Can we stop Seattle's film industry talent exodus?

Despite the renewed Washington Incentives program and a vibrant film community, local indie filmmakers are struggling to find work in the place they love.

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1978 Datsun 280Z with director Colin Trevorrow and actor Mark Duplass

Despite the renewed Washington Incentives program and a vibrant film community, local indie filmmakers are struggling to find work in the place they love.

The filmmakers of Safety Not Guaranteed needed a car for a chase scene, led by a mullet-sporting character intent on time travel. We’re not talking the plutonium-powered DeLorean of Back to the Future. No, they craved “a sad, anemic but unique car,” which screamed “I’m a bad-ass. Kind of,” explained the film’s production designer, Ben Blankenship. His vehicle wrangler found what seemed to be the perfect machine — a $700, bright yellow, 1978 Datsun 280Z, rusting away in Yakima. “Later that evening Paul Thibault rolled up, dizzy from the fumes,” recalled Blankenship, via email. “I hopped in, drove halfway down the block, cranked the wheel, nailed the gas and did a blistering burnout. It was perfect.”

That is, until Blankenship took a closer look. ”Bondo must have been cheap in Yakima because the car seemed to be made entirely from it. There was no exhaust and the key was a screwdriver.” It proved to be a temperamental actor and even tinkering with it half the night before its debut didn’t spark a desire to start.

“In order to make the day and get the scene, our key grip, Garrett Cantrell, rigged the back of the car with a large pole,” recalled first assistant director Mel Eslyn. With Blankenship at the wheel, about nine guys would shove the car. “We would get it up to a good enough speed, roll the camera, call ‘action,’ and the crew would dive into yards and behind fences out of the view of the camera,” Eslyn wrote me. “It was exhausting,” said gaffer Jeremy Mackie. “We did 20 to 25 takes.” Added Eslyn,“every shot you see in the film of that yellow Datsun zooming around, doing a U turn, is man-powered by our crew.”

“We pulled off the world’s best car chase with the smallest carbon footprint in cinematic history,” said Blankenship. Well, almost. The U-turn was re-shot a week later, when the Datsun finally roared to life.

As he told the story of the recalcitrant car, Blankenship was also pondering the road ahead for filmmaking in Seattle. This year's legislative session saw periods of considerable doubt for the continuance of state film incentives. Most notably SB 5539, concerning Washington’s Motion Picture Competitiveness Program, was still sitting on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s desk during the interview stage of this article. On March 30, Gregoire finally signed the bill into law, providing tax breaks for companies that contribute to a filmmaker rebate fund, up to $3.5 million annually until 2017. To be eligible for the fund's 30 percent rebate, film projects must meet certain thresholds — a $500,000 budget for features and $300,000 for TV shows.

Blankenship's Safety Not Guaranteed, which received raves at Sundance and South by Southwest film fests and opens here June 8, was the recipient of one such rebate from Washington Filmworks. Director Matthew Lillard's Fat Kid Rules the World and Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths’ Eden, which captured the audience favorite and acting awards at SXSW, also qualified for incentives this year. Griffiths, who also scored an emerging female director prize, produced her previous film, The Off Hours, on a shoestring budget too low to qualify for incentives. Still, that didn't stop the film from garnering an Independent Spirit Award nomination for its cinematography by local phenom Ben Kasulke. And local director Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, will headline the 2012 Seattle International Film Fest in May.

Seattle seems to be an ideal incubator for budding young directors. MovieMaker Magazine recently ranked Seattle No. 4 for independent filmmaking, based on its cash-back incentives, sales tax exemptions on equipment rental, and vendor discounts. The Emerald City also proves to be a particularly good place for women directors and producers — whose ranks swell here, compared to their relatively sparce representation on Hollywood’s top tier — and these same women often take turns working on each other’s projects.

“There’s just a great group of strong, driven women here that has created a support system for each other,” said Safety Not Guaranteed's Eslyn, who also worked with Shelton on Your Sister's Sister. 

Griffiths wrote, “female directors [elsewhere] face sexism and disrespect from the old boy’s network. We ladies here in Seattle are privileged to work with enlightened, respectful guys.”

Washington officials say filmmaker rebates are key to keeping production local. Since 2007, the state has spent $20 million on tax breaks for 71 projects that were partly financed through the program. State officials say that generated $69.2 million in direct spending, including $31.2 million on wages and $38 million on Washington businesses that serve the film industry, a figure they contend doubles as it spreads through the economy.

“It’s about employers bringing money to the state that wouldn’t be here otherwise,” said Washington Filmworks Executive Director Amy Lillard. The state incentives program was designed to attract independent features with budgets between $2 million and $10 million, what Lillard calls “the sweet spot." "We don’t have the funds to support big-budget features,” she explains. 

But according to some members of the film community, it's not enough to compete. James Keblas, director of the Seattle Office of Film + Music, remembers a boom of studio shoots in Washington during the 1990s — both TV and film. But then the relative weakness of the Canadian dollar, cheaper labor, and British Columbia’s film incentives sent production north.

Vancouver built soundstages and trained crews — including former loggers and maritime workers — according to Robert Riggs, business manager for IATSE Local 488, a Pacific Northwest alliance of film mechanics. “They didn’t make any missteps,” said Riggs. The Canadian government also covered worker health care. Still, Riggs contends that many of the projected labor savings disappeared, with union rules regarding overtime pay and required staffing.

Meanwhile, in Washington film production hemorrhaged in 1995 and again five years later. After years of downturn, it finally stabilized between 2002 and 2006, then spiked in 2007 when the state's film incentives kicked in. Last year, in Seattle alone, about 400 permits were issued for film, corporate videos and ads, with movies accounting for two-thirds of that, Keblas said. That compares to 164 projects in 2004, including 29 films. 

Still, the last major studio production largely shot here was in 2000 — Stephen King’s Rose Red, a three-part mini-series about a malevolent mansion, Riggs said. Paramount’s 21 and Over, with a much smaller $13 million budget, filmed here last year.

Recently Washington’s film scene has been pummelled from other directions too. Specifically by incentive powerhouses Louisiana, Georgia, and New Mexico. Louisiana logged a record $1 billion in production spending last year with its film incentives program; a package that includes 30 percent budget breaks, 5 percent local labor tax breaks, and an array of soundstages.

Even Washington's friendly neighbor to the south, is cutting into the state's film incentives pie. Oregon wooed TV’s LeverageGrimm, and Portlandia, with its 20 percent goods and services cashback, plus up to 16 percent wage rebates. More than half of IATSE’s Local 488’s active members — including grips, gaffers, and set designers — live and work in Oregon. They total about 600, roughly 150 more than a decade past, Riggs said.

Because the three shows were shooting concurrently in Portland while Seattle hosted the well-paying, 21 and Over, it was tough to crew the local, low-budget Eden. And AMC's drama, The Killing, set in Seattle, is actually filmed in British Columbia. 

“Making a living in the Seattle community is not financially viable,” said Kasulke, speaking from Paris’ Centre Pompidou, where he could be viewed nightly on the 'net with his tousled hair and jaw-hugging sideburns shooting silent shorts for Canadian director Guy Maddin. “You can only raise so much money to pay crews in Seattle. It’s not like there is a financial basis for multiple film shoots. Films are competing for the same pot of cash.”

Kasulke, dubbed a “Cinematographer to Watch” by Variety, still bases himself in Seattle but happily travels the world.

Seattle production designer Laurie Hicks and her cinematographer husband, Sean Porter, were forced to move to New York two and a half years ago, while state incentives were still in place. “In Seattle there was a lot of work for low-budget and free,” said Hicks from her Brooklyn home. “Sean wanted to establish relationships with more directors. We both felt we had hit a wall and didn’t feel we had a lot of opportunities.”

Because jobs are scarce in Washington, workers rarely refuse gigs, making it hard to move up from grip to key grip, or from set dresser to set decorator. And directors often work with the same crews.

The exodus of veterans for more lucrative work also means less experienced professionals here lack guidance. “Whenever I have a question, I have to skype another DP [director of photography] who lives in another time zone,” Kasulke said. 

“I wanted to leave because Seattle doesn’t hold onto mentors very well,” said Porter. “I want to be around other people who have a lot more experience than I do.”

“Low-budget films in Washington from $600,000 to $3 million do real well here," said Riggs, "but with a budget that size, department heads might be making minimum wage. It’s hard to make a living on that.” And there are not enough days of work to qualify for full family medical benefits.

“Everybody should be able to make a living wage but that’s not the reality,” said Hicks. “A lot of films would not get made if they went union.”

Films like The Off Hours, the tale of a lonely waitress and a trucker, which was reportedly made for less than $100,000 with an all-volunteer crew. The location, recalled Blankenship, “was like the diner that time forgot. A rat palace. The only thing there was grease." Anytime Mackie lifted a ceiling tile to hang lights, rodent droppings rained down.

Art Director Lisa Hammond charmed a nearby grocery store into returning the original diner booths, and Goodwill Industries generously lent the production a plethora of props. The diner appeared so ready for customers, “One guy wouldn’t believe me when I said it was just a movie set, pushed by me and sat down in a booth for several minutes before finally accepting the fact that a waitress would never come,” Blankenship recalled.

The filmmakers didn’t want, The Off Hours, to look like an indie flick, “made in a tiny little bubble,” said Kasulke. That meant lighting both the exterior and interior of the glass-walled diner in nasty weather — with the grips and electrics often outside getting drenched. One evening during the intimate final encounter between the waitress and trucker, “The wind outside the walls was screaming very, very quickly,” recalled Mackie. “Two guys were standing above this light holding on for dear life to keep it clicked into place.”

Mackie and Kasulke, who both worked on The Off Hours, used the film's lighting to “push the line between (the characters) disappearing completely and struggling to come out of their backgrounds,” Mackie said. The result was exquisite, chiaroscuro lighting reminiscent of Rembrandt’s, The Night Watch. A commercial director was so impressed after watching the film’s trailer he hired the pair for a lucrative Oregon lottery television spot.

“When you watch the film you would never know there was such chaos outside,” says Griffiths. 

Much of the same crew worked its light magic on Safety. While filming a tender scene in a forest clearing, Mackie lit the surrounding trees as silhouettes, and key grip Garrett Cantrell dollied Kasulke around a propane campfire, capturing the two leads as they bared their souls in the cold, cloudless night. “I looked over at Colin (Trevorrow) at the director’s monitor and he was crying,” recalled Kasulke. “It was such a beautiful moment.”

Meanwhile, Cantrell — the key grip responsible for rigging the car for the Safety chase scene — is one of the latest Seattle crew members to have left the city. Recently he moved to New York to be closer to family. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said from a set in Hudson. But his heart is in Seattle, with his friends.

“They pretty much made my dreams come true. They refuse to give up, they push the envelope with the stories they want to tell and they tell beautiful stories,” said Cantrell. “We don’t get huge paychecks, we do it for the pure love of filmmaking. We do it because we’re artists.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Laura Kaufman

Laura Kaufman, an award-winning journalist, is writing a book about First & Pike News.