Each year, the Seattle International Film Festival invites four local filmmakers to go head-to-head in what is called the Fly Film Challenge. The challenge means a series of constraints placed on the selected filmmakers: the film would run 10-minutes maximim, use no more than three locations and three actors, include a director cameo, and feature a Seattle landmark.

Easy, right?

Think again.

“The SIFF Fly Filmmaking Challenge provides a unique opportunity for local filmmakers to showcase their talent with specific time and resource restrictions to inspire ingenuity, creativity, and skill,” says SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence. “The burgeoning Seattle filmmaking community plays a vital role in supporting this program by fostering a spirit of independent cinema that’s as engaging for film lovers as it is for filmmakers.”

This year, the theme was film noir, and each filmmaker was granted the opportunity to shoot on 16mm black and white film stock. To begin, each director selected a script (from a hat!) written by a local screenwriter, after which they had five days to rewrite and revise the blueprint through a collaborative process with the respective writer(s). Each year, one of the directors may also opt to create a documentary, which one of the filmmakers chose to do. With script (or concept) now in hand, the director was given five days to shoot the film, and, subsequently, five days to edit, followed closely by two days for final editing and sweetening the sound.

The four short films premiered during the opening weekend of the Festival at a special screening on Memorial Day. Following their debut, the filmmakers hope that the films will take on a life of their own, playing at other festivals across the country and providing an opportunity for their films to be seen by a wider audience.

What follows is a series of questions Film Threat put to each of the filmmakers soon after their big premiere at Seattle’s historic Egyptian Theater back in May. Keep your eyes peeled for these shorts on the festival circuit this year, as they are some of the best short-form work that Seattle has to offer.
[Author’s note: interviews edited for space and content.]

Shannon Hart-Reed, “Anatomy of a Fly,” documentary

Shannon Hart-Reed has a background in feature film art departments. (“In the Bedroom” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”). Since moving to Seattle over three years ago, Shannon has turned her attention to creating stylized documentaries on a variety of short and feature-length subject matter. Credits include “Ladies Who Lunch” and “My My Hey Hey: A Let’s Talk-u-mentary” (SIFF 2008)

How long have you been making films and what are some of your artistic influences?

Shannon Hart-Reed: I have been working in feature film art departments for almost 15 years and decided to start making my own movies about three years ago. Having come from a Los Angeles art department background, I’ve learned to recognize the importance of well-designed sets and shots and how that can translate to a more entertaining film experience. For the most part, period noir films were very simply styled with heavy shadow play – so I just stuck to that philosophy – and since we were creating a parody of sorts, I also recreated a few well-known shots from older films as well.

Describe working within the constraints of the Fly Filmmaking Challenge and how it altered your approach and/or finished film?

Because our scheduling was a bit tough, our shot lists were broken down into 3 categories of specific looks and style; Act 1 – “Twilight Zone”-ish, Act 2 – (3) specific film trailer styles, Act 3 – sterile – looking, 1950’s educational films and simply styled, cubist looking talent shots. When we were on set, often times, a shot would be set up and look beautiful, but then I would have to say “that looks really great, but it’s not appropriate for the sterile, cubist style of the talent shots of Act 3.” I know my DP (T.J. Williams, Jr.) found that frustrating at times, but in the end – now that he has seen the film – I’m sure it all makes sense to him now.

Tell us a “war story” from the truncated production schedule.

I hope my editor’s wounds are finally healing… I think it’s tough to edit someone else’s film when that film is meant to be intentionally varied, unpredictable and is mostly unscripted. My editor and I had an “edit without me at your own risk…” policy which I’m sure was frustrating to him, but I think we both learned a bit from each other through the process.

What are you currently working on or planning to work on next?

Another stylized documentary, “A Trip to Nowhere,” is an intense, animated true story about the lives of a group of Polish children sent to Siberian labor camps during WW2.

Shawn Telford, “Safe Passage,” written by Michael Raymond

Shawn has written and produced his own solo work for audiences in Seattle and New York. He has also appeared at the Seattle Fringe Festival and was a member of the Acting Apprentice Company at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Directing credits include “A Night in the Sunlight” and “Gimme Music, Gimme Shelter.”

How did you get started making films?

Shawn Telford: I had played around with different experiments and projects, mostly for the experience, from about the year 2000 onwards. Once I graduated from the Professional Actor Training Program in 2005, I decided to kick it up a notch and made my first short film “Gimme Music, Gimme Shelter” based on my MFA thesis, which was a solo show I had written. I wasn’t doing anything else at the time and was unsatisfied with the type of acting work I was getting which was mostly slackers and smartasses. So I decided to create my own work, work I wanted to do and was capable of doing. I gathered some friends, made some new ones, and shot [the film] as inexpensively as possible, then spent several hundred dollars sending it off to various film festivals.

What was it like working with black and white film and how did it inform your filmmaking process?

Prior to the Fly Filmmaking Challenge, I’d only shot on digital cameras. This formed a habit of shooting everything, including rehearsals, which I’ve often ended up using in the final film, especially for cutaways or reaction shots. With the amount of film we had [7 rolls], this was a different story. I had to be much more judicious. Luckily, I had experienced theatre actors to work with and they were excellent. My saving graces: extremely talented actors and an incredibly capable crew. Our actors were bringing it every take. You could feel it in the air and everyone worked that much harder because they knew we were working on something that would have value.

Tell me a “war story” from the production.

Francile Albright, one of the stars of my film, called me on Saturday, our second-to-last day of production, and told me she was pregnant. She had just found out. I assumed that if my key creative team knew that Fran was pregnant, no one would let me flip that car [in the final scene of the film]. I knew in my heart of hearts that we needed to flip that car. On the other hand, I didn’t want to kill her unborn baby. In the end, everyone got what they wanted and the final image of the film is quite harrowing.

What do you intend to do with the film now?

I want to send it off to some other festivals and maybe get a distribution deal for it. Everyone worked so hard on it and did such an amazing job. I owe it to them to get this film out there and be seen.

What are you currently working on or planning to work on next?

A one-take, one location feature film, shot on film.

Tran Quoc Bao, “Black Coffee,” written by Timothy Watkins and Charles Forsgren

Bao Tran started making movies in Hi8 at an early age and developed his visual sense from Kung Fu movies, silents, musicals, and Hitchcock. His most recent film, “Bookie” (which screened at SIFF 2008), has been both nominated and awarded Best Short at several film festivals.

How long have you been making films and what are some of your artistic influences?

Bao Tran: I grew up watching Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies and copying their stunts and fights in the backyard. That led me to look into their influences like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire and really learn more about cinema as a visual art form. That was my film school.

What was it like working with black and white film and how did it inform your filmmaking process?

I had also made a noir short before called “Bookie”, so that helped me be aware of shooting for black and white by paying special attention to palette, like how wardrobe, set, and locations will render in greyscale. With black and white you are setting the scene and mood with just light, that’s all you get to sculpt with so it’s very challenging and rewarding to work with.

Describe working within the constraints of the Fly Filmmaking Challenge and how it altered your approach and/or finished film.

Our script was already tight and compact in its storytelling, so that took care of the first three challenges. I usually make a cameo, so that wasn’t a problem. And a major scene was already set in a Seattle landmark (an historic municipal water tower), so I guess we lucked out.

Tell us a “war story” from your set.

Like I mentioned before, a major scene was set at the top of a municipal water tower that was built in 1901. That means no elevators and 103 steps for our cast and crew [to lug] film equipment up and down the entire four-stories. On our cold, rainy shoot day, the open-air grating made it worse, acting like a wind tunnel, making it a very challenging shoot physically. I’m proud of the entire cast and crew for trooping it out like that.

What do you intend to do with the film now?

We’re going to send it out on the film festival circuit and drum up more publicity for it. Hopefully the Internet and word-of-mouth will create an audience who will look forward to seeing “Black Coffee.”

What are you currently working on or planning to work on next?

I’m working on a couple feature projects, including an action fantasy that we are developing for production in Asia.

Laura Jean Cronin, “Arthur,” written by Joshua Bourland

Laura Jean Cronin, born in the Bronx and raised in the Northwest, is an award-winning filmmaker and accomplished artist and educator. Cronin recently wrapped her sixth short film, “One Night,” a thriller in thirteen minutes, as well as the first half of Season Two of the television show “Biz Kids,” on which she is First Assistant Director.

How long have you been making films and what are some of your artistic influences?

Laura Jean Cronin: I started making films about ten years ago. I began in painting and photography, so some of my artistic influences come out of that background, the German Expressionists in particular.

What was it like working with black and white film and how did it inform your filmmaking process?

Most of the films I have written and directed I shot on film, so the film aspect was not new to me. I have studied Film Noir in college, and love the look of those films, so I was really looking forward to working in black and white. The lack of color as an element to story telling made me think more about textures, light and shadow, of course, and mood. I think it made me want to push the depth of field as well.

Describe working within the constraints of the Fly Filmmaking Challenge and how it altered your approach and/or finished film.

I had never made a short film, from start to finish, in less than a year, so the time constraint was new to me. It was a challenge. I liked the immediacy of the project. The most difficult part of the truncated schedule is auditions and rehearsal time. I generally spend a lot more time with my actors before shooting, but that is a luxury we did not have. The randomness of what script you got was an interesting part of the process. I was really happy with my script. I made a few changes together with the writer, Josh Bourland. I have always directed my own scripts, so that was a different approach and a valuable one. It is a different process of discovery directing someone else’s script.

Tell us a “war story” from your set.

Our shooting process went amazing smoothly. It is always amazing how things fall into place. The day before the first shoot we did not have a costume for our Ogre. Barbara Brown, our Producer, made a few calls that night and the next morning, Ron Lemon delivers an Ogre Costume to our set. There are many angels involved in filmmaking, apparently. And Jennifer Popochock, with her expert make-up job, truly transformed Daniel into an Ogre.

What are you currently working on or planning to work on next?

I have two finished feature scripts that I hope to get funded. One is a thriller called “Whisky Rock,” set in a Northwest Campground, and the other is a star-crossed lovers drama set in the Seattle Grunge era. I currently have another short on the festival circuit that also premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival called “One Night,” and through these two shorts I hope to get some exposure, and through that some financial backing for a feature film.

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