The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) is the US’s most lengthy film festival, lasting nearly a month. Like other festivals, it has its unique schedule which takes a day or two to master, even for the experienced attendee.
A journalist like me is on a focused mission when covering such a venue. I come with a “coverage” plan whether it is catching a personal interview with filmmakers, chit-chatting with movie goers, meeting with film colleagues or calculating my schedule of the 100 plus independent films to critique. However, I always incorporate flexibility into my prepared plan because the “surprise discovery” for a story never fails to materialize.
The SIFF coordinators remembered that this was my first year to experience Seattle’s venue and encouraged me to check out the home-grown competition called Fly Filmmaking. My curiosity about the name forced me to plunge into research. I discovered that this unusual Seattle competition was founded in 1994 with the goal to bring narrative filmmakers back to their roots in a challenge to be creative and to “make art under harsh restrictions.”
According to co-founder Amy Dee, the stringent guidelines of the challenge, specify that three narrative filmmakers are chosen from a list of artists nominated by the local business community the previous year. The competition begins when they are brought together in the early months of spring to a secret location in the Seattle area. This year, the chosen filmmakers (Megan Griffiths, Rob Cunningham, Joe Shapiro/Andy McCone) were taken to a landmark on the Puget Sound were given five different set options. The filmmakers had only one hour to choose their location for their short film from either a house, a garage, a hospital annex or two outdoor settings. The next step was to write the script in seven days, followed by four days to prep the film, three days to shoot and five days to edit. That is what I call a hurried dash to the finish! They had a total of 22 days to make a ten-minute short from start to finish.
In the midst of three films coming to fruition, the Fly filmmakers had to work around the SIFF film challenge called the Creativity in Context. Cherly Slean, an educator in filmmaking had been chosen to make a documentary of this unique competition and her documentary was shown after the shorts’ screening.
I was privileged to be given a ten minute group interview with all the filmmakers after the first screening. We congregated in the side hall of Seattle’s retro-styled Egyptian Theater and entered into a jovial conversation as they reminisced about their similar, yet diverse, experiences.
Karen Pecota (KP): You had one hour to choose a location. What inspired your choice?
Megan Griffins (MG): All the ideas that I had tried to formulate without knowing where we were going to shoot were based on the film I had in my head. So when I saw that there was a house, I went, Yeah!…
Joe Shapiro (JS): We were influenced by our writer who was with us and she really responded to the space. I chose our space because of the darkness even though all of the sets had a quality of darkness to them.
Andy McCone (AM): I wanted to see another stake in the ground, another real constraint…something that would influence us strongly for the narrative. The outdoor elements were great venues. It would have been interesting to try but as it turned out it rained that weekend and the rain would have been unpleasant for the actual filming. Choosing the hospital annex had a strong emotion and visual connection that was the opposite of what you guys took…looking at Rob…
Rob Cunningham (RC): Right, I chose mine because I wanted something that I could control and tweak at my disposal. The garage with no windows! For example, I knew that we could paint the walls and do our own thing. I actually considered using the hospital wing but at the last second I went for the garage…
AM:“Just because there was no heating, right?”
RC: I couldn’t think of a story I wanted to do in a hospital because the image of hospital conjured depressing scenes and I didn’t want to do that kind of narrative. I was thinking humor and abstracts!
Cherly Slean (CS): I interviewed them all that day, before they had written their projects. We talked about what sort of ideas were going thru their heads while trying to choose their locations. It was interesting to note that their choice of location influenced their style of narrative. They knew what they were going for: Rob’s is the least realistic. He wanted an abstract space. Megan had a naturalistic piece therefore, wanted the most natural space. And Joe and Andy could go both ways but the hospital was a very concrete, non-abstract situation but the way they shot it was very surreal.
KP: What was something funny that happened on your set that you will never forget? All jived that Megan go first…All laughed!
MG: Honestly, there were so many things that made me laugh. It was the most fun I have ever had making a film and it was the least stressed out I have ever been, which is weird considering the time constraints. The crew was extremely professional but so laid back. I felt like we were always prepared and everyone had a wonderful time.
RC: One disaster that happened was the vibrating football game which my father-in-law has had since he was 10 years old. It did not work consistently! It only worked, on an average of one out of every five times. The night before I was half panicked because no matter what I did, it wouldn’t turn on, so my wife suggested that we use her electric sonic care toothbrush to tape against the board to make it move. That was our back-up plan but luckily it worked fine for the shoot.
AM: The first day on our shoot, I found a pom-pom that cheerleaders use, laying around and I was using it to cheer everyone on. The next day it was gone. The crew hid it from me!
JS: I’ll never forget the times when the crew, cast and production staff were eating lunch together and telling one hilarious story after another.
KP: What was in your survival kit for the 22 days?
MG: Krispy Creame donuts with coffee breaks during editing. Also, a grateful heart for this chance! If I was working on my other project, I would be stressing about fund raising right now.
KP: So you would highly recommend this challenge to other filmmakers? Absolutely!
CS: Taco Time. I was shooting a documentary like I had never done before. It was stressful following the filmmakers around hoping to catch that something special. It was my job to be a catalyst to promote these filmmakers and to film the interesting aspects of their challenge. I was challenged because I had to be on top of what they were doing. I had to take my director hat off and become a journalist but I didn’t know what would be good questions. I was exhausted at the end of the shooting and it would only be like three hours. Chuckling… I needed Taco Time!
RC: I needed to have actors who would show up for work!
JS: Something that is always in my survival kit is people. I am not a solitary person therefore, having people around me while things are going on and to converse with is what keeps me going…I don’t do caffeine. I do people!
AM: Joe Shapiro! Every now and then you get a chance to work with someone who is dependable to get the job done….Joe was that for me.
They all confirmed that to be chosen for this challenge was truly an honor and they felt fortunate to have this accomplishment now documented on their resume. A challenge worth the encounter!