This year’s Film award is sponsored by Alaska Airlines VISA Signature Card.
Benjamin Kasulke is the premier cinematographer working in Seattle, and maybe in all of independent cinema, today. His work has drawn notice from the start: In 2006, Kasulke's second credit as director of photography—for Lynn Shelton's debut feature, We Go Way Back—earned him the Kodak Vision Award for cinematography at the Slamdance festival. In 2011, his work on Megan Griffiths's The Off Hours got him nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Since then, he's distinguished himself all over the place, shooting the acclaimed indie films Humpday, Your Sister's Sister, and Safety Not Guaranteed, and winning Seattle's 2012 Mayor's Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film.
Kasulke landed in Seattle in the early-mid-'90s, after earning a film degree from Ithaca College and coming to the Northwest, he tells me, "mostly to be around the music scene." Instead, Kasulke found himself drawn into Seattle's dance scene, shooting performances and experimental films for 33 Fainting Spells, Dayna Hanson, and Maureen Whiting, and becoming the dance community's "go-to film guy." In the early 2000s, Kasulke joined forces with Gregg Lachow's The Film Company, the Northwest Film Forum–affiliated production company that provided Kasulke with his first director of photography credit, for Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!, which was followed quickly by We Go Way Back, and Ben Kasulke, Indie Cinematographer Extraordinaire™, was born.
The phrase "director of photography" gets at the specifics of Kasulke's talent: He takes gorgeous, evocative, humane pictures that happen to be moving. In the world of Lynn Shelton (his primary collaborator), Kasulke's work is subtle and adamantly non-showy—the splashiest moves he makes involve the quietly gorgeous framing of regular old people/places. But his aim and framing are big parts of what makes Shelton's world of point-blank humanity come to life on the big screen. This can't be underestimated—press pause on a Lynn Shelton film, and you'll see an arresting photograph.
More importantly, Kasulke has a style of his own outside of the Shelton universe—maybe many styles of his own, but the one that's been most impressive so far is his work on Brand Upon the Brain!, a highly mannered black-and-white film that couldn't be further from his mumblecore work.
"To find the level of talent that he has in someone who's also really easy and fun to be around is a truly rare and wondrous thing," says Shelton, who praises Kasulke's rare ability to "tune in to the working methods and particular vibe of each set he works on." As for Kasulke, his guiding principal is "what makes the director want to express an idea, then I take shots that look like they're coming from this idea, and we're on the right path." DAVID SCHMADER
Two years ago, Scott Blake graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in English literature. Last year, he completed a 25-minute film, Surveyor. This year, we are nominating him for a Stranger Genius Award in film. All of this might seem a bit rushed, but sometimes things happen slowly, and other times they happen quickly. And when they happen quickly, there must always be a good reason. In the case of Blake, who is just 25, the reason is found in his one and only work, Surveyor, which he calls an anti-western.
Shot over the span of two years in Oregon and Washington, and paid for out of Blake's pocket, Surveyor is a superb, solid, sound piece of filmmaking. What we see in the movie's pace, photography, use of music, performances, direction, art direction, and wardrobe is a mind that's already very much at home in this demanding art form. Indeed, there are several directors in this city who have years of experience and a deep knowledge of technical and historical aspects of cinema, and yet have not made a film that's anywhere as good as Surveyor. Blake's background is in literature, and he is not exactly a film buff (though he names the greatest filmmaker to ever walk the earth, Andrei Tarkovsky, as his main influence). As a director, he is mostly self-taught. But watching Surveyor (the movement of the camera, the positioning of the actors, the sparseness of the music), you'd think he had attended film school, had an encyclopedic knowledge of westerns, and had received training as an assistant director on a number of local and national projects.
One might say he got lucky. That this film might be his one and only achievement. My answer? Because film production (the script, the shoot, and all of that editing) demands so much time and money, it really is almost impossible for luck, and luck alone, to make a very good film. Genius, not luck, is almost always what you find behind a film of the caliber of Surveyor. CHARLES MUDEDE
Zach Weintraub shot Bummer Summer, his first feature film, in black and white, in and around his hometown of Olympia, Washington. The film begins nowhere and ends nowhere, unfolding on the screen much like a cloud moving slowly across the sky and occasionally taking an interesting shape. It's a film clearly made by someone talented but still learning the craft, still searching for a voice, still zeroing in on a style. Indeed, Bummer Summer was made right after Weintraub completed a degree in filmmaking at NYU in 2008 and returned to the Pacific Northwest.
It was Weintraub's second feature, The International Sign for Choking, that made it obvious that he is an important artist. The film was shot in Buenos Aires in 2011 on a tiny budget: $9,000. Half of that went to plane tickets, the other half went to food and housing, and none of it went to the actors and crew. And interestingly, Weintraub avoided exploiting this exotic location, excluded predictable local color, and instead focused on the rooms and quiet hours of a nascent love affair between two strangers, two young Americans.
In a highly positive review of The International Sign for Choking, Variety's Robert Koehler compared Weintraub's work to Yasujir Ozu, the golden age Japanese master known for a style of filmmaking that gazed at things, at rooms, at the faces of actors. The comparison is apt: Both Weintraub and Ozu treat a scene as if it were a photograph—the camera almost never moves, and the contents in the image are carefully composed (the positions of the actors, the location of the windows, the situation of the furniture). In one scene in Choking, we watch the lovers in the bathroom: She is facing a mirror and putting on a fancy white dress, he is behind her and zipping up the dress, the wall is yellow, the window is bright with light, and we gaze at the fleeting moment.
But Ozu was a perfectionist, and Weintraub is not. Ozu's films are clean and closed; Weintraub's are a little messy, and they are exposed to the world of small surprises, which he calls "happy accidents." "I like to leave things to chance as much as possible, and I also like long takes," he says. "There is this tension you can achieve in each scene if it is open to chance and lasts for about three minutes." Ozu is like a violin solo in a piece of classical music; Weintraub is like a drummer in a post-rock jam session. CHARLES MUDEDE
See these artists in conversation with David Schmader at the Frye on July 31; strangertickets.com
Photos by Kelly O