Hot Button: Almost Famous Filmmakers

Seattle is an indie-film-adoring town. So who will be our first breakout indie filmmaker?
A still from John Jeffcoat's Outsourced

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Seattle is an indie-film-adoring town. So who will be our first breakout indie filmmaker?

Seattle loves independent film. The city is home to more than 10 cinemas screening indie flicks daily. Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), the biggest, longest-running film festival in the country, just celebrated its 35th year and filled 142,500 seats last summer—almost a quarter of the city’s population. Local independent-media organizations Northwest Film Forum and 911 Media Arts have more than 30 years between them.

“This is a film-mad city,” says Lyall Bush, executive director of Northwest Film Forum, Seattle’s only cinematheque and an institutional backer of independent film. “Per capita we’re the 10th largest market in the nation. We watch a lot of movies.”

And we make them. Walk into Ravenna’s Scarecrow Video, one of the largest independent video-rental stores in the country, and you’ll find almost 200 short and feature-length films made locally and regionally.

OK, so name a few. We’ll wait. Uh-huh.

Even though Seattle is film mad, the city’s indie-filmmaking scene still cannot claim to be home to a breakout indie filmmaker like Portland’s Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) or Austin’s Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused). Notably, while Van Sant, Linklater and others such as Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) were conducting an indie-film train that carried a national consciousness in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Seattle was full-bore busy exporting another brand of indie entertainment: grunge music. Local filmmakers have been chasing this train ever since.

Yet in the last five years, a handful of local filmmakers have caught up—enjoying more attention and praise than ever before seen in Seattle. Together they form a movement as promising as grunge once was and are changing the question from when will Seattle have an indie-film breakout to who will it be?

The challenge, of course, is that there’s no silver bullet for becoming a breakout indie filmmaker. It’s more organic, as local indie producer Peggy Case notes. “I think individual filmmakers just spring up like blades of grass through concrete. The infrastructure exists here, but it takes timing, opportunity and talent intersecting at the right moment.” That perfect storm has not quite formed for Seattle indie filmmakers the way it did for bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden.

But if what Case says is true, the city has a few promising blades springing up.

Robinson Devor’s Police Beat, backed by Northwest Film Forum’s $250,000 “Start-to-Finish” grant, premiered at Sundance in 2005 and now resides in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His Zoo (2007) also premiered at Sundance, played at Cannes and was picked up by distributor THINKFilm.

James Longley’s 2006 documentary, Iraq in Fragments, was nominated for an Academy Award the same year John Jeffcoat’s Outsourced, a comedy about a man who has to train his own replacement in India, won praise at festivals worldwide.

And just this year, David Russo’s first feature, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, also backed by Start-to-Finish, won Best Feature at the Downtown Film Festival in Los Angeles and drew a standing ovation at Sundance.

More ovations were awarded to Lynn Shelton, whose third locally produced feature, Humpday, premiered at Sundance and screened in more than 25 theaters nationwide last summer.