The man (and magic) behind Seattle's 2015 film festival

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Carl Spence in his SIFF office. Photo by Florangela Davila

Carl Spence is the type of rare individual who can talk highbrow (the nuances of Polish film poster art) and lowbrow (Rose Byrne is coupled with Bobby Cannavale) in one conversation. And that’s why, if you’re a film buff, you'll want to hang out with him. He’s got stories, trivia and, probably, loads of gossip about the film festival scene.

Spence, 45, is the artistic director of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), which opens Thursday, May 14, and will screen 450 films over 25 days. We caught up with Spence on the eve of SIFF's 41st opening night.

How did you land at SIFF in 1994?

I started on a three month contract doing marketing and promotion. [Before that], at the UW, I ran the Arts and Entertainment office for the ASUW, [which involved] producing films, concerts and lectures. Phish, Robyn Hitchcock, Queen Latifah...I think I did a double bill of Naked Lunch and Beauty and the Beast.

The UW job was crazy, but I learned how to create and promote an event, sell tickets, book films, talk in front of people and organize volunteers – a set of skills that are useful to my current job.

What movies did you grow up with?

I grew up on Disney. I remember “Freaky Friday” with Jodie Foster. I’m of the Star Wars generation. I remember seeing that at the Tacoma Mall – that was an event.

I had a best friend whose dad ran a video store in Sumner. And I worked at another video store throughout high school. I started really branching out in college. At the UW, there were great film classes – we’d go watch all these films at the Neptune.

In this day and age, why do movie theaters matter?

I watch a lot of movies by myself, but it’s a richer experience when I see a movie not by myself. As long as we [humans] want to stay connected, we will still want to do things with other people.

Everyone thinks it’s risky to be investing in movie theaters (SIFF owns three: One at Seattle Center, one on Lower Queen Anne and one on Capitol Hill). But just three weeks ago, at a SIFF screening of “Montage of Heck," there were 600 people. The energy was palpable. The director gave a great Q-and-A. I don’t think you’d experience that at home watching HBO.

You see between 450 and 500 films per year for work. So...what do you do in your free time?

 Cook. We have a little place on Orcas Island. It’s a little cabin with no TV. I catch crab.

Do you screen mainstream movies for your kids (ages 4 and 7)?

Yes, and I’ve also screened some "Films4Families" (one of many film groupings available at this year’s SIFF).

Kevin Bacon: why are you paying tribute to him this year?

He has a remarkable range of work and he did not take the obvious path. He also hearkens back to my era. I remember “Footloose” and “Diner.”

We’re showing his latest work – "Cop Car," a neo-noir cop film. We’re very excited.

This year’s SIFF offers 17 different mini-festivals within the festival and, if that's not enough, you can also search for movies that match your mood ("Provoke Me" or "Make Me Laugh").

For even more specific categories, here are Spence’s top picks.

If you’re a 7-year-old boy:

"Fiddlesticks." A German film about kids taking over town to free their grandparents. Very imaginative and fun.

If you’re a dog lover:

“The Great Alone." A documentary about man, the Iditarod and how the man would rather spend time with his dogs than, well, with other humans.

If the “Black Lives Matter” movement has you wanting more films about race in America:

“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution." A great documentary.

“Dope.” Described by SIFF as a coming-of-age, updated “Ferris Bueller” story about some college-bound hip-hop geeks.

“License to Operate." A documentary about former gang members in LA.

And if you’re looking for a good date movie: 

Good Ol’ Boy." A fish-out-of-water tale about a boy from India in 1970s, small town America.

For more information on this year's SIFF, go here.


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