Today’s Washington Filmworks blog post is written by filmmaker Jeremy Mackie
I grew up as a film lover in Seattle, first tearing tickets at the Varsity Theatre, then working as a projectionist, then a production assistant on indie movies, then a gaffer, a DP, and now, a director of my own films.
Recently my wife and I took a huge leap and moved to Singapore to follow a career opportunity for her – an adventure halfway across the world for us. In the last year I’ve been vigorously networking my way though a new culture, searching for new filmmaking collaborators and opportunities, and building a career as a DP.
While there are lots of amazing things about Singapore – it’s a mind-boggling blend of cultures and influences – the struggles in the film community and the general arts community here made me look back at Seattle and think long and hard about the things I may have taken for granted.
Understandably, the filmmaking community in Seattle spends a lot of time trying to improve itself, and that means turning a critical eye towards potential flaws — the lack of “proper” studios, the challenge of sustainable film work, few sources of funding, and troubles with distribution, to name a few. The list is long, and deserves attention.
But since KCTS kindly scheduled my short Chasing the Sun on Reel NW this week, I started reflecting on all the amazing filmmaking treasures hiding underneath the surface in Seattle, many of which made my short film possible. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone: below are three things that I miss from the filmmaking community in Seattle when I moved away:
- Easy Access to All Types of Films
Seattle has an absolute treasure trove of indie movies – inspiration and influences outside of Hollywood abound on big and small screens. There are multiple indie theater venues and chains. You have the absolutely incomparable Scarecrow Video to reference obscure directors and old movies from the 50s, there’s SIFF’s commitment to building a year-round festival of movie love, local shorts competitions, experimental hybrid video/theater pieces, 48 hour film challenges that produce international winners, and technology that digs deep into visual art.
Many places in the world are lucky to have one single indie theater, and most of those theaters just play the big releases. Other filmmaking work often appears from a top-down approach, meaning big commercial titles come first, and then if you’re lucky, a small screening of ‘selected’ film festival darlings—but good luck finding ‘your’ movie or filmmaker.
Access to the internet promises to undo all of these problems, but other forces can still make that difficult, especially in countries like Singapore. Besides a general censorship on what sites you can see here, there’s also restrictions on public screenings, and even Netflix is making me fight for the right to watch their shows. You still need real people loving films, championing them, and actually going and seeing them.
- Talented Crew Willing to Take a Risk
For years, I thought of Seattle’s crew talent pool as a small, just-barely-there collection of rag-tag film-workers, only because we paled in comparison to LA, New York or other big production hubs. But that collection of people and talent looks different from over here. There are brushes with occasional big movies, the successes of North By Northwest’s continuing production, and committed local filmmakers training stellar crew. There’s also the ability to pull top-level people out of commercial work and into a smaller, more heartfelt productions.
For all of its problems, Seattlites live in one of the better places to find crew to make indie movies. Yes, it’s not an endless fountain, and they may not know every trick in the Hollywood book, but a producer can find talented and devoted practitioners of their craft – a craft often chosen by passion and not purely monetary gain – who would be willing to take on a small project just for the chance to learn and improve.
There are also a huge number of extremely talented artists in other disciplines — musicians, performance artists, graphic designers, animators, writers — all curious enough about films to want to collaborate on good story or script. Local band Kingdom Crumbs and Seattle-tied Mash Hall made the soundtrack to Chasing the Sun. My composer Jason Staczek had just finished working on a Sundance film before he devoted weeks of work to my short with peanuts as pay. The fine chefs at The Totem Diner donated catering for the shoot, and made me my own artisan cake, just because they like creating their art to help out other artists.
From so far away, I can now better appreciate this particular temperate zone between practical know-how and artistic dreams that exists in Seattle. I have heard people suggest that Seattle must choose between a commitment to either a full-fledged commercial business or a purely artistic haven. But from Singapore, as a filmmaker, this position seems to be just right—the place you might be able to make that artistic, yet commercially viable film.
- It’s Been Done Before (Which Means You Can Do It Too)
The history of movies made in Seattle and Washington is quite amazing when you start to group them together – the recent Captain Fantastic, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Heart of the Game, Outsourced, Lucky Them, World’s Greatest Dad, If There’s a Hell Below, Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, Iraq in Fragments, Calvin Lee Reeder’s The Procedure, M.O.P.Z., just to rattle off what I know. Check out this incomplete but very honorable list.
And the even the larger number of movies and web series made locally that don’t reach critical acclaim or success help teach the next wave of filmmakers – young filmmakers that need training and experience, and a supportive community that just goes out there and makes films.
It’s still very difficult to make a film, and though many of the bigger movies depend on outside scripts, talent and money coming in, they are Seattle’s movies. These productions are real, recent, and tangible proof that quality films can be made here. They can serve and an example of what’s possible when you dream about making a film.
Seeing the shrug of impossibility in people when I talk about making films in Singapore makes me realize how important a group of people making quality work in an artist community can be, especially if they do it on their own terms.
Filmmaking in Seattle is not easy, but don’t let it block your vision of the concrete potential of the people working, living and creating around you. I’ve got some first-hand experience lately that it doesn’t exist everywhere in the world, and it’s not something that one person or even a small committed group of people can create overnight. It takes time, community, hard work, and a lot of luck, and you can find all of that right here Seattle.
It may not be LA or New York, but no city quite has what Seattle has, and now I know that more than ever.
About the short film Chasing the Sun:
In the middle of an ill-conceived road trip, two long-separated siblings discover they have very different opinions when it comes to their long-buried family history, forcing them to face the past with hope and despair. The brother and sister chase after a ghost of an absent parent, searching for answers to questions they’ve kept to themselves for years.
The film plays Sunday July 24 with the REEL NW Narrative Shorts package at 4:30pm. You can also view the film online at the Reel Northwest website.
He’s currently working on a feature project entitled Pinheads about two juvenile-delinquent kids that discover their family is cursed – and a fantastical pinball machine that’s been left behind can be the only explanation.
About Jeremy Mackie: