Making a film and getting it released can feel like a small miracle. There are so many hurdles when it comes to securing the necessary funding and resources just to get everything off the ground. As filmmaker Mikiech Nichols—who wrote, directed, and starred in the locally produced film Mountainside—crossing the finish line of this years-long process brought into focus the challenges that Seattle will have to grapple with if it wants more truly local productions.

“It does continually feel like a struggle for independent filmmakers to find funding and financial support,” Nichols said in a recent phone interview. “There’s a lot of creative support. There are a lot of people working and wanting to do creative narrative projects, but most of the money is in the corporate and more commercial kind of things. I think a lot of people that are interested in pursuing film end up going down that route because that’s where the money is, and it’s so easy to get sucked into that.” 

First premiering at the Northwest Film Forum’s Local Sightings Film Festival and making a run of showings at the Grand Illusion, where the film was partly shot, Mountainside is a passion project for Nichols that is, in part, about the challenges he faced when following his artistic dreams. The story centers on an aspiring filmmaker named Felix (whom Nichols also plays) as he navigates a modern-day Seattle and forms a complicated bond with Stella (Nicole Merat) after meeting her one night at a party. As the pair spend more time together, Felix is motivated to make a movie about their relationship. (Yes, you may insert your “Is this fucking play about us?!Euphoria memes here.)

With Mountainside, Nichols, who moved to Seattle in the early 2010s, has made one of only a few recent homegrown films that don’t just pop in for a quick shot of the Space Needle before heading north to use Vancouver as a Seattle stand-in. Much like the recent Fantasy A Gets a Mattress, whose team Nichols has worked with, Nichols captures many local, less camera-ready landmarks that other filmmakers often pass over. His goal was to genuinely explore the relationship between Felix and Stella based on parts of his own life and that included tangible elements, such as using his imperfect house and the room where he had been living for the past 11 years.

“I wanted to make sure some of those flaws, I guess, for lack of a better word, were there because I think that that’s interesting,” Nichols said. “I wasn’t trying to make Felix feel like a perfect individual.”

Nichols also didn’t want to create a stereotypical “manic pixie dream girl” in Stella. 

“It’s an interesting thing to me because I never thought of [Stella] as falling into that category when I was writing [the script],” he said. “I was aware of that concept—you think of certain movies that get referenced in that regard, like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or (500) Days of Summer. I think that some of the people who have latched onto that in a negative way and saw Stella painted in that light, perhaps it’s because they’ve been in similar situations where they feel like people have thought of them as that sort of character.”

Specifically, Nichols is referring to some of the Letterboxd reviews he’s read, which criticize the film from this angle.

“It’s a real bummer to hear that that’s how they connected to it, but I get it,” said Nichols. “I also understand, in making a movie that I think feels pretty grounded in reality and the characters feel pretty real, especially here in Seattle, I think a lot of us know people that are similar to the characters in the movie. The problem is, with this movie, is that it is so personal. So when people say certain things about the characters, sometimes it’s like, ‘Woah, it feels like they’re just talking about me.’ But I did set myself up for that to begin with, so I’m still trying to navigate that.”

Merat, who had originally planned to audition for a different role, ended up reading for Stella and, when cast as her, she had several conversations with Nichols about how she should play the character and how closely she should try to be like the real life person who inspired the role. But she didn’t want to know too much.

“I don’t know their name, I don’t know who they are,” Merat said. “I cut myself at a certain point because that’s a personal experience for Mikiech.”

The two also had a long conversation about Stella being queer.

“I do not identify that way,” said Merat. “I wanted to make sure [playing a queer character] is kosher, I wanted to make sure this is okay. I was like, ‘How important is it that we know she is gay? Does it really matter? Is it just who she is and that is inevitably something that comes up in this story?’ That was essentially it. He was like, ‘She is because she is. She’s a person who happens to have this orientation.’ Unfortunately, Felix really likes her and that is one of the reasons it didn’t really work out.”

With that, there was one film that Merat said she wanted to avoid Mountainside being compared to.

“I wanted to get as far away from a Chasing Amy-style film as humanly possible,” Merat said. “Chasing Amy is very much about Amy being a lesbian. She’s almost put on this pedestal, right? She’s idolized in this weird, gross way. I did not want that to be the case for Stella. The film isn’t about that. The film is about their friendship. The film is about one artist being seen for the first time in a long time by another artist who really sees them the same way. It’s about that platonic love story that we’ve all experienced.” 

More than anything, Merat said the film serves as a testament to Seattle’s potential to be a film city. 

“I think a lot of people here in Seattle think they need to go to LA, they need to outsource, when everything they need is literally right here,” Merat said. “You have amazing talent so hungry to work, there are budding writers, directors, and filmmakers who just need someone to say, ‘Hey, do you want to make something really cool with me?’”

Without tipping anything off, Mountainside showcases the uncertainty of the local film industry in another way, culminating in a scene at the Grand Illusion, where Nichols worked as a projectionist. To end on this note, with the theater facing an uncertain future, was special to him. 

“I couldn’t be more thrilled to know that we were able to capture it in a way that feels nostalgic on screen. Forever people will be able to see how cool the Grand Illusion was even when people won’t be able to visit it anymore.” 

Mountainside is available to rent or buy on Vudu.