throat sports documentary. But would you give up seven years of your life for a deal with Miramax?
We meet some of the local figures and explore area connections at SIFF.
Old Master, Fresh Ears
Radio, theater, movies—there's not much difference to America's great cinematic champion of the human voice.
Britons Behind Bars
Whether innocent or guilty, this arresting post-9/11 docudrama shows, one size of orange-jumpsuit justice fits all.
Mr. Franken Goes to Washington?
A Q&A with the comic turned author turned documentary subject ... and now, possible senator?
One might expect Andrew McAllister—whose first feature, 2002's Shag Carpet Sunset (also screened at SIFF), drew comparisons to Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater—to lean heavily on witty banter. But with his slow-cured follow-up, Urban Scarecrow, McAllister hangs a skeletal script on more substantive elements of mood, music, and imagery. He renders a scruffy, ambient world of failed dreams and bleak prospects—an apt description for the north-of-the-ship- canal strip of state Route 99 where the majority of McAllister's sophomore effort was shot.
"My dad worked on Highway 99 at a bike shop," explains McAllister, who grew up in Edmonds. "So a lot of the film comes from taking rides down 99 either at night or during the day. When I was 10 or 12, Edmonds was pretty rural. I was much more interested in living in a motel where there was all this activity and danger and abandoned drive-ins. There was just an otherworldly quality to the whole place."
When McAllister, now 30 and Seattle-based, returned to shoot Scarecrow, the highway's gritty terrain remained relatively unscathed, he says. "I grew up here before it was a tech town. There was much more of a blue-collar vibe, and that is still very much intact [on 99]. After every summer, the strip gets renovated more and more, but there are still parts that are very much untouched. The motels are falling apart, and yet the signs are really colorful and vibrant. It's almost like our Las Vegas Strip."
Appropriately, Scarecrow's plot centers on a teenage dropout forced to live in a drab Aurora motel with his failed comedian dad. While the plot itself is far from autobiographical, McAllister injected a healthy dose of his real-life pop into his film's melancholy patriarch: "My dad and his brother were Steve Martin fanatics—kind of the stupider, the funnier. So they'd do the craziest gags on my brother and me. It was kind of a depressing time, but there was so much humor. And I did have a buddy who lived in a motel down there who told me war stories."
And yet, the film's most gripping, life-inspired component isn't the dialogue but its setting. "The amazing thing about 99 is you get on the road, and there's this Big Sky, Mont., feel to it," McAllister notes. "Yet there's also this tremendous clutter and constant motion. So visually, it's pretty great." MIKE SEELY
Urban Scarecrow Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Mon., June 5. Broadway Performance Hall: 2 p.m. Tues., June 6. Not rated. 82 minutes.
It sounds completely nuts: Walk 1,200 miles from Seattle to Los Angeles to see a man you've never met, who doesn't know your name, who probably won't have time in his busy filmmaking schedule to talk to you, a nobody, a neophyte director, clutching a video camera in one hand as you frame yourself nearly being blown off the shoulder of Highway 101 by passing semis.
OK, maybe the whole idea of Linas Phillips' auto-documentary road trip is ridiculous—until you consider whom he's hoping to meet: Werner Herzog, his favorite filmmaker, a guy with a fondness for extreme moviemaking situations, who's been called crazy himself. Then Phillips' Walking to Werner makes sense. As Phillips recently explained by phone from the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, where Walking enjoyed its world premiere to generally favorable notices, the film grew from his long-standing fascination with the German director (now based in L.A.): "I've probably watched the DVD commentaries on all his films more than anyone else."
"I love to watch great actors," Phillips explains. "And I'll go and watch all their stuff. So I stumbled onto [Klaus] Kinski. And then I moved on to [Herzog's] films without Kinski, and most of those are even better. There's something about Herzog and his films that wouldn't leave me. And he influenced me to leave New York and save up for a video camera and buy it. I just started making short documentary films. Werner said that if you wanna learn how to make films, don't bother going to film school."
Calling himself "a transient figure, like many of the people I met" on his two-month trek, Phillips reached Seattle in 2004 after a decade in New York. Here, he began collaborating with Dayna Hanson of the dance/performance troupe 33 Fainting Spells. With help from the Humanities Washington Documentary Fund, Hanson returned the favor by producing Walking, which draws inspiration from a famous story in Herzog's own life. In 1974, hearing a friend was ill and possibly dying in Paris, the filmmaker marched on foot from his Munich home to save her, he somehow believed, by force of his determination. She lived, and Herzog later wrote an account of the journey, "On Walking on Ice."
Thus, Phillips says of his own project, "It just came to me." No one's life was at stake, and he could only hope that his cinematic idol might consent to a meeting in L.A.—if he was even there when Phillips arrived. Knowing Herzog was friendly with Scarecrow Video's Norm Hill (whose DVD commentaries with Herzog are incorporated into Walking), he asked Hill to relay a few messages to the director. He heard nothing in reply (it turns out Herzog was in Thailand scouting remote jungle locations for Rescue Dawn), so Phillips just started walking in June 2005. Because that's what Herzog would do: "That's the great thing about Werner—he's so instinctual. His choices are of his own will; they don't have anything to do with wondering what will make sense. They have a sort of inner logic."
I'm not going to provide any spoilers or clues about the ending to Phillips' quest. You'll have to see it yourself—to experience all the same anticipation, frustration, and self-doubt Phillips himself undergoes on the road. ("I don't wanna stalk him!") The film can be seen as a stunt, self-promotion, or performance art (Phillips trained in theater at NYU). And while the arm's-length close-ups can be excessive, the budding director knows when to turn his camera on the scenery and oddballs he meets on his pilgrimage. In an endearing way, Walking chronicles the development of an obsessive fan into a promising filmmaker. BRIAN MILLER
Walking to Werner Neptune: 6:30 p.m. Thurs., June 15. Not rated. 93 minutes.
Hubert, with Sullivan Brown at left, contemplates her past and future.
The Film Company
As anyone who's read Reviving Ophelia knows, adolescence can be particularly crushing for girls. Lynn Shelton's Seattle-made debut feature, We Go Way Back, reiterates this in a beautifully funny and poignant way. "For me, the movie is about the aftermath of adolescence. Something about it just smashes a girl's spirit," says the writer-director. "The transition from girlhood to womanhood is tough," she adds, then laughs at that characterization; "It sounds like such a chick flick." (Don't worry, it's not.)
Voted Best Narrative Feature at Slamdance this year, WGWB follows 23-year-old Kate (Amber Hubert), an aspiring Seattle theater actress, as she wrestles with job, relationship, and identity questions. (Tender songs from local singer Laura Veirs help set the mood.) Men take advantage of Kate. ("She's a nice girl, not a whore, but she can't say no," Shelton comments.) Her superiors make ridiculous demands that she passively accepts. This is painfully apparent in scenes of Kate rehearsing the title role in Hedda Gabler; sheeven goes so far as to learn Norwegian for the part, in order to please her "visionary" director (theater actor Robert Hamilton Wright, "a Seattle institution," per Shelton). Meanwhile, he ridiculously instructs other cast members to peel mountains of potatoes onstage. "Because Kate's tale is really tragic and depressing . . . I didn't want it to be a total downer," Shelton explains.
But WGWB isn't intended as backstage tragedy or farce. Prior to these chaotic rehearsal scenes, Kate reads a decade-old letter that she, as a 13-year-old, wrote to the woman she expected to be at 23. In perky voice-overs, young Kate asks if she's now happy and doing everything she wants. This voice begins to echo more and more in the grown Kate's thoughts. Eventually, the 13-year-old Kate (Maggie Brown) appears, leading to a moving confrontation.
Shelton explains that she had a similar wake-up call at age 24. She was living in New York, working in theater, but "it felt like I was hiding." She remembers being in a play where her character was tortured and finally killed. "It was unbelievable—so misogynistic. I said, 'Wait a minute, why am I doing this?'" She switched to studying photography and film, returned to her hometown of Seattle, and began making acclaimed short films about miscarriage and childbirth. Looking back at her own 20s, Shelton concludes, "Kate in the film is definitely more passive than I was." MOLLY LORI
We Go Way Back Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Tues., June 13; 1:30 p.m. Sat., June 17. Not rated. 80 minutes.
Chris Tashima and Allison Sie grapple with an on-again, off-again relationship.
The way things move in Hollywood, 10 years is not a particularly long period of time for an author to wait for his book to reach the screen. And it only happens for maybe one in 10,000 authors. And then it's often an unhappy process, with characters changed and meanings reversed— adaptation as ordeal, or punishment, or worse. But according to UW professor Shawn Wong, that's not the way things went with Americanese, an indie treatment of his 1995 novel American Knees. "It's sort of Hollywood lore that the writer is never satisfied with their movie," he says of the film, which he co-wrote and helped produce. "But one, I was kept involved all the way along. And two, everybody involved from the financiers all the way down was Asian American. So I never had to educate anybody about the movie."
What's it about? A Seattle resident for 30 years (and erstwhile Seattle Weekly contributor), Wong intentionally set out to create an alternative to the identity lit he often taught in class: "It was all grim and depressing. It was all one Asian ethnic group at a time. There wasn't any dealing with mixed-race identity. And my students wanted to see themselves. So my main character is a woman who's half Japanese and half Irish." She becomes involved with a divorced Chinese-American academic, and then both of them hook up with others in a broadening roundelay of ethnicity and sexuality. Wong describes the original novel (new in paper from UW Press) as "really a romantic comedy. The movie takes the serious parts . . . and focuses on them."
He continues, "Even though it took 10 years to make the movie, I think the time is really right. Particularly in light of a movie like Crash coming out. I think audiences are willing to take a more sophisticated look at race and ethnicity." This is especially true for younger readers (and viewers), decades after Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston made their mark. Wong observes: "They live in a world that is much more culturally diverse than the world I grew up in. They see movies like Better Luck Tomorrow or even Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. They understand what is happening, whether it's Asian or black."
Already a prize winner at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and recently praised by Roger Ebert, Americanese was directed by a mixed-race Hawaiian in his early 30s, Eric Byler (Charlotte Sometimes). He's expected to attend SIFF during its final week along with Wong and some cast members (Joan Chen, of The Last Emperor and Twin Peaks, is the biggest name among them). For this younger generation of filmmakers and filmgoers, Wong believes, "Communities aren't as isolated as they used to be. There's not really a 'Chinatown' any more. If you look at Seattle's International District now, it's all kind of mixed. That's certainly reflected in the literature as well as the movies." BRIAN MILLER
Americanese Neptune: 6:45 p.m. Wed., June 14. Harvard Exit: 4:15 p.m. Sat., June 17. Not rated. 110 minutes.