SIFF Guide: Taylor Guterson Treats Seniors Seriously (and for Laughs) in His Burkholder

Why this local filmmaker embraces the senior set.

“My films are a little weird,” says Taylor Guterson. It’s a weird statement to make about his two easygoing features. His debut Old Goats (SIFF ’11) and his new Burkholder both concern a group of of elderly, sometimes cantankerous codgers facing their retirement years on Bainbridge Island, where the director grew up. The films gently meander through their doings and conversations, which have a habit of detouring into blind alleys. Those detours are intentional, says Guterson, the son of bestselling novelist David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars): “There are people out there who think that that’s not how you tell a story, that you never bring up something that . . . doesn’t have a point. And to me it has a point. They go off on these tangents because that’s what they do.”

Today based on the Eastside, Guterson is a self-made filmmaker with his own video production company. Chatting in a Mercer Island coffee shop, he’s like an earnest, relaxed grad student. So why, I ask, has he created a stock company of senior citizens? Reflecting on Old Goats, he says, “I was 27 and thinking, ‘If I don’t just figure out a way to do it now, I’ll never make a feature.’ ” The largely self-taught director had the filming equipment through his Elliott Bay Productions; it was a matter of finding a project he could produce himself.

In both movies, his cast of amateur oldsters was a practical consideration. Rather than auditioning professional actors, he cast local retirees—all with wide-open schedules—and drew from their lives to create their screen characters. Bob Burkholder and David VanderWal had appeared in Guterson’s early shorts. He met Britton Crosley while working a landscaping job during college at the UW. “Their mannerisms and personality were very striking to me,” says Guterson. “I thought if you could just capture that on film, they would be interesting people to watch.” They were willing to improvise on camera, and their price was right. And, says VanderWal, they had a lot fun with it: “[Taylor] could call me to do anything, and I’d show up.”

Produced for all of $5,000, the low-key buddy film Old Goats earned some nice reviews—and a selected national release thanks to local company ShadowCatcher Entertainment. It caught the same cultural wave as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet, with a genuine interest in treating senior citizens as people, not stereotypes. So Guterson reconvened his three stars and self-financed a sequel of sorts, Burkholder.

Burkholder focuses on the friendship between Teddy (Burkholder), a spirited, impulsive, ferociously independent bachelor, and his landlord and friend Barry (Crosley). The two bicker like an old married couple and, fittingly, see a marriage counselor to sort through their household issues. As with Old Goats, the film uses breezy humor to explore themes of age, independence, and declining health. However, Burkholder has a more somber tone: 88 when filming began, Burkholder was struggling with oncoming dementia, which becomes central to the movie. When Teddy gets confused while driving and pulls off to sleep in his car until morning, it’s not a moment of panic or dramatic crisis, like Henry Fonda getting lost in the woods in On Golden Pond. It’s simply a solution, and Teddy shrugs it off, despite the deeper significance.

Says Guterson, “I’ve spent a lot of time around older people, and I’ve found that things . . . that may seem dramatic or super-unusual to you and me, like pulling over on the side of the road and sleeping, to them is not unusual or weird. It’s just part of the reality of their daily life.” VanderWal, who has a small but splashy role in Burkholder, concurs: “Taylor seems to have a knack for the crap that nobody ever tells you when you get old.”

Burkholder’s health was in decline during production, and Guterson recalls his star morbidly jesting, “We better get this done, I might not be here.” He made it through filming, but died last year at 90, during post-production. In tribute, Guterson not only dedicated the film to Burkholder, but named it after him. ShadowCatcher again plans to target the senior audience, as with Old Goats. Of the latter, says Guterson, “I’ve heard over and over from older people that it feels authentic.” Burkholder will likely strike the same chord.

film@seattleweekly.com

BURKHOLDER Harvard Exit (807 E. Roy St.): 4 p.m. Sat., May 17 & 6:30 p.m. Sun., May 18. Lincoln Square (Bellevue): 4 p.m. Thurs., May 22. $10–$12.

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