Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Northwest Film Forum's Courtney Sheehan

The program director at NWFF talks about Local Sightings Film Festival 2014 and nurturing the city's film community.

Photography by Seth Sommerfeld September 9, 2014

Courtney Sheehan

There's a roughness to the Local Sightings Film Festival that makes it all the more beautiful. The Northwest Film Forum's yearly celebration of regional filmmakers eschews glitz and glamor for grit. That's not a knock on the quality of the movies on display, merely a testament to the sweat and passion that's so obviously poured into each cinematic frame. On modest budgets, these features, shorts, and documentaries showcase rising talent on the ground level and flash glimpses of even more moviemaking potential. This year's fest will feature a new curatorial touch courtesy of Courtney Sheehan. After taking over as Northwest Film Forum's program director last November, this will be Sheehan's first year at the helm of Local Sightings. The Local Sightings 2014 festivities get underway on September 25 and run through October 4.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Sheehan about the highlights of Local Sightings 2014, cultivating a film community in Seattle, and astronomy.

So with this being your first year organizing Local Sightings, what aspect of the festival are you most excited about?

I’m really excited about the emphasis we’re putting on film people this year, and kind of bringing the community together. Of course there’s always lots of great screenings and parties and events throughout the festival, and this year we’re really expanding on a few of them. For example, the Seattle Film Summit—which for the past two years has been a really well-attended, one-day industry conference—we’re extending the dates and events with that throughout the length of the festival. So there’re more opportunities for filmmakers to get together and learn about what’s going in the field here and elsewhere and talk about a lot of different industry things. And for the opening night of the festival, we’re actually doing something a little unusual for a film festival, which is that we don’t have a film screening. We’re going to have a kind of preview night for the festival and then launch right into the party. The idea is to really put the focus on the people that make up this community. And then the opening film is the following night.

What was the thinking behind making opening night an event not based around a single film?

One of the best things about Local Sightings, and one of the best the Film Forum does for the local film community, is to really provide that center or hub for meetings. It’s a meeting place for filmmakers. So that’s sort of the idea behind it. And the opening night event... I don’t want to give away too much because there’s going to be some surprises in store. There’s going to be a lot of opportunities for audience interaction. It’s going to be a party from the very beginning. We won’t have to worry about that sort of post-screening transition from film to party because we’ll already be in that mood.

So after being on the job at Northwest Film Forum for almost a year, how would you characterize the Seattle film community as a whole?

I think it’s kind of a matter of characterizing the communities that sort of feed into what we might call, in a larger sense, film in Seattle. The title, or the theme, of this year’s Seattle Film Summit is “Connecting Communities.” What this means is looking at what is unique about making film in Seattle, both within the kind of proper industry itself, but also all of these overlapping fields and other industries that have a lot of opportunities and a lot of areas of really interesting development in the creative industry right now. There’s kind of connective tissue with the film industry. So for example, part of the Film Summit will include panels about how there’s crossover and professional opportunities for filmmakers in the design industry, in the tech world, and certainly in the gaming industry. I mean, Seattle is really unique in the way in which gaming is significant here. There are so many opportunities for people making film.

Are there any Local Sightings films that you’re particularly looking forward to screening?

I’ll tell you about two that I think kind of symbolize the broad and wonderful spectrum of the types of films that are in Local Sightings. The first one is our opening film, Bella Vista, by Vera Brunner-Sung. This is a film from Missoula, Montana. It had its world premier at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in the Netherlands earlier this year, however, the film has yet to play in the U.S. It’s directed by a woman. It’s written by a woman. Produced, edited, cinematography—all of these major roles are filled by women. It stars a woman. So we’re really excited about that aspect of it.

And then another way in which Local Sightings is a platform for discovery is the things that come to you that you least expect. There’s a film that we’re showing called Bubble Bubble Meows and the Meteor Stomachache. It was actually submitted by a local Seattle filmmaker to the Children’s Film Festival that we do in the winter. When I saw it, I was like, “I have to show this in Local Sightings.” It might actually get more appreciation from adults, even though it’s not inappropriate for kids. It’s a feature-length animated movie that this guy—Matt Orefice—made. He hand-drew it, he scanned the images in Photoshop, compiled it, and created a feature-length movie out of it. Really painstaking, long process. And the story is about a poorly drawn cat trying to find the ingredients for a casserole that cures stomachaches that are caused by eating meteors. It’s truly bizarre. It’s sort of in the same vein as that show Adventure Time with this subplot that’s about trumpet animalcules, and some Japanese voiceover. There’re all these bizarre elements thrown in. We’re kind of saying it’s not for the unaltered mind. I looked the dirctor up on IMDB, and he was associate producer on The Simpsons Movie. He’s worked on a lot of MTV shows and Disney shows and was the producer of a movie called Pig Death Machine that we showed here at the Film Forum - all these bizarre connections and an impressive filmography. That’s Local Sightings at its best... discovering local talent and being able to showcase a film that you’re not going to have a lot of other chances to see.

What have been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced adjusting to your position at the Film Forum?

I’ve been familiar with the Film Forum for years. I worked on the Children’s Film Festival back in 2009 and just kind of stayed in touch. In some ways, it felt like coming home because I’ve always felt a deep connection to this place. One of the challenges has just been finding a way to pursue all the really great opportunities people are constantly coming to us with. I think because we definitely stand out on the Hill as a place that you can go and experience something that’s truly and fiercely independent in terms of art and film, people are constantly coming to us with great ideas. We’ve pursued a lot of them. The challenge, I guess, is a lot about striking balances; finding those things you want to share with a cross-section of communities so you can reach as many parts of the city as possible from one place.

What do you think is the importance of the Film Forum to the Seattle arts scene?

As I’m talking to you right now, I’m kind of hiding out in one of the cinemas because it’s really loud in building, because we have a summer camp for kids to learn how to make movies. I think something really unique about what the Film Forum offers is the breadth of programs. We are not just an art house theater. We teach classes year-round. And we’re really focused on that person who is an emerging artist. Adults who might be just getting into filmmaking, dabbling with it, wanting to transition to be more professional, or wanting to expand their tool kit for making movies can take classes on anything: how to use particular software like Final Cut or Adobe Premiere, how to use green screens, how to use a light kit, how to use a boom mic, how to do interviews for documentaries. There’re all these really important skills that, alternatively, you’d have to pay up the wazoo for elsewhere or be in a proper university program. Same thing with cultivating the next generation of filmmakers; that’s a huge part of what the Children’s Film Festival is. It’s about the way in which we touch so many different filmmakers and film projects in so many different capacities.

I’ve got to give a lot of credit for what makes the Film Forum special to the volunteers. We would really be nothing without our volunteers. We depend on them so much, both for contributing their time and energy to making this place function and also to making up the spirit of what this is all about. Because it’s obviously about passion for supporting a culture of independent film, both in terms of loving independent film and making it.

If you weren't working in film, is there another line of work you think you might want to pursue?

Growing up, I always wanted to be an astronomer. Loved the idea of looking at the stars and doing research, which is a lot of what film programming is about too. Different kind of stars.

Local Sightings Film Festival 2014
Sept 25–Oct 4, Northwest Film Forum, $11–$12; Festival pass $250

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