Three or four years ago something must have happened to cause the local industry to turn a corner. During this period, the Sundance indie film boom went artistically bust, and SIFF's Filmmakers' Forum began its mission to expose the business side of filmmaking to artists with big dreams and little grounding in reality. Whether or not it's due to a clearer understanding of the business of film, local productions started improving in quality. Crocodile Tears certainly had merit, but the slow pace of independent film production couldn't keep up with advances in AIDS research, making it a period piece before its time. Hype, a fun documentary charting the commercialization of grunge, hit and missed across the nation. Under Heaven was certainly a quality film, but the distributor botched the release, and wasn't able to turn critical raves into box-office gold. Smoke Signals took lessons learned at the Sundance Institute's screenwriters' and directors' workshops, and launched that movie into a solid indie film orbit, complete with a bevy of awards. Which brings us to Gregg Lachow.
Lachow has always been one of Seattle's treasures, first with his acclaimed theater troupe, Run/Remain, then as a filmmaker. Even during the early '90s, when feature films in Seattle had yet to prove themselves, his no-budget film The Seven Mysteries of Life was head and shoulders above the rest. His follow-up, The Wright Brothers, was chock full of interesting ideas, though it lost focus in its second half. Through all of Lachow's films, two things remain constant: an exploration of interesting themes, and top-notch performances. His newest, Money Buys Happiness, continues in that tradition.
Money (Jeff Weatherford) and Georgia (Megan Murphy) are a married couple, parents who've begun drifting apart. He considers simplifying his life by leaving everything and everyone behind, starting fresh for the millennium. She's become increasingly curious about an anonymous love letter sent to her 10 years ago. All their plans are put on hold when a friend of a friend commits suicide, and they inherit a piano. Money decides to push the piano to their home across town, but for religious reasons has to complete the task before nightfall. Meanwhile, Georgia's got her own errands to do, from work as voice-over talent to hunting down the author of her mash note.
To merely convey the plot is to do the movie a disservice. Part of what makes Money Buys Happiness a success is what the film doesn't do. For instance, it doesn't take its characters and force them into a traditional plot; it doesn't shortchange conversations and diversions in order to streamline the "story"; best of all, it doesn't try to explain everything. The world of the film is taken for granted, so none of the characters are surprised when something "odd" happens. It's almost as though the movie is constantly striving to be interesting. It may not always succeed (many of the throw-away gags, like the guy who moves the piano down the stairs in an edit, are underdeveloped, and not well integrated into the rest of the film), but this sense of exploration makes the film work.
Money Buys Happiness is the first film in WigglyWorld's innovative new "Start-to-Finish" program. Teaming a for-profit production company with their not-for-profit organization (a common teaming for documentary films, but not for narrative features), they strive to produce one feature film per year. Because their primary goal is the creation of an artistically successful film--hopefully followed by some financial success--they do not follow the traditional Hollywood model of script to script doctor to screen. Instead, an artist is given an unrestricted $5,000 grant and one month to come up with an idea for a film. If and when the idea is accepted, the long, hard process of raising money begins, with WigglyWorld guaranteeing at least $20,000 in matching funds.
Though fundraising is always difficult, WigglyWorld's help gives the filmmaker "a solid foundation, especially in the eyes of other people," according to Lachow. "WigglyWorld is part of the community, so the project can be part of the community--which is important." As the program grows and develops, the WigglyWorld stamp of approval will be as important as a high-profile grant, in terms of finding investors. By the way, this is not a program you can apply for, so do not send WigglyWorld your script. The chosen artist must be nominated by their advisory panel, or chosen by the board, or otherwise appointed. Next year's project has already been picked: local video and filmmaker Sue McNally's feature debut, Out of the Blue.
In a big show of support for local filmmaking, the Seattle International Film Festival is supporting the program with a benefit screening of Money Buys Happiness, at the Cinerama on the first Saturday of the festival. Ticket revenues will generously be donated to the "Start-to-Finish" project. At this rate, not only will Seattle add feature filmmaking to its already established film, video, and commercial repertoire, but these projects will also help develop our region's cinematic "voice." Commercial or not, that beats the faux indies of Sundance any day of the week.