A Post-SIFF Group Portrait Featuring Seattle as the Dark Heaven for Emerging Filmmakers

You have to be crazy to make movies so far from Hollywood, but more and more serious Seattle film people are doing it. And making movies that make it: winning film-fest awards in Park City, posing alongside Spielberg and Scorsese at the Oscar nominees’ lunch, putting their dreams onscreen. We polled local critics and cineastes and came up with a list of eight ascendant filmmakers particularly respected across Seattle’s film community. Like hardy pioneers pitching in on a barn raising, they often collaborate on each other’s projects. Yet each has an utterly individual vision. And each is a vital part of the unending celebration of film our city is becoming.

Photography by Caleb Plowman

Robinson Devor, Director

Favorite director: Delmer Daves
Wish I’d directed: The Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta
Best Seattle location: There are sixty-eight and all are unique portals to the strange and wondrous: the Olmsted Park system

Before he made Variety’s top-ten new directors list and the 2005 year-end critics’ best lists from New York to L.A., Robinson Devor set out to be a poet, hoping to study with James Dickey. That may be why he’s simpatico with his screenwriting partner Charles Mudede (also one of our eight, below), Seattle’s most literary crime reporter, and why their films are like hushed tone poems. They sent two films in three years — Police Beat and Zoo — to indie-film heaven, the Sundance Film Festival. Devor captures Seattle’s sense of place in a way nobody else has done. Or rather, he creates an auteur’s sense of place: dreamy, drifting, lush. Though he makes local scenery look luscious, he gives scenes a distinctive stamp: the surreal subterranean opening of Zoo is as unsettling as that of Blue Velvet. And Devor’s characters are as weird as David Lynch’s — even though they’re based on real Seattle people. Devor makes pulpy subjects into art films too beautiful for their bare-bones budgets, full of melancholy loneliness. Like Errol Morris, Devor makes commercials for a living. He and Mudede have formed a production company, Hard Living Pictures, and are at work on three new films.

Dayna Hanson, Director

Current project: Rainbow
Favorite director: John Cassavetes
Wish I’d directed: Once
Best Seattle location: The Twilight Exit

“I’m pretty susceptible to tangents,” says Dayna Hanson. A fiction writer, she segued into dancing and was codirector of Seattle’s celebrated 33 Fainting Spells troupe for a decade. She won a Guggenheim for choreography, “but I’ve always had a desire to work in film.” Hanson also co-curated New Dance Cinema, the Northwest’s only dance film fest. Partly inspired by frustrated people in the balcony at her sold-out Moore Theatre performances, who “felt cheated because they couldn’t see our faces,” she began filming the shows. She codirected Measure (2001), the first dance film ever chosen for the New York Film Festival; it played over forty fests around the world and is on the DVD anthology Dance for Camera. “Film offers the opportunity to combine the qualities of stage work — straight dance, mixed media, experimental theatre — with narrative.” When Hanson’s Guggenheim ran out, she got a Northwest Film Forum grant to direct Rainbow, a feature film starring Maggie Brown, Seattle’s young answer to indie queen Parker Posey. The story is crafted to include people Hanson worked with on stage shows and in her band, Today. The film’s “interweaving narratives in an Altmanesque style” are set in improbable locales, including a climactic rock show at a Depression-era log hall in South Puget Sound.

Ben Kasulke, Cinematographer

Current projects: Richard Lefevbre’s Calamari Union, Marie Losier’s unnamed documentary project, Jennifer Maas’s Wheedle’s Groove; Lynn Shelton’s Humpday
Favorite directors: Werner Herzog, David Cronenberg, Michael Winterbottom, Lynne Ramsay, Roman Polanski, Hal Ashby, Harmony Korine, Terrence Malick, F.W. Murnau, Claire Denis
Favorite films: Days of Heaven, Rosemary’s Baby, Code 46
Wish I’d directed: The first shot of Diamonds of the Night (Jem Nemec, dir.) where a very strong cameraman with a very small cameraman on his back runs up a hill filming an escape scene
Best Seattle locations: Golden Gardens, the International District, Pioneer Square, Georgetown

Kasulke studied at the Czech national film school and like Dayna Hanson came of age as a filmmaker on the Seattle dance scene. Not as a choreographer (he never studied a step), but as the guy who makes the alien domains of dance and film work together. “Every project was eye-opening: camera placement ideas I’d never thought of, ideas for movement and capturing movement that just would not exist in a narrative two-people-talking-in-a-room world,” he says. “Anybody who wants to perfect camera operations should work with dancers, because it’s unpredictable, you’re constantly trying to reframe.” His cinematography for Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back (2006) won awards at both the Slamdance and Torun film festivals. Also in 2006, he shot Guy Maddin’s made-in-Seattle feature Brand Upon the Brain! a hit at fests from New York to Berlin to Toronto. Maddin called on Kasulke to replicate antiquated cinema styles and the look of aging celluloid. To achieve the desired effects, the cinematographer relied heavily on what is provided by nature in Seattle: “Whenever I go somewhere else I’m grinding my teeth, because here it’s, like, this perfect layer of diffusion nine months of the year. And that northern light!”

Etta Lilienthal, Production Designer

Current project: The Sidewalk Never Ends (Travis Senger, dir.)
Favorite directors: Matthew Barney (film), Robert Wilson (theatre)
Wish I’d designed: Blade Runner
Best Seattle location: Lake Washington floating dock

A former design associate at Seattle Rep and currently scenic designer for the Maureen Whiting Dance Company, Etta Lilienthal has worked widely in the theatre. Four years ago, she branched out from stage to film, enriching her work in both media. “Theatre is more like a drawing; in film you have to think more in four dimensions: play with time, think about the front and back of space. Now I try to mimic that in my theatre work, to transport the audience anywhere, anytime.” She favors total, enveloping environments, sometimes with projected video; her sets extend into lobbies, up the walls, beneath the audience’s feet. Her film work leans to the offbeat: the H.P. Lovecraft horror show Cthulhu (Dan Gildark, dir.), the Harold and Maudeish Diggers (Cheryl Slean, dir.), Lynn Shelton’s Rainbow, The Blakes’ MTV video. Her trickiest job has earned her the most awards. “Police Beat was almost all shot outside and the biggest challenge was not making it look like Seattle was in a drought, which it was. The director wanted a lush, stunning, verdant environment.” Lilienthal painted the grass and other vegetation. “We ended up tinting the whole film green.” Color is a leading character in Lilienthal’s work.

James Longley, Director

Current Project: A film about growing up in Iran
Favorite directors: Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Dziga Vertov, Andrei Tarkovsky, François Truffaut, Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Vittorio De Sica, Terrence Malick, John Sayles, Alfred Hitchcock, Andrzej Wajda, Charles Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick, Bernardo Bertolucci, Werner Herzog, Maysles Brothers, Joris Ivens
Favorite film: The 400 Blows

James Longley was raised on San Juan Island. “I grew up without TV,” he recalls. “There was only one movie theatre.” He learned his trade at Russia’s State Cinematography Institute. In 1994, he won a Student Academy Award; subsequently he made the documentaries Gaza Strip, Iraq in Fragments and Sari’s Mother (the latter two, Oscar nominees about the Iraq war, are now available on the same DVD). “The truth is,” he confesses, “I don’t really like documentaries. I think the industry regards documentaries as a platform on which to hang a social issue — the environment, Hurricane Katrina.” Longley likes documentaries that are movies, not social essays: character studies and pure visual works of art. “I’m trying to make a fiction film that’s real. I want the audience to have the excitement of watching a work of cinema but with the added interest of having it be about real people and the real situation, not some story I’m making up.” He spurns voiceovers or putting himself at the center of the movie, Michael Moore–style. “I’m trying to create the illusion of this invisible camera that floats as if it weren’t there to get this film that feels like it should’ve been impossible to make.”

Charles Mudede, Screenwriter

Current projects: Dynasty, The Cloud Room and You Can’t Win (all Robinson Devor, dir.)
Favorite director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Wish I’d directed: Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger
Best Seattle location: Freeway Park

For a man of ideas, it’s ironic that Charles Mudede’s unlikely, yet skyrocketing, film career wasn’t exactly his idea. It began when Emily White, his editor at The Stranger, urged him to write a column of poetical free associations inspired by local police reports. Director Robertson Devor (profiled above) suggested they turn the column into a film. Police Beat uses real police-blotter stories from Mudede’s columns, as seen by an immigrant African bike cop. But the real star of the movie is Seattle itself — all the green scenes the cop glides through, fretting jealously about a girlfriend, a theme taken from an autobiographical Mudede essay. In both that film and its successor, Zoo, Mudede was concerned with Seattle’s spirit. “When we shot both of them, what was on my mind was X-Files — that moody, cinematic darkness they got in Vancouver. When they moved to L.A. it was horrible, they lost the melancholy. They thought it was about aliens, but really it was about the light, the Northwest.” He’s working on a still-tentative film about Amanda Knox, the UW exchange student accused [now convicted] of murder in Italy.

Tracy Rector, Producer

Current project: March Point
Favorite directors: Coen Brothers, Mike Nichols, Niki Caro
Wish I’d directed: Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners
Best Seattle location: Post Alley

Tracy Rector’s work has even deeper roots than that of other local filmmakers: she’s a specialist in Native American studies and documentary film; she coproduced the awardwinning Teachings of the Tree People. Her new film, March Point, is a distinctive environmental documentary, made by kids on the Swinomish Reservation near Seattle through the Native Lens project of Rector’s Longhouse Media. “They were three at-risk youth looking for a way to get out of school,” she explains. “They wanted to make a rap video or a car chase flick. But our fundraising was to make an environmental film. So they’re like, ‘Oh, God, an environmental film!’” In making the movie, the teens discovered the environmental impact of refineries built on reservation land taken from the tribe by Ulysses S. Grant in 1873. “It’s not a PC green environmental film — when the kids find out the refineries are on tribal land, they go, ‘Wow! We could be rich!’ and go into a rap-star fantasy.” The reality: the teens’ documentary wowed film festival audiences and airs on PBS’s Independent Lens this winter. Instead of juvenile detention, where they thought they were headed, with Rector’s mentoring they got paid internships at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of the American Indian.

Lynn Shelton, Director

Current Project: My Effortless Brilliance
Favorite directors: Lynne Ramsay, Ang Lee, Claire Denis, Walter Murch, Anne Coates, Steven Soderbergh, Michel Gondry, Ellen Kuras, Michael Winterbottom, Andrei Tarkovsky, Judd Apatow, Robert Altman
Favorite film: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Wish I’d directed: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Best Seattle location: Baranof Restaurant

Starting at Seattle Children’s Theatre when she was eleven, Lynn Shelton spent years as a stage actor, here and in New York. When she defected to film in her late twenties, her work remained steeped in theatrical technique and values. Many of her movies are experimental chick flicks — not commercial fluff but indie cinema with a female face, concerning brides, miscarriage, motherhood and date rape. Her debut feature, We Go Way Back, is about the scary way confident thirteen-year-olds turn into passive, victimized twenty-three-year-olds (in this case, a Seattle actress trapped in an eccentric fringe production of Hedda Gabler, a situation drawn from Shelton’s experience). It won both top awards at Slamdance, brought Shelton fans like Todd Haynes and Ira Glass and led to serious talks with the Independent Film Channel. Her second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a startling departure, a movie about male best-friendship. It’s as if Sofia Coppola morphed into Judd Apatow. Yet it’s consistent with the earlier work, infused with theatrical improv, utterly actor based. “The way I’m scripting these days is a list of scenes,” says Shelton. “I know what’s going to happen in each scene and emotionally what’ll happen, but the lines will come out of the actors. I’m trying to get cinema vérité performances.” This summer she shoots Humpday, about male bonding that goes over the edge. It stars Mark Duplass, a hero of the hip new genre “mumblecore.”