Editorials — December 11, 2011 16:00 — 1 Comment

47th Parallel Films: A Recession-Era Interview

47th Parallel Films seems to be all over town, from Q & A’s at Gage Academy of Art and articles on City Arts Blog, to screenings at the Grand Illusion. It’s no wonder when considering director Shaun Scott’s prolific pace. He has created two provocative, full-length documentaries in as many years: the ambitious “Seat of Empire,” a critical view of Seattle’s political and economic development over the past century, and “Waste of Time,” a lyrically narrated, exquisitely edited, anti-consumerist montage. A third film, “100% OFF: A Recession-Era Romance” will be out in 2012, and represents a shift to fictional narrative and a larger crew, including producer Andrew Schwartz, who has worked on several 47th Parallel projects. I asked Shaun and Andrew about the new film, and about documentary versus fictional stories. “Waste of Time” will be screened at NEPO house on December 17th, in collaboration with photographer Virginia Wilcox, 6-10pm, free.


1. Your soon to be released feature-length film is “100% OFF: A Recession-Era Romance.” Could you give us a synopsis?

Andrew Schwartz: The collapse of the American economy forces four undergraduates—Jean, Jessie, Kyle, and Rosa—to confront their own reckless ambition and lust for life on the edge. With graduation imminent and life “in the real world” just around the corner, the four of them choose unexpected ways out of their private adversities.

2. What does economics have to do with relationships?

Schwartz: When one considers how much of our lives is determined by housing availability—the comfort of home where relationships settle; abundance of food and the meals that stir and bind people together into romantic ties; and the ability to work that gives meaning to our lives and thus something to share with others—it really is not so hard to begin to see how a deep and sustained economic—and moral—recession may affect young peoples’ lives and romances.

3. 47th Parallel Films has produced two documentary-style films. What prompted the transition to fictional narrative?

Shaun Scott: Let’s separate salt from sand for a second: the main difference between documentaries and fictional narratives is the fact of embodied performers on screen; however, many scenes in fictional narratives don’t feature embodied performers; even in narratives, there can be cutaways to historical events, scene-setting b-roll, insert shots, and other examples of shared visual vocabulary between the two forms.

”Seat of Empire,” “Waste of Time,” and “100% OFF” speak overlapping languages. For example: in “Waste of Time,” I directed Aiko [Akers] with many techniques that I’d later employ on the set of “100% OFF” when I was having a hard time getting an actor to warm up. And in “100% OFF,” a character purporting to be a professor frequently says things that would be just as at home in a documentary, even to the point of voice-over. ”100% OFF” isn’t any less of a narrative because it contains voice-over, just as “Waste of Time” isn’t any less of a documentary because Aiko had to feel her way through certain scenes emotionally to narrate them correctly.

I’ve always wanted to be a complete artist who was as adept at writing documentaries as he was at narrative story-telling. I had already gotten used to using inanimate objects, places, events, and historical figures as motifs in a story; the next step in my creative growth was doing the same thing with fictional characters, and embodied actors on screen. As a creator and a competitor, I didn’t like the idea that I was already starting to get relegated to one medium, so I made a promise that I wouldn’t go back to doing documentaries until I made it sufficiently clear that I could make whatever kind of film I wanted, and could be proficient “in all 12 keys.” This is especially important as a black artist, because we’ve for so long been told when and how high to jump by people who underestimated us.

However, I can’t stress enough how possible it is to overstate the ”transitional” aspect of moving from documentaries to narratives—any documentary entertains and dramatizes, just as any narrative informs and educates. Susan Sontag put it best: “thinking is a form of feeling, and feeling is a form of thinking.”

4. Shaun, you play a significant acting role in “100% OFF.” Could you talk about the difference between portraying a character and narrating a documentary?

Scott: I wonder if talking about the similarities wouldn’t be a more illuminating line of thought, but I’ll oblige.

I was a character in both “Seat of Empire” and “100% OFF.” My persona in the former was older than I actually am, whereas in “100% OFF” I played a younger version of myself. That was tremendously therapeutic, because I’m someone who—up until very recently—was surrounded by people who were older than me, so to that extent I never felt in contact with my age group. The narrator of ”Seat of Empire” had to read books older people wrote, tell stories about previous generations, and always find the common intellectual ground between generations, which is really a nice way of saying he had to give old people the benefit of the doubt. Jean, from “100% OFF,” however, does a lot more smirking, yawns when disinterested, and is usually more interested in getting his point of view across with verve than he is in finding the abstract common ground.

The difference is that a narrator, classically, has to establish himself as trustworthy and intelligent and good to listen to, whereas a character can commit adultery in Scene #1 and then turn around and give $1000 to charity in Scene #2.

5. Does a fictional narrative film have a different moral standard than a documentary film?

Schwartz: No. The same moral standard applies to each and every storytelling medium. For documentary and narrative film, the only difference is metaphor, although metaphor is meaningless without some grounding in our ephemeral experience—if not, limitless narrative reduces the medium to mockery of the viewer. Impactful narrative film is therefore a greater challenge because characters imagined are more unwieldy in ways documented figures can never be. Like Shaun’s example above, the actions of the philanthropic adulterer aren’t automatically believable or don’t fit into the world of shared experience as an historical person’s actions do. The moral standard therefore exists somewhere between falsehood and exaggeration, but this realm exists for both, if comprised in slightly variant forms.

Scott: They do, in the public imagination, but creators and innovators are always creating similarities where we didn’t see them. For example, sometimes people are amazed when I tell them that the newspaper clippings in “Waste of Time” are all fictionalized. It wasn’t like ”Seat of Empire,” where I was interested in a strict historical account, and so found clippings that demonstrated things this or that paper actually said in 1919; “Waste of Time” was a different project with different but nonetheless stringent standards: it wouldn’t be okay to just make-up facts, but deliberately reconstructing the past and making my projection of it believable and getting voice-actors to recite it as believable was a creative challenge that prepared me for fictional screenwriting.

6. A variety of cameras were used in filming 100% OFF, including 8mm film and digital. What’s the motivation for using multiple cameras, both film and digital?

Scott: Each camera represents a different perspective. The 16mm camera is the ”objective” viewpoint, or, rather, the viewpoint of the filmmakers, of the director. The 8mm and still cameras are the perspective of one character in particular, Jean. Without giving too much of the plot away, the digital camera, we find out, is the perspective of the federal government. We don’t use the cameras just to use them, but cut to each of these perspectives in the flow of the film as deserved; as the plot unfolds, we come to see which camera is which perspective.

7. Does most of the filming take place in Seattle? Have you had any humorous or horrendous incidents you’d like to share?

Scott: I think that, as a director, I did a pretty good job of keeping shenanigans to a minimum: we had 31 straight days of shooting to get done with, so it was generally my job to not get too low if there were disappointments or too high if things were going well. In the end, I know I’m not going to be judged by the entertainment value of my anecdotes or by the validity of my excuses for being a screw-up, but by my ability to set goals and achieve them: in other words, nothing was going to be so horrendous or humorous that it would stop us from getting things done. Once you have that attitude, everything in a sense is funny because you realize how small and insignificant obstacles are compared to your own willpower.

8. Akio Akers, the narrator of “Waste of Time,” begins the film by saying: “Just what we need, another movie… Yes, film is a trashy medium now, and the next ninety minutes won’t help much.” In effect, this undermines (or underlines) the focus of the film: consumerism and the glut of the market. How do you resolve that tension between consumerism and creating cultural “products”?

Scott: The slogan of our collaborators over at Tarboo, Inc—who handled all costume design for our film out of their wonderful shop in Pioneer Square—says it best: “built to last.” The tension is resolved by making things that people need to see and will grow from, as opposed to making things with marketing machines that convince people they need to see the films when they really don’t. The secret to all sustainable economies is that they have something genuine and lasting and nourishing to offer, whereas economies are subject to crash to the extent that they offer up fantasies that aren’t attainable.

Seen this way, a film about recession is recession-proof; a film about waste isn’t waste if it provides a practical and purposeful perspective on the problem of waste itself; and as long as American cities start to look like Everyplace, USA in homogenous films, a film like “Seat of Empire: Seattle Since 1909” that portrays the unique history of a particular city will remain relevant.

9. What are your perceptions of Seattle as a film city? Which local filmmakers do you admire?

Schwartz: I vacillate between believing deeply in the potential Seattle holds in emerging as a prosperous film city and wallowing in bewilderment at how dysfunctional a city it is for the motion-picture industry. We do have organizations that support film: Washington Filmworks, Seattle Office of Film and Music, 4Culture, and last but not least, the Northwest Film Forum.  We would not have been able to make this film without the support of the latter, whose personnel are wonderful, kind, and knowledgeable. But when we look around at our regional counterparts, e.g.Portland and Vancouver, one has to ask, what the hell is going on?! Why are the most basic instruments of support, e.g. public subsidy, up for grabs or neglected in Washington State when they are so clearly lauded nearby? Without this kind of real support by the State, the industry will remain a second thought, an inconvenience, geographically and for business.

Scott: We’re the first generation of filmmakers in Seattle who have the opportunity to watch the body of work of a previous generation while at the same time making films with our own. I’m inspired creatively by many of the filmmakers in Seattle, and try to follow as many of them as I can.

Lynn Shelton—whose theatre background explains much of her approach to film making—has a dynamic and formless way of melding performance, setting, and editing into her projects, so that the best moments in her films are improvised performance concepts with their own distinct naturalism. Charles Mudede’s films, at the other end of the spectrum, have such sculpted narratives and themes while at the same time having a certain respect for space and ambience; he has some kind of fetish for clouds, and, like clouds, his work can be stormy and light at one and the same instant. A friend of mine, Rafael Flores, has a nasty mean streak that works really well for when you don’t want any side conversation or stupid jokes lousing-up the mood on set for a tense scene. There are so many others whose work I’m familiar with, and I feel glad to be part of such a dynamic scene, no pun intended.

The name of our company, 47th Parallel Films, is a reference to Seattle’s geographic coordinates, I feel like that’s worth mentioning: the vision is of an entity with roots in the NW, but intellectual, stylistic, and spatial branches everywhere. For example, the next feature narrative (“Pacific Aggression,” 2012) is about a misanthropic novelist sent on a pleasure tour of the west coast by his NY publishing agency. It’s a “Seattle” film in the sense that the city plays a prominent role in the narrative, but it’s also a panoramic view of the 21st century United States.

Politically, I think it’s pretty clear that the city needs to get its ass in gear and continue to make this a viable place to make movies: I’m loyal as a dog and so don’t plan on leaving Seattle anytime soon, but most artists don’t have that mentality. The weather is enough to drive some people away. So what do you think the effects will be when, say, 4Culture doesn’t pass another legislative battle years down the road, or when the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs budget continues to get slashed, or, for that matter, when the full effect of Washington State’s film incentive program getting cut in 2011 sinks in?

The cultural support for film, however, couldn’t be stronger. We live in one of the best educated and most literate cities in the country, and at least some of that intelligence means a pretty well-educated film-going audience. The level of Q&A at showings we’ve done, from Grand Illusion to the old Healthy Times Fun Club, is always amazing. Add to that the fact that we have a pretty solid network of theatres, and institutional support like Northwest Film Forum. When it comes down to it, if you can’t find it in you to make and show films here, you’re a slob: the city is swimming in opportunities.

10. “Seat of Empire” in 2009, “Waste of Time” in 2010, “100% OFF” in 2012… Have there been any short projects in there?

Scott: None so far, but there are a few things of that nature on deck for 2012. I’m old school in the sense that I think a filmmaker should be judged from final product to final product, and that the standard of the market and the medium is the feature. You can deviate and work on music videos and shorts and commercials and get cute when you establish yourself, but because we’re at an earlier phase, I pride myself on my ability to rally and come up with something well-done and full-length in the blink of an eye. I’m not one of these filmmakers or writers who would ever take seven years trying to make one project. I’m too competitive and feel like I have too much to gain.



Questions by Andrew Bartels

One Comment

  1. Rob Thompson says:

    This was a good and interesting interview with these film people. I appreciate the down to earth and articulate answers to the questions. So how can we get to see these movies over in Tonasket, Washington? How about a dry side tour?
    Thank you.

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