The first glimpse that Seattle filmmaker Wes Hurley had of his future came in a midnight pirate broadcast of the movie Ghost.
Wes and his mother were living in Vladivostok, on the far eastern edge of the Soviet Union near China and North Korea. The USSR was teetering towards collapse and their lives were hell: Wes, a closeted gay kid, lived in such fear for his life that he carried a knife to school. His mother, Elena, worked at a prison and was ordered to falsify medical reports to cover up the beating deaths of prisoners — if she refused, she was told, an “accident” might happen to her.
American movies, broadcast from an unknown source somewhere nearby, were their first ticket out. Their second was Elena’s decision to become a mail-order bride, eventually escaping Russia and settling in Seattle. That's just a small sampling of the twists in Wes' life story — a story that is now coming to the big screen, with his autobiographical feature film Potato Dreams of America, debuting March 16 at South by Southwest.
When you first talk to Wes, you might notice how tranquil he is, even when discussing the unimaginable trauma of his youth. Thinking back to his time in Russia, he recalls the atmosphere that filled him with dread every day. “Gay people are talked about as monsters that don’t really exist, but if they did, they should be murdered,” he says. “It was constant, that kind of hate … I really absorbed it. I thought I was the only one, and if I came out people would want to kill me.”
A late-night pirate television broadcast may have saved his life, and his mother’s. Someone in their city started illegally broadcasting dubbed versions of American films in the middle of the night, and Wes and his mother would huddle around their black-and-white television set, one of them sitting in front and the other standing alongside it, constantly wiggling the antenna back and forth to chase the signal.
They saw Tootsie, Labyrinth, Robocop — Made in America was particularly intriguing. “Whoopie Goldberg’s eating sushi with Ted Danson and we were so mesmerized — ‘what could they be eating, what is that?’” He recalls. “Or pizza, we didn’t have pizza for a long time. … My mom would make pizza from slices of bread and ketchup and bacon.”
The movies gave them an escape, something to daydream about. “My early childhood,” Was says, “I’ve always thought of it like a movie, like what if this is a movie instead of my real life. When things got hard, I’d be like ‘what if this was a musical version of my life?’”
The emotional escape through films was their first first step, followed by a physical escape after Elena began contacting mail-order bride companies. Eventually, she and a Seattle resident began corresponding. After his mother and the Seattleite married in secret, teenage Wes found himself abruptly uprooted and thrust into the Pacific Northwest. It seemed at first like a miraculous rescue, but there was still unthinkable turmoil ahead.
Adapting that story to a feature film has been a project for nearly a decade. Wes wrote a first draft of a script around 2012, and the story morphed and evolved for years while he worked on smaller filmmaking projects, such as the web series Capitol Hill and a documentary about Seattle stage star Waxie Moon.
A grant from 4Culture made it possible to create a short documentary about his life, which he used to sell the concept of a feature to investors. The short, Little Potato, won the Documentary Short Award at SXSW 2017.
The new feature is a deeply Seattle endeavor, shot locally at various locations around town. The scenes in Russia were filmed in an old Staples warehouse in Burien that the team converted into a soundstage.
For someone about to make their feature film directing debut at SXSW with the story of their life, Wes is stunningly serene. His life has changed so much since his childhood that it now feels like someone else's story.
“Even though I know it’s my life, it doesn’t click emotionally anymore,” he says. “Which was kind of a reason I wanted to make it, to let it go. Once you let go, that personal stuff in your art, it’s a way to shed it.”