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Originally published Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 7:02 PM

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Pipeline to Sundance: Collaboration is key to Seattle's indie filmmakers

Lynn Shelton, Megan Griffiths, Todd Rohal, Ben Kasulke and others are members of an active filmmaking community in Seattle that's finding success on the independent-movie circuit — including Park City, Utah's, prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

Special to The Seattle Times

Seattle at Sundance

FOUR FEATURES with Seattle ties that will screen at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival:

'The Off Hours': A passing truck driver brings an unfamiliar sense of optimism to a woman working the night shift at a quiet diner, reminding her it's never too late to become the person you always wanted to be. Written and directed by Seattle resident Megan Griffiths.

'The Catechism Cataclysm': After becoming disinterested with the church, a priest tracks down his old classmate, a former metalhead whom he idolized in high school. When the two embark on a canoeing trip together, all hell breaks loose. Written and directed by Todd Rohal.

'The Oregonian': After surviving a brutal car accident, a simple farm woman limps down the road into the nightmarish unknown. Written and directed by Calvin Lee Reeder.

'The Details': When hungry raccoons discover worms living under the sod in a young couple's backyard, the pest problem sets off a wild and absurd chain reaction of domestic tension, infidelity, organ donation and murder by way of bow and arrow. Written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes.

Source: Sundance Film Festival

Festival preview

Sundance Film Festival

Jan. 20-30 Park City, Utah (www.sundance.org/festival).

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For years, Seattle's Megan Griffiths has played a key part in making other filmmakers' dreams come true. Now it's her turn to be the belle of the ball.

Her movie, "The Off Hours," will have its premiere on Saturday at the nation's pre-eminent showcase of independent film: the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

The movie, a slice-of-life story set at a truck stop, is the first full-length feature with Griffiths' name attached as writer and director. But she has worked in roles ranging from producer to cinematographer to coffee-getter on almost every Seattle-based film to hit the festival circuit since Lynn Shelton's "We Go Way Back" went to the Slamdance festival in 2006.

"Everybody knows her, and everybody loves her," said Shelton, who hired Griffiths as first assistant director again for her breakout bromance "Humpday," which scored a coveted distribution deal at Sundance in 2009. Griffiths took on the same role that year for David Russo's Sundance sci-fi farce, "The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle."

This year, in addition to writing and directing "The Off Hours," Griffiths was a producer and assistant director for her film-school friend Todd Rohal's offbeat buddy comedy "The Catechism Cataclysm." Filmed in Seattle and Thorp, it's another of a record-high four Seattle-based films going to Sundance.

While Griffiths' fingerprints may be on more movies than most, Seattle films' credits tend to share many names. That's typical outside big film centers, but the unusual thing about Seattle's community is its level of success. In two of the past three years, Seattle has probably brought more feature films to Sundance than any other American city outside of New York or Los Angeles.

Seattle's filmmakers benefit from many things: diverse landscapes in close proximity; helpful local businesses and steady paid work in the form of commercials and corporate gigs. Government agencies, including Washington Film Works and the Seattle Office of Film + Music, offer location scouting, streamlined permitting processes and financial incentives. And a number of supportive organizations help with education and networking.

Other places have similar benefits, but Seattle's got something else: a core group of talented, experienced filmmakers who reach back to help up-and-coming colleagues. The result: a pipeline of sorts that funnels Seattle films into production — and into festivals like Sundance.

Lyall Bush, executive director of the nonprofit Northwest Film Forum, says that during the past few years, he's witnessed a proliferation of creativity that reminds him of cells multiplying in mitosis. "I like to think we're close to our own kind of tipping point," he said.

"We Go Way Back" helped launch the careers and close-knit friendships of Shelton, Griffiths and a handful of others with similar philosophies. It was the start of an era in Seattle filmmaking characterized by a collaborative tone that, in turn, fosters tight, efficient shoots. That efficiency is priceless in an era when studios are shutting down independent-film arms and financing is tight.

The effervescent Shelton is one of this community's most high-profile and energetic boosters. She credits Griffiths, who largely ran day-to-day set operations as the first assistant director on "We Go Way Back," for fostering the "ecstatic experience" of that shoot. "I've worked with pretty much all of those people ever since," Shelton said.

Griffiths conceived the idea for "The Off Hours" in 2003, a few years after she moved here from Ohio. But setbacks including a lack of funding forced her to delay shooting, even as she racked up experience — and goodwill — working on other projects.

When she went ahead with filming in Burien, South Park and Georgetown earlier this year, "Everybody sort of came out of the woodwork to help," Griffiths said. "That's one of the best things about getting into Sundance. I feel like it rewards all the patience and determination of all these other people."

As well as writer/directors like Shelton and Griffiths, Seattle boasts capable crew members who will often volunteer to work behind cameras and computers on colleagues' features.

Benjamin Kasulke is a sought-after cinematographer whose credits include at least five Sundance features in the past three years, most of them shot in Seattle. Even when he's not in charge of the cameras, the shaggy-haired Kasulke is a fixture on the film scene here.

He feel he owes it to his adopted hometown and its filmmakers to help as much as he can. "There's no threat in helping someone else who's coming up underneath you to be the best they can," Kasulke says. "You're only going to make everyone better."

That kind of support means aspiring filmmakers can stay in Seattle and still advance in their field, which in turn adds to the region's wealth of talent.

The success of the industry doesn't just add to Seattle's cultural riches. Like any industry, it creates jobs and makes money. Experienced crews bring bigger productions, which in turn spend money on services and vendors.

The latest industry report from Washington Film Works estimates that in 2010, $5.4 million in film incentives resulted in about $18 million spent locally last year — and that only includes state incentive recipients. "We're an economic development vehicle for the state," said Amy Lillard, the agency's executive director.

Seattle can't offer the level of incentives or infrastructure that made its sister city to the north, Vancouver, B.C., a hotbed of big-budget film and TV production. Instead, the industry here targets tax breaks and other support to projects with budgets much smaller than the Hollywood average.

Small projects can lead to larger things. Shelton's success means bigger stars and slightly heftier budgets (she's now editing a yet-untitled feature shot in the San Juan Islands and starring Emily Blunt). She still uses the same Seattle crew. "If I encourage other people to work here, then the talented people I love to work with will stick around," she said.

Filmmakers who come from other places to shoot here say they, too, are bowled over by the support they get from locals.

Jacob Aaron Estes, who is based in Los Angeles, wanted "a tried-and true American city" for his film, "The Details," also playing at Sundance. The film, about a couple (played by Elizabeth Banks and Tobey Maguire) battling unrelenting raccoon invaders, required wooded locations as well as diverse cityscapes.

Estes found the scenery he wanted around Seattle's Arboretum and waterfront. He also hired a good share of his crew locally. "They were just fantastic to work with," he said.

Rohal, based in New York, turned to a Seattle-based crew to make "The Catechism Cataclysm" in mere weeks. "I am 100 percent sure that it would not have worked out in any place other than Seattle," Rohal said.

Christy Karras: christykarras@gmail.com

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