The Sundance Kids
This Week, Three Seattle Filmmakers—Two of Them Stranger Genius Award Winners—Are Headed to the Most Important Film Festival in the Country
Her third feature film is about two straight men making gay porn. It's a "bromantic comedy."
Under no circumstances should Lynn Shelton quit making astute and charming independent films to pursue a career in cocktail science. Her experiments with novelty drinks are, on the whole, disappointing.
One afternoon last week, she was preparing for a fundraiser for her film Humpday at Northwest Film Forum, a party she was calling "Humpday Extravaganza II: The Humpening." She had promised hump-related cocktails. "So far we have the Swordfight," she said, laughing sheepishly, "but I'm also thinking—how about this?—the Piledriver."
Shelton—the 2008 Stranger Genius Award winner for film—describes Humpday as a "bromantic comedy." Through some contortion of male bonding and macho posturing, two straight college friends—played by Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) and Josh Leonard (The Blair Witch Project)—decide to make a movie for HUMP! Seattle's real-life amateur-porn contest that, as it happens, is put on by The Stranger. "It's about the limitations and occasional absurdity of straightness, specifically male straightness," said Shelton. "These two guys try to 'outdude' each other by trying to 'do' each other, which is kind of ironic." Not only is the film playing at Sundance, it's in competition for a prize—one of 16 in the U.S. narrative feature film category. A big deal.
Shelton is warm and disarming and fun, with dark blond curls and an open face. Like an open-face sandwich. Of sincerity. She's a master of breezy naturalism and emotional acuity, and—along with cinematographer Ben Kasulke—creates quiet, intimate spaces where you might want to move in and stay awhile, if they weren't so personal. Her first film, We Go Way Back, premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival (a Park City festival that runs concurrent with Sundance) in 2006; her second, My Effortless Brilliance, won the Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Direction at the Atlanta Film Festival.
We walked to the store and collected potential cocktail ingredients: juice, frozen berries, pomegranate seeds, cornichons, capers, limes. Back in the kitchen, her first order of business was to construct the party's mascot/signature garnish, Señor Hump—two capers and a cornichon speared on a bobby pin in a suggestive configuration. He presided serenely over the rest of the afternoon.
The cocktails were unsuccessful. First up was the Bone-Ami, an aimless but not wholly unpleasant brew of gin, limoncello, sparkling water, and four black raspberries (after the movie's four starring balls). The second effort was the Dry Hump: $3 pinot grigio, sparkling pomegranate juice, sparkling water, an awkward cucumber spear, and six forlorn pomegranate seeds kicking around on the bottom. It tasted like nothing—nothing bad, nothing good. "The Dry Hump," Shelton justified, "sometimes that's all you need—a little dry hump. Kind of weird and unsatisfying, you don't go out looking for it, but you don't necessarily mind it." She decided that the pomegranate juice made it too sweet to qualify as "dry" and redubbed it the Leg Hump: "The cucumber is the leg."
Humpday was shot over 10 days for "less than a million dollars, but more than 10 dollars" and is the third film Shelton has submitted to Sundance (and the first to be accepted). She's noncommittal, or unsure, about why Seattle has such a strong showing at the festival this year: "Jennifer Roth [a local producer profiled on the next page] told me that outside of L.A. and New York, we're the biggest regional presence in the festival this year."
I asked about the future of Humpday. Shelton answered, "I'm really interested to see what happens. Because even though it doesn't have any A-list actors, I feel like it's conceptually a marketable film if it's done right. I'm not super stressed about it, I'm just kind of curious. Actually, I'm fucking thrilled. But maybe that's just the Bone-Amis talking." LINDY WEST
The obscure filmmaker is doing his damnedest to remain obscure. It doesn't seem to be working.
David Russo does not want to talk about it.
Despite the fact that his dizzyingly kinetic animations have been admired at Sundance, used for a Thom Yorke video, permanently installed at the Seahawks stadium, lauded at film festivals from New Jersey to Spain, and purchased and broadcast by the French Ministry of Culture—despite the fact that his first feature-length film, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, has been accepted at Sundance this year—David Russo does not want to talk about any of it.
That wasn't always the case. Back in 2004, when he won a Stranger Genius Award for filmmaking, Russo was ebullient about Little Dizzle, with the crackling glee of someone whose project is still perfect in his mind, not yet alloyed with the dull air of the actual world. In the profile of him in that year's Genius issue, he crowed about Little Dizzle: "If it's allowed to exist, it's going to be a cannonball. It won't be ignored." Last week, he replied to an interview request with a terse e-mail: "Thanks so much, Brendan. But Lynn Shelton is your story, not us. Trust me on that."
Russo, clearly, is a man of moods. In the opening narration to his stop-motion short I Am (Not) van Gogh (2006), Russo pitches the film (which we're already watching) to a stodgy panel that selects public art for a festival. "I'm just using his name in the title 'cause he's the archetype for all the mad, misfit, misunderstood artists out there, you know?" Russo explains to the panel. "There's a lot of them, and I think I'm one."
Russo's stop-motion shorts are more imaginative, intricate, and meticulously designed than most feature films. He gives inanimate objects the kinetic power of an avalanche. In I Am (Not) van Gogh, he sends birds, fish, and a disembodied mouth soaring through the crowds at Bumbershoot by painting full-size animation "cells" and holding them for individual shots while the world whirls around him. Russo appears for split seconds, holding the figures among the surging crowds—a tiny peek into the operose labor required to create his graceful, fluid hallucinations.
Little Dizzle sounds like one of those hallucinations. The film is about a young, pious Christian named Dory who gets fired from his data-crunching job and becomes a night janitor, along with a menagerie of addicts and petty criminals. The janitors are the unwitting subjects of a corporate experiment: They eat cookies laced with something that causes visions, mood swings, and an odd kind of pregnancy among the men, who become midwives for each others' virgin, back-end births. (The film was originally titled #2.)
This dark, nocturnal fantasia sprung from Russo's years of working as a night janitor, according to Michael Seiwerath, executive director of Little Dizzle and the former director of the Northwest Film Forum. (Producer Peggy Case says much of the film was shot at night in City Hall, where the crew had to be out by 6:00 a.m., when the city employees started showing up.) While Seiwerath was still its director, the Northwest Film Forum awarded Russo its sixth start-to-finish grant, a years-long commitment to throw the weight of the institution behind a feature film. Among other things, the grant does some bureaucratic jujitsu that allows a filmmaker to raise both nonprofit money through a 501(c)(3) and private investment through an LLC. The ideal David Russo shoot, Seiwerath says, "would be like summer camp—just him and three friends with a camera in the woods."
Case tells a story about the first day of shooting Little Dizzle: "David was used to working completely by himself with small crews and being completely in control. He goes into his basement and comes out with a finished film. This was a union shoot, so everything was by the book and there was a fairly large crew. The first day, David turned to me and said, 'Who are all these people? What are they doing here?' I said, 'David, they are here to make your film.'" BRENDAN KILEY
It was her idea to shoot the new Robin Williams movie—the entire thing, which is rare for this town—in Seattle.
Of the three Seattle films heading to Sundance this year, one—World's Greatest Dad—was neither directed by nor written by nor stars a Seattleite. The star of the film is Robin Williams (who lives in San Francisco) and the writer/director is Bob "Bobcat" Goldthwait (who lives in Los Angeles). The money for the film, around $4 million, is not from local sources—it's almost impossible to raise that kind of money (though it's not that much) from investors and companies around town. Even an established director is lucky to get $10,000 from a single investor, and Vulcan Productions—owned by Paul Allen—keeps all of its cash away from the hubbub and uncertainties of the local scene, which is why Vulcan has no part in this new wave of films heading to Sundance. (For the record, Vulcan once turned down one of my scripts.) So why are we celebrating World's Greatest Dad as a "Seattle" film when, ostensibly, it's not a Seattle film? Because it was made in this city and was made (mostly) by this city.
What World's Greatest Dad makes clear, the message it sends to other filmmakers and producers around the country, is that Seattle has the infrastructure for serious film production. This is something that Jennifer Roth, one of Dad's producers and a prominent member of the local film community, emphasized when we met at a new restaurant, the Oddfellows Cafe & Bar. Roth—a New York native, a mother of one, a wife, a former specialist on Arab culture and language, a line/executive producer for several high-profile films (Smart People, The Squid and the Whale, The Wrestler), the president of the board of Northwest Film Forum—ordered a salad crowned by slim and skinless slices of chicken.
"Is it snowing outside? Fuck me! Oh my God, it is. Great, like we haven't seen snow in forever." We looked out the window—snow everywhere. By the end of the holidays, everyone in Seattle had had enough of the stuff; everyone was tired of the sleighing buses, the delays, the dangerous roads, the works. After recovering from the snow shock, Roth said, "Well, it all began when the producers [of Dad] started talking about where to shoot the film. I was on board at this point, and I put it in their heads to shoot in Seattle because a new tax incentive passed, [reimbursing] 20 percent of what you spend in Washington. David Russo's film also benefited from the tax incentive. Any film with a budget of $500,000 or more can benefit from it. But there was only one problem: Seattle has too much personality, and the director wanted the city to be anonymous. But we were able to find places [without personality] in Wallingford, Loyal Heights, even downtown."
When asked what the film is about: "It's a dark comedy. The character Robin Williams plays has a son who is really an awful human being. Williams, on the other hand, is mediocre, and everything is going fine until his son (Daryl Sabara from the Spy Kids films—he's all grown up now) dies from an autoerotic asphyxiation accident. Well, hilarity ensues."
When asked about the shoot: "It took 25 days, all in Seattle. It was the first film of that size to shoot from start to finish in our city in a long while. Usually the shoot happens in Vancouver, and they come down here for specific locations. But [Dad] was all down here. Not Vancouver. And with the exception of the director of photography and the costume designer, everyone on the production end was entirely local."
When asked to explain the importance of Dad to Seattle's film community: "When Bobcat and Robin Williams come to town to make a little indie film, it's great that they find the support and people they need. I mean for Russo, it is obvious, and Shelton, it is obvious that you can make a film here. But for people like Bobcat and Robin Williams, it's not so obvious. It makes us all relevant."
That settled that and we settled the bill. Outside, the snowfall was thickening. It swiftly fell over Seattle. Over Cal Anderson Park, over the cemetery where Bruce Lee is buried, over the traffic crawling on I-5, and the towers, the waters, the ships. We exchanged good-byes. Roth went one way and I the other. CHARLES MUDEDE